Tag Archives: Grace

Paul—Persecutor, Apostle, Martyr

The following are the words I shared this morning with the University Church of Christ, where I attend. They fit quite well, I think, within this year’s theme of “love not the world.”

Aristotle’s description of the Great-Souled man

In his works on ethics, Aristotle describes various human qualities, virtues, and personality types. The one I find most interesting is what he calls the “Great-Souled” character. In modern translations, the Greek word for “great-soul” (megalopsychos) is often translated “magnanimity,” which derives from a Latin term that also means great-soul. But in modern English the word magnanimity means (excessive and unexpected) generosity.  And that is not what Aristotle means.

Aristotle says the Great-Souled (G-S from now on) man “seems to be the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and really is worthy” (EN 4.3). He is capable of great deeds and knows he is capable. He deserves great honor and knows it. He possesses great energy and ambition. He is willing to suffer greatly for a great cause. In Aristotle’s words, the G-S man “is unsparing of his life, since he does not think that life at all costs is worth living.”

But his great failing is measuring his greatness by what his country or city or community values most. Aristotle says that honor is the greatest of all external goods (EN 4.3). So, above all things, the G-S man seeks the honor and glory he thinks he deserves. And since he knows he is worthy of great honor, he is prone to be intolerant of insult and to explode in great anger when deprived of the honor he knows deserves. (For more on this subject, see Jacob Howland, “Aristotle’s Great-Souled Man,” Review of Politics, 64.1 (Winter 2002): 27-56.)

Paul as the Great-Souled Man

My assignment today is to survey the career, character, and message of Paul the Apostle. By any measure Paul was a great man. But I think we can gain greater insight into Paul by viewing him through the lens of the G-S character type. That’s what we will do this morning.

Upbringing

From Acts, we learn that Paul was a citizen of Tarsus. Tarsus was the capitol city of a region called Cilicia in Asia Minor (Modern Turkey) and a regional center of learning. It was home to several famous Stoic philosophers contemporary with Paul. We are pretty sure that Paul came from a moderately wealthy family, because only people of some wealth could become citizens of Tarsus. In Acts 22, we learn that, though he was born in Tarsus, he was brought up in Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel, the most famous Rabbi and teacher at that time.

Paul describes himself in Philippians as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (3:5), that is, ultraorthodox and extreme. And in Galatians, chapter one, he describes himself this way (1:13-14):

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

Paul was a highly talented man and very ambitious to do great things and receive great honor. But he sought to do great things as measured by what the sect of Pharisees considered great. And his ambition for greatness among the Pharisees led him to become a persecutor of Christians.

The Persecutor

Paul viewed the rise of Christianity as a great threat to Judaism and to his community. For Paul, Jesus was a deceiver and his disciples were heretics! After all, Jesus was tried in the Jewish Court, convicted of blasphemy, and crucified by the Romans as a rebel. He could not be the messiah as the Christians claimed! Paul was outraged at this insult to God, the law, the temple, and Judaism—and to himself!

Paul is first mentioned in Acts as participating in Stephen’s murder and then as the designated inquisitor to arrest disciples in Damascus and bring them to Jerusalem to stand trial. Acts 9 describes him as “breathing out threatenings and slaughter.” He was the Great-Souled man at his worst.

Conversion

But Saul, the Great-Souled man, met Jesus on the road to Damascus. What an unlikely convert! And what a transformation! The chief inquisitor becomes the apostle to the world for all time! What he took as blasphemy, he learned was God’s deep truth. What before looked like weakness now appears as divine power! Human folly has become divine wisdom. Shame becomes glory and insult honor. Everything in Paul’s world has been turned upside down.

His former great cause, his great ambitions, and his great accomplishments, he now considers “as garbage” (Phil 3:8) compared to knowing Christ. His legal scrupulousness, his sincerity, and his zeal for God’s honor, he now calls “the flesh,” mere human pride in oneself (Phil 3:3).

But Paul has not ceased to be the G-S man. All his enormous energy and ambition was brought into the service of Christ. He is still capable of great things and knows it. And he knows how to brag about it, as you can see in 1 Cor. 15:9-10:

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

And in 2 Cor 11-12, he gives two chapters to “bragging” about his work:

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.

As you can see, Paul is still willing to suffer greatly for a great cause! And like Aristotle’s G-S man, “He is unsparing of his life, since he does not think life at all costs is worth living.” But Paul now measures greatness and glory and honor by another standard. It’s not the well-being of the city or the nation or of any other community or interest group or academic guild or profession or business or institution. Jesus Christ crucified and risen is the standard for human greatness, wisdom, and honor. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). He is what God would look like if God became a human being. And the Christian Great-Souled person wants to be as much like God as possible, which means to become as much like Jesus as possible. Listen to Paul’s words from Philippians 3:10-11:

 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul’s Gospel, Teaching and Theology

Paul’s message, teaching, and theology are shaped by his character and his experience on the Damascus road. He learned to his total surprise that he did not know himself or God; indeed, he learned that instead of loving God he hated him and that instead of being perfectly righteous he was the worst of sinners! And yet God chose him, called him, forgave him, and bestowed abundant grace and mercy on him. This experience humbled Paul and made him infinitely grateful. Hence…

Paul’s message was cross-centered and Spirit-empowered. It urges us to respond to God by trusting in the unbounded mercy and grace of God shown in Jesus Christ.

The Cross.

It should not be surprising that Paul’s gospel centered on the cross. Listen to 1 Cor 2:1-5:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Before Paul’s conversion, the cross was the thing he hated most about Jesus and his followers. But meeting Jesus in the heavenly vision revolutionized his understanding of the cross. Now he sees it as a window into the heart of God. The law gives some insight into God’s justice, but the cross reveals a deeper justice, the secret of divine love. And it shows the way we must live in order to become like God.

Grace/mercy

Grace is the favor that moves God to extend mercy to us. Paul never ceases to be amazed that God loves him, that God looks on him with favor and extends his mercy to him. Paul knows from experience what happens when you measure yourself by a human standard and think that God also uses that standard! It leads to self-righteousness, blasphemy, and persecution. For all his legal righteousness and zeal for God’s law, Paul discovered he still needed infinite mercy! And Paul’s gospel shouts that we have no claim on God. If God favors us and accepts us, it is because of his sheer grace and mercy! Never ever think there is another reason! Paul makes this clear in Romans 3:21-24:

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in[h] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Speaking of Faith and Trust…

Paul didn’t request a meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road, and he knows that he didn’t deserve the mercy and forgiveness given him. But he believed the heavenly voice and trusted in God’s mercy. The gospel Paul preached is about the surprising thing God has done for us; it’s about his favor and mercy and forgiveness enacted in Jesus. The gospel urges us to believe and trust in God’s grace.

Faith is our acknowledgment that God’s is way ahead of us and that we want to catch up. It is our confidence in God’s love and mercy. Faith is our first positive response to God’s offer of salvation; it’s not the cause but the effect of God’s grace. Every other response to Jesus flows from faith and trust.

Faith is not some great, noble, and difficult act that sets us above others. No, not at all! Faith is the humblest, poorest, most empty-handed act we can do. It puts no confidence in our power or wisdom or goodness. It renounces all such claims and acknowledges that God alone is holy, that Jesus alone is Savior and Lord. It looks down on no one. It compares itself to no one. For it keeps its eyes fixed on Jesus.

The Unity of Jew and Gentile

Isn’t this amazing: Jesus called Paul the Pharisee, the ultraorthodox enforcer, to be the apostle to the “unclean” gentiles! And Paul took that mission with great seriousness. He resisted every attempt to force gentile Christians to keep the Law of Moses. In Christ, everyone, Jew and gentile alike, relates to God by faith and trust in God’s grace bestowed in Jesus, not by keeping the law. Paul sees the church as the fulfillment of the OT prophecies about the nations of the world coming to faith in Israel’s God and flowing into Jerusalem.

And the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ is one of his major concerns throughout the letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. You can see this issue surface especially in Romans, chapters 1-3 and 9-11. No one, gentile or Jew, can make themselves acceptable to God by keeping the law! So, Jews should not look down on gentiles because they don’t keep kosher or observe Sabbaths and other holy days! And gentiles must not look down on Jewish believers because they observe the law or because most Jews did not accept Jesus as the messiah. We are one body in Jesus Christ, as Paul says so eloquently in Galatians 3:26-29:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What makes us acceptable to God? What makes us children of God and heirs of the promise given to Abraham? On what basis should we accept each other? Everyone, Paul says, who in faith has been baptized into Christ is our brother or sister. They are God’s children, acceptable to God, heirs of the promise. We are united to each other in Christ, Paul says, so get used to it!

We must accept those whom God accepts, on the same basis God accepts them. It matters not your tribe, your nation, or your social status. It makes no difference whether your skin in pink, white, black, brown, yellow, or purple. It doesn’t matter where your ancestors lived, in the North or South or East or West. Young or old, educated or ignorant, rich or poor, from the city or from the country…It makes no difference. Languages don’t matter! In the church, every day is Pentecost! In the church, only one thing matters: how you stand with Jesus Christ. Do you rely on him completely as Savior? Do you give yourself to him utterly as your Lord?

The Spirit and the Law

To some people Paul’s talk of divine love, grace, and mercy, his insistence of faith as the proper response to grace, and his seeming criticism of the Law of Moses implies that we don’t need to make any effort to be good or to do good in the world. Apparently, Paul heard this kind of objection often. For in Romans, chapters 6-8, he responds to it at length. In 6:1-4, he says:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Where do we get the power for this new life? Paul’s answer is very clear: from God’s Spirit, which lives and works in all who are united to Christ! Listen to Romans 8:1-4:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

In faith, receive and trust in the power of the divine Spirit to change us, to transform us into new people. Through the Spirit’s power we become people who really do love God and our neighbors, who reject the way of the world, and allow the Spirit to place the life of Jesus into our spirits. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. The Law can’t do it for you. But the Spirit can.

Four Lessons

What can we learn from Paul, the Great-Souled man?

First, we need a Damascus Road experience. We need to encounter Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. We need to learn to see ourselves differently…not as those who “seem to be worthy of great things and really are worthy.” We need to stop measuring greatness by human standards and seeking honor from human beings. Ask yourself how much your search for acceptance, recognition, attention, honor, and glory from other people drives your life? What about us academics? Do we seek honor from our peers or from God? What about students? What about you professionals? What a difference it would make if we sought honor and glory and acceptance from God alone, and in relation to human beings sought only to do them good.

Second, we need to adopt God’s great cause, which is bringing the whole world into conformity with the pattern of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the place to start is with yourself. That is what Paul did.

Third, we need to understand that in union with Christ and through the power of the Spirit we are capable of great things and we will be made worthy of great honor. We do not have to be slaves to anger, greed, lust, pride, and a host of bad habits. You can be transformed into a patient, loving, disciplined, generous, and wise person. We can be a light in the darkness. There is no greater accomplishment than becoming like God as God is seen in Jesus. And there is no greater power for good in this world than living such a life. No one acting as a warrior or persecutor or politician or academic can do such great things or deserved so great an honor.

Fourth, don’t delay. Resolve today to place your biography, character, and experience—no matter what it is!—in God’s hands. Do what Paul did. In faith, accept God’s grace and make that clear to everyone by submitting to baptism into Christ. God used Paul to do great things and he can use you! God alone decides what things are truly great and deserve honor. And you don’t have to be extraordinary in the eyes of others to do them.

I will conclude with the words of Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28:

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

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The Holy Spirit and Salvation

Last week we examined the nature of faith in Jesus, which is on the human side of our salvation. Faith’s goal is access to the power for salvation that resides in Jesus Christ. It is knowledge, acknowledgment, affirmation, trust, certainty, and union with Christ. Our appropriation of salvation also possesses a divine side, and that is our topic for this essay.

God is the primary actor in every aspect of our salvation. Apart from God’s initiative in creating, preserving, and empowering the world we would not exist and could do nothing. Likewise, apart from God’s action for our salvation we could do nothing to participate in that salvation. God’s action is the objective side of our being united to Christ; faith is the subjective side.

The New Testament speaks about God’s work of uniting us to Christ as the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works internally with our individual spirit or inner person or heart—whatever term you prefer to use—giving us a new kind of life. Just as God’s Spirit gives life and being to all creatures at the very root of their being, the Spirit joins us to Christ in an action as mysterious as creation from nothing. The Spirit through whom Christ is present is able to indwell, encompass, and contain things without displacing or distorting them in any way. Hence the Spirit can change us, revive us, strengthen us or recreate us from within according to the will of God. And through the Spirit, Christ can dwell in us and transform us into his image without violence to our wills or minds.

Can we say more about the nature of our union with Christ? What kind of union is this? Two possibilities come to mind. (1) Is it a union of wills? Considered in this way, our union with Christ would be constituted by our always and fully willing everything he wills. Perhaps this is the simplest way to conceive it. We experience this type of union with friends and fellow believers when we discover that we share love for Jesus Christ and desire his glory in all things. We understand each other and feel the bond created by the One we love. The one Holy Spirit indwells the many members of the body and the many find themselves made one in mind, heart, and will by the unifying power of one and the same Spirit. We meet each other in the sphere of the Spirit.

(2) Or could our union with Christ be even more intimate? Our union with the wills of other members of Christ is a union in something else, the Spirit. It is not a direct union. But our union with Christ can be direct and intimate because Christ can be directly present to our spirits whereas another human being cannot. How can we describe such intimacy of union? Perhaps we can call it a union of being and action. Christ comes so close to us that his life-giving Spirit constantly imparts spiritual life to us so that we are empowered for actions like his.

According to the New Testament, Christ is the one through whom God created all things. He gives all things being and form. In this sense Christ is already and always connected to every creature as its cause and its Lord. All creatures are already touched by Christ and connected to him. But our being united with Christ through faith, baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit is a new creation and brings to perfection the work begun in the first creation. The final perfection of our being united with Christ is to become like him in body and soul, mind and heart, and being and action.

Paul places special emphasis on being united with Christ:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Corinthians 3: 17-18)

“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).

Next week: Paul speaks of baptism as the act by which we become united with Christ. What part does baptism play in our appropriation of salvation?

The Damascus Road Revelation and Paul’s Gospel

We have been pursuing the idea that the event of the resurrection of Jesus, set in its historical context of the acts, teaching, death of Jesus, contemporary ideas about the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, and the resurrection appearances themselves, contains the core gospel at the origin of Christianity. Today we consider some New Testament texts that refer to resurrection appearances. Since in this series so far we are not presupposing Christianity’s truth but examining the evidence for this conclusion, I will proceed with some historical caution. Hence we will give the highest priority to testimony from sources historians consider as having the most direct access to the appearances of the resurrected Jesus.

All New Testament writings presuppose or explicitly refer to the resurrection of Jesus. The Four Gospels narrate Jesus’ appearances to his original disciples, to the women who visited the tomb, and to Peter, John, and the others. And Acts presents the preaching and testimony of Peter and Paul concerning the resurrection. A good case can be made that these accounts derive from the people who actually experienced the appearances first hand. But Paul’s testimony is unique. He records, in his own words in letters written by him, his direct experience of the resurrected Lord. Someone might argue that the narrations in the Gospels or Acts or Hebrews are indirect, second or third-hand, and therefore could differ from the original witnesses’ testimony. No such argument can be made about Paul’s testimony in 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians. In this case, we must choose to believe Paul or not believe him. There is no issue of corruption in transmission.

Paul teaches about the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in many places (For example, Phil 3:10-11, 20-21; 1 Thess 1:9b-10; 4:13-8; Rom 1:1-4; 4:18-25; 6:1-10; 8:9-11, 22-26; 10:9-10; 14:7-9; and 2 Cor 4:7-15) . But he refers to his own experience of the risen Jesus three times, twice in 1 Corinthians and once in Galatians:

1 Cor 9:1

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?”

1 Cor 15:3-8

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Galatians 1:11-17

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.”

The topic we are considering is so huge that many books could be written on it. Sadly, I have time and space to make only one point. The two references to “revelation” in Galatians 1:11-17 (quoted above), considered along with the other two texts also quoted above, clearly refer to the appearance of the resurrected Christ to Paul (cf. Acts 9, 22, and 24). In verse 12, Paul says he received his gospel by revelation.  In verses 13-16, he elaborates on this revelation, its context, and its results. Before this revelation, Paul thought he should persecute the church and be zealous for the traditions of his fathers. But God intervened and graciously revealed “his Son in me”. Paul’s experience of the resurrected Jesus as an act of divine grace and as God’s choice to have mercy on a sinner and an enemy (cf. Rom 5:1), definitively shaped his understanding of the gospel. For Paul, the good news proclaims that God’s grace and mercy do not depend on our works of righteousness. And, if we don’t have to win God’s grace and avoid God’s wrath by scrupulously keeping the Law, God’s people can be opened to the Gentiles by faith in Jesus!

Further elaboration of the meaning and implications of the resurrection would lead us deep into the field of Christology. My point so far in this series on the resurrection is to show that the resurrection is not merely a brute fact, a miracle whose meaning is exhausted by its unusual nature. Given its context in the life of Jesus, the religious thought of the day, and in the lives of those to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared, we can see how Jesus’ resurrection implied a religious revolution that has in fact changed the world.

Next time we must ask whether or not Jesus Christ really rose from the dead and whether or not we can make a rational judgment and a responsible decision to affirm that “He is risen.”

The “for us” God: God and the Modern Self #8

We’ve thought for seven weeks about how the dominant sector of modern culture views God and the human self. We’ve seen that its view of human freedom and dignity and its formula for happiness guarantee that God will be viewed as a threat to the self. Now it is time to ask another set of questions: what is the Christian view of God and the human self? How does the gospel understand human freedom and dignity and the quest for happiness? Is there a way to conceive of God and the human self that enables us to affirm both God’s full deity and our full humanity? In the next three installments we will examine the Christian view of God and contrast this view with the distorted view of the modern self.

We can consider God as a threat to human freedom and dignity only if we forget that God is our Creator. Every good and beautiful thing that was, is and ever will be receives its existence from God. God gives us being, time and space, life and all our powers. Freedom and dignity, too, are divine gifts. Gifts! Pure gifts! God’s act of creating the world is completely free and gracious. God did not need anything and gains nothing for himself by creating. Existence is a pure gift, and God expects nothing in return. Nothing. Nothing at all. Ever.

Sometimes we have a hard time letting ourselves believing this. We do not give gifts in this way. Nor does anyone else we know. Hence we have a hard time feeling unmixed gratitude and allowing God’s gifts to reveal his love for us. Surely there must be a catch! But there is no catch. According to Christianity everything God gives us and expects from us is for our good, not his. It’s all for us. Nothing we can do can enhance God’s power, goodness, greatness or glory. Quite the opposite, God creates us to share in his power, goodness, greatness and glory! C.S. Lewis voices this truth in his own inimitable way: “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them” (The Four Loves, p. 127).

If we knew nothing else about God than that he freely created us so that we could enjoy what God has, this alone would prove that God poses no threat our freedom or dignity. But Christianity points us dramatically beyond the gift of creation.  In Jesus Christ, God gave himself to us. God gave himself not for good people, grateful people, people that honor God; God gave himself for his enemies, the thoughtless and ungrateful. Undoubtedly with his own experience in mind Paul states it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). These two words, “for us”, refute the modern self’s view of God. God does nothing for himself; it’s all for us.

I will leave you with a passage in which Bernard of Clairvaux strains language to express his amazement at God’s love for us:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?” (On Loving God).

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 8 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Self-Giving God of the Gospel”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the idea that God did not need the world and created it solely for the benefit of creatures. Do you agree? Does this idea make sense?

2. Contrast the Christian concept of the generous Creator with the image of God held by the modern self. Would the God of the modern self give anything freely, with no strings attached?

3. Consider the image of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the self-giving God of the gospel. Does it make sense to envy the God of the gospel or want to take his place?

4. Reflect again on the two contrasting images of God, that of the modern self and that seen in Jesus Christ. The modern self’s image of God evokes envy, but the Father of Jesus Christ evokes love. Explore the reasons for these different human reactions.

5. How would you evaluate the claim that in relation to us God does nothing for himself and everything for us.

 

Note: in the next installment we will examine the idea of divine omnipotence. Is God’s universally active power a threat to our freedom? Should we wish for God to have less power so that we can have more power?

In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 1)?

Perhaps it has always been so, but I see lots of short-term, consumer-driven thinking among Christian people and their leaders; and it has weighed on my mind lately. The questions to which we give our attention seem to be: “How can we meet our budgets for this fiscal year?” “How can we attract young people to our churches?”  “How can we keep our worship or preaching or children’s program or youth ministry relevant to contemporary audiences?” Or, “How can we make our services guest friendly?” I would not say that such questions ought never to enter our minds or ever receive any consideration. But shouldn’t we take a broader and longer-term view of our mission? What if we ask a different question: “How would we understand, study, live, teach and practice our faith if we wanted to do all we could to make sure that our church is authentically Christian 100 years from today?”

Okay, I admit it: We can’t control what future generations believe and do. It may be that, despite our best efforts, our great, great grand Children will not profess Christian faith. Still, that is no excuse for not thinking about the task and giving it our best efforts.

The first step is to raise the issue of the long-term sustainability of the form of faith we teach and practice. Let me explain what I mean by the term “form of faith.” Each Christian community by tradition or by circumstance selects certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize while it leaves others in the background as assumed or otherwise neglected. Your church may place justification by faith, good works, evangelism, church order, social justice, election, experience of the Spirit or some other teaching or practice at the center of church life. This specialization of teaching makes sense in many ways. You can’t teach everything at once. The needs of every age and context demand more instruction in certain areas than in others. Churches tend to perpetuate their founding and traditional insights. However, if the form of faith we teach does not contain the whole range of Christian teaching held in proper balance, it becomes vulnerable to two common forms of change that can lead it astray over time.

Allow me call the first “the law of logical progression” and the second “the law of dialectical change.” The law of logical progression comes into effect when for whatever reason one truth is emphasized to the near exclusion of others and becomes a sort of master concept by which others are judged. This truth—a particular understanding of church order or charismatic gifts or any another—is treated as if it were clear, precise and absolutely true apart from its relationship to other Christian truths. Hence other truths are interpreted by and forced into consistency with this truth.

Already, we have surfaced a serious misunderstanding about how the faith is communicated. In my view, no single proposition of Christian doctrine can in isolation from other statements of faith communicate its full truth and only that. (I hope to defend this statement in greater depth in a later post.) A fine example of this can be found in Romans 6. The statement “we are saved by grace” communicates an important truth as long as it is understood in relation to other teaching. But apart from its relation to the whole faith, it is ambiguous. And bad things happen when you treat an ambiguous statement as if it were clear. Once an isolated statement of doctrine is assumed to possess its truth in itself apart from any modifying relations to other teaching, our minds cannot resist drawing out all the implications of that statement almost to absurdity. Paul reacts severely to those who would isolate grace from righteousness and extend its meaning so that it actually contradicts other teachings: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). As an isolated statement the assertion of salvation of grace may plausibly be interpreted to imply that sin is permitted. But given the whole context within which the doctrine of grace is nested, the implication that sin is a good thing appears not only unwarranted but ridiculous.

The law of dialectical change becomes operative when one party makes a strong affirmation (or negation) that evokes an opposing negation. In the previous paragraph, I asserted that no proposition of Christian doctrine can communicate its full truth and only that truth when asserted in isolation from the full range of doctrine. So when someone asserts an isolated proposition of doctrine as if it were unambiguous and absolutely true in isolation, our minds automatically begin the process of negation; we immediately see that this strong claim cannot be true. This mental process is both logical and psychological. It’s logical in that the very form of the words of an assertion of truth requires that the negation of that truth be false. An assertion always carries its negation along with it and smuggles it into our minds even against the speaker’s and the hearer’s intention. It is psychological in that strong assertions call up resistance to any person claiming such absolute and unambiguous knowledge. It seems a bit arrogant, and we can’t resist enjoying the humiliation of the arrogant.

Again, consider the proposition “We are saved by divine grace.” If this truth is asserted in isolation from other doctrine—because in isolation the statement is ambiguous, containing falsehood as well as truth— it could be taken to mean something like, “We will be saved by grace regardless of any other factor. Hence whether we sin much or little, intentionally or inadvertently, it matters not.” Suppose that we like Paul recoil against this permissive conclusion, but unlike Paul respond to the misuse of the doctrine simply by negating the proposition that we are saved by divine grace. In this case the law of dialectical change would become operative with a vengeance. A simple dialectical negation would also negate the truth that the statement “we are saved by grace” is intended to teach when set in its relation to the whole Christian faith. The simple negation would assert: “It is not the case that we are saved by grace.” In attempting to correct one distortion simple dialectical negation produces another, its mirror image.

A hundred years of logical progression and dialectical negation could move a church very far from where it is today. So I believe becoming aware of these processes is a first step toward preserving the continuity of faith between year 2013 and year 2113. Next time we will reflect on some positive strategies for preserving authentic Christian faith for our great, great grandchildren. To be continued…