Monthly Archives: November 2015

No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours

Before I launch into the topic of divine love and justice, I need to clarify something about my essay of November 17, 2015. Several people took issue with it as somewhat overwrought. Okay, perhaps the title of that essay (“God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals”) was a bit over the top. Of course God knows and loves individuals, every one of them! But how do you really love an individual person in the right way? That is an important question. First, you love them for what they really are, and we really are connected and interrelated with nature and other people. These relationships constitute our unique identity. We would not and could not exist without them. Hence in loving individuals God loves them along with everything that makes them who they are. Second, to love individuals means to will for them and give them what is truly good. Since God loves all people and everyone is interconnected with nature and the whole human family, what is truly good for one individual cannot be separated from what is truly good for all. I think if we keep these thoughts in mind and let them sink into our hearts, we will become less self-centered in our understanding of what is good for us.

How do we know that God’s loves us?

How do we know that God is love, that God loves you and me, that God loves the world? How do we know that God is good, that God wills the highest good for you and me and the whole world? This belief is not self-evident.  As I said in the previous essay on God’s love, there have been many views of the divine that make no place for divine love. But for Christians, Jesus Christ is the revelation and proof that God loves us. Allow me to quote a few of the many New Testament statements asserting this:

 7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11).

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:5-8).

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

How does what Jesus did show that the eternal God loves us? Ordinarily we show our love by what we do, and the depth of that love is demonstrated by how much we are willing to give up for the one we say we love. John says God’s love is demonstrated by giving his Son for us. In Romans 5:8, Paul says that God “demonstrates his love” in that “Christ died for us.” And in Galatians 2:20, it is Christ who loves and gave himself for us. Clearly, Paul, John and the other NT writers see in Christ’s act of love God’s own act of love. Christ is the self-giving of God for us.

God’s act of love in Jesus is so central to the being of God that, according to John, “God is love.”  The radical act of God’s love demonstrated in the self-sacrifice of Christ could have come only from the depths of God’s heart; God holds nothing back. He gives all. Jesus Christ reveals the motive for everything God does. The love of God is rooted so deep in God’s character that it permeates and conditions God’s whole being and every act. God’s being is an act of love through and through. Hence God is love.

Divine Justice?

Where then is God’s justice? If in love God gives himself to us without regard to merit or demerit, is God unjust in his overflowing love? In the classical definition, human justice is established where “each gets what is due him.” Of course, in different societies the rules that determine “what is due” differ, so social goods will be distributed differently in different societies. And even within societies disputes arise about exactly what is due to individuals and why. In every case, however, what is just is determined by the individual’s merit or demerit as measured by the law. But God loved us and Christ died for us “while were sinners” and “ungodly.” How is that an act of justice?

Just as we should not apply the human concept of love directly to God, we should not apply the human concept of justice to God without proper modification. As I said above, human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Divine justice also involves the relationship between a standard of measure and behaviors. But in God’s case, the standard of measure must be God’s own being, life, and character, for there can be no law above God. Hence God acts justly by acting consistently with his being, life, and character. God’s justice is his faithfulness to himself. In Jesus Christ, God demonstrated that his love penetrates to the depth of his being, life and character. Hence God acts justly precisely by loving us while we were sinners! In loving us despite our sin, even “while were enemies” God is being completely faithful to himself.

God does not give us “what is due” us! A creature can never rightly assert a claim on God; everything we have, even our existence itself, is a gift from God. But what if we are “due” punishment? An act “deserves” its consequences, that is, given the natural course of things certain consequences follow on every act and are implicit in it. In our acts of sin we assert our wills against God’s will. That is the essence of sin. But God wills only to love us, to be our God, our helper, and our good. In sin we wish to be our own god, helper, and good. But apart from God we cannot live or enjoy any good. Hence death is implicit in sin. In the words of Paul, “the wages [natural consequences] of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The human call for justice (or “social justice” as it is now called) is often a thoughtless a cry for “what we are due.” Thankfully, God does not give us “what is due” us! And precisely by not giving us what is due to us God proves himself perfectly just. In giving himself for us in Jesus Christ, God is completely faithful to himself. God gives himself what is due to himself. And contrary to “what is due” to us, we receive mercy, forgiveness, grace, and love. Instead of death we get life and a new beginning. What justice! What love! What joy! What gospel!

 

“Why Don’t We Hear This in Church?”

 

Last week two prospective students visited my “Christianity and Culture” class. A few days before, when they asked if they could visit the class, I told them that I would be conducting a review session for the upcoming exam but that they were welcome to join us. The class material is divided into three sections: (1) How did our world become secular or why it’s tempting to live as if God does not exist; (2) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 1): the human condition; and (3) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 2): God and the self.

In the review I covered all the material in section 2 in 50 minutes. The premise of this section is that living in our secular culture distracts us from those experiences that raise the question of God. But consciously thinking about those experiences can show that we cannot escape the truth that the questions of our meaning, destiny, and happiness are inextricably linked to the question of God. It is the most urgent of all questions.

After I finished the review, the two guests came up to me to express their appreciation for my allowing them to sit in the class; they also told me how much they enjoyed the material. One of them said, “Why don’t we hear these things in church?” The other expressed agreement with that sentiment. I said, “One of my main goals in life is to do what I can to raise the level of the church’s teaching, especially its teaching of the young.” My writing, teaching, and blogging—everything I do—is aimed at this goal. The question asked by these students (“Why don’t we hear these things in church?”) moves me deeply; it makes me sad and a little bit angry. And here is why.

As far as I can tell, the church is doing a poor job of teaching on all levels but especially in teaching the young. We are not even doing a good job making our people familiar with the storyline of the Bible much less its doctrinal teaching. But even if we were doing those things, it would not be enough. We live in a culture dominated by sophisticated philosophies, moral teachings, social structures, cultural practices and values that contradict subtly or openly the most basic Christian beliefs. Knowing the Christian faith thoroughly is essential to living in this world, but even that is not enough! We need to know how the secular world thinks, what it thinks, and exactly why we believe and practice Christian faith instead of accepting the world’s philosophy. We are failing, failing miserably, to prepare our children for the world they will face. And it makes me sad.

Why are we failing? I don’t claim to know all the reasons why, but I know that we are failing. One thing is certain: many of those who are supposed to be responsible for teaching the church are unaware of what is needed or unprepared to do what is necessary to meet the challenge. Do you elders, preaching ministers, youth ministers, campus ministers, children’s ministers, parents, and Sunday school teachers take your tasks seriously? It seems to me that some church leaders think that providing exciting worship services, preaching light-weight and entertaining sermons, providing family-friendly church spaces and programs, creating a network of friendships, and hiring lots of ministers to keep all these things humming will keep people coming to church services and protect them from the world. Such an approach may give the appearance of working in the short term, but it will fail over the long term. Don’t we see that if the young learn only a superficial version of Christianity in church they will be overwhelmed by the sophisticated criticisms of college professors and subtle allurements of secular culture?

And of course it’s not just the young. The process of “dumbing down” has been going on a long time. There are many young and middle aged adults that don’t know their right hand from their left when it comes to faith. You can be a sophisticated lawyer or doctor or CEO of a huge corporation but completely naïve in Christian knowledge and practice. Everyone, young and old, needs to be immersed in the deepest and most thoughtful form of Christian teaching available. In my view, Christianity is demonstrably and vastly superior intellectually, morally, and spiritually to anything the world has to offer. The church has always been the champion of reason and thoughtfulness and studiousness! But we need teachers who embody this ideal and can demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Christian faith in confrontation to secular alternatives.

Elders, preachers, and all who would teach…are you prepared? Do you know what being prepared means? Are you willing to educate yourself? I’ve been a minister for 43 years and an elder for 25 years. The process began before my time, but even in my lifetime I’ve seen elders reconceive the focus of their work from teaching, protecting, and pastoring to managing. Ministers have also become administrators and entertainers instead of teachers and evangelists. I hope this trend reverses soon. Yes, it takes time to read good books and ponder the Scriptures. But if you are going to put yourself forth as a leader and teacher of the church you have to give time to preparation. Not to do so is spiritual malpractice. It’s ecclesiastical suicide.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, during his frustrating conversation with the children the professor kept muttering to himself, “Logic, logic! What do they teach them in the schools these days?” I share Lewis’s frustration with secular schools. (Don’t get me started!) They don’t teach people how to think clearly or to be thoughtful; and they teach much that is half-baked and down right false! But I am even more frustrated with the church’s education program. And so, I ask the same question as that asked by those two visitors to my class, “why don’t we hear this in church?”

 

 

God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals

 

“I believe in a loving God.”

“God loves you.”

“God is love” (1 John 4:8).

“For God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).

We hear these words so often that we become hardened to their significance. They no longer strike us as surprising and profound. Voltaire is reported to have said, “God forgives because it’s his business.” We may also grow to take God’s love, mercy, and grace for granted. Or just as bad, we may think we understand God’s love when we have only the most superficial grasp.

We have heard that love is a divine attribute and a divine action. Good. But what does that mean, and how do we know? In fact, it is not at all clear that the concept of God necessarily entails that God loves. The followers of Plato considered the highest reality to be absolutely perfect and self-sufficient. God is “Goodness” itself, but this does not mean that God is actually good to anyone. It means that God is the most perfect object of desire. For Aristotle, God thinks only of the highest reality, that is, his own being. God is “self-thinking Thought.” All beings desire God because they desire perfection, but God desires nothing and takes no thought for the world. In ancient polytheism, a particular god may favor a particular human being, but the conviction that “God is love” seems never to have entered the human imagination before Jesus Christ came into the world. The Old Testament asserts that the one God of Israel alone is God. And God loves Israel and favors some people, such as Abraham and David, above others. Still, the Old Testament does not clearly teach the radical love of God the way it is taught in the New Testament.

Unless we give serious thought to the New Testament teaching on divine love we tend to think of God’s love in too close analogy to human love. Let’s think about the differences. (1) God’s love is not an emotion in the way we experience emotion. Our emotions are moved by the characteristics or situation of object toward which we act. God’s love is God own being and is always active, constant, and perfect. God always loves in every act because God is love. And God does what God is. (2) That God loves means that God wills the perfect good for himself and his creation. Indeed, God himself is the perfect good that he wills for himself and creation. Hence the aim of God’s love is to give himself to the object of his love. When we love, we also will something good for the object of our love. But our love is not guided by perfect understanding of what the highest good is for the person we love. Nor do we know the perfect means of attaining that good or have the power to give that good to others. Our love can be blinded by our short-sighted desires or by the momentary feelings of the one we love. But God knows the highest good for everyone and the perfect way of attaining it for each; and God will not be distracted from that aim by his needs or by our misguided desires. The Christian teaching that God is love and loves us does not imply that God will “go soft” on us. God is not indulgent; nor does he exercise a false compassion that concerns itself only with relief of immediate distress but neglects our highest good. As Augustine says in his Confessions, God exercises a “severe mercy” in bringing us to him, our highest good. We could also speak of it as a “merciless love.”

(3) God does not love us as individuals, that is, as isolated individuals. Shocking? Perhaps so, but the reason we are shocked by this is that God’s love is often sentimentalized, sweetened, and personalized to meet our own preferences. God wills, as I said above, our highest good. But we cannot attain our highest good as isolated individuals. We exist in relation to God primarily, and secondarily we depend on the whole creation and other human beings for our lives and personal identities. And we can experience the highest good [perfect fellowship with God] only in fellowship with the whole creation. Each of us plays a part in God’s story with the world. Some of those parts are short, some long, some painful, some mostly happy, some relative easy, and some very hard. From within life and from the perspective of the individual, life does not seem fair and God seems to love some more than others. But from the perspective of the end and the whole history of creation, God loves each person perfectly—and equally. God loves the whole world in each person, that is, God blesses the whole world by using each individual to bring something to the whole that makes it complete. And God loves each person by loving the whole world, that is, each individual will experience the good God makes of the whole. And in the end, all converge and each gets what has been given to all.

To be continued…

As you may have noticed, I asserted the thoughts in this essay without much proof. If you are interested in hearing more evidence for them, see my book, Great is the Lord, pp. 164-221.

“I Don’t Want to Live On The Moon” (I’m Talking to Myself, But You Can Listen, If You Like)

When our two sons were small we’d watch Sesame Street with them almost every day. My favorite song from Sesame Street is “I Don’t Want to Live On The Moon,” written by Jeff Moss in 1978. Ernie sits on a crescent Moon and sings,

“Though I’d like to look down at the Earth from above,

I would miss all the places and people I love,

So although I might like it for one afternoon,

I don’t want to live on the moon.”

When I hear the song today I think first, wistfully, of those little blond-haired boys I used hold in my lap. (You can listen to it on YouTube. It has a haunting, wistful, nostalgic sound.) But I also think about my own ambivalence about public life, about being intimately involved in an institution of higher education and a local church. When I was in graduate school I read a three-volume work on the history of preaching. As I read the story of Gregory of Nazianzus, I thought, “That’s me!” Gregory wanted nothing more than to study, write, think, pray, and lead a quiet life. But the politically astute Basil of Caesarea manipulated him into becoming bishop of Nazianzus. Gregory was enlisted by Basil to engage in the most significant doctrinal battle in all of church history, the Arian controversy. And Gregory’s writings, especially his Five Theological Orations, are considered some of the finest theological writings of all time. Gregory was elected Patriarch of Constantinople and presided over the First Council of Constantinople, from which came the ecumenical Nicene Creed (381). But during the Council, the political maneuvering, conniving, and ambition became so rank in Gregory’s nostrils that he resigned in disgust and retreated into the countryside to write poetry for the rest of his life.

Like Gregory, I hate crowds, church politics, college politics, local politics, county politics, state politics, and national politics. I can’t stand any of it. I don’t want power over anyone. I want to think about my faith, seek truth, write down my thoughts, and be alone with myself and God. I identify with Kierkegaard and even Nietzsche, neither of whom fit into their age and wrote for only a few individuals or for those not yet born. Kierkegaard wrote for “the individual” and Nietzsche wrote for “my reader.” Sometimes, I feel like an alien or a resurrected member of an extinct species when interacting with institutions of modern culture. American churches have become more like businesses than communities created by the Spirit. Being a clergyman or clergywoman in an American church is a position for which one can be ambitious for reasons having nothing to do with a divine call. It takes lots of employees and volunteers just to keep the books, write the checks, and put on a “service” in the average church. And because they are businesses, own property, and wish to have non-profit tax status, they become as enmeshed with and subservient to the government as the Constantinian church that Gregory abandoned, the Danish church Kierkegaard attacked, and the German church Nietzsche scorned. None of it is necessary, of course—money, clergy, property or government entanglement. Perhaps these things are even detrimental to real Christian community. And Christian educational institutions are even more bound by government regulations and accrediting agencies’ views of morality and the purpose of education.

And when I am at my wits end in frustration with these things, I say to my wife, “I want to live on the moon! Let them have it, let them have it all. I don’t want it.” But I never actually do it, because,

“I would miss all the places and people I love,

So although I might like it for one afternoon,

I don’t want to live on the moon.”

Sometimes I think to myself “why do I write and teach and blog? No one cares, no one reads it, or, if they do read it, no one understands. Or, if they understand, they will soon forget.” And the words of Ecclesiastes come to mind (1:2-3; 11):

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”     says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!     Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

11No one remembers the former generations,

and even those yet to come will not be remembered

by those who follow them.

But then I think about the people and books that have influenced me, many of whom died long ago. Where would I be if they had gone to “live on the Moon”? I am very glad Gregory wrote the Five Theological Orations before he left for the country. I am so thankful that Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis and so many others cared enough to work so hard and love so much for people not yet born. To keep writing and teaching and putting up with various types of politics, I have to keep thinking about the “individual” that might be helped or “my reader” who might remember and not forget.

And to you “my reader” I say this: we must allow our inability to see all the fruit of our labor to discourage us from faithfully carrying out the assignment we have been given. And as hard as it is for me to be satisfied with it, this is the true measure of success—that we are doing the task we have been given to do. We must release our labor into God’s hands to do with as he wishes. It will enough to hear the Lord say, “You have done well the work I gave you to do.”

Yes, sometimes I want to live on the Moon, but…

“I would miss all the places and people I love,

So although I might like it for one afternoon,

I don’t want to live on the moon.”

And I would be abandoning my post before God gives me leave.