On being loved

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‘If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

This is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility. But sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty but also in its very great and very simple dignity: created to be a child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and His unselfishness.

Both the poverty and the nobility of our inmost being consists in the fact that it is a capacity for love. It can be loved by God, and when it is loved by Him, it can respond to His love by imitation—it can turn to Him with gratitude and adoration and sorrow; it can turn to its neighbor with compassion and mercy and generosity.

The first step in this sincerity is the recognition that although we are worth little or nothing in ourselves, we are potentially worth very much, because we can hope to be loved by God. He does not love us because we are good, but we become good when and because He loves us. If we receive this love in all simplicity, the sincerity of our love for others will more or less take care of itself. Centered entirely upon the immense liberality that we experience in God’s love for us, we will never fear that His love could fail us. Strong in the confidence that we are loved by Him, we will not worry too much about the uncertainty of being loved by other men. I do not mean that we will be indifferent to their love for us: since we wish them to love in us the God Who loves them in us. But we will have to be anxious about their love, which in any case we do not expect to see too clearly in this life’.

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

[Image: Thomas Merton, right, poses with writer Wendell Berry, left and the poet Denise Levertov. Photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Institute 193 Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard. Source.]

‘Joy is the serious business of Heaven’

This morning I was at St Margaret’s in Frankton (part of the Wakatipu Community parish) where I met some wonderful folk, resisted going fishing, and preached on Luke 15:1–10. The sermon was partly inspired by these words on joy by CS Lewis, and those of Karl Barth on the miracle of the love of God:

‘I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?: No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven’. – CS Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Collins, 1977), 94–5.

‘God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of darkness. In His revelation it seeks and creates fellowship where there is no fellowship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … This does not mean that we can call the love of God a blind love. But what He sees when He loves is that which is altogether distinct from Himself, and as such lost in itself, and without Him abandoned to death. That He throws a bridge out from Himself to this abandoned one, that He is light in the darkness, is the miracle of the almighty love of God’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 278.

Here’s how I concluded:

If these two parables teach us anything at all about repentance, it is that the whole of our life is ‘finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other’ [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, 39]. The Gospel is the announcement that God finds us not in the garden of improvement but in the desert of death. It’s precisely from death that we are brought home. And these parables are about coming home. They speak to us about the nature of lostness, and about the necessity of experiencing lostness if we are to experience homecoming. ‘Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home’ [Marilynne Robinson, Home, 102]. So they teach us something about the nature of God.

They also give us a hint … of what history is about: that history is the time that God creates in order to find and to restore the lost. And, finally, these parables give us a hint about how that time will end, offering us every hope to believe that our stories do not end at the grave. Even hell is no obstacle, for this is a God who, in Jesus Christ, comes not only into the far country in search of us, but who also descends into the very depths of hell in order to carry us home. This is the God of relentless grace – the Hound of Heaven – and it is he and not death or any human decision who will decide how history ends. This is what it means to call God the judge of the living and the dead. Like the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34 who searches for the lost and rescues them from all the places where they are scattered, Jesus’ work is not done until all come home. He keeps seeking the lost, even in the grave. He seeks those who have refused his love. He seeks those who have abandoned his love. He seeks those who have never known of his love. He seeks those for whom life has ended prematurely. In Christ, there is no such thing as empty time, or ‘dead’ time, for all time is filled with Christ’s lordship over the living and the dead, and filled with experience of the Spirit who is the giver of life …

And here in Luke 15 we are given a picture of the nature of God, an insight into the purpose of history, and, I believe, a glimpse of how history ends, of how your life ends and my life ends – of how the lives of those we love and of those who have made life hell for us, will end – with celebration, with a banquet, with the extravagant joy with which God welcomes the found and eats with them, … with homecoming.

A love which overflows from fullness

The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (edited by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins) is a fascinating collection of essays from a theologically and ecumenically diverse group of scholars, including  NT Wright, Gordon Fee, Jean-Noël Aletti, Sarah Coakley, Stephen T. Davis, David Brown, and others. It also includes a piece by C. Stephen Evans in which he defends a brand of kenoticism, convinced (rightly in my view) that some form of kenotic christology does most justice to the NT’s accounts of Jesus and that it is possible to provide an account of kenoticism that does not in any way abrogate the claims of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. This is precisely what Evans sets out to do in this essay.

In conversation with Stephen Davis, Ronald Feenstra and Richard Swinburne (why does he go there?), Evans proposes that God’s gracious decision to enflesh – because it is a decision fully laden with soteriological intent – is necessarily best understood as a decision to assume certain limitations. This is the shape of love. Along the way, Evans cites this beautiful passage from W.H. Vanstone, among whose many further contributions, as Jim Gordon reminded us some years back, was to ‘sell the vicarage furniture to pay for the repair of the church roof!’ (Paul Fromont also posted some good stuff from Vanstone some time back). Anyway, enough waffle, here’s the quote:

‘Trinitarian theology asserts that God’s love for his creation is not the love that is born of ‘emptiness’ … It is the love which overflows from fullness. Its analogue is the love of a family who, united in mutual love, take an orphan into the home. They do so not out of need but in the pure spontaneity of their own triumphant love. Nevertheless, in the weeks that follow, the family, once complete in itself, comes to need the newcomer. Without him the circle is now incomplete; his absence now causes anxiety: his waywardness brings concern; his goodness and happiness are necessary to those who have come to love him; upon his response depends the triumph or the tragedy of the family’s love … Love has surrendered its triumphant self-sufficiency and created its own need. This is the supreme illustration of love’s self-giving or self-emptying – that it should surrender its fullness and create in itself the emptiness of need. Of such a nature is the Kenosis of God – the self-emptying of Him Who is already in every way fulfilled’. – William Hubert Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1977), 69.

What love has in view …

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‘For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object’. – George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II and III (Whitefish: Kessinger, 2004), 10.

Mercy comes to us through judgement

Just spent a long weekend up in the Scottish Highlands salmon fishing, watching my 2-year-old daughter ceaselessly enjoy herself, reading Denney’s brilliant commentary on 2 Corinthians, drinking great whisky, and enjoying the rich company of some special friends. Does it get any better than that! Anyway, in the spirit of sharing all good things, here’s just one (long) paragraph of Denney’s extended discussion on 5:18–21 that was too good not to share:

No one who has felt the power of this appeal will be very anxious to defend the Apostolic Gospel from the charges which are sometimes made against it. When he is told that it is impossible for the doom of sin to fall on the Sinless One, and that even if it were conceivable it would be frightfully immoral, he is not disquieted. He recognises in the moral contradictions of this text the surest sign that the secret of the Atonement is revealed in it: he feels that God’s work of reconciliation necessarily involves such an identification of sinlessness and sin. He knows that there is an appalling side to sin, and he is ready to believe that there is an appalling side to redemption also a side the most distant sight of which makes the proudest heart quail, and stops every mouth before God. He knows that the salvation which he needs must be one in which God’s mercy comes through, and not over. His judgment; and this is the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. But without becoming controversial on a subject on which more than on any other the temper of controversy is unseemly, reference may be made to the commonest form of objection to the apostolic doctrine, in the sincere hope that some one who has stumbled at that doctrine may see it more truly. The objection I refer to discredits propitiation in the alleged interest of the love of God. “We do not need,” the objectors say, “to propitiate an angry God. This is a piece of heathenism, of which a Christian ought to be ashamed. It is a libel on the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose name is love, and who waits to be gracious.” What are we to say to such words, which are uttered as boldly as if there were no possible reply, or rather as if the Apostles had never written, or had been narrow-minded unreceptive souls, who had not only failed to understand their Master, but had taught with amazing perversity the very opposite of what He taught on the most essential of all points the nature of God and His relation to sinful men? We must say this. It is quite true that we have not to propitiate an offended God: the very fact upon which the Gospel proceeds is that we cannot do any such thing. But it is not true that no propitiation is needed. As truly as guilt is a real thing, as truly as God’s condemnation of sin is a real thing, a propitiation is needed. And it is here, I think, that those who make the objection referred to part company, not only with St. Paul, but with all the Apostles. God is love, they say, and therefore He does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore He provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God s love to Paul and John? “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us … Him that knew no sin He made to be sin on our behalf” That is how they spoke in the beginning of the Gospel, and so let us speak. Nobody has any right to borrow the words “God is love” from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. Still less has any one a right to use them as an argument against the very thing in which the Apostles placed their meaning. But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel; it will cease to hold men s hearts with its original power when the reconciliation which is preached through it contains the mercy, but not the judgment of God. Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment’. (pp. 200-2)

The Triumph of God’s Love in Jesus Christ

‘Christ, the gift of God’s present forgiving love to every man and woman, is the door through which alone we can enter into our provision of hope. Until we know the love of our Father’s heart to us, as manifested in Christ, the future must always be to us at best a dark and doubtful wilderness. But when we know that all that we have conceived of our Father’s love, is as nothing to the reality – that he is indeed love itself – a love passing knowledge – a shoreless, boundless, bottomless ocean-fountain of love, of holy, sin-hating, sin-destroying love, which longs over us that we should be filled with itself – and be by it delivered from the power of evil – then, indeed, we are saved by hope, for we know that love must triumph and fulfill all its counsel’. Thomas Erskine, The Brazen Serpent; or, Life Coming Through Death (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1879), 122.

On Forgiveness and Majesty

All human life is constituted by forgiveness. Such forgiveness is both costly and difficult – for both offerer and receiver. Costly, because the telos is not to be drawn into a situation of truce but reconciliation, trust and love. Difficult, because two estranged parties are moved from a place of dissatisfaction and what has often become a strange comfort of calloused survival towards a place of new vulnerability, raw tenderness and tentative hope.

‘If forgiveness lies in the memory of wrongs suffered’, writes Miroslav Volf in The End of Memory, ‘it must lie more in what we do with those memories than in the memories themselves. And what we do with our memories will depend on how we see ourselves in the present and how we project ourselves into the future’. I was reminded afresh today in this podcast of the value for human community of Volf’s theological reflections on remembering rightly, on forgiveness, and on truthfulness as a form of justice.

I was also reminded of those haunting words from Simon Wiesenthal’s pen in his significant essay, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness: It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future’ (pp. 267–8).

One, of course, cannot stop there; but must proceed to inquire after the fountain – or source, or justification itself – of such forgiveness. Such asking will bring us – even if it takes eternity to do it – face to face with the true nature of divine majesty which is neither material vastness nor the majesty of force, neither the majesty of mystery nor the majesty of thought. The true majesty of God is his mercy. The true majesty of God is that he did what we would never have done – he had mercy on all flesh. His greatness is not in his loftiness, but in his nearness. God is great not because he is above feeling, but because he feels as none of us can. The majesty of God is completely saturated through and through with his forgiving love, which comes out most of all in his treatment of sin … his treatment of those who would wish him dead.

The Good News of Psalm 22

God, God…my God! Why did you dump me
miles from nowhere?
Doubled up with pain, I call to God
all the day long. No answer. Nothing.
I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.

And you! Are you indifferent, above it all,
leaning back on the cushions of Israel’s praise?
We know you were there for our parents:
they cried for your help and you gave it;
they trusted and lived a good life.

And here I am, a nothing—an earthworm,
something to step on, to squash.
Everyone pokes fun at me;
they make faces at me, they shake their heads:
”Let’s see how God handles this one;
since God likes him so much, let him help him!”

And to think you were midwife at my birth,
setting me at my mother’s breasts!
When I left the womb you cradled me;
since the moment of birth you’ve been my God.
Then you moved far away
and trouble moved in next door.
I need a neighbor.

Herds of bulls come at me,
the raging bulls stampede,
Horns lowered, nostrils flaring,
like a herd of buffalo on the move.

I’m a bucket kicked over and spilled,
every joint in my body has been pulled apart.
My heart is a blob
of melted wax in my gut.
I’m dry as a bone,
my tongue black and swollen.
They have laid me out for burial
in the dirt.

Now packs of wild dogs come at me;
thugs gang up on me.
They pin me down hand and foot,
and lock me in a cage—a bag
Of bones in a cage, stared at
by every passerby.
They take my wallet and the shirt off my back,
and then throw dice for my clothes.

You, God—don’t put off my rescue!
Hurry and help me!
Don’t let them cut my throat;
don’t let those mongrels devour me.
If you don’t show up soon,
I’m done for—gored by the bulls,
meat for the lions.

Here’s the story I’ll tell my friends when they come to worship,
and punctuate it with Hallelujahs:
Shout Hallelujah, you God-worshipers;
give glory, you sons of Jacob;
adore him, you daughters of Israel.
He has never let you down,
never looked the other way
when you were being kicked around.
He has never wandered off to do his own thing;
he has been right there, listening.

Here in this great gathering for worship
I have discovered this praise-life.
And I’ll do what I promised right here
in front of the God-worshipers.
Down-and-outers sit at God’s table
and eat their fill.
Everyone on the hunt for God
is here, praising him.
”Live it up, from head to toe.
Don’t ever quit!”

From the four corners of the earth
people are coming to their senses,
are running back to God.
Long-lost families
are falling on their faces before him.
God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.

All the power-mongers are before him
—worshiping!
All the poor and powerless, too
—worshiping!
Along with those who never got it together
—worshiping!

Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news—
that God does what he says.

(HT: The Dancing God)

Jacques Ellul on hell and the grace of God

‘I am taking up here a basic theme that I have dealt with elsewhere but which is so essential that I have no hesitation in repeating myself. It is the recognition that all people from the beginning of time are saved by God in Jesus Christ, that they have all been recipients of his grace no matter what they have done.

This is a scandalous proposition. It shocks our spontaneous sense of justice. The guilty ought to be punished. How can Hitler and Stalin be among the saved? The just ought to be recognized as such and the wicked condemned. But in my view this is purely human logic which simply shows that there is no understanding of salvation by grace or of the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. The proposition also runs counter to the almost unanimous view of theology. Some early theologians proclaimed universal salvation but almost all the rest finally rejected it. Great debates have taken place about foreknowledge and predestination, but in all of them it has been taken for granted that reprobation is normal.

A third and the most serious objection to the thesis is posed by the biblical texts themselves. Many of these talk about condemnation, hell, banishment into outer darkness, and the punishment of robbers, fornicators, idolaters, etc. As we proceed we must overcome these obstacles and examine the theological reasons which lead me to believe in universal salvation, the texts that seem to be against it, and a possible solution.

But I want to stress that I am speaking about belief in universal salvation. This is for me a matter of faith. I am not making a dogma or a principle of it. I can say only what

I believe, not pretending to teach it doctrinally as the truth.

1. God Is love

My first simple thesis is that if God is God, the Almighty, the Creator of all things, the Omnipresent, then we can think of no place or being whatever outside him. If there were a place outside him, God would not be all in all, the Creator of all things. How can we think of him creating a place or being where he is not present? What, then, about hell? Either it is in God, in which case he is not universally good, or it is outside him, hell having often been defined as the place where God is not. But the latter is completely unthinkable.

One might simply say that hell is merely nothingness. The damned are those who are annihilated. But there is a difficulty here too. Nothingness does not exist in the Bible. It is a philosophical and mathematical concept. We can represent it only by a mathematical sign. God did not create ex nihilo, out of nothing. Genesis 1:2 speaks of tohu wabohu (“desert and wasteland” RSV “formless and void’) or of tehom (“the deep’). This is not nothing.

Furthermore, the closest thing to nothingness seems to be death. But the Bible speaks about enemies, that is, the great serpent, death, and the abyss, which are aggressors against God’s creation and are seeking to destroy it. These are enemies against which God protects his creation. He cannot allow that which he has created and called good to be destroyed, disorganized, swallowed up, and slain. This creation of God cannot revert to nothing. Death cannot issue in nothingness. This would be a negation of God himself, and this is why the first aspect seems to me to be decisive. Creation is under constant threat and is constantly upheld.

How could God himself surrender to nothingness and to the enemy that which he upholds in face and in spite of everything? How could he allow a power of destruction and annihilation in his creation? If he cannot withstand the force of nothingness, then we have to resort to dualism (a good God and a bad God in conflict and equal), to Zoroastrianism. Many are tempted to dualism today. But if God is unique, if he alone has life in himself, he cannot permit this threat to the object of his love.

But it is necessary that “the times be accomplished,” the times when we are driven into a corner and have to serve either the impotence of the God of love or the power of the forces of destruction and annihilation. We have to wait until humanity has completed its history and creation, and every possibility has been explored. This does not merely imply, however, that at the end of time the powers of destruction, death, the great serpent, Satan, the devil, will be annihilated, but much more. How can we talk about nothingness when we receive the revelation of this God who will be all in all? When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself also will be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).

If God is, he is all in all. There is no more place for nothingness. The word is an empty one. For Christians it is just as empty as what it is supposed to denote. Philosophers speak in vain about something that they can only imagine or use as a building block, but which has no reality of any kind.

The second and equally essential factor is that after Jesus Christ we know that God is love. This is the central revelation. How can we conceive of him who is love ceasing to love one of his creatures? How can we think that God can cease to love the creation that he has made in his own image? This would be a contradiction in terms. God cannot cease to be love.

If we combine the two theses we see at once that nothing can exist outside God’s love, for God is all in all. It is unthinkable that there should exist a place of suffering, of torment, of the domination of evil, of beings that merely hate since their only function is to torture. It is astounding that Christian theology should not have seen at a glance how impossible this idea is. Being love, God cannot send to hell the creation which he so loved that he gave his only Son for it. He cannot reject it because it is his creation. This would be to cut off himself.

A whole theological trend advances the convenient solution that God is love but also justice. He saves the elect to manifest his love and condemns the reprobate to manifest his justice. My immediate fear is that this solution does not even correspond to our idea of justice and that we are merely satisfying our desire that people we regard as terrible should be punished in the next world. This view is part of the mistaken theology which declares that the good are unhappy on earth but will be happy in heaven, whereas the wicked are successful on earth but will be punished in the next world. Unbelievers have every reason to denounce this explanation as a subterfuge designed to make people accept what happens on earth. The kingdom of God is not compensation for this world.

Another difficulty is that we are asked to see God with two faces as though he were a kind of Janus facing two ways. Such a God could not be the God of Jesus Christ, who has only one face. Crucial texts strongly condemn two-faced people who go two different ways. These are the ones that Jesus Christ calls hypocrites. If God is doubleminded, there is duplicity in him. He is a hypocrite. We have to choose: He is either love or he is justice. He is not both. If he is the just judge, the pitiless Justiciar, he is not the God that Jesus Christ has taught us to love.

Furthermore, this conception is a pure and simple denial of Jesus Christ. For the doctrine is firm that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died and was willing to die for human sin to redeem us all: I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32), satisfying divine justice. All the evil done on earth from Adam’s break with God undoubtedly has to be judged and punished. But all our teaching about Jesus is there to remind us that the wrath of God fell entirely on him, on God in the person of the Son. God directs his justice upon himself; he has taken upon himself the condemnation of our wickedness.

What would be the point, then, of a second condemnation of individuals? Was the judgment passed on Jesus insufficient? Was the price that was paid-the punishment of the Son of God-too low to meet the demands of God’s justice? This justice is satisfied in God and by God for us. From this point on, then, we know only the face of the love of God.

This love is not sentimental acquiescence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). God’s love is demanding, “jealous,” total, and indivisible. Love has a stern face, not a soft one. Nevertheless, it is love. And in any case this love excludes double predestination, some to salvation and others to perdition. It is inconceivable that the God of Jesus Christ, who gives himself in his Son to save us, should have created some people ordained to evil and damnation. There is indeed a predestination, but it can be only the one predestination to salvation. In and through Jesus Christ all people are predestined to be saved. Our free choice is ruled out in this regard. We have often said that God wants free people. He undoubtedly does, except in relation to this last and definitive decision. We are not free to decide and choose to be damned. To say that God presents us with the good news of the gospel and then leaves the final issue to our free choice either to accept it and be saved or to reject it and be lost is foolish. To take this point of view is to make us arbiters of the situation. In this case it is we who finally decide our own salvation.

This view reverses a well-known thesis and would have it that God proposes and man disposes. Without question we all know of innumerable cases in which people reject revelation. Swarms are doing so today. But have they any real knowledge of revelation? If I look at countless presentations of the Word of God by the churches, I can say that the churches have presented many ideas and commandments that have nothing whatever to do with God’s revelation. Rejecting these things, human commandments, is not the same as rejecting the truth. And even if the declaration or proclamation of the gospel is faithful, it does not itself force a choice upon us.

If people are to recognize the truth, they must also have the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. These two things are indispensable, the faithful declaration of the gospel, the good news, by a human being and the inner witness in the hearer of the Holy Spirit, who conveys the assurance that it is the truth of God. The one does not suffice without the other. Thus when those who hear refuse our message, we can never say that they have chosen to disobey God.

The human and divine acts are one and the same only in the Word of Jesus. When he told his hearers not to be unbelieving but to believe, if they refused then they were rejected. In our case, however, we cannot say that there is an act of the Holy Spirit simultaneously with our proclamation. This may well be the point of the well-known text about the one sin that cannot be pardoned, the sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 12:31-32). But we can never know whether anyone has committed it. However that may be, it is certain that being saved or lost does not depend on our own free decision.

I believe that all people are included in the grace of God. I believe that all the theologies that have made a large place for damnation and hell are unfaithful to a theology of grace. For if there is predestination to perdition, there is no salvation by grace. Salvation by grace is granted precisely to those who without grace would have been lost. Jesus did not come to seek the righteous and the saints, but sinners. He came to seek those who in strict justice ought to have been condemned.

A theology of grace implies universal salvation. What could grace mean if it were granted only to some sinners and not to others according to an arbitrary decree that is totally contrary to the nature of our God? If grace is granted according to the greater or lesser number of sins, it is no longer grace – it is just the opposite because of this accountancy. Paul is the very one who reminds us that the enormity of the sin is no obstacle to grace: Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20).

This is the key statement. The greater the sin, the more God’s love reveals itself to be far beyond any judgment or evaluation of ours. This grace covers all things. It is thus effectively universal.

I do not think that in regard to this grace we can make the Scholastic distinctions between prevenient grace, expectant grace, conditional grace, etc. Such adjectives weaken the thrust of the free grace of the absolute sovereign, and they result only from our great difficulty in believing that God has done everything.

But this means that nothing in his creation is excluded or lost’.

Jacques Ellul, What I Believe (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 188-92.

Regained: A Poem

Light

Not overcome

Good gifts taken

Naked – unashamed they were

Could it ever be regained?

Stripped, bearing shame vicariously

Holy wrath extinguished

Father’s love

New

           New

© Jason Goroncy, 2008

Advent Reflection 12: Not an ethereal figure

‘So deeply is this need [for love] rooted in human nature, and so essentially does it belong to being human, that even he who was one with the Father and in the communion of love with the Father and the Spirit, he who loved the whole human race, our Lord Jesus Christ, even he humanly felt this need to love and be loved by an individual human being. He is indeed the God-man and thus eternally different from every human being, but still he was also a true human being, tested in everything human. On the other hand, the fact that he experienced this is the very expression of its belonging essentially to a human being. He was an actual human being and therefore can participate in everything human. He was not an ethereal figure that beckoned in the clouds without understanding or wanting to understand what humanly befalls a human being. Ah, no, he could have compassion on the crowd that lacked food, and purely humanly, he who himself had hungered in the desert. In the same way he could also sympathize with people in this need to love and to be loved, sympathize purely humanly’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; vol. 16; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 155.

Advent Reflection 9: Going the Whole Way

The cross was the reflection (or say rather the historic pole) of an act within Godhead. The historic victory was the index and the correlate of a choice grid a conquest in Godhead itself. Nothing less will carry the fulness of faith, the swelling soul, and the Church’s organ voice of liturgy in every land and age. If our thought do not allow that belief we must reduce the pitch of faith to something plain, laic, and songless, and, in making it more homely, make it less holy, less absolute, less adoring. The adoration of Christ can only go with this view of Him in the long run. Nothing lower takes with due seriousness the superhuman value of the soul, the unearthliness of our salvation, and its last conquest of the whole world. It would reduce the unworldly value of the soul if it could be saved by anything less than a Christ before the worlds. It came upon me, as upon many at the first it must have mightily done, that His whole life was not simply occupied with a series of decisions crucial for our race, or filled with a great deed then first done; but that that life of His was itself the obverse of a heavenly eternal deed, and the result of a timeless decision before it here began. His emergence on earth was as it were the swelling in of heaven. His sacrifice began before He came into the world, and his cross was that of a lamb slain before the world’s foundation. There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all, His obedience, however impressive, does not take divine magnitude if it first rose upon earth, nor has it the due compelling power upon ours. His obedience as man was but the detail of the supreme obedience which made him man. His love transcends all human measure only if, out of love, he renounced the glory of heavenly being for all he here became. Only then could one grasp the full stay and comfort of words like these “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Unlike us, he chose the oblivion of birth and the humiliation of life. He consented not only to die but to be born. His life here, like His death which pointed it, was the result of his free will. It was all one death for him. It was all one obedience. And it was free. He was rich and for our sakes became poor. What he gave up was the fulness, power, and immunity of a heavenly life. He became “a man from heaven.”’ – Peter T. Forsyth, The Person & Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909 (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales/Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 270–2.

The Great Word of Gospel

‘The great Word of Gospel is not God is love. That is too stationary, too little energetic. It produces a religion unable to cope with crises. But the Word is this—Love is omnipotent for ever because it is holy. That is the voice of Christ-raised from the midst of time, and its chaos, and its convulsions, yet coming from the depths of eternity, where the Son dwells in the bosom of the Father, the Son to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth because He overcame the world in a Cross holier than love itself, more tragic, more solemn, more dynamic than all earth’s wars. The key to history is the historic Christ above history and in command of it, and there is no other’. –– Peter T. Forsyth, The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy (London: Independent Press, 1957), 217–8.

Bonhoeffer on the Love of God

On the 5th of September 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer left his native Germany for his first visit to the USA. In his first sermon before his American audience, Bonhoeffer chose to speak on 1 John 4:16, the love of God. Part of that address included these words:

Under the cross of Christ we know that we all belong to one another, that we all are brethren and sisters in the same need and in the same hope, that we are bound together by the same destiny, human beings with all our suffering and all our joys, with sorrows and with desires, with disappointments and fulfilments – and most important, human beings with our sin and guilt, with our faith and hope. Before the cross of Christ and his inconceivable suffering all our external differences disappear, we are no longer rich or poor, wise or simple, good or bad; we are no longer Americans or Germans, we are one large congregation of brethren; we recognise that nobody is good before God, as Paul says: ‘For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace.’ Let us look at the love of Christ, who without guilt bore the cross – why? Because he had loved his people more than himself. And then let us consider our own feebleness and our own want of courage, our anxiety when sorrow and grief threaten, our selfish desire to live a comfortable and careless life. In profound and serious abashment we Christian people must confess that we are not worthy of such great love of God.’ – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes 1928-1936 from the Collected Works, Volume 1 (ed. E. H. Robertson; trans. J. Bowden; London: Harper & Row, 1970), 73.

Trinity Sunday: Some Thoughts

‘Have you an infant child? … You have no need of amulets or incantations, with which the Devil also comes in, stealing worship from God for himself in the minds of vainer men. Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble Guard’. – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 15, 365.

‘Worship the Trinity, which I call the only true devotion and saving doctrine’. – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 43, 405.

‘The impotence of which many complain in the Church of the hour is not unconnected with the relegation of the doctrine of the Trinity to a theological appendix, even when it is not denied … And, on the other hand, the joy and the up–lifting that we have in meditating on the revealed depths of the Triune God is part of the blessedness which is the Church’s consummation; and it gives us that self–possession of the holy which both inspires and preserves us among our best activities for man’s weal. Such a doctrine, full as it is of difficulties for mere thought, when it is taken with serious depth by a Church of faith answers more difficulties than it creates. And such truth should be matter of adoration rather than criticism to an intelligence which is not merely exercised in speculation, but itself converted to the manner and movement of the Eternal Mind as it is revealed in Christ’. – PT Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, 230-1.

‘Not although God is Father and Son, but because God is Father and Son, unity exists [in the Godhead]. So God, as He who establishes Himself, who exists through Himself, as God in His deity, is in Himself different and yet in Himself alike. And for that very reason He is not lonely in Himself. He does not need the world. All the riches of life, all fullness of action and community exists in Himself, since He is the Triune [One]. He is movement and He is rest. Hence it can be claimed to us that all that He is on our behalf – that He is the Creator, that He has given us Himself in Jesus Christ and that He has united us to Himself in the Holy Spirit – is His free grace, the overflow of His fullness. Not owed to us, but overflowing mercy!’ – Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 44.

1. God is love! The Father is love and the Son is the Son of His love,
The Son in this true love wants only to do all that pleases the Father above,
The Spirit of love from the Father above pours out all of this love in the Son—
So the Father, the Son and the Spirit all love and together in love they are one,
Yes, the Father, the Son and the Spirit all love and together in love they are one.

2. God is love! A river of fire that can never be quenched or run dry,
A love full and free that for eternity could not be just kept up on high:
The Father, the Son and the Spirit all love and together in love they are one,
And the love was spilled over to make all creation so others could join in the fun—
Yes, the love was spilled over to make all creation so others could join in the fun!

3. God is love! Now look at that love in the earth and the sky and the sea!
All of God’s creatures in wondrous profusion all being what they’re meant to be:
The plants and the animals, fish and the birds, and the wonderful woman and man.
All in order and harmony, working in love to partake in God’s glorious plan!
Yes, in order and harmony, working in love to partake in God’s glorious plan.

4. God is love! And in that great love which God had before all things began,
The Father of love with the Spirit and Son set out on this glorious plan:
To make a new Heavens and Earth and a Family full of the fire of His love
Where the children of God in the Spirit and Son would be one with the Father above.
Yes, the children of God in the Spirit and Son would be one with the Father above.

5. God is love! And sure of that love He created in love you and me
So whatever happened His love would prevail and we still could His Family be.
In spite of God’s love and against His goodwill we determined from God’s love to stray.
So then through all the pain God’s love could come again in a deeper, more wonderful way.
Yes, then through all the pain God’s love could come again in a deeper, more wonderful way.

6. God is love! And through all the ages of sin and of shame and of fear
God’s judgements on evil and words of His grace made all of His purposes clear:
To raise up a people to honour His love and declare all His praises on high
Till the children God promised to Abraham’s offspring outnumber the stars in the sky—
Yes, the children God promised to Abraham’s offspring outnumber the stars in the sky.

7. God is love! And when the time came as foretold in God’s glorious plan
The Son of His love from the Father above became everlastingly Man:
Poured all of Himself into our humble flesh so with us He would ever be one
As the brightness and image and fullness of God in the Father’s beloved only Son—
Yes, the brightness and image and fullness of God in the Father’s beloved only Son!

8. God is love! Messiah has come and God’s glory shines out from His face
As Christ by the Spirit goes driving out evil and pouring out grace upon grace
Till hung on a cross and abandoned by all, bearing all of the guilt of our sin,
There He glorified all of the love of the Father to bring all the Family in—
Yes, He glorified all of the love of the Father to bring all the Family in.

9. God is love! And out of the darkness God causes His brightness to shine,
Gives life to the dead and raises them up by the power of His Spirit divine.
He raised up Christ Jesus and lifted Him up to the heavenly places above
To make Him the firstborn of many such children redeemed by the power of His love.
Yes, to make Him the firstborn of many such children redeemed by the power of His love.

10. God is love! And see now His people forgiven and made all His own,
And see now Christ Jesus as Lord over all bringing everything up to His throne!
The Spirit is given, the word is sent out, earthly kingdoms now tremble and fall.
And the children stream in through the heavenly gates for the Father to be all in all—
Yes, the children stream in through the heavenly gates for the Father to be all in all!

– Martin Bleby, New Creation Hymn Book Volume 2, 281

The Painting: William Blake’s, ‘The Sketch of the Trinity’. God the Father, under the wings of the dove-like Holy Ghost, accepts the Son’s offer to give his life for man. The figure of Satan hovers below the clouds. Image taken from Notebook of William Blake. Originally published/produced in England; circa 1787-1818.