Monday, May 30, 2016

Wrath That Remains?
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)
A common view among evangelicals is that we are saved not only by God (through Christ) but also from God. One verse used to support that is John 3:36, in which the wrath of God is said to remain on those who reject Christ. It is assumed that if one needs to be saved from the wrath of God, one therefore needs to be saved from God himself. I have addressed the wrath of God in other posts, particularly about how Paul understood God’s wrath. Simply put, it is not God’s retaliation against the wicked but God giving the wicked over to their own devices, not for the purpose of retribution but that they might repent and be restored.

We may understand the wrath of God in John 3:36 in the same way. If we follow this chapter from the beginning, we can see that the wrath of God is not for the purpose of condemnation. We find this particularly in the middle section:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:17-21)
God did not send Christ to condemn us. He sent Christ to rescue the world from condemnation. Those who reject Christ were already condemned before Christ came. But what was the nature of that condemnation? It was not a matter of some eternal decree or because God damned them or was unforgiving toward them. It was because they loved darkness rather than Light, so they turned away from the light. God did not withhold the Light from them; they simply did not want it. That was the state of condemnation they were in: they preferred darkness rather than the Light. God’s verdict did not decree that they should therefore be condemned. It simply pointed out what was true of them: they did not want the Light.

The “wrath” of God in verse 36, then, is that verdict concerning those who reject the Light of Christ. They love the darkness, so God leaves them to it. They will continue in darkness until they turn to the Light. And until they do, the Light will be a torment to them, for it exposes the evilness of their deeds. We can just as well say that the wrath of God is the Light of Christ shining in the darkness — not as a decree, or as a retaliation, but as a grace. For the Light of Christ is a manifestation of God in his love. We are saved by God, not from God.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saved from Wrath
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:9)
In my previous post, I wrote that we are saved by God, not from God. This contradicts a certain way many Christians have come to think, a view often known as penal substitutionary atonement. It teaches that God was offended by us because of our sin and that only the penalty of death could assuage his fierce and holy anger. So God became a man, Jesus Christ, in order to die that death and pay that penalty on our behalf. According to this theology, we are saved by God but also from God.

Such was the view I held for several years myself, but I have since come to see differently: Christ did not come to save us from God but to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death and so turn us back to God. Understandably, this has received some pushback from those who hold my former view.

One line of criticism has to do with the wrath of God, and Romans 5:9 is the prime go-to. The NIV and several other translations have it that we are, “saved from God’s wrath.” The Greek text, however, simply says σωθησομεθα δι αυτου απο της οργης — “saved through him [Christ] from the wrath.” Note that the text itself does not identify the wrath as belonging to God, but the translators have assumed it to be so.

Is it God’s wrath that Paul has in mind? Possibly, and I’ll address that in a moment. But first, let me suggest a different possibility. In the context of Romans 5, I think Paul could be referring to the persecutions suffered for the sake of the gospel. He speaks of such persecutions just a few verses earlier: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4-5).

Paul “gloried” in those sufferings, not because of what they were in themselves but because of what they resulted in, namely, a hope that “does not put us to shame.” He goes on to explain that hope in the verses that follow. When he speaks of being “saved” from the “wrath” in verse 9, then, he could be referring to the wrath of persecution and the hope which saves us from being shamed by it.

But let’s also consider verse 10, where Paul asks, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Like verse 9, it is a “how much more” comparison, and along the same lines. Notice what it is that saves us in this instance. Yes, in verse 10, we are reconciled to God through the death of Christ, just as we are justified by the blood, or death, of Christ in verse 9. But in verse 10, notice that Paul says it is the life of Christ that saves us; this matches “saved from wrath” in verse 9. In other words, the parallelism of these two verses would seem to indicate that what saves us from wrath (v. 9) is the life of Christ (v. 10).

What is the wrath that the life of Christ saves us from in this context? The wrath of God? That hardly seems likely, especially considering that those who believe Christ saves us from the wrath of God usually believe he does so by his death on the cross. But the salvation Paul refers to in this passage is achieved by the life of Christ. Again, I suggest that the hope we have in the gospel — the expectation we have in Christ, and of his life in us — saves us from being ashamed of the gospel because of persecution.

But what if we assume, as many do, that it is God’s wrath that Paul has in mind — then what is that wrath and how does it work? Paul has already discussed the wrath of God at the top of this letter, in Romans 1 (I have blogged about that in How the Wrath of God is Revealed). In short, it is not about God inflicting something on the wicked in retaliation for their wickedness. It is God giving them over to the depravity of their ways, and to the consequences that naturally arise from them.

If the wrath Paul speaks about in Romans 5 is the wrath of God, then, contextually, we should understand it in terms of Paul’s discussion of that wrath in Romans 1. So if we are saved from the wrath of God, and the wrath is that he gives us over to our own sinful desires and self-degradations, then what we are really saved from is our own selves, the bondage of our depraved and sinful desires.

What saves us, then, is that we are reconciled to God, which is to say, turned back to him. For in our depravity, we turned away from God. But God did not leave us in that condition. Instead, through Christ and by the work of the cross, he delivered us from the sinful desires, shameful lusts and depraved thinking that held us captive.

The reconciliation we have in Christ, in Romans 5:10, is not about mollifying God, appeasing his anger or preventing him from retaliating against us. For it is not God who has been reconciled to us. Rather, it is we who have been reconciled to God. Just as it was not God who turned away from us; it was we who turned away from God.

The death of Christ on the cross does not change God’s attitude toward us. It changes our attitude toward God, by freeing us from death and darkness and depravity of mind so that we can return to God. By turning us back to God through Christ, God delivers us from shame by the life of Christ now at work in us.

Through the death and life of Christ, then, we are saved from death, from sin, from darkness, from depravity of mind — in a word, from ourselves. We are not saved from God but by God. For God was already kindly disposed toward us to deliver us from all those things. Paul tells us in Romans 5:8 that God demonstrated his love for us in that even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This was not the emotionally disordered action of a confused deity who, on the one hand, desired to save us but, on the other hand, what he must save us from is his own angry, retaliatory self. That would be simply incoherent. Rather, it was the gracious response of God who is love and who therefore looks on us always and only with love.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Saved By God, Not From God

Recently, I came across this quote from a popular evangelical teacher: “The grand paradox or supreme irony of the Christian faith is that we are saved both by God and from God.” This is a view common among certain segments of evangelicals. It is a view I once held but can do so no longer, for it is not one I can find in Scripture. Indeed, what I find in Scripture teaches me the opposite.

Nor is it a view that I can find in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the perfect expression of God. As I think of his Parable of the Prodigal Son, the image of God portrayed there, as loving father, is quite at odds with the image the above quote presents. The son did not need to be rescued from his father. Rather, he was rescued from a wayward and broken life by his father. Likewise, though we all have very great need to be rescued by God, how can we ever imagine that we need to be rescued from God? For the Gospel teaches us that God is love. We no more need to be rescued from God than we need to be rescued from love.

Nor is the judgment of God something we need to be rescued from, for it is the judgment of God that comes to rescue us and set us right. We have often been taught that God’s judgment is about retribution. In that view, death and torment and wrath are seen as the divine payback of an angry, offended deity. But neither death nor torment nor wrath are the acts of divine retribution; they are the natural, logical consequences of turning away from God, who is love and light and life.

In the beginning, Adam turned away from God, the very source of his life. And having turned away from life, all that was left for him was death. This was not God’s reprisal; it was what necessarily happens when one turns away from the source of life. God had warned Adam that in the day he ate of the forbidden fruit, “You will die.” But notice that God did not say, “I will kill you.” Big difference, that.

The torment that those experience who turn away from God is also a natural consequence. God is the source of peace and joy and all that is good. In turning away from God, they are turning away from those very things. All that is left for them, then, is torment — a life of emptiness and regret, devoid of joy and peace. Again, that is not divine retribution but natural consequence.

God is light, but when one turns away from God, what else is left for them except darkness. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Light came into the world, but those who love evil despise the Light that reveals their evil for what it is, so they dwell in darkness. Yet God does not withhold the light from them. Quite the opposite, Christ gives light to all, but those bound in darkness turn away from the light. The Light of Christ continues to shine in the darkness but the darkness cannot extinguish it, so the Light becomes a torment for those who love the darkness.

God is love. When people turn away from God, they are turning away from the only true source of love. God does not ever cease to love them, but in their depravity, they do not want God’s love, so even the love of God becomes a torment to them.

Now we come to the wrath of God. Yet not even that is a matter of divine retaliation. Paul speaks of it quite differently. He addresses God’s wrath head-on in Romans 1. But notice how he describes it. Three times Paul says, “God gave them over” — to their sinful desires and self-degradations (v. 24), to their shameful lusts (v. 26) and to their depraved minds (v. 28). God’s “wrath” is not something he pours out in retribution; it is simply giving the wicked over to their wickedness, which brings its own consequences. There is nothing more terrible than for God to give us over to our own ways.

Think again of the loving father in Jesus’ parable. He let his prodigal son go his own way — but it was so the son might repent and be restored. The son did finally come to his senses, remembering his father, and returned home. The father had been watching for him all along, for he continued to love him nonetheless. When his son was still a long way off, the father ran out to embrace him. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

God’s judgment and wrath are not for the purpose of retribution but for the purpose of restoration. God does not overcome evil with evil. He does what the apostle Paul instructs every Christian to do: He overcomes evil with good — should we not expect God to practice what he preaches?

So the cross was never about Christ saving us from God. It was always about Christ saving us from breaking the power of darkness, death, sin, fear and whatever keeps us from returning to God. The cross was indeed a divine judgment: it was where God judged the darkness with Light, where he judged death with Life, and where he judged demonic hate and fear and selfishness with divine, self-giving Love.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Prayer to the Holy Trinity

Abba, Father,
   thank You for giving us Your Son
   and sending us Your Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit,
   by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father,”
   thank You for showing us the Lord Jesus,
   for taking what is His
   and revealing it to us.

Lord Jesus,
   image of the invisible God,
   in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form,
   and in whom we are made complete
   and become partakers of the divine nature,
   thank You for showing us Abba, Father.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Random Thoughts

Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About divine love, relationship with God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • All humanity is connected, so in joining himself to humanity, Christ joined all humanity to God.
  • Jesus is the light of God who gives life to all and rescues us from our darkness.
  • The Father sends the Holy Spirit to bring forth in us the life of the Son.
  • The Incarnation was not a divine afterthought or merely a necessary solution to a terrible problem. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us because that was God’s desire from the beginning.
  • Faithfulness is faith working through love.
  • Faithfulness is faith lived out over time, turning to God in all weathers and every season.
  • Faith works through love. Love casts out fear.
  • Faith is like a seed. It must be planted before it can grow.
  • Neither faith nor doubt are fickle or fleeting. They are orientations of the heart.
  • When we focus on our faith, how small it seems. When we focus on Jesus, how great our faith becomes.
  • My paradigm is the God who is love and whose grace is far greater than any evil the world could ever produce.
  • God doesn’t distance himself from us because of our sin. He comes near and rescues us from it. So the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
  • Any time you think the Christian life is something you do for God, you’ve got it all backwards.
  • God is love. If he ceases to be love, even for a moment, he ceases to be God. God is loving in all his ways, always and toward all.
  • What if the love of God is deeper than hell? That changes everything.
  • Today I recklessly pursue the God who is love, whose love relentlessly pursues me.
  • Jesus is the perfect expression of God in human form. If we don’t see God as just like Christ, we are not seeing him as he is.
  • In the Incarnation, God became human so that we might become divine ... but also that we might become truly human.
  • By his love, by his Son, by his Spirit, God makes his enemies his friends.
  • Run wild, King Jesus, through Muslim camps and show them your great love for them. Through dreams and visions may they come to know you. Amen.
  • Today I contemplate my divinity in Christ, his divine life in me. It is a good day.
  • Christ in me changes the world.
  • In Jesus the Messiah, God has joined himself to humanity and broken the power of sin and death.
  • Jesus is the True Light who gives light to everyone in the world. What if today we looked for the light of Christ in each other?
More random thoughts …