Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Did God Create Some Humans to Be Damned? Part 6

Jesus’ Response to the Title Question

Tensions weigh heavily on us human beings—modern ones in particular; I am no different.  A while ago I sat in the privacy of my library struggling with the tension of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, wanting desperately to find a clean resolution.  Finally, I prayed, “Lord why couldn’t I just go back in time and ask you or even Paul the direct question and get a straight answer?”  He would show me only a little later I needn’t go to all that trouble; Jesus already answered the question.  Let’s go back together to circa 29 C.E., shall we, and listen in….

Someone said to Him, “Lord, are those who are saved a few in number?” But He said to them, “Struggle earnestly to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.  From the moment the master of the house got up and secured the door, you also will begin to stand outside and to knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open the door to us!’  And answering he will say, ‘I don’t know where you are from.’  Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!’  And he will say, ‘I don’t know where you are from.  Go away from me all of you that does unjust deeds!’ The wailing and the gnashing of teeth will be there, whenever you will see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you are those cast outside.  And they will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and they will recline at the dinner table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:23-29).”

The question and Jesus’ answer concern the eternal salvation of humankind.  And Jesus clearly locates this salvation as the kingdom of God; all who come and dine together with Christ in His kingdom are counted as those who are saved.  As I have discussed earlier, our salvation is to stand in the kingdom of God, in Christ.

How do we come to stand in His kingdom?  Notice carefully, Jesus doesn’t give a number—many or few—of those who will be saved; nor does Jesus say only a few who had been chosen before the beginning of time will be those who stand in His kingdom; nor does He say, “don’t worry, everybody will be saved.”  What does He say, then?  He says, “struggle-- literally like a warrior in battle, or an athlete straining toward the prize—yes, earnestly struggle to enter by the narrow door!”  What is the basis of this struggling?  To continuously surrender your whole self in trust to the will of God: to believe in Christ unceasingly.

Jesus tirelessly calls us to repent (turn away from trusting in ourselves and the world and trust God, alone)--to be in a continuous state of believing in Christ.  Why should we agree to this?  Because the kingdom of God has come.  How do we know the kingdom of God has come? Because Jesus has been raised from the dead and rules His kingdom at the right hand of the Father.  Jesus said,

“And if I am raised up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself (John 12:32).”

The kingdom of God has come because Christ is alive.  Therefore, God calls each of us by putting this question before us, “Who then shall be your king?”

Notice how Jesus describes here the character of those who shall remain outside the kingdom—that is, those who answer God’s call with, “I will be my own king.”  They are a people who have put their faith in rituals and institutions and the camaraderie of people who also profess Christ (i.e., “we ate and drank in your presence”).  They are a people who put their faith in their doctrines and knowledge of Christ (i.e., you taught in our streets).  When Jesus first spoke on the subject of the narrow door leading to life, but the broad door leading to destruction, he further described people taking the broad path as those who will say to Him,

Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy by your Name, and by your name cast out demons, and by your name do many miracles (Matt. 7:22).”

All these people are serving their selfish-ambition by invoking the name of Christ.  Some do so to check off the box labeled eternal security on their life to do list, where professing the name of Christ is nothing more than a get-out-of-jail free card to them.  Others invoke the name of Christ in a so-called intellectual attempt to sate the nagging feeling there is meaning in the universe even though they are certain there is no meaning.  In his book Escape from Reason in Trilogy, Crossway Books (1990): p. 241-242, Francis Schaeffer explains it this way,

Neo-orthodoxy seemed to have an advantage over secular existentialism because it uses words that have strong connotations, as they are rooted in the race—words like resurrection, crucifixion, Christ, Jesus.  These words have the illusion of communication….One hears the word Jesus, one acts upon it, but the word is never defined. The use of such words is always in the area of the irrational, the non-logical.  Being separated from history and the cosmos, they are divorced from possible verification by reason downstairs, and there is no certainty that there is anything upstairs.

None of these people or of the many others we might uncover through Jesus’ descriptions of them has surrendered him or herself to the kingship of Jesus.  And Jesus rightly says of them, “…I never knew you, depart from Me you who work lawlessness (Matt. 7:23).”

So, then, what does it mean, “struggle to enter through the narrow gate?”  Jesus says,

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the person who is doing as a consistent practice the will of My Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).”

So what is the will of the Father (i.e., God)?  Jesus says,

This is the work of God [i.e., the work God expects us to do], that you believe continuously in(to) Him [Jesus] whom He [God] sent (John 6:29).”

As we have seen, believing as Jesus describes here is not a simple confession of Christ, nor is believing intellectually acceding to Christ.  No, believing is a continual trust validated by an objective obedience of Him.

Because Jesus is who He is and has demonstrated such ineffable love towards us, we struggle and labor in love for Him by loving the same way He loves us.  We struggle because to love this way goes counter to all the present world stands for and rewards, so we encounter relentless resistance both from without and from within ourselves.  We labor because the kingdom of God has come, and as true believers we are kingdom dwellers; and as kingdom dwellers we are to be about the work of the kingdom: to be a light and a salt to a tormented, angry, disillusioned, and lost world (Matt. 5:13-16).  And we do this by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God because only in Him can we do this.

Paul expressed this tension that is no doubt weighing on you at this point succinctly as follows,

Therefore, my beloved ones, just as you always heard, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, accomplish the salvation of yourselves [i.e., Paul is telling us to live as the kingdom dwellers we are] with fear and trembling [i.e., in the humility of complete subjection of our whole selves to Christ]; for God is the one who is working continuously in you both to desire and to effect for [His] good pleasure [i.e., because by standing in Christ we know what really needs to be done, why it needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and we have the desire and the wherewithal to do what needs to be done, and we will be forgiven should we fall short] (Philippians 2:12-13).”

The apostle John describes the tension this way:

But the one who is practicing the truth comes to the light in order that it is made evident that the person’s deeds are deeds that have been done in God (John 3:21).”

Jesus describes the beauty of the tension of the righteous relationship we have with God, in Christ this way:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it shall be opened to you; for everyone who is asking, is receiving, and the one who is seeking, is finding, and to the one knocking it shall be opened (Matt. 7:7-8).”

Notice how the verbs begin as present tense imperatives (i.e., we must respond to the risen Christ) and are then reiterated in the present tense indicatives (actually participles and indicatives).  The present tense in the Greek means the actions occur continuously.  The volleying of present tense verbs (e.g., asking/receiving and seeking/finding) powerfully portrays the translational nature of God’s love flowing between God and His image-bearers as they walk together in the kingdom relationship.

God has placed before each of us the gift He had preordained in Christ from all eternity.  It is an eternal, righteous relationship, and therefore a clear tension of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.  It ceases to be the relationship God has prepared for us if we believe it only comes to us as totally passive recipients—such as one sleeping on a roof top, who is suddenly awakened, as if from a bad dream, surprised by some influx of enlightenment and transformation.  Ironically, people ultimately cling to this understanding--even though it is usually couched as the only way God can be glorified is if He does absolutely everything--so they can remain in control of their lives.  It is a key reason, I think, why purveyors of this theology are some of the most unloving people I know.

On the other hand, it is also not about us laboring to impress God, as if the kingdom principles were cast as examples to aspire to, but God will ultimately reward us for doing our best.  This too is self-serving and delusional because the kingdom of God is totally the work of God--a pure gift as an act of perfect love through the faithfulness of His one and only, unique son, Jesus the Christ.  We cannot build the kingdom for ourselves, nor can we build it for God; to believe otherwise is to hold to our original conceit that we can be god.

No, solely because of whom Christ is and His great love for us, we, in the light of God's all sufficient grace, repent and love Him by obeying Him.  To do this is to stand in the kingdom of God, and therefore squarely within the tension of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility; it is that simple.

If we stand back and examine ourselves and we see persons striving to bring justice by freely forgiving others, by making amends for those things people have against them,  by giving without expecting payments in return, by using both their spiritual and physical resources to restore others, by celebrating the beauty and prosperity of others instead of lusting after them, by seeking to restore others while keeping the persons’ own weaknesses always in view, by seeking peace and eschewing all violence, by seeing others as God sees them, by praying unceasingly for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done, by acting in integrity, and by loving all people--whether friend or enemy—just as God loves all people, then we are truly struggling to enter through the narrow gate.  If not, we are attempting to crash the party Jesus describes at the consummation of His kingdom.  And Jesus says all such pretenders will be cast outside where there is wailing and the gnashing of teeth--sober words, indeed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Did God Create Some Humans to be Damned? Part 5

A Response to the Title Question on the Basis of God’s Foreknowledge

The Apostle John tells us Jesus knew beforehand who His disciples would be—that is, who would believe in Him—and the one disciple named Judas Iscariot who would betray Him (John 6:64).  Jesus also knew Peter would deny Jesus three times (Matt. 26:31-35 ). God knew Pharaoh would harden his heart (Exo. 7:3-5).  God knew the Pharisees and Scribes would have Jesus crucified (John 11:49-53).  God also knew Jesus would be perfectly faithful (Matt. 3:16-17).  And God chose every one of these people and many, many more—the good and the bad--in full knowledge of the outcomes because it is as it is written in Proverbs 16:9:

A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.” [NET]

But even though God knows beforehand what those people would do, He by no means destined them to their choices, nor did God fix their eternal salvation based upon the choices they made in the situations under discussion; although, in many cases their specific decisions would ultimately prove to reflect an irretrievable hardness of their hearts; but God certainly didn’t impose such hardness in them against their will.  Even though He used those people in foreknowledge of their decisions, He doesn’t force them to make the decisions they did.  And even more importantly, their decisions don’t necessarily decide their eternal disposition. We know this is true by the fact that Peter wasn’t lost and the players who served God’s plan by crucifying Christ were not permanently damned because they did so; indeed, didn’t Christ forgive them (Luke 23:34)?  In any event, listen to what Peter would say to them later:

And now, brothers, I know you acted in ignorance, as your rulers did too. But the things God foretold long ago through all the prophets – that his Christ would suffer – he has fulfilled in this way. Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus (Acts 3:17-20).” [NET]

God urges them and us to repent in spite of what we may have done and be saved.  And God continues to urge us to such repentance right up to the end.  God doesn’t want anyone to perish.  This is what Paul meant when he spoke of those of God’s chosen people—Israel--who remain opposed to Christ (Rom 9: 19-24).  Even though, because they put their faith in their ethnic and religious heritage instead of Christ, they now remain as vessels of wrath—that is, in God’s judgment—that have been prepared by the potter (God) for destruction, should they repent they will become vessels of God’s mercy prepared by the same potter beforehand for God’s glory; for repentance is certainly the focal point of the instruction of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 18:1-12) behind Paul’s teaching here, and repentance is also the operative focus of Paul’s teaching in his second epistle to Timothy (II Tim. 2:20-21).  God is calling us to repent by believing in Christ and so stand in His kingdom and live.  But if we refuse, we keep ourselves outside His kingdom and remain under His certain wrath (John 3:36).

God not only continually appeals to us to repent, He always offers an open door of grace out of the course we cast ourselves.  God does not want us to stumble, even if He knows we will and our actions will fulfill God’s plans. This was true right from the beginning, as we know from God’s discourse with Cain before Cain murdered his brother Abel (Gen. 4:1-6).  It was true of Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus not only knew would betray Him but chose Judas as one of His twelve disciples, anyway (John 6:59-71).    A careful reading of the drama of Judas shows us Jesus affording every mercy—every appeal of love—to Judas to move Judas to turn back from the sin forming in Judas’ heart.  Jesus revealed Judas’ duplicity to Judas; Jesus invited Judas to recline at Jesus’ left (the place of highest honor relative to the host); Jesus gave Judas a morsel (another act of high honor).  All of these expressions of love (mercy) were appeals to Judas to repent, but Judas hardened his heart with each offering of mercy extended him.  In the end, Jesus let Judas have Judas’ way, and at that point Judas became irreversibly hardened in his course; as the Scriptures tell us, at that moment, Satan entered Judas’ heart (John 13:21-30).

Another example is Pharaoh before the exodus of Israel (Exo. 7-14).  God, through the plagues, mercifully appealed to Pharaoh to capitulate to the authority of God and release the Israelites.  Instead, with each appeal of mercy, Pharaoh hardened his heart.  We can understand how Moses described the situation as both Pharaoh hardening his heart, and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  God didn’t coerce Pharaoh’s will, He appealed to it with mercy, with the result Pharaoh’s true heart was revealed.  This is what Paul meant in Romans 9:14-18 when he said of God, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will harden whom I will harden;” through a relentless mercy, God allowed Pharaoh to ultimately condemn himself, so God in effect hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  And because of this, all could see that God is God, the One who delivers us from our exile.

God is Good in every situation in this fallen world, and always provides grace for everyone to turn back to Him.  God didn’t predispose Judas to betray Jesus, nor did God harden Pharaoh’s heart against the Pharaoh’s will.  To do any of those things would require God to deny himself, and render the outcomes lies—mere facsimiles of what He intended for His creation.  No, Judas and Pharaoh and, unfortunately, many others like them, kept themselves out of the righteous relationship with their Creator because they contained God’s love within themselves, where it atrophied and gave way into hate.

God foreknew these players would do what they did and so fulfill God’s purposes; but God didn’t make them do what they did.  There are things that God determined before all time must happen.  Such things He both foreknew and rendered certain.  We have already discussed these things, and they are 1) God’s purpose of creation as a place where He dwells with His image-bearers in 2) relationships empowered and sustained in the state of holy love, 3) in Christ.  When the Bible reflects on predestination, it means the predestined condition of God’s kingdom, which is both necessary for and the very state of eternal life; it is as Jesus teaches:

Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who is hearing my word and is believing the one who sent Me has eternal life and does not come into judgment, but has passed over from death to life (John 5:24).”

This is God preordained place and conditions where all who choose to love Him must and will exist.  The place and conditions are fixed, not the roll-call; otherwise, as I hope we have already shown, God would contradict His goodness.

Now, the implication of what Jesus said is another reality is also fixed.  If there is only one place to be—and God will see that this will ultimately happen—than those who resolutely remain in rebellion against God cannot be there.  So the place for such rebellious people is also fixed, and Jesus refers to this place as judgment.  But the roster for this place is also not fixed but depends on the consistent choices (heart condition) of those who end up there.

The point is God has definitely chosen His kingdom and the ground rules of His kingdom, but he has not determined who will or who will not be there, even though he knows who they will be.

So why do the scriptures speak often of those who love Him as His elect?  Because God has chosen before all time His kingdom—that is to say, His kingdom is His election—those who truly enter His kingdom become indistinguishable from the kingdom itself—indeed, they define it—so they are His election, or His elect.  We are His elect, then, not because we have no choice in the matter, but because we stand in His kingdom, in Christ, in response to the call of God.

Jesus makes it very clear that no one comes to Him unless God draws Him (John 6:44 and 65); indeed, He teaches

 “And it has been written in the prophets, ‘and all people will be taught by God;’ everyone who hears from the Father and is learning comes to Me (John 6:45).”

But this call is not irresistible; after all, the stipulation here is a willing response from us to actively be about learning from God, and almost constantly Jesus is calling us to be in a continuous state of believing in Him (e.g., John 1:12; 3:16; and 6:29, to expose the tip of the iceberg)—not, I must add, a one-time confession of Christ.  If God’s call were irresistible, then God would not be Good.  Yet God must give each of us all the grace we need to recognize our broken relationship with Him, our need to repent of our ill-fated alliances (i.e., our misplaced trust), the desire to repent, the ability to see the alternatives, and so on.  In short, God must and does give each of us all the grace necessary to turn back to Him without contradicting love.  This call involves both God and us; where God’s involvement ends and our involvement begins, and vice versa, is a mystery.  Why some, even under the influence of such powerful and loving grace, choose to reject God’s gift of salvation is also a mystery.

When we speak of such situations as mysteries we speak without contradiction; we properly invoke mystery to those things beyond the limits of our understanding.  They nevertheless trouble us because we are a people discomforted by tensions; and these particular aforementioned mysteries reside in the granddaddy of all tensions, the tension of God’s sovereignty and Man’s responsibility.  The Bible talks within this tension constantly, yet sees no need to explain how it works.  It is, I think, as Jesus described the person having been born of the Spirit of God:

The spirit blows where it wills and you hear its voice, but you don’t know where it comes from and where it is going; thus it is for everyone who has been born from the spirit (John 3:8).

God doesn’t explain it to us because we wouldn’t comprehend it; but more importantly, He doesn’t explain it because to walk in God’s kingdom is to walk by faith alone.  We don’t need to know how God is working His love out in us who believe, only to trust Him to be faithful in doing so, and therefore, demonstrating such trust by objectively obeying Him.  Therefore we need to heed His warning to us:

Today! If you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts (Heb. 4:7).”

Monday, July 15, 2013

Did God Create Some Humans to be Damned? Part 4

A High-Calvinist Response to the Title Question

The reason I have made such a long statement on God’s justice is because many don’t agree with me, and so have adapted a sordid view of what lies behind the determination of some people to choose not to love God.  The high-Calvinists answer “yes” to the title question of this paper: If God created everything, and some reject Him, doesn’t God create some to damnation? They teach God does so for His glory, which they define as His demonstration of power.  In his book, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Baker publications, 6th Edition, p.54), the Calvinist, H. Henry Meeter explains it this way:

We can begin by saying that as reprobate, as sinners, they are never the objects of God’s favor, but always of His wrath.  God is glorified in the administration of His justice as revealed in the eternal punishment of the wicked.

Of course, this viewpoint is completely understandable when argued from the presupposition of voluntarism (above), foundational to Calvinist theology.  But it clearly impugns God’s goodness.

God doesn’t purpose to destroy people in response to their rejection of Him.  God is primarily concerned with restoring right order—the righteousness of His kingdom.  People who reject God place themselves outside of justice (i.e., outside His kingdom) and therefore are dead spiritually and therefore remain outside His kingdom.  God doesn’t need to punish them with hell because they are already in hell—that is, they remain under God’s wrath; although the hell they experience now in the presence of God will certainly pale in comparison of the hell they will experience in the second death (Rev. 20:11-15), where God’s influence is absent.  Whoever holds to a course of rebellion against God, God will ultimately leave him or her to the desire of his or her will because for His kingdom to reign fully, it must be perfectly just; therefore, no injustice can be allowed to exist—again, not because God is vengeful or retributive, but because God is Good.

Some will argue at this point the Scriptures clearly teach God will us judge based on our works (e.g., Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6-11; I Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:12 and 22:12).  This would seem to be distributive justice.  It isn’t.  Our salvation is to stand in the kingdom of God, in Christ.  If we are in God’s salvation it will be reflected by our most consistent character.  Whether our consistent character is of holy love (in the kingdom) or is of selfish-ambition (outside the kingdom), it will be evident by our actions and passions. At the final judgment God will assess our works and depending on what He finds, He will either say we are or we are not in His kingdom—that is, whether we stand in Christ or don’t stand in Christ.  Because we neither earn entrance into God’s kingdom, nor somehow build God’s kingdom for ourselves, our ultimate character as kingdom dwellers is the work of the Holy Spirit within us and our devotion to the Holy Spirit’s work (contrast the passages about judgment by works against passages such as John 3:21, Eph. 2:10, and Phil. 2:12-13)—that is, we live by faith.  If we reject God's Spirit, which is to stand outside of God's kingdom, our consistent character will reflect this choice, too.  Therefore, our salvation is not decided on the basis of distributive justice but on whether or not we are standing in God’s justice.

When we properly understand God’s justice as the right order of things, we can no longer even imagine God creating some people for reprobation.  Double predestination—the choosing before all eternity whom God would love and whom He wouldn’t, or even a more moderate position of God withholding necessary grace from some, so that while acting “freely” they would nevertheless be guaranteed to fail (i.e., compatibilism)—becomes an absurdity in the face of God’s kingdom justice.  To purposely create beings to be disordered—to be unjust—would undermine His purpose in creation, and therefore contradict His Goodness.  No, we must discover a different reason for God allowing the universe to end up with both people who reject God and people who accept Him.

A Response to the Title Question on the Basis of God’s Goodness

Hopefully by all of this we are beginning to understand God’s purpose in creation.  His glory is righteous relationships between His image bearers and Himself and, consequently, between His image bearers, collectively as the kingdom of God.  His glory is the power of His goodness to create a place where beings necessarily in His image can dwell with Him by the same love bonding the relationships inherent to God’s eternal being—not power for the sake of demonstration of power.  When Saint Paul states, “For all persons have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23),” he means the glory of the power of God’s goodness manifested in a kingdom of relationships of holy love.  Paul’s statement doesn’t make sense if glory meant simply a demonstration of God’s power.

God’s glory that is His kingdom has meaning only if His image bearers truly love Him in perfect tension with holiness.  This means among other things, his image bearers must freely choose to love Him.  God could, of course, create automatons programmed to love Him, but such love—if we could call it that—would be unholy, and therefore, not good; for God to create such an artificial state—except, I guess, as a toy kingdom, which was not His purpose--He would have to deny Himself.

To create image bearers who could be true dwellers with Him in His kingdom, He created humankind as neither Good, nor the absence of Good (Evil), but God created humankind innocent (Genesis 2:25).  And God called this nascent state of humankind, very good (beautiful).  He did so because had God created them “Good” they would have been like God in that they could only choose to love in justice.  But being created beings, they are necessarily contingent beings, so they cannot be God, or realize His purpose for them as His image bearers without sharing His nature.  But for them to genuinely share the Divine nature, they must grow into it through a relationship with God because only God is love; otherwise, they wouldn’t be contingent beings, but only mere projections of God.

For such a relationship to be righteous the creature must be able to respond to God’s love by freely choosing to love Him back.  Again, the kind of relationship God purposed us to enter into with Him involves genuine love, not pretence of love.  Only by a relationship can love grow within the creature—can the creature learn the reality of love--until love is eventually perfected in the creature, where the creature perfectly shares the Divine nature.  Therefore, God created humankind innocent—a clean slate—fully outfitted (i.e., created in His image) to grow through a righteous relationship with God until becoming Good, when humankind fully shares His nature.  Putting it differently, only by experiencing love, which means one receives love from God, and then one freely chooses to love God back, can one learn what love is; and this process takes time.

The kingdom relationships God created us to enjoy requires a holy love, which by definition therefore, cannot be coerced.  God could have a type of a relationship with automatons programmed to love.  In one sense the automatons would freely love God, but only because they had been predisposed to do so.  Not only would such a relationship not be righteous, it would be meaningless and therefore an effrontery to God because it would contradict His Goodness; God would not create for Himself a lie, because God does not lie.

Therefore, God created human beings fully capable of growing to the point of fully sharing His nature.  And this growth would occur through a relationship of holy love.  For a time Adam and Eve enjoyed such a relationship—like children with their parent--and they began to grow in their understanding of God’s love.  Through their burgeoning love with God, they were learning the wisdom of love.  And if Adam and Eve had stayed the course, they would have become authentic humanity—that is human beings fully sharing the Divine nature.  If you don’t understand what this means, study Jesus, who is the first born of all of us who dwell in God’s kingdom by faith.

Alas, Adam and Eve believed they could reach the goal without the process.  They bought into Satan’s lie they could take the quick fix and learn to love without loving.  In so doing, they contained love to themselves by rejecting it.  This severed their essential relationship with God, and they died.  Only in a relationship with God through holy love is there life; indeed, to walk with God in His kingdom is to live forever.

When Adam and Eve died, they ran out on their created purpose to maintain, through their righteous relationships with God and each other, the right order of the cosmos as God’s regents.  When Adam and Eve died, the physical realm was plunged into chaos.  No wonder Paul, in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans writes,

For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.  For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.  For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now.  Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance (Romans 8:18-25). [NET]

Paul tells us that God allowed the creation to fall into futility.  Why? Humankind must be fully restored to the just relationship with God so humanity will then meet their created purpose as God’s regents in the universe.  Because God is good, He will not artificially restore peace to the cosmos; instead, He waits for right order to be realized as it only properly can through the complete healing of relationships between God and His image-bearers and consequently between His image-bearers.  The restoration of peace in the cosmos—what will finally quell the groaning Paul speaks of (above)—requires the restoration of Divine/Human relationships because this is how God created it to be.  And He did so because of His goodness.

Of course, as a supreme act of God’s goodness, Jesus came and dealt once and for all with our Death which disables our relationship with God.  So why does God wait to bring a close to history?  I can only say I don’t know; it is a mystery.  The apostle Peter gives us a clue, though:

The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (II Pet. 3:9).” [NET]

God is relational.  When we ponder the title question, we must do so while standing on the foundation of righteous relationships--not contrived relationships—because God who created us is relational.  Peter’s words seem to imply God will save everyone because, if not, His will would be thwarted.  The Bible clearly stands against universal salvation, and rightly so.  If God saved everyone regardless of their choice, it would contradict His goodness—as we have already discussed.  Consequently, His goodness does impose a certain risk no one will choose Him.  So why would God create us in the first place?  Certainly, not because He needs our love; neither God’s being nor His character are contingent on anything outside Himself (see above).  I suppose the answer lies in His goodness; His goodness by its nature wants to expand out in relationships—not out of need, but by its very nature.  So why take the risk of no one choosing to love Him in return in a righteous relationship—especially at the cost of suffering?  The answer, I think, is He knew some would indeed so love Him.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Did God Create Some Humans to be Damned? Part 3

Mercy and Justice

We have shown that the created purpose of God is a kingdom in which God dwells with His image bearers (us) in a state fostering perfect relationships through the unfettered flow of God’s love in the purity of holiness.  And God predestined this necessary state of affairs would be in Christ for all of us who believe.  Saint Paul states this explicitly in his letter to the Ephesians:

Blessed is God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who blessed us in every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, in that He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we might be holy and blameless before Him in love.” (Eph. 1:3,4)

This is the trajectory of God’s re-creative work in Christ: justice for all who believe in Christ.  But as we know, the cosmos is not yet there.  We who stand in Christ today do stand in this kingdom, today.  But His kingdom is juxtaposed on a very dark and fallen world.  Both regardless and for this reason, we must live as Christ followers in the reality of God’s kingdom by being good just as God teaches us through His prophet Micah:

He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord really wants from you:
He wants you to promote justice [act justly], to be faithful [love mercy], and to live obediently [walk humbly] before your God.” (Micah 6:8)

The good news is God’s kingdom has come in Christ so we can actually live in this expectation of good because in Christ we now have the wisdom and power to do it (I John 2:7-8).  Thus, if we believe in Christ we will be predisposed to love mercy and act justly because we walk humbly before God—that is, we walk in complete dependence on Him.

The question becomes what is the relationship between the final state of love and holiness and the concepts of mercy and justice? To me the former is the end and the latter is the means.  The confusion comes in understanding justice in both terms of an end state—God’s righteousness—and a means to that end.  Here, we can look to language for help.

In his seminal work, Iustitia Dei, Alister McGrath discusses two Hebrew words relevant to the present discussion (McGrath, Iustitia Dei. Cambridge (2005): pp.6-21).  The Hebrew word for righteousness is sedaqa.  It means the right order of things; therefore it describes the final state of justice.  For this reason, in a broad sense God’s righteousness and justice are synonymous.  What’s interesting about this word sedaqa is over time it came to mean almsgiving.  Dr. McGarth points out how this rather odd change makes perfect sense when we understand justice as right order of things because a key result of the fall of Humankind is poverty (Ibid. p. 13).  In fact, God most frequently speaks of His justice in the Bible as a response to the pleas and needs of the poor (as good bench marks of this consider Is. 58 and Matt. 25:31-46).  So we see in the evolution of the word sedaqa it carries both the final state of justice—right order of things—and the means to getting there—promoting justice.

Another word for our consideration is the Hebrew verb hasdiq, which we translate as “to justify.”  What God meant us to understand from this word is to acquit—that is, to make something right even though it is wrong and undeserving of such an appellation.  The Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek pulled their hair out trying to translate hasdiq because there was no Greek equivalent; the very idea of acquitting someone who was guilty was foreign to the Greeks.  In the end they used the Greek verb, δικαιοω, which means “to justify,” but in the Greek sense of giving someone his or her proper due: if you do well, you are rewarded; if you do bad, you are punished.  It is this sense of justice and justifying—what is called distributive justice--we have come to understand God’s justice.  And such an interpretation has dire implications on how we see our role in a very unjust world and as we shall see (below), how we answer the title question.

When we properly speak of justice from God’s perspective, then, we mean the right order of things.  When we speak of God’s justice as a means or response, we mean a movement from the wrong order of things to the right order of things.  Unfortunately, we have come to understand justice as a matter of accounting—balancing the scales—and we attempt to accomplish this balancing through retribution.  The fallen world defines justice as vengeance, tit-for-tat, or retribution.  But this is not Christ’s justice—kingdom of God justice.

Now, it is true the Bible speaks frequently of God’s retribution.   God makes it clear to us: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19) But there is no reason to understand this as vindictiveness on God’s part.  Instead we should see it in two important aspects.  Firstly, God must be the only one to make final judgments because God is the only one who is perfectly righteous.  Consequently, the relentless seeking of God to vanquish our enemies, as documented in the Bible, is really a call for us to keep trusting God to do what only He can do without us meddling.  We continue to petition God to act so that His justice will be consummated; indeed, this is our certain hope in Christ—a hope, I might add, the rest of the world lacks because they continue to trust retribution as the path to justice.

Secondly, the injustice in the world—that is, the wrong order of things—must ultimately be dealt with for the cosmos to become fully just.  Therefore, God must bring final order by the destruction of everything keeping the cosmos in a disordered condition.  This is not vindictiveness or even retribution on God’s part; God isn’t sitting in heaven thinking, I’m going to beat the crap out of so-and-so because of what he did; no God’s destruction of everything opposing His kingdom is the Goodness of God ultimately prevailing in the cosmos.  God's kingdom will come in fullness, but sadly, many will obstinately refuse to enter it.  In the end, as in Jesus’ parable, the weeds shall be gathered and burned (Matt. 13:24-29 and 37-43).

Justice is not vengeance, even though second temple Judaism came to see it that way.  When John the Baptist asked Jesus if Jesus was the one promised to come—the Messiah who would bring in God’s kingdom—it was because John doubted.  Even though John was certain of Jesus’ Messianic identity, John doubted.  I believe John doubted because, for one thing, he was in prison, and under such conditions even the best of us might tend to lose perspective.  But perhaps John also doubted because he was holding on to the common idea of the Messiah as a conquering warrior. Jesus responded, in His typical loving manner of both correction and instruction, in terms of kingdom justice, not the fallen world’s retributive justice:

So he answered them, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them.  Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me (Luke 7:22,23).” [NET]

All that had become disordered because of the Death of humankind, Jesus was restoring in order to usher in His kingdom.  Consequently, blindness both physical and spiritual was being restored; lameness was being replaced by wholeness; the walls of social division were being broken down; and death was being overcome by life.

We don’t want to miss what the Pharisees clearly missed when they accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan; Jesus cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, which meant the kingdom of God was coming—indeed, has come—in power:

But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you (Matthew 12:28). [NET]

Jesus is bringing order out of the chaos of rebellion, so He naturally begins with restoring the relationship between us and our Creator by the mercy of forgiveness.  Demons represent Satan’s only hold over us, which is our guilt.  By casting the demons out of people, Jesus relinquished their hold over us.  And by His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, Jesus divested Satan of any accusation against us who believe in Christ, once and for all.  It was through an act of the mercy of love and forgiveness that Jesus ushered in justice, not by the end of a sword.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day and many others over subsequent history—including many who have professed the name of Christ—thought people can be legislated into justice.  Even today, too many people believe we can bring kingdom justice by the enforcement of rules.  In other words, they think we can only establish justice by wielding the sword of retribution.  Jesus came and both lived and preached the truth that only through the administering of mercy can people be brought into kingdom justice:

If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent (Matthew 12:7). [NET]

But this mercy is love grounded in justice.  The kind of mercy effecting a change from the wrong order of things to the right order of things never condones injustice; rather true mercy, brings the recipient to an understanding of his or her own folly, he or she would have otherwise ignored.
God is bringing about His justice--the restoration of His kingdom—through the kingdom principles of love and holiness manifested as mercy and justice.  God is not bringing justice through the present world’s method of retribution and might-makes-right.  We see this clearly with Jesus on the cross; even though brutalized and mocked, Jesus prayed,

Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Therefore, if we confess Jesus as our Lord, which means we walk in His kingdom, then our theology should have no room for distributive justice, but fully embrace the principles of mercy and justice, the present expression of a holy love inspired and powered by God’s Spirit within us.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Did God Create Some Humans to be Damned? Part 2

[What follows is a continuation of the previous post.  If you missed the last post, please read it before continuing on, here.]

The Character of God

Jesus tells us that only God is good.  Indeed, God defines goodness.  If we want to really understand goodness we must look to God.  And because Jesus is God come in the flesh.  We must look to Jesus if we want to see God:

“’If you have known Me, you will also know My Father.  And from now on you know Him and have seen Him…. Jesus said to him, ‘So long a time I am with you, and you have not known Me, Philip? The one who has seen Me, has seen the Father.  How is it you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” [John 14:7, 9]

When Moses asked God to show Moses God’s glory, Moses was seeking to know God’s true Self.  God answered,

"I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the Lord by name before you; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:19)  [NET]

"God’s true Self is His goodness.  Some think by how God describes His nature that the corollary, “I will condemn whom I will condemn,” is also true.  Not so.  What God is saying is His goodness is not predicated on anything outside His Being.  In the same way God earlier described the complete autonomy of his Being by saying His name is “I am, that I am.  You must tell the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:14), God now speaks of His nature the same way.  God is also telling Moses by this definition of His nature that God is in the business to bring the opportunity of salvation to all humanity, not just a select few (i.e., Israel); God is seeking to restore His creation to its created purpose.


The Tension of Love and Holiness

If we are to answer the title question, we must come to better understand God's perspective of justice.

When we consider justice, we usually think about rules, the breaking of rules, and punishment.  God did, indeed, give us a set of laws against killing, stealing, committing adultery, coveting our neighbor’s things, and so on.  So when we speak of a just state, these laws constitute the foundation or minimum condition of order.  But they are not sufficient to complete order; we must also love each other.  It is this complete order of objective purity in love that is God's justice.

The love by which we must love each other for it to be a just state is the selfless love by which God has loved us.  What we discover is when we love in this way there is no longer any need to articulate the rules.  The reason is such love eliminates all the conditions that lead to breaking the rules.  To love with God’s love fully satisfies the objectives of the stated rules.  In other words, selfless love fulfills the law.

Outside of such love, which is where we all find ourselves because we told God we can be our own god, we live in fear: fear of want, fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of betrayal, fear of losing, fear of loneliness, and so on.  Because of God’s goodness, when we love with His love, our fears vanish, and consequently the effects of those fears, which is the breaking of the laws, vanish from the community of humanity.  Think about it: in God's love, everyone would meet the needs of others; everyone would be faithful to others; there would no longer be competition; everyone would be content and willing to share with others.  But only when God’s love empowers and motivates all relationships; otherwise all those consequences switch to their negatives, with the result the rules are broken--people living in fear kill, steal, cheat, lie, grasp, and on and on; what was a just state, with its purity through selfless love, quickly devolves into an unjust state empowered by selfish-ambition.

Love is the key to justice, but can it be autonomous of the rules and still be love?  No, because the rules—rather, the objectives of the rules-- are what shape the love into selfless love.  I might see someone steal bread because they are hungry and tell them it is okay and believe I love them by this—that is, I believe love is defined by an unbridled permissiveness or tolerance.  Not so.  I really choose to take the stand I do to avoid the work to help the person out of his hunger so he no longer needs to steal; so my so-called love is really self-serving, and therefore not God’s love.  The person who steals is not helped to see that he is attempting to meet a genuine need in a wrong way, so he very likely will meet other needs in similar fashions; as his own sense of self-interest escalates, so do his breaking of the rules.  Furthermore, his real needs still are not met, so he becomes embittered and covetous, and lashes out with greater virulence.  And his victims will respond in kind.  The result is the once just state collapses; and the collapse is complete because both love and purity are lost.

What happens if we disconnect the rules from love?  In our simple example of the bread thief, the thief is punished for breaking the law.  The punisher believes he will prevent any future stealing by instilling fear into the thief.  But the thief’s needs go unmet, so he will steal again—perhaps now from a sense of vengeance, so  he breaks more laws in the process.  The punisher sees himself more worthy than the thief because the punisher does not break the written call or letter of the rules; and this sense of superiority engenders a haughty contempt for the thief and anyone like the thief.  In short, the legalism of the punisher creates destructive relationships and both the letter and the objectives of the laws are thwarted.  As in the case when love is practiced outside the law, when the law is practiced without love the once just state becomes unjust, and both love and purity are destroyed.

Therefore, God’s justice is not a matter of unbridled tolerance, nor is it a police state.  God’s justice is when love and holiness are kept in perfect tension.  Saying it differently: God’s justice is the right order of things as defined by relationships, empowered and driven by God’s love, cradled within the objective state of purity that is holiness.

God’s justice is the necessary condition of the kingdom He created for us to dwell with Him.  And when God consummates His kingdom—when God is all and in all—the cosmos will be stand perfectly in justice--God’s righteousness.  But as we all know His kingdom has not yet come in completion; there are still destructive relationships in our world, and because of them, great disorder.  For this reason, the Bible most frequently speaks of love and holiness in terms of mercy and justice.