Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why I Left Calvinism

Having grown up in the Southern Presbyterian tradition, I was taught the five points of Calvinism from my mother’s womb. I memorized the children’s catechism early on and very nearly finished memorizing the famed Shorter Catechism itself—but one can only take so much. After my college days, I worked for a while within the ‘truly reformed’ community as a campus minister’s assistant, studying everything I could get my hands on related to the glorious ‘doctrines of grace.’ And yes, to my shame I taught Calvinism as the truth of the gospel. Although rigorously logical and thoroughly biblical, in a curious sort of way, somewhere inside I always knew that fundamental errors loomed at the core of the Calvinist system.

Before I set forward my main points as to why I left Calvinism, I want to make two important comments. First, to this day, I love John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and his various biblical commentaries. Apart from his doctrine of reprobation (see Institutes III. XXI), which he got from Augustine, I find the Institutes to be beautifully written, even devotional, and certainly far more moving than the type of theology handed down by his descendents, which reads more like religious insurance manuals than its does a song of someone who loves God. Calvin is cut from a different piece of cloth than the Calvinists. And, by the way, although the doctrine of “limited atonement” logically follows Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination, he never taught it. Second, I believe that the larger Christian community owes a serious debt to Calvinism. Almost single-handedly it has maintained an interest in the stunning, gospel-filled doctrine of election. Granted, that what it gives with the one hand (election is true), it takes away with the other (it is only true for some), but what could be more stunning than the truth that we were known and loved and indeed embraced by the Father, Son and Spirit from all eternity. My beef with the Calvinists here is not with the fact of our election, but with the way they limit it, and thus limit its preaching as the unconditional truth for all. Be that as it may, I am grateful to my own tradition for keeping the heart of the gospel before us, even in its limited form. What the Calvinists think is true for only a few, should be proclaimed to every person on the planet: “The Father himself set his love upon you before the foundation of the world and predestined you to be adopted into the very trinitarian life of God. And his own beloved Son, Jesus Christ, has come and accomplished his Father’s dreams for you and the human race.”

Sorting through the issues of the Calvinists’ system is like untangling a box full of loose coat hangers, so I will keep my focus, for now, on the three main reasons that I left Calvinism.

(1) The first concerns the origin of the idea of reprobation. In Calvinism there are two groups of people, those “elected” to salvation and those “passed by” or “deliberately damned” or “reprobated” before the foundation of the world. My question is, where did such a notion originate? Is reprobation the Father’s idea, or the Son’s, or perhaps it is the Holy Spirit’s?

Many years ago I read Athanasius’ treatise Against the Arians, and his statement that there was never a time when the Father was alone, existing without his Son, and was just God and not Father. Athanasius’ point was that the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit is not a form that the single God assumed for a moment in time. This relationship is the eternal and deepest truth about God. God is Father, Son and Spirit—always has been and always will be—and therefore every thought of God, every idea, every dream, and every plan of this God is relational, flowing out of the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit.

Athanasius, thankfully, rocked my Calvinistic world. He made me see that whatever we say about God (or about God’s will) has to be grounded in the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit, for there is nothing deeper about the being of God than this relationship. The ideas that God would elect some to salvation and pass others by, or outright reject them, must be, theologically speaking, grounded in this relationship. It is obvious how election to adoption would flow out of the Father-Son relationship, for the Father loves the Son and shares all things with him in the Spirit. So it is not out of character or odd that the blessed Trinity would think of including others in the trinitarian life. But why would this God think of excluding? What about the life that the Triune God lives would ever lead to the deliberate damning of people? Does such an idea flow out of the way the Father and Son relate? Is there are part or side of the Father that is disinterested in his Son, neutral, even eager to dismiss, look over, and, indeed, to reject him? And is it this dark side of the Father’s relationship with his Son that thus gives natural rise to the rejection of large parts of humanity?

Or perhaps there is a second Son, banished from the Father’s love and presence from all eternity, and thus in the Father’s rejection of the second Son originates the idea of the Father rejecting part of his creation? If you cannot ground God’s decision to pass by or to reject parts of his own creation in the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit itself—in God’s very being—what is its ground? Is there something deeper about God than the love and fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit? Is there a god behind the back of the Trinity who ultimately calls the shots? While I have actually had Calvinists contend that the New Testament never teaches that fellowship is at the core of God’s being, for me it was a scriptural, historical and theological no-brainer. So for me, the doctrine of double predestination (of electing some and damning others) is patently non-Christian, because it cannot be grounded in the blessed life and way of relating of the Father, Son and Spirit. And if you cannot say that there is a part of the Father that eternally rejects his beloved Son (and who would dare think of such a thing), then there is no theological basis—in the being of God—for positing why God would think of passing by or rejecting large parts of his creation, or even conceive of such sadness. For me, the reprobating part of the Calvinists’ doctrine of double-predestination both denies that the Trinity is the ultimate and eternal truth about God, and supposes that there is something deeper about God than the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit that ultimately calls the shots for creation.

(2) The second reason I left Calvinism is the doctrine of limited atonement. The Calvinists prefer the phrases “definite atonement” or “particular redemption” to the phrase “limited atonement” because they are trying, rightly so, to maintain that the death of Jesus actually accomplished something. I am with them here. But in their system, “accomplishing something” leads to the idea that Jesus never intended to and never did die for the whole human race. He came to die for and to save only the elect (and here I can only say, tongue in cheek, “of course”). Their system of God’s election of some and reprobation of others logically carries them away into such a grotesque notion that Jesus gave himself only for a limited number of people. They honestly don’t think that there is anything wrong with such an idea. In the end, the doctrine that Jesus died only for some and not for the whole human race is a theological denial of the deity of Jesus Christ, and that, to me, was and is as scary as denying that the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the deepest truth about God’s being.

The apostles are crystal clear that it was in and through and by and for Jesus that all things came into being and are sustained. Let me cite a few verses.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (John 1:1-3).

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17).

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).

John and Paul and the author of Hebrews are emphatic that Jesus is the Creator and that not one thing that was created came into being in any way other than through Jesus Christ. And note that this point is not relegated to obscure footnotes in the latter chapters of their writings. This is the first point. As a side note, when is the last time you heard a sermon on the fact that Jesus is the Creator, the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created? Why isn’t such an obvious apostolic emphasis prominent in our preaching today?

My point here is to say that in the apostolic mind there is a definite and clear connection between Jesus Christ and all creation. Unless we are prepared to posit that the Father created and sustains creation’s existence behind the back of his Son, then, with the apostles, we affirm that everything came into being through the Father’s Son, and we affirm that everything continues to live and move and have its being through him (see Acts 17:28 and I Corinthians 8:6-7). Everything, including every human being, derives existence through Christ and breathes’ Christological air. Let me quote Calvin himself here and his comments on John’s phrase, “in Him was life” (John 1:4).

So far, he has taught us that all things were created by the Word of God. He now likewise attributes to Him the preservation of what had been created; as if he were saying that in the creation of the world His power did not simply suddenly appear only to pass away, but that it is visible in the permanence of the stable and settled order of nature–just as Heb. 1.3 says that He upholds all things by the Word or command of His power. Moreover, this life can either be referred at large to inanimate creatures, which do live in their own way though they lack feeling, or expounded only of the animate. It matters little which you choose, for the simple meaning is that the Word of God was not only the fount of life to all creation, so that those which had not yet existed began to be, but that His life-giving power makes them remain in their state. For did not His continued inspiration quicken the world, whatsoever flourishes would without doubt immediately decay or be reduced to nothing. In short, what Paul ascribes to God, that in Him we have our being and move and live (Acts 17.28), John declares to be accomplished by the blessing of the Word. It is God, therefore, who gives us life; but He does so by the eternal Word. (John Calvin, The Gospel According to John, translated by T. H. L. Parker, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 1988, pp. 10-11.0).

Following the apostles, Calvin is at pains to point out that the creation and the continued existence of all things are completely dependent upon the Son of God. The critical question here, for me, was what happened to the connection that the Father’s Son has with all things when he became a human being? Does the incarnation mean that he ceases to be the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained? Did he break ties with his creation? Of course not. The incarnation is the coming of the One who is already the source and sustenance of all things. He brings his prior relationship with the cosmos and every human being within it with him as he becomes human.

While the Son incarnate is certainly a real man, an individual person, he is much more. His humanity is, as J. B. Torrance insisted, “vicarious humanity.” What becomes of him is not small-print, back-page news, which may or may not be relevant to us. He is the one in whom all things came into being and are continually upheld, thus what becomes of him has immediate implications for the whole creation. This fact should lead us to see with Paul that when Christ died, we died. When he rose, we rose. When he ascended, we were lifted up in him to the Father’s arms (see Ephesians 2:4-6; 2Corinthians 5:14ff). But this is a subject for another day (see my books, The Great Dance, and Jesus and the Undoing of Adam, and the lecture series, “The Big Picture: From the Trinity to Our Adoption in Christ”). For now, the point is that it was Jesus’ relationship with the entire cosmos and with the whole human race that called a halt to any notion of limited atonement that I had running though my brain. The life, death, resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Son/Creator was as wide and deep and large as creation itself. To deny this was simply to deny that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God and the Creator in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained.

I remember standing on Canal street in New Orleans arguing with a Calvinist about this very point. He did not like my questioning the doctrine of limited atonement. We were both attending an American Academy of Religion conference and happened to bump into one another on our way to get something to eat. He started firing questions at me. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people on Canal street at that moment, and I asked him, “where did these people come from?” He answered, “God made them.” I asked, “which God?” He tried to look perplexed, but he knew where I was going. So I asked again, “which God?” And he said, “you know, the Christian God.” Notice that he did not say, “the Father, Son and Spirit,” for that would mean that all of these people had come into being through Jesus, and thus that Jesus already had a relationship with them. So I just stared at him waiting for more. So he qualified his remarks, by adding, “God created them through common grace.” “You are hiding,” I said, which he did not like at all. “Hiding from what?” he retorted. “Behind the smoke screen of God’s common grace, you are hiding the plain biblical fact that all of these people came into being and continue to live through Jesus Christ.” He acted like he could not understand what I meant. For the deity of Christ, the fact that Jesus is the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained is the end of the doctrine of limited atonement, and he knew it. The fact that Jesus is God means that the entire cosmos, and the whole human race within it, are implicated in his incarnate existence, and in what becomes of him. If he dies, we die. If he rises, we rise. If he ascends to the Father, we ascend to the Father. And that is what happened.

(3) My third reason for leaving Calvinism is more pastoral, and has to do with the way Calvinism gave me nothing objectively real to proclaim as divine fact, and thus leaves us with no basis for real assurance. For me, the very heart of Christian living is parrhesia—assurance, confidence, freedom, security—which is rooted in the Father’s eternal and unyielding love, which Jesus himself reveals to us in the Spirit. But how could I hope that Jesus would reveal the Father’s love to a person, in the power of the Spirit, when I could not declare to them that it was absolutely true. Let me cite Calvin again.

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Institutes, III.2.7).

For Calvin, the very center of Christian faith is the certain knowledge that God is for us. Without knowing that we belong to the Father himself, and without experiencing the unearthly assurance that baptizes our souls as we do, our souls are left simmering in the poisonous roux of fear. And here we should note Louis Berkhof’s lament: “There are comparatively few Christians to-day, who really glory in the assurance of salvation. The note of heavenly joy seems to have died away out of the life of God’s people” (Louis Berkhof, The Assurance of Faith, p. 16). Berkhof was a Calvinist theologian of the last century. So we have Calvin defining faith as a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, and Berkhof lamenting the fact that few Christians experience real assurance. Wonder why?

Is there is way to experience real assurance of the Father’s love and of our salvation in Christ when are told that before the foundation of the world God elected some to be saved in grace and others to be damned for the glorification of divine justice? Calvin himself recognized the problem and pointed us in the right direction, only to fall at the last hurdle. Calvin directs us to Christ as the mirror of our election (Institutes III.xxiv.5), so if we struggle with whether or not we are one of the chosen, we are to look to Christ. But, and this is the problem, the mirror of Christ reflects two groups of people, the one’s loved by Jesus’ Father, and the others who are eternally not loved and doomed by the same Father.

This is a serious problem. The human soul is fragile. It is designed by God to live out of the baptism of unearthly assurance that comes from a firm and certain knowledge of the Father’s love. But how can we know that the Father loves us when he may have rejected us before the foundation of the world? Calvinism give us nothing objective to say to the world, no unconditional word of God to proclaim openly to everyone—except that we are all sinners. What is the gospel to be proclaimed according to Calvinism? For me, the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ and of what became of the cosmos and of the human race in him. When he died, we died. When he rose, we rose. When he ascended, we ascended into the Father’s embrace, and there accepted forever as his adopted children. Our adoption in Christ is objectively true for everyone, a divine fact, established in Jesus Christ’s own existence forever, whether anyone believes it or not. To believe the truth, to believe that you are so loved and accepted is to experience the unearthly assurance of the Father’s love, and thus to begin the journey of learning how to live life in the security and freedom of his passionate embrace.

A Calvinist could only hear what I am saying and conclude that I am teaching universalism. While I am not a universalist, I am saying that before the foundation of the world, the Father, Son and Spirit set their love upon us all, determining to give us a place in the very trinitarian life itself. And, I am saying that Jesus has fulfilled the Father’s dreams of our adoption. In his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension he cleansed us of sin, recreated us in his resurrection, and lifted us all into the Father’s arms in his ascension. The Holy Spirit himself was poured out on all flesh to bring us to know the truth so that we could be set free from the great darkness and its terrible, life-canceling fear.

The fact that we are all included in Christ—and in him adopted children of the Father—and the fact that the Holy Spirit has been sent to lead us to know the truth does not mean universalism; it means that we have something real to preach, namely that we all have a beautiful life to live, and that we are all called to live it, called to believe in Jesus and his Father, called to let go of our hellish anxiety and to receive the Father’s love and live. The ones who believe in the witness of the Spirit to our adoption by the Father in his Son, experience the baptism of unearthly assurance (the firm and certain knowledge that the Father himself loves us). Those who don’t believe the Spirit’s witness do not experience the baptism, and continue to live in the doom of the darkness and its anxious hell. Let me put this another way. The human race has been justified by the Father, Son and Spirit. Those who believe that God has justified them, experience the freedom of their justification—rest, peace, hope, assurance. Those who don’t believe that God has justified them, continue to experience a life of striving and self-justification, anxiety and insecurity—religious death.

It is critical, to my mind, not to confuse the divine fact with our experience. People can be loved, adopted and justified, and yet not experience the Father’s love, or the freedom of his adoption, or the peace of his justification because they do not believe these realities to be true. What they believe does not have the power to change the facts, but our faith or lack of it does affect our experience of the facts. To believe that the Father loves you does not make it true, (for it is true whether you believe it or not), but believing the Father’s love to be true means his love becomes a real experience for you.

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).

Giving us no objective gospel or absolute truth to proclaim to the human race, no absolute fact of the Father’s love and the finished work of Christ to shout to the world, Calvinism gives us nothing to say to humanity, and gives the human race nothing real to believe, no concrete, objective basis for faith, and thus no possibility for unearthly assurance. What do the Calvinists call people to believe, and to believe in? “Jesus” would seem the obvious answer, but how can you really believe in Jesus when you have no basis for believing that he even died for you at all? Are we supposed to believe that we may be loved by the Father, and that we may be included in Jesus? What basis, what ground is given by Calvinism to anyone to believe that they are loved by God? How is one to know for sure? In the Calvinists’ system, we cannot even look to Jesus himself, for their Jesus embodies and reveals the Father’s divided heart. In the end, and at all points in between, Calvinism leaves us with maybe as the object of our faith, and with no option but to look to ourselves to find proof that the maybe is actually true and we are of the chosen. Being left to ourselves to move from maybe to firm and certain knowledge of the Father’s love is simply not a recipe for Christian faith and assurance, not to speak of peace and rest.

So, for me the Calvinists’ doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement form a tag team that not only gut-punches our already anxious souls, but fuels our profound anxiety, because it gives us no objective truth to proclaim or to believe. Without objective truth, we can never have unearthly assurance, and we are doomed to live with an assurance that is of our own making. Calvinism leaves us either in denial of our waywardness, for to acknowledge it would be to face “proof” that we are not of the elect, or it leaves us inventing a religious form that we can follow to prove that we are—and self-righteously proud that we are doing so. No thank you.

Is the gospel a theory or a declaration? Is the gospel the news that the Father may have embraced you in Jesus, or is it the news that the Father has embraced you in Jesus forever? Thank God, the gospel is a declaration of a divine fact—you are embraced, included in the trinitarian life of God. And this divine fact carries with it both a promise and a warning. Its promise is this: if you believe that you are included, you will experience the Father’s love. The warning is this: if you do not believe that you are included, you will continue to experience striving, insecurity and fear. In which world do you want to live, the world of the Father’s embrace, or the world of maybe?

The best treatment of the problem of assurance from a Calvinist’s perspective is Louis Berkhof’s, The Assurance of Faith. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939). He sees the issue and has some helpful things to say, but in the end he leaves us with ourselves and the hope that the Holy Spirit can take the vague, even deceptive message that “God loves sinners” (for the Calvinist’s God loves some sinners) and use it to give an individual firm and certain knowledge that the Father loves them in particular. Thomas Erskine’s, The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel, written in the land of Calvinism, is the book to read if you want to understand the gospel and to experience real assurance (available on our web site).

The best book on Calvin’s theology is Victor A. Shepherd’s, The Nature and Function of Faith in the Theology of John Calvin, (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A White Piece of Paper

Many years ago, when Beth and I were first married (we celebrate our 26th anniversary next month) we got into, shall we say, a debate about the color of our apartment walls. I argued that they were obviously white, while she smiled and contended that they were off–white. So to prove my point, I grabbed a piece of typing paper and confidently slapped it to the wall. Needless to say, the presence of the white paper instantly revealed that the walls were anything but white.

I heard a man preaching on the radio last week, and he was holding forth about sin and the need for salvation. He went on and on about us being sinners, and about breaking the law and falling short of the glory of God. I could not help but wonder how sinners could possibly have a clue about the glory of God, let alone what is meant by falling short of it. Then I remembered the white typing paper. Only as we see our salvation in Christ do we begin to know what it means that we are sinners. Only as we see ourselves wrapped up in the Father’s love in Christ can we begin to know what it means to fall short of His glory. Forgiveness reveals guilt. Salvation reveals how far we are from living in its joy. John Calvin was right when he said, ‘no man can apply himself seriously unto repentance until he knows that he belongs to God.’

We have the order wrong. You don’t preach law so that folks will know they are bad and then seek forgiveness; you preach forgiveness so they will know they are missing out on a fantastic life, and thus seek to know how to live it. For what could be better than to know that the Father himself has forgiven us and embraced us forever? Yet what could be more exposing than the whiteness of the Father’s love and acceptance as they reveal the darkness of how far we are from living in His embrace? To see yourself loved forever and safe in the Father’s arms reveals that we have a glorious life to live, and that we are like church mice living in fear in the dark (religious dark?). For the Father’s embrace shows us what real life is all about, and at the same it time shows us that we are a long way from living in its joy. The whiteness of the Father’s love reveals our lives as a sad and pitiful mess, and it summons us to turn from such sadness, receive the Father’s love and live. Receiving the Father’s love is life (John 17:3).

Holy Spirit, you have the run of our dark house. Reveal the Father’s love in Jesus. Expose our bondage for what it is that we may run to Abba for healing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The World Wide Church of God

I spent the afternoon and well into the night watching videos on the World Wide Church of God web site ( Ray Anderson, John (I-am-so-excited-I-could-burst) McKenna, Paul Young and many others are all on a roll about the way the Father, Son and Spirit have embraced us all and share their trinitarian life with us. It is beautiful. Mike Feazell and Tony Murphy are doing the greatest of all services to the church and the world. Check it out. If you are not inspired, check your pulse.

The site is full of interviews and discussions on the frontiers of the Spirit’s ministry to us today in our great darkness. For more on the story of the transformation of the World Wide Church read Joe Tkach’s, Transformed by Truth and Mike Feazell’s, The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God. These brothers have been crucified for the truth, and now they are experiencing the joy of resurrection. May the Holy Spirit continue to use you all to give us all eyes to see—well done mates, keep it up. And get Malcolm Smith interviewed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Shack Revisited

Richmond Grace Church in Richmond, Virginia was the place to be last weekend. I was thrilled just to be in the room. It was a regional conference of the World Wide Church of God, although everyone was welcome, and it was beautiful and fun and full of life. In the basement of a Masonic Temple, where Richmond Grace meets every Sunday, people of all colors and from all walks of life gathered for a festival of friendship, truth, music and dance in the embrace of the blessed Trinity.

Two things amaze me about the World Wide Church of God, and this gathering proved them once again. First, this Church has opened its soul to the Father, Son and Spirit. I have never seen such hunger and openness in the United States. Second, this Church is integrated. Here we were in Richmond, Virginia of all places, and the room was full of different races, gathered in the name of the One who ends all racism, and every other “ism.” Don’t get me wrong, this was not one of those meetings where the white folks are willing to let the colored folks in or vice versa. This was the body of Christ, and it was beautiful. No shame. No division. No separation. Light, life and love—smiles everywhere. So before the conference even began the Holy Spirit was on a roll. For me, pastor Bill Winn and his wife Davina embody the joy of it all. Bill is a theologian in an evangelist’s body, with no 'off switch,' and Davina is the beautiful calm that creates a welcome space. And Tim Brassell (another local pastor) and his wife Donna are a tag team of beaming grace and truth, and not a little fire. You not only felt welcome, you felt wanted—at home. Add to all of this the stunning music of Vanessa Kersting, from Adelaide, Australia, and the room is fully pumped (the Aussies are ubiquitous).

William P. (Paul) Young was introduced and began to share his story—and what a story it is. Here is a man who has been through hell sideways, several times, and he is not bashful about sharing the dark and sad parts. He is a man baptized with the unearthly assurance of Papa’s love, and you don’t get such a baptism without facing yourself. When I met Paul in the airport on Wednesday afternoon, I knew he was my brother from another mother. He is not a tall man, but his heart is as big as Western Australia. He is Papa with a Donald Sutherland grin. He sounds a little like Kevin Costner and sometimes like Tom Hanks, but mostly he is a little boy with twinkling eyes that say, “you have no idea how good Papa is, but you are about too.” I suspect he goes to sleep grinning.

Underneath The Shack, which by now must be around #1 on the best seller list in the USA, or should be, is a tale of abuse and pain, religion and pretense, striving, hurt and betrayal—and an ocean of grace. From 10 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon on Friday, April, 18th we sat spellbound by a brutally honest and utterly free man as he shared his life of trauma and of the Father’s unending love. If you were awake, you were moved. There were deep tears and cleansing laughter as old wounds were touched and healed, and we began to believe that the gospel is true, that Papa is good, that Jesus has saved us, and that Sarayu is free to meet us anywhere. Paul is a living example of two of his favorite statements. “Freedom is an incremental process. “Its all about timing, just not ours, but Papa’s.”

What spoke most deeply to me is the way Paul personifies the Father’s love and acceptance of us as we really are. In one of my teaching sessions the next day, I quoted Papa from The Shack. “Take it easy on those greens, young man. Those things can give you the trots if you ain’t careful” (p. 121). I have read a lot of theology, but that statement has to be one of the finest theological statements ever written. The Lord is not ashamed of, or put off by, or embarrassed by our humanity. He loves us as we are. He meets us where we are. And as we let Him love us through Jesus, all our broken parts begin to be bathed with Papa’s love, and in Sarayu’s time and soul-gardening grace we become like Papa.

Vanessa’s song, “For All the Times” (I predict it will be a #1 song) flows right out of Papa’s love.

For All the Times
©Vanessa Kersting, 2007

for all the times you don’t get told
hear Me say I love you
for all the times you don’t feel beautiful
hear Me say you’re beautiful
o so wonderful

(chorus) this is not who you are
this is who you are
you’re Mine you’re Mine

for all the times you feel alone
hear me say I love you

for all the times you were told
that no one would care
feel My heart beat for you
for all the times you don’t feel good enough
hear Me say you’re worth more
than you know

for all the times it gets too much
feel My arms hold you

It fell to me to follow Paul and Vanessa, and also a wonderful local dance team, but it was the easiest thing I have ever done. I was home, and I was with brothers and sisters, and they were hungry, and it was as beautiful as it was fun. In the words of Ken Blue, “Thank you, Holy Spirit, we will have more please.”

And at the very end on Sunday afternoon, Jeff McSwain (another one of J. B. Torrance’s spiritual children) dropped in for a visit. I couldn’t help but grin like Paul.

And yes, it was recorded, and will be available in audio and video soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Father's Undivided Heart

The ideas that God, the Father needed to be appeased in order to accept us, and that Jesus became human in order to suffer the wrath of his Father on the cross so that we could be accepted, always struck me as terribly wrong. But, growing up in the deep South in the USA, such notions were all one ever heard, and heard repeatedly, and still do. In this atonement theory, the Father is in two minds about us, or, at the very least, there are two sides of the Father, the one being the righteous, just and holy side, the other being the graceful, merciful and loving side. The one thing we knew for sure about God was that he could not simply forgive us and accept us as his fallen creatures. The truth, we were told is that He could not even look upon us vile sinners. His holiness and justice and righteousness demanded satisfaction before forgiveness could become a reality. And so on the cross Jesus bowed as the Father’s holiness, justice and righteousness formed into wrath against our sin and was poured out upon him instead of us.

Of course, it is far more complicated than this, or so we were told, but the more I tried to sort through the complications, the more troubled I became. Apart from the fact that in this theory there is no forgiveness at all, only justice, as my friend David Upshaw says, we are left with a divided Father, and a Son who is remarkably different in character and freedom from the Father he reveals. After all, while Father is too pure to look upon sin, his Son is free to become flesh, embrace sinners, eat with them and even become sin for us (2COR 5:21). So, if Jesus’ becoming flesh, embracing sinners and becoming sin is not a revelation of the Father, how did we develop our notions of the Father? What happened to, “he who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9), or “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), or “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3)?

All of this is to say that on a cold March afternoon in 1980 I found St. Athanasius’ beautiful little book, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, and as I read a single sentence rocked my inherited, legalistic, quasi-trinitarian world. “As, then, the creatures whom He had created…were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good to do?” (§ 6) What struck me, and still thrills me every time I read this sentence, is Athanasius’ assumption about the Father’s heart. There is no indifference here, no ambiguity or division in the Father. He loves His creation with an single heart, and is passionate about its blessing. The holiness, justice and righteousness, and the love, grace and mercy of the Father are not opposed to each other, but form an undivided heart, determined to bless us at all costs. Thus, it is unthinkable, Athanasius says, for God to turn his back upon His creation, and to allow us to be destroyed, because it would be “unfitting and unworthy of Himself” (§6).

So the coming of Jesus flows out of the Father’s undivided heart, and the lengths to which Jesus goes—willfully bowing to suffer, not the Father’s, but the human race’s rejection and curse, as we poured our wrath out upon him—reveals the Father’s uncomplicated, single-minded love for us. On the cross, the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God are not at odds with the mercy, grace and goodness of God, but form into one self-sacrificing love, which is prepared to, and actually does, suffer dis-honor and grotesque shame in order to reach us and bless us beyond our wildest dreams. The death of Jesus is not about appeasing an angry God. It is about the Triune God doing the impossible—reaching the human race in its terrible darkness and corruption, where the undivided heart of the Father is unimaginable.

“He who has seen me, has seen the Father.”

For more on my views of reconciliation, see Jesus and the Undoing of Adam, and Across All Worlds, and “Bearing our Scorn: Jesus and the Way of Trinitarian Love,” all available on our web site.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jesus and the Church

To speak the name of Jesus Christ, biblically and in the tradition of the early church is to say Trinity, and it is to say humanity, and it is to say cosmos, and it is to say that the Triune God, the human race and the cosmos are not separated, but bound together in relationship, in union, in covenant forever.

For according to the apostles, Jesus Christ is the Father’s Son. He is the One anointed in the Holy Spirit. He is the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained. The critical question is: Did Jesus break relations with his Father when he became human? Did he give up his anointing in the Spirit? Did he set aside his connections with the human race and the universe when he became incarnate? The answer is a resounding “No!” We cannot speak of Jesus Christ, therefore, without speaking of his relationship with his Father, and of his anointing in the Spirit, and of his relationship with the human race, and of his relationship with the universe. And we cannot speak of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ without speaking of what happened to us and to the cosmos in him. When he died, we died. When he rose, we rose. When he ascended, we were exalted in him. To speak of Jesus Christ is to say that in him, the Father himself, the Holy Spirit, the human race, and the cosmos are related, together, united. He is the union.

The gospel is not news of an absent Jesus who waits for us to receive him into our lives. The gospel is the staggering news that Jesus has received us into his life. Jesus has received us into his relationship with his Father, into his anointing with the Spirit, into his relationship with the human race, and into his relationship with the cosmos.

In the light of who Jesus Christ is; in the light of the fact that he has received us into his relationship with his Father, and into his anointing in the Spirit, and into his relationship with humanity, and the cosmos, we can see who we truly are, why we are here, what our time, our history, our lives are about, personally and corporately and historically. In the light of Jesus Christ we can see what the Triune God has planned and willed for humanity. For the existence of Jesus Christ is not plan “B,” quickly worked up after the failure of plan “A” in Adam. Jesus Christ is plan “A.” He is the alpha and the omega, the first, the eternal Word of God.

In the light of Jesus Christ and what he has made of us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we can see something of the alien darkness that is blinding the human race, something of how far we are falling short personally and corporately and globally of who we are in Jesus Christ, something of the terrible bondage that is holding us down. It is the calling of the Christian Church to take Jesus Christ seriously, to believe in Him. The Church is summoned to be the people within the world in darkness where Jesus is allowed to have his way with the mind and heart and will of humanity. It is our calling to have our minds, our world-views, our fundamental vision reconstructed in the light of Jesus Christ, to think through the personal, relational, global, historical, political, economic, environmental, religious, scientific and cosmic implications of the very identity of Jesus Christ. We are called to be the people in whom the stunning news of our adoption in Christ–of our inclusion in Jesus four-fold relationship–is understood, believed, enjoyed and freely shared with the world.

Jesus Christ himself is the truth that can set us free from the bondage of darkness. The Church is called to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the truth of all truths, the light of the cosmos, the One in whom the Triune God, the human race and the universe are personally and rightly related.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Man Heard Music

One of the great social events in our part of the world is a crawfish boil. Last weekend I cooked over 200 pounds of crawfish for a friend’s annual gathering. The afternoon, and then the evening, was alive with laughter, relationships, community and life. We had a large time. One of my favorite moments happened when The Delta Mountain Boys (a local Blue Grass band) started playing. While their fiddle player was absent, their music was still fantastic. But then, out of nowhere an older man appeared with a fiddle in his hand, and joined right in. I assumed that he was a friend of the band and that someone had called him. At a break I introduced myself and discovered that he did not know anyone at the party. He said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I was sitting on my back porch listening to this great music and decided I had to find the party and join in. So I grabbed my fiddle and drove around the neighborhood until I saw the cars.” After the initial surprise, I assured him that he was more than welcome and hoped he had as much fun as the rest of us.

A man heard music and set out to find the party.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On the Holy Spirit

In his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension, the Father’s Son himself has embraced the human race and given us a place in his own relationship with his Father. And Jesus has included us in his own anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to us to free us to live our true lives as joint-heirs with Jesus and adopted children of the Father.

Most discussions of the Holy Spirit’s coming and ministry tend to divorce the work of the Spirit in our lives from Jesus himself, and from Jesus’ ongoing relationship with us in our brokenness. At best, it seems, the Holy Spirit has been understood as coming to us on the basis of what Jesus did for us. It is as if Jesus came and did his thing, then that chapter is closed, and the Holy Spirit comes and does his, and there is not much of a connection between the two. It seems to me, however, that the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit is profoundly interrelated with Jesus, and with Jesus’ ongoing relationship with us as sinners. The Holy Spirit comes to us not only on the basis of what Jesus has done for us, but in and through Jesus himself and his own ongoing relationship with us in our terrible darkness.

The Holy Spirit empowers us to live by meeting and accepting and embracing us—in and through Jesus—as we are in our brokenness and shame, and terrible and terrifying blindness, and there in our brokenness and blindness and shame, the Holy Spirit empowers us by revealing Jesus, not simply to us, but in us. For Jesus is already within us with his Father.

As the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus in us, we begin to get glimpses of who we really are and of how deeply and personally we are loved and accepted by the Father himself. These moments of revelation, in the trauma of our darkness, challenge our entrenched beliefs about ourselves and about God. We are summoned to takes sides with Jesus against our own mythology, summoned to believe in Jesus and his Father, and in ourselves as loved and accepted and embraced.

Believing in Jesus is accepting our acceptance; it is receiving the Father’s love, and thus Jesus’ own parrhesia—freedom, assurance, confidence, boldness and life—is free to take baby steps within us. Our anointing in the Holy Spirit in Jesus begins to flourish in our own experience and life.

The Holy Spirit is a redeeming genius, most competent to meet us where we are in our darkness, and without overwhelming us to lead us to begin to use Jesus’ right mind, and to risk leaving our own darkness and its strange comfort, embracing the new world of the Father and his incarnate Son.

For more on Jesus inside our darkness, see my book Across All Worlds.