Neil Bach reminds us of the life and impact of the Australian New Testament scholar Leon Morris ahead of the publication of his biography of this man who loved the gospel of Christ crucified.
Neil Bach is the author of a recently published biography of Leon Morris entitled "Leon Morris: One Man’s Fight for Love and Truth."
Sixty-five years ago the embers of a spiritual battle burst into flame. After a lecture at Cambridge University a young Australian courageously stood in front of a very great churchman.
‘I don’t think you were right in that, sir.’
‘Oh’ he said. ‘Why?’
I said one or two things.
‘Would you write that out for me?’
Between one lecture and the next the young man had a session with the churchman Michael Ramsey. He tried to explain to Ramsey that the scholar C. H. Dodd was wrong in eliminating propitiation from the New Testament. He thought the old boy was most interested. We know that young man. He was Leon Morris. He remains the greatest New Testament scholar Australia has produced. He wrote extensively about the cross of Christ, with his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross still a fantastic read, summarizing the truths of propitiation, redemption, covenant and so on that he unearthed in his Cambridge studies. In a new biography, soon to be published by Paternoster, called Leon Morris: One Man’s Fight for Love and Truth, I tell his life story and the impact of his teaching ministry.
One little-known fact about Leon was that his understanding of God’s love in the cross produced a deep passion for evangelism in him. Today we accept that the cross is central to our faith. Our society uses the term ‘the crux of the matter’ to represent the central things, borrowing Christian use.
What was it about the cross that fuelled Leon’s evangelistic passion? I’ll let him speak for himself in this brief summary of his thought.
Firstly, each Gospel leads to the cross and is gives prominence to the impact of the cross for our salvation. Matthew concentrates a third of his writing, chapters 21-28, on the last week and the powerful death of Christ. When Jesus died, ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two, the earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people were raised to life’ (Matthew 27:51). The apostle Paul tells us ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Corinthians 1:23). In Revelation we see that we are saved ‘by the blood of the Lamb’ (Revelation 7:14). When a person is baptized it is a baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and when we take Holy Communion we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26).
Secondly, the centrality of the cross is because of certain great facts. We must keep before us the fact of sin. While people seem to want to believe that the problems within the human person are a lack of education, or resources or whatever, the Bible consistently reminds us that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23) and that the consequences of sin are more serious than earthly dilemmas. ‘We must give account of ourselves to God’ (Romans 14:12).
Finally, the cross is central because there, above all, we see the love of God. God shows that he keeps loving us because he is love (1 John 4:8,16) and that his love brings about the salvation of sinners in Christ’s death (Romans 5:8). We see there that God’s forgiveness operates in the cross, not divorced from it.
The centrality of the cross is because while it is true that when a person repents God is graciously ready to forgive, that forgiveness ‘is based on what Christ’s death has accomplished … and … to say that no atoning act is needed is to give us a non-Christian view of salvation’
Leon pointed out many ways that the New Testament shows us what the death of Christ has done. One of his favourite terms was the term redemption. We know the word in modern use. Take the Atlanta Olympic Games 1500 metres swimming final for men. Kieren Perkins had been off the boil. No one, not even Perkins, could fathom his loss of form. He limped into the Olympic final in lane eight. The mail was that ‘he was gone’. His reputation was diving in the pool. In the final Perkins led the final through the first 1200 metres at the speed of his best years. We waited for him to blow up. But apprehension turned to elation as more laps disappeared. We stood on chairs for the last two laps with some doing a war dance. Perkins redeemed himself from two years of poor form and claimed an amazing second gold medal. Adrenalin launched him triumphantly from the pool. He had bought back his reputation in his own strength. That’s a view of redemption.
But Leon noted that, while there are a bewildering number of meanings for a word like redemption in the modern world, a wide use of the word is not found in antiquity in general or the Bible in particular. It is used less often and with a narrower more precise connotation. To capture the meaning of redemption you begin with the basic word of the group, ransom. Ransom means loosing, releasing or freeing such as the loosing of prisoners of war on payment of a price. He wrote that ‘it is important to realize that it is this idea of payment as the basis of release which is the reason for the existence of the whole word group. Other words were available to denote simple release’. Ransom contained the meaning of release by payment and that is how the word is used in context of the original language. So it is used of prisoners of war released by payment, or of slaves buying their freedom to secure a release.
He then considered a compound word in non-biblical literature that came from ransom and is usually expressed as redemption. He thought we might expect an emphasis more on the simple release of someone; but when he examined the only ten uses outside the New Testament he wrote ‘in every passage, without exception, there is a payment of a ransom price to secure the desired release’. He found that the Old Testament contained the idea of a ransom price (Exodus 30:12) in the release from a death sentence. There were supporting examples. He looked at the Rabbinic writings and concluded the terms are used substantially with the same usage. The New Testament was critical because it recounted the story of Christ and the cross. The word ransom was found in only one saying in Mark 10:45 repeated in Matthew 20:28. Leon defended Matthew 20:28 as authentic. He concluded that the passage means Jesus gave his life as a payment price instead of us or in exchange for us. He discussed the related words redeem or redemption in the New Testament. Important passages like Titus 2:14 where Christ ‘gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity’. He saw it contained a reference to the ransom saying and pointed in the direction of substitution.
What of the most typical word for redemption in the New Testament? There are ten occurrences and the three clearest passages are Romans 3:24, Ephesians 1:7 and Hebrews 9:15. He noted that a redemption price is mentioned in each case.
He concluded that there were three things that emerged from the use of the redemption terminology connected to the process of atonement.
1. The state of sin – our situation is likened to slavery, a captivity where we cannot redeem ourselves.
2. The price that is paid – the terminology means Christ has paid the adequate price of our redemption. He took what we should have paid and paid it.
3. The resultant state of the believer – that we who are redeemed are brought into a state of real freedom. A liberty to do the will of God.
It was Leon’s appreciation of the love of God given in the light of our deep spiritual need, seen in the Christ’s work on the cross and resulting in a great freedom for Christians that overwhelmed him. He dedicated his energies to teaching the cross and finding ways to explain redemption to people everywhere. He knew that the self-redemption we champion, such as in sports people redeeming themselves, does little before a holy God and that we need Christ’s redemption to return to God.
Consequently Leon got involved in reaching others. Early on he took part in the evangelistic efforts of All Soul’s Leichhardt, then he served for five years with the Bush Church Aid Society, and when he arrived at Ridley Melbourne he connected with parishes doing evangelism. His most significant effort might be his time as the Follow-Up Chairman of the Billy Graham Crusade in Melbourne in 1959, where he supervised the allocation of 28,105 registered commitments to churches in the city. Later he rejoiced when people wrote to him, having been converted by reading his commentaries! Even to the end of his life he would always make the effort to attend evangelistic meetings to lend his support. The greatest miracle to Leon was that of a person coming to faith in Christ, who had died for them.
There is such a legacy that Leon left us. This is just one aspect of his amazing contribution to the Christian cause in Australia and across the world.