In Part 1 of this series, we considered a common misinterpretation of the gospel message, and asked how it could come about, and what we might do about it. The following is my answer to that question.
Where We Led Fred Astray
Fred is missing a right view of God, and it’s our fault. See, we tend to address Fred’s answer to the diagnostic question as though it were all a matter of technique. We present a god who has padlocked the gates to heaven, and hidden the key under a rock somewhere. Fred, depending on being a good person, has the wrong key. If he tries to put that key in the lock, the door won’t open, and he’ll go to hell. We, believing in Jesus’ death on our behalf and His promise of life, have the right key. The lock will open, and the stingy god will have to let us in. Let’s just face it: any view where your salvation depends on you finding the right answer is just another form of salvation by works. Theological works instead of moral ones, maybe—but works nonetheless.
This whole picture is fundamentally wrong, because it builds on a fundamentally flawed view of God. “Yahweh by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.” This is not a God that could be tricked into saving us. If He didn’t want to save us, he wouldn’t, and no technique of ours would ever force His hand.
But what does the Scripture say? “All day long,” Yahweh says, “I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” He is not reluctant to save; He seeks us. “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” We do not get saved because of a technique, any technique. We get saved because He saves us, and for no other reason. He reaches out to us and we trust Him; He promises us life and we believe; He became flesh and dwelt among us, and as many as receive Him become sons of God.
How To Make It Right
So how do we fix our gospel presentation? First and most obvious, don’t use that diagnostic question. As the prologue of John’s Gospel does, present the true story: God is not waiting for us to come force His hand, He is reaching out to us, and we have rejected Him. “He came unto His own, and His own did not receive Him.”
Once Fred understands that God is eager to save him, the whole story takes on a different tone. God sought him; has always sought him, but Fred has fled from God. We do not appeal to Fred to adopt a different technique for saving himself; instead we appeal to him to stop running away from the loving God that seeks and saves the lost. We should seek to convince Fred of God’s love for him, because it is that love that will move Fred to love God: “We love Him because He first loved us.” Thus Fred will find, not a stingy god who must be forced to let anyone into heaven, but Yahweh, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He will find the Father of the prodigal son, who runs to embrace him and kills the fatted calf in his honor, even though he couldn’t possibly deserve it any less. He finds Jesus, the Second Person of this Triune God, seeking a relationship with him, and willingly dying Fred’s death, so that Fred can find life and healing, so that Fred will be able to stop running from God. This is a God Fred will trust, and when that God promises to save him, Fred will believe the promise.
How do we convince Fred that God loves him? Certainly we can tell him the story, and we should. But even if we tell it well, is the story really credible? Has Fred ever seen anything, in his whole life, to suggest to him that such love is anything more than a fairy tale?
Jesus once prayed for a solution to this problem.
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
In other words, the answer is something you learned in kindergarten: show and tell. Fred will believe in the love of God when he sees it lived out in the unity of Christ’s Body. Christ is in us; as we allow Him to live through us, His love will permeate our lives and unify us with one another. For Fred, that won’t just be a pretty story, too good to be true. It will be an incredible, undeniable, breathtaking fact: God’s love will be right before his eyes, and he will know that God loves him just as God loved Christ.
If you let Christ live through you, this is what Fred will see. So it’s not just about correcting what you say, important as that is. Does your life slander God and give Fred reason to believe that He is stingy, angry, picky, and mean? Or does it present Fred with the persuasive evidence that Jesus prayed for?
. . . Christ is in us; as we allow Him to live through us, His love will permeate our lives and unify us with one another . . . . If you let Christ live through you, this is what Fred will see and thus the righteousness of God is revealed by faith (Rom 1:17) to each other and to the dying world around us (1:18ff).
Now that’s a spicy gospel (1:1, 16)!
Hmmm, been pondering the idea of a salvation of theological works since you posted this, but I haven’t had time to comment. It is painful to imagine that constant striving after the right theology really is no better than traditional works-based forms, especially to those of us who like having right answers:).
Two verses have come to mind as I read this. I Cor. 13:1-2 and James 1:27. The idea that even if I had all knowledge (perfect theology) and could speak it perfectly it would be useless without the love aspect and the idea of undefiled religion to be loving people in their “affliction”. These things only happen when I am tapped into “The Vine” and allowing His life to flow from me. This happens in relationship not in giving assent to a set of right facts. As you pointed out, this only happens when my “flawed” view of God is corrected. I can’t pour out to others, what I don’t have in me.
Unfortunately, this personal knowledge of who God is tends to get corrected best by the disillusionment that circumstances bring and often the harshness of life. Our own trials serve to make the message of our lives credible as those we are seeking to love see true life lived out in us. This is the messy part. It would be much easier to be able to use a formula than to have to walk in the mess along with people and in that way show them who God is.
Working toward a correct theology is no better or worse than working toward correct deeds. As paths to relationship with God, or earning His favor, they’re both equally disastrous, the one falling into moralism and the other into gnosticism–both ways of using a readily comprehensible formula to hold God at arm’s length. We tend to equate “legalism” with “moralism,” but our conservative evangelical obsession with doctrinal precision and correctness (which is to say, our fall into gnosticism) is equally legalistic. It just measures by intellectual, rather than moral, criteria.
If we really believe that Yahweh is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him, then we also must believe that when we take a wrong turn that leads us away from God rather than toward Him, we didn’t do it by accident. Making an intellectual or moral error in judgment is one thing. We’re all finite and fallen; it happens. Sometimes it takes a while to realize we’ve wandered down the wrong path. But all too often when we flee into a moral straightjacket or a doctrinal castle in the air, it’s not a well-intentioned mistake in seeking God. It’s running away from our Father, who stretches out His hands to us, in favor of an idol of our own devising. We find ourselves mired in one dead end or another because when we came to the fork in the road, we saw the Light, and preferred the darkness. God is not far from us; He is not hard to find, if it’s Him we really want. He’s hard to want.
But when we want Him, when we trust Him, when we hunger and thirst, not for weapons to hold Him at bay, but for His Kingdom and His righteousness, then the good deeds and the good doctrine become an expression of His life overflowing in us. Not the path to the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit.
When the world (Fred), sees this perfected/completed unity, it is to know that God sent Christ & has loved us.
How does the world recognize this unity? What does it look like? How does it express itself? What’s at the core of it? Where is it en masse? Does it look any different than some friendly social clubs?
How do you get to unity based upon love here? Not that I think you can’t, but how do you?
What is biblical love? How is it defined? Does it have an objective, a focus, among mankind? How does the world know when a person is manifesting the love of Christ, God’s love, love for Christ, love for God, love for fellow-believers, love for neighbor, biblical love?
Can we give Fred any criteria? Can we explain to him what biblical love looks like? Is it different than human viewpoint love? What will he see in this biblical completed unity that makes it so identifiable?
Hope this isn’t an indication of seeking doctrinal precision (aka Gnosticism?).
Hope you’re well.
I’m not opposed to precision except in the same way that I’m opposed to giving — wonderful as a fruit of the Spirit, a disaster as a bridge to God.
Your questions deserve a careful and thoughtful response, which may take a few days — it looks to be a busy weekend. In the meantime, I wanted you to know I’m not ignoring you.
“If we really believe that Yahweh is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him, then we also must believe that when we take a wrong turn that leads us away from God rather than toward Him, we didn’t do it by accident.”
This is a powerful statement! Certainly, if we are walking in what the Bible says, we believe that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. This is certainly the opposite view of the God demonstrated to Fred in your post. The word “if” has a lot of meaning here as what I truly take to heart does have an effect on my actions. This one is tough for me as I was raised with the view of a harsh God very like the one demonstrated to Fred. When I can get my mind bent around the fact that God truly loves me as I am and wants a relationship with me, it is easier to extend that to the Freds that I come in contact with. It also becomes easier to extend forgiveness to myself for the willful wrong turns and “Idols of my own devising” you refer to above. This is still a difficult message in our world as the idea of being held accountable for our choices is so pass’e.
That being said, the one question I have about your response is that I want to know what you mean by the statement “God is not far from us; He is not hard to find, if it’s Him we really want. He’s hard to want.” The first part is clear enough, but I want to hear further thoughts on why you would say God is hard to want. How can a loving God be hard to want? Looking forward to further discussion.
I know you are working on Gary’s questions, so no hurry on my end. Have a good weekend!
Didn’t wind up having to run a 3-hour errand this morning — hallelujah! — so I have time today after all.
Fred doesn’t need us to teach him criteria for identifying biblical love, that’s the beauty of it. This is not to say that he’ll process it logically (“This is love, and divine love at that, therefore this doctrine must also be from God”) — nothing so cognitive. It may not make any sense to him — in fact, I expect it won’t. But it will be attractive, and he’ll keep coming back to it. (I’d submit the relationship between David Wilkerson and Nicky Cruz as portrayed in The Cross and the Switchblade or Run, Baby, Run! as an example of this.) Fred is made to need real love, so it calls to him whether he can recognize it rationally or not.
The same is true for biblical unity. The premise of Jesus’ prayer is that it will be readily recognizable (otherwise, what would be its evidentiary value?). I’m not sure how to define all the differences, but I’ve seen them firsthand with the One Church here in Englewood, and the community recognized the differences as well. The community is pleased when social gatherings go well, but the community here was awed by 13 evangelical churches celebrating Pentecost together in a united service. We’ve done it two years running now, and fruit keeps rolling in.
Practically speaking, I’m just not concerned with explaining to an unbeliever what biblical love and unity look like. Jesus doesn’t pray that we’ll describe unity, so that the world will recognize Him. He prays that we’ll be one. Fred doesn’t need to hear about unity; he needs to see it. I’m concerned with making sure there’s something there to see.
Love is a major portion of this unity. My first line of argument would just be dirt-level pragmatic: I’ve seen this kind of unity in action firsthand, and there’s just so much that can destroy it — having a vision for unity is easy, but it takes incredible amounts of love and forgiveness and patience to even have a sliver of a chance at success. If we don’t love one another, we can’t possibly manage the kind of unity Jesus is talking about, and if you don’t believe me, try it. 😉
But there’s also a textual argument that arises when you consider the upper room discourse as a whole. Love figures prominently in the early portions of the discourse and is entwined with perichoresis (14:23) and the world’s recognition of Jesus for who He is, and us for His disciples (13:35, 14:31). As the argument culminates in the prayer at the end of John 17, Jesus pulls love back in (see vv.23, 26). At the higher level of the outline, love is utterly inseparable from unity, but unity is not directly commanded; it’s something that happens when we obey the new commandment to love one another.
As to defining biblical love: as far as I know, the Bible never defines it. But it give us story-models (above all, the Cross/Resurrection/Ascension) and descriptions (above all, 1 Cor. 13). Real love is that which harmonizes with the Story and lives up to the descriptions.
Hope this is a helpful answer, and that it finds you and yours well.
I’d say that all this comes pretty directly out of Rom. 1-2, in which the reason we don’t find God is not ignorance or misunderstanding, but because He’s shown Himself to us and we don’t like what we see.
God is hard to want because in order to accept being loved all the way to your core, you have to be willing to accept being known all the way to your core. Ever since the Fall, we spend our whole lives instinctively trying to hold enough fig leaves together to cover our nakedness. “All things are naked and open to Him” is ultimately good news (because He loves us), but many people experience it as bad news first, and the love comes as a surprise.
This doesn’t go away with the new birth, either. Haven’t you ever had the experience of suddenly realizing that someone really sees some deeply buried sin in you, something you were only half aware of until someone else saw it, and felt the instinctive rush of shame at what they see? (Even if you know they love you and forgive you?)
I do know what you are talking about. My husband often sees things deep within me that are painful when exposed and the initial conversation can be even more painful often because I react with anger and defensiveness. Ultimately, I come to see what he sees, probably, in part, because I am so convinced of his love for me and I know he is only bringing it up because he wants better things for me. Marriage is such a great example of our relationship with God!
There are places where the analogy is flawed, however. One of them is the aspect of wrath. I was raised with a sort of “God is going to get you” mentality. While I am afraid to disappoint my husband and cause harm to our relationship, I am NOT afraid of his wrath. This is not true of God and I have lived my whole life in fear of His punishment. Only in recent years, with my exposure to FG, have I been able to function with a more Biblical view of who God is and how much He loves me. This has allowed me to have less fear and give myself the incredible freedom that comes from not having to be perfect to ensure God’s love.
FG theology has become almost an addiction to me as I want so much to see all the broken people in my life be able to walk out into the freedom that I have experienced. They are so reluctant to hear the truth and take it to heart. I think some of it may be ignorance and misunderstanding, as you propose above, but I also think that you have pointed out that it is also fear. We, as Americans, are taught to question anything that seems to be free (as in of no cost to us) and that anything that sounds too good to be true, most definately is. The FG Gospel that you have talked about so often fits into both of these catagories. I also think that part of it is that we want to know that we have some control in our initial salvation beyond just accepting the gift. I am of the opinion that this is one of the reasons that works-based forms of the Gospel are so popular and why the COSF battle is so heated. Just my opinion.