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History of Christian Worship Sample Resource

The Restoration of Christus Victor

The event which worship celebrates is the triumph of Jesus Christ over the powers of evil. This dethronement of evil lies at the heart of the gospel. Worship enacts and reenacts the great saving deeds of God in Jesus Christ; it brings the benefit of the victory of Christ over evil to the worshiping community and makes salvation and healing available to those who receive Jesus Christ by faith. 

The New Testament reflects on the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in three ways. First the death of Jesus, in particular, is interpreted in terms of the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament. The writer of Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrifices, that his sacrifice is a once-for-all sacrifice, and that it was a substitute for us (see Hebrews 7–10). This theme of substitutional atonement has been developed in worship throughout the history of the church and is reflected particularly in the Lord’s Supper.

A second interpretation of the death of Jesus, one that is emphasized in Johannine thought in particular, is that Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice of himself for the sins of the world was an act of love. Christians are urged to emulate this love of Jesus, as John writes: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). In Christian thought the interpretation and development of the atonement in terms of Jesus’ death is called the moral theory or the example theory of the atonement. This theme has also been developed in worship, particularly in preaching.

The third interpretation of the death of Christ, and the one which has been most neglected since the Reformation until now, is the emphasis on Christ’s victory over the devil, sin, and death. Paul gets at the very heart of this view of Jesus’ death and resurrection when he says that “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Gustav Aulen, in his book Christus Victor, speaks of the victory of Christ over evil as “the ruling idea of the atonement for the first thousand years of Christian history” (p. 21).

Yet, the Christus Victor interpretation of the death of Christ which dominated the early church has been lost in the modern era. The rationalism of the age of the Enlightenment (1700–1950) was not able to support the supernatural understanding and experience of the Christian faith that Christus Victor implies. However, in the post-Enlightenment era in which we now live, renewalists have recovered a Christus Victor gospel and its implications for a world very conscious of the powers of evil.

The recovery of Christus Victor in no way annuls the biblical teaching on the sacrifice of Christ or the love that impelled Jesus to the cross. Rather it complements these views to give us a full picture of the work of Christ. In sum, he gave himself as a sacrifice for sin (substitutional atonement) and thus gained the victory over sin (Christus Victor), leaving us an example of sacrificial love as the way to overcome evil (example theory).

The New Testament material concerning the victory of Christ over the powers of evil is extensive. However, we can organize this vast amount of material under several themes that will help us grasp more firmly the earliest Christian creed, the shout of victory expressed in the words, “Jesus is Lord”! (Acts 2:36). These themes are that Christ has bound Satan, has dethroned the powers of evil, and will utterly destroy these powers at the consummation. The consequence of Christ’s work is that the powers are now limited and that we are called to live in the expectation of a restored creation.

Christ Has Bound Satan and All Demonic Powers.

First, in a confrontation between himself and the Pharisees (Matthew 12:27–29), Christ makes the claim to have bound Satan. The occasion for the confrontation was the healing of a blind and mute man who was possessed by demons (v. 22). According to the Pharisees’ interpretation, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons” (v. 24). Rather than seeing Jesus as one who had power over the demonic, they saw him as subject to and even as an agent of the demonic. But Jesus, showing them the absurdity of this conclusion, argued that “if Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself” (v. 26). More importantly, Jesus categorically asks, “How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man?” (v. 29).

The point made by Jesus is that he has power over the demonic because he had already entered into the domain of evil and found its source. The gospel writers pointedly accent the power of Jesus over Satan. Matthew sees the power of Jesus over evil as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (Matthew 8:16–17), and coming as a result of the “Spirit of God” (12:28). Mark and Luke also testify that Jesus has power, even authority, over evil (Mark 1:21–28; Luke 9:37–43). The exercising of Christ’s power over Satan has the effect of restoring to wholeness a part of God’s creation that has become demented, twisted, distorted, and corrupted by Satan. When Jesus casts out demons, heals the blind, causes the lame to walk, restores health, and raises the dead, he demonstrates that his purpose is to restore, renew, and recreate his universe.

In order to recreate the creation, it is first necessary for Christ to dethrone that power which is distorting the creation. Evil has been perverting the purposes of the structures of existence (which were created to provide order and meaning to the world), so they have to be dethroned in order to set the creation free from “its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). This is accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Power of Satan Has Been Dethroned.

Paul expands the idea of God’s victory over Satan in his letter to the Colossian church. He writes that Christ’s death and resurrection has “disarmed” powers and authorities. The force of the word disarm is that of “taking away,” like stripping a soldier of his guns, putting him in a position of vulnerability. So Christ’s death has had the effect of exposing the deception that Satan exercises through the structures of existence. Christ is seen as Lord, not only over death, but over all other evil influences which seek to distort our lives.

The illusion that life or death, man-made religious observances, or human social regulations are ultimate is now exposed for the lie it is. Likewise all other aspects of the created order which people elevate to positions of ultimate authority are stripped of their power to deceive. Now people can be free from these illusions. It is no longer necessary to be bound by the power of a false understanding of the created order. Faith in Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate ruler over all of life, can break the twisting of political, economic, social, and moral structures into secular salvations. Because these secular salvations are disarmed, they can no longer exercise ultimate power in our life system and act as gods over our lives.

In the Consummation, Satan’s Influence Through the Powers of Evil Will Be Utterly Destroyed.

Third, although the influence of Satan, which he exercises through the powers (the structures of this world), has been overcome through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the final blow to Satan will not occur until the consummation of Christ’s work in his second coming. Even though Jesus spoke of an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), a more elaborate development of the idea of Satan’s ultimate destruction can be found in the thought of the early church.

In Paul’s classic statement on the power of the resurrection over death (and the disintegration of the created order implied in the symbol of death), he reminds his readers that the end will come “after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24–25). Moreover, the apostle John, in his apocalyptic vision of the end times, declares that “the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown” (Revelation 20:10). These New Testament voices affirm the total destruction of Satanic forces and assure us that the work of Christ which is linked to the temptation (the binding of Satan) and to the cross (the overcoming of Satan) is concluded by the consummation (the final defeat of Satan).

Between the Resurrection and the Consummation, the Power of Satan Is Limited.

It would be naive to conclude that Satan no longer has power in the world. He is still the master of deception. He still blinds the eyes of people to the truth. He still masterminds faith in false gods and creates messianic illusions which people follow to their own destruction. Yet his influence is limited, for Jesus has overcome him. “In this world you will have trouble,” said Jesus, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In his first epistle, John ascribes this capacity to overcame to those who believe in Jesus: “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4–5).

Yet the overcoming is still not an established reality, as Paul indicates when he uses two words that mean “coming to nothing” and “expectation.” The former word is used in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing” (1 Corinthians 2:6). The force of the word translated “coming to nothing” is “being put out of action.” In the military sense, it means the war is over; now the cleaning up of the final matters must occur. Guerrilla pockets may still exist, confrontation may still occur here and there; but the tide has been turned, the oppressor has been definitely routed, and it is only a matter of time until the end.

The second word, “expectation,” describes the state of those who are to be released from the ravages of war. Paul uses this word in the Epistle to the Romans: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19). This passage suggests a cosmic victory over a cosmic bondage. Satan has brought the entire creation under his dominion and influence, but that pervasive power has been so thoroughly broken that the entire creation—all the structures of existence—now experience an expectation of their release.

These passages point to the importance of preaching as the means by which Satan continues to be exposed to his defeat. For it is through faith in Jesus Christ (as the one who has defeated Satan and all his attempts to distort the creation) that the extent of Satan’s activity is limited. Satan may continue to deceive some, perhaps many, but not all. Preaching Christ continually unmasks the power of Satan, for faith in Christ opens a person’s eyes to the reality of Satan’s deception. Whenever anyone believes in Christ, the limitation of Satan’s power is unmasked.

Creation Will Ultimately Be Reconciled to God.

It is a comfort to know that the contest between Satan and Christ will have an end, even as it had a beginning. Furthermore, as Paul states, the course of this cosmic conflict is under “the mystery of his will” and “according to his good pleasure.” The will and pleasure of God are being fulfilled in Christ, whose purpose it is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:9–10). Paul mentions this same theme in his letter to the Corinthians, telling them that God has put “everything under him [Jesus Christ], so that God may be all in all” (15:28). For Paul, this means nothing less than the re-creation of the entire universe, including the structures of existence. Restoration of the structures is made more clear in his letter to the Colossians, when he tells his readers that it is God’s purpose through Christ “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

In these passages, Paul does not imply that Satan and the fallen hosts which represent the demonic in this world will be reconciled to God. They are defeated and cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:1). What is redeemed, restored, and recreated is God’s work of creation. In this sense, the new heavens and the new earth will be a restored paradise—the world as it was before the fall into sin.

It is this world view that lies behind a renewal of worship. The victory of Christ over the powers of evil, and all that is implied by that victory, are expressed in song, preaching, the eucharistic prayer, and the act of healing.

The emphasis on Christus Victor represents a shift from a juridical view of the atonement, in which the death of Christ is understood chiefly as a transaction satisfying the requirements of divine justice. This shift of focus has important implications for worship. When the atonement is seen as Christ’s defeat of the powers of evil, worship becomes a dynamic experience through which Christ’s victory is celebrated and its benefits and promises are made available to the congregation.