The Gift of God

The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 6:23

The central point of Christianity is that in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have the clearest picture anyone is going to get of that from which all things derive. What is at the heart of all things? Why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is not a concept or a principle or an idea or a law but a person. And the overarching theme of that person's life is continuous, unconditional love. The universe is formed in Love. We are formed in Love. Which all sounds a bit syrupy and naff unless we are careful about what we mean by "Love". Scott Peck uses a definition which seems accurate to me: The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. We seem to be formed to grow and develop; and the movement towards us from the universe itself ( and from the Great One who is the beginning and cause and end of the universe) to bring about that growth is what we Christians call Grace. Our tendency to try and evade that growth is what we call sin.

Well, so far so good. The trouble is, we in the Church tend ceaselessly to separate these two things which make no sense without each other, and in doing so, make a travesty of the message we are supposed to be proclaiming. It is the tendency of some parts of the church, for example, to emphasise sin and forget about grace; so the horrors of human weakness are emphasised, and formulaic appeasement is made to a vengeful, intractable, irascible God. The overcoming of sin depends less on God's unconditional love for all people (that is, God's movement towards us) than on our making some clearly defined set of commitments or on our keeping of some set of rules or other (that is, our movement towards God). In contrast other parts of the church stress grace but seem to have forgotten why Grace might be needed. The universal human  tendency to evade what is actually in our own best interests is ignored and the life giving impulses in our personalities are accepted as limply as  our viciousness is excused. Both are explained  as accidental variance in the human condition, to be understood and valued with even handed acceptance

If I have no conception of Grace, I will forget that the tendency I so acutely observe in others to vigorously evade the light is an unconquerable characteristic of my own soul as well.  If I have no clear perception of sin, I will not understand the seriousness of my own or anyone else's behaviour. In either case, I have lost all sense of Paul's powerful words. My actions matter, says Paul, and if I get them wrong, as I invariably do, they can be deadly to myself and to others, but, he continues, in the same sentence, without pausing for breath, God's movement towards me is ceaseless and powerful and restorative. To find life, all  I need to do is to stop running for long enough to recognise who I am, and who God is..

Comments

Elaine Dent said…
Good words. Beautiful photo. Thank you.
Anonymous said…
"The overcoming of sin depends less on God's unconditional love for all people (that is, God's movement towards us) than on our making some clearly defined set of commitments or on our keeping of some set of rules or other (that is, our movement towards God)...."

God's 'love for all people' isn't simple nor is it entirely 'unconditional'; there are numerous senses (providential, salvific, paternal) which have to be carefully distinguished if the Scriptures are going to be properly understood. A sentimental liberal theology homogenizes these senses and then has difficulties with the rocky bits of the Bible: how can a God of love send people to hell? why does God let his children suffer? can God be angry with those he loves? etc.
Don Carson's little book 'The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God' handles these different biblical senses of 'the love of God'.
As for the gravity of sin ('Nondum considerasti ...'), as the Chrisitan world says goodbye to John Stott, his most penetrating book 'The Cross of Christ' is worth a good revisit.
VenDr said…
So God's love is only partially unconditional? Come on now. It's either unconditIonal or it's not. I'm not sure where these different senses of the word love come from; certainly not koine or Hebrew. Perhaps they are less about a "correct" understanding of scripture than about erecting a bulwark to defend a particular theology?
Anonymous said…
"So God's love is only partially unconditional? Come on now. It's either unconditIonal or it's not."

God's love has several dimensions in Scripture (providential to all creation; salvific to those elected to salvation; paternal to those within that relationship; these are helpfully distinguished by Carson. Some aspects or dimensions of God's love are unconditional, some are conditional.
"I'm not sure where these different senses of the word love come from; certainly not koine or Hebrew."
agapao/phileo/ahab can only be understood in context. Atomized word study doesn't tell us all that much. The different senses come form examing how the words for 'love' are used in various contexts, then attempting some synthesis.

"Perhaps they are less about a "correct" understanding of scripture than about erecting a bulwark to defend a particular theology?"

Or perhaps not. If the text of Scripture has a true - correct, even - and unified meaning, it should be recoverable, in spite of our prejudices.
Anonymous said…
... what I mean is, to say "God loves you/us" without any qualification or explication of those words either commits us to universal salvation or to the classical problems of theodicy. Hence the need to read carefully in context - just as we should with all texts.
Elaine Dent said…
OK, VenDr, they are more than good words. It is true; I know that I am always evading what is life-giving, such as sitting down for the fifteen minutes of silence before God daily. That silent meditation is life-giving to me, and I know God uses it to give me clarity (usually much later). So why do I avoid it? (rhetorical question) Because I participate in the sin of "evading what is life-giving." That definition of sin takes sin beyond the breaking of rules and focuses on God-given relationship.

I am not good at theological and exegetical nuances, so I quickly fall silent to those that know more. But I read and re-read Romans 8 and find in it a deep, yearning hope,and maybe even Paul's vision, that somehow God's unconditional love will restore all creation, the universe, not just a few. That somehow the children of God (the baptized into Christ) are part of the plan of God's continued redeeming of the universe...and not the end goal.

Here is one thing I wonder about: why is it that our contemplative, meditative brothers and sisters through history that have a more expansive view of unconditional love of God? Or am I mistaken? Contemplatives do not say who is "in" and who is "out", refrain from judging and saying what one must do, and are more articulate about the profound, God-initiated Grace always flowing towards us. What is it about silence before God that fosters in us an awareness of unconditional love and a deep connection with all humanity and creation? (That isn't a rhetorical question.)
VenDr said…
Elaine: I listened to an interview with Richard Rohr a few weeks ago and he gave an answer to your last, not rhetorical question. He said that Christianity, like all religions, is first and foremost about personal transformation. Not so profound really, God created us to be with him,but for one reason or another we are not. God moves mountains - literally - to set that to rights; or at least he does something even more spectacular, ie coming and sharing our lot with us. So the whole business of redemption and forgiveness and the paraphenalia of prayer and worship and so forth is about transforming people: from what they are to what God knows they can be. BUT! Over the years the church has a tendency to stop doing its core business of eprsonal transformation. And when the church ceases to be about personal transformation it becomes a system of belonging: arguing incessantly about who belongs (to the Church, to God, whatever) and who doesn't and refining the rules for the same. Hardly surprising that those who discover the pearl of great price, ie lives transformed by the unknowable presence of God should suddenly forget all about who is in and who is out.
VenDr said…
Anonymous: I see your point about the difficulties of Universalism and theodicy but I think your, or at least Mr. Carson's solution to the issues causes more problems than it solves. It denigrates and belittles the very nature of God. God is Love. It is God's very nature. That's what God is made of! This is what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about. Unconditional Love isn't some wonderful feature of the Good News, it IS the Good News. If God's love is conditional to any degree then God isn't God; or at least not the God demonstrated in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. Unconditional Love is what caused the universe to be. Unconditional Love is what caused you and me to be. God's love must be unconditional or it is not really love; as Shakespeare says, "love is not love if it alters where it alteration finds".

At very best, the various phases of love ennunciated by Mr. Carson might describe our responses to or perhaps our experiences of or perhaps our ideas about to God's unconditional love. But God's love itself is not varied, not diminished, not conditional on anything you or I or anybody might do or say or think. As Rob Bell says, "There's nothing you can do to make God love you less. Nothing. Absolutely nothing." If God alters his love (ie his very nature) because of the behaviour or thoughts of people, can't you see that this is putting power over God's very being into feeble and finite creatures. This divvying up of love may well help solve the real but not insurmountable problems of Theodicy; it might help us to imagine away the chimera of universalism; but only at the expense of denying the very nature of God himself.
Anonymous said…
"At very best, the various phases of love ennunciated by Mr. Carson might describe our responses to or perhaps our experiences of or perhaps our ideas about to [sic] God's unconditional love. But God's love itself is not varied, not diminished, not conditional on anything you or I or anybody might do or say or think."

Really? What about Jesus' words in John 15.10? If Scripture is our distorted perception of God (as neo-Kantian liberal theology avers), I'm not sure what use it is. Do we need a mystic or a pope (or a mystical pope?) to tell us what the truth is? Kelvin, I don't think you have interacted at all with Professor Carson's points. He is a subtle and sophisticated evangelical theologian who seeks to tease out the different contexts of Scripture - including the very words of Christ on love, election, obedience and divine judgment. You won't find the phrase "God's unconditional love" anywhere in the Bible - I suspect it is one of those popular memes from the 60s, maybe emanating finally from Tillich, for all I know.
God is love (1 John 4.8) - of course. And God is light (1 John 1.5). He doesn't love what is evil.
VenDr said…
I never for a moment suggested that scripture was our distorted view of God - I think you have me confused with some other argument you might be engaged in.

And I don't see your point about John 15:10. Keep the commandments and remain in God's love. The love doesn't vary; it cant. What varies is our moving in or out of it. Much like an actor moving in or out of the spotight, I suppose.

And no, the phrase "God's unconditional love", just like the phrases "God's salvific love","God's paternal love", "God's providential love", is not found anywhere in the Bible. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, it is an extrapolation. And one far older than Tillich, I might hasten to add.
Elaine Dent said…
Thanks for the insight. Have known that my corner of the Church has gotten side-tracked. Rohr's book "Ruthless Trust" has been read twice in the last year. Must read more of him.
VenDr said…
...and as for the vexed question of authority. There are, depending on how you count them, between 22,500 and 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. The overwhelming majority of these are Protestant, with each claiming scriptural authority for it's particular version of the truth. So appeals to Biblical authority as the ultimate source of truth do ring a little hollow. Forgive me for being a little cynical, but I gave my life to Christ almost 40 years ago, so have been moving in Christian circles a while, and I have grown equally wary of those who claim the direct authority of the Holy Spirit and those who claim some sort of inside running on the "real" or "plain" meaning of scripture.

Do we need a mystic or a pope to tell us what to believe? That depends on the mystic or pope I suppose, as it does on the reformer or theologian. All of them are human and in the end we make our own call on how they shape what we believe. But there are several of the mystics whose words ring with truth, at least in my ears. One of them says that in regard to God, our minds won't get us very far, and I think the convoluted and fragmented history of the Christian Church rather bears him out.
"For why, he may well be loved, but not thought. By love may he be gotten and holden; but by thought never."
Anonymous said…
And no, the phrase "God's unconditional love", just like the phrases "God's salvific love","God's paternal love", "God's providential love", is not found anywhere in the Bible. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, it is an extrapolation."

Thank you for your patience in this. "God's salvific love" simply means 'God's love that saves us' and the idea (as with the fatherly and providential loves) is certainly present in Scripture. Does Scripture teach that God loves us "unconditionally"? In some senses, I think so. That's what providence means. In every sense, regardless of election, repentance, faith, amendment of life etc? I doubt it, unless we say:
either 'God loves those he condemns' or 'All will be saved to eternal life.' Both ideas seem hard to square with the word of Christ. My point has simply been that indiscriminate use of the phrase 'love of God' creates many problems and doesn't attend carefully enough to Scripture.
I agree that knowing God is relational and personal and it is not the same as knowing *about Him; but (as in any personal realtionship) the more we know about a person, the better we know the person.
Elaine Dent said…
Oops. One final correction from when I pulled the book off the shelf tonight. "Ruthless Trust" was written by Brennan Manning, not Rohr.
VenDr said…
Patience? None required. I've looked forward to your comments. Thanks for contributing so intelligently and graciously.
VenDr said…
Elaine I've just finished The Naked Now and have immediately lent it to someone. What higher recommendation could I give a book? It's well worth spending some of your book allowance on.
Eric Kyte said…
Thanks Kelvin and Anonymous for a fascinating discussion. The words 'dialectical tension' spring to mind, which when understood as the reality of life as experienced leeds us deeper into Life.

Regarding the Phrase 'Love of God' - I've thought for a long time that we all have a tendency to project our idea of Love onto God. So 'God is Love' means for most if not all of us 'God is my idea of love' (clumsily put perhaps, but I hope the point comes across) This I think is one of the key questions when discussing Theodicy, 'just what is Love?' The answer from Scripture is, I suggest 'God is'.

We come to know what Love is as we come to know God - that is the journey of a life time and the journey of Life (Jn 17:3 springs to mind).

I guess in the End the dialectical tensions are resolved and as often is the case we will discover that we have been speaking of the same thing from different perspectives, as through a glass darkly.

Thanks for the tip on the Rohr Kelvin, I'll do something with it when it doesn't take up a precious kg!!! :) (Unfortunately not available on Kindle) I've been reading some of his other books but wanted to read this one.

Following this conversation I'll read it alongside some of my Carson and see if something emerges in the gap! :)
Eric Kyte said…
btw I see that my comment has been logged as if I am in NZ - its 7.42 am here :)
Anonymous said…
"Regarding the Phrase 'Love of God' - I've thought for a long time that we all have a tendency to project our idea of Love onto God. So 'God is Love' means for most if not all of us 'God is my idea of love' (clumsily put perhaps, but I hope the point comes across) This I think is one of the key questions when discussing Theodicy, 'just what is Love?' The answer from Scripture is, I suggest 'God is'."

Agreed - or as Carson would put it, a finite creature grasping the truth of God's infinite love for us might be pictured as a y-curve approaching the x-axis asymptotically, but never crossing it.
Or as Eliot puts it,
'the end of all our exploring will be to return to where we began
and to know the place for the first time.'
Alden said…
Anonymous, I dare you, I really dare you, to read "The Naked Now" by Richard Rohr, a book that has been recommended in an earlier posting on this Blogspot. I promise you will find the answer to many of your concerns and much, much, much more. :>)
Anonymous said…
Hi, Alden - to tell the truth, I find most modern books on spirituality rather hard going, because I don't relate too well to what (I think) is an eclectic mix of Bible and psychology, enneagrams etc, though I know some swear by them. Maybe one day.
Alden said…
Anonymous... I can identify with you on that score - so much of what is offered is offered as some sort of cure all, holy grail instant enlightenment from the soul supermarket - but this book explores something that is at the heart of all religions, is practised by millions and is an empowerment or 'way' that has always been part of the Christian tradition. Again I seriously challenge you to read this book. : > )
VenDr said…
Yes, Anonymous, I think you are right. We do project onto God our own limited understanding of Love. Which is why we have such trouble coming to terms with the concept of unconditional love which is only partially, if ever, part of the normal experience of any of us. Although I haven't read the book, this is what I suspect Mr Carson is doing, in his apparently reductionist dissection of God's love.
Merv said…
So, Eric, to paraphrase part of your comment ... instead of saying 'God is Love', one might say 'Love is God'.
Anonymous said…
Hey, Venerable Doctor, that's DOCTOR Evil Carson! (h/t Austin Powers)
I won't second guess Dr Carson's dark inner motives. He's a professor of New Testament and Historical Theology, not a psychologist. The challenge of historic (pre-modern) exegesis is to expound the biblical texts so that a unity of meaning arises. That's all he's doing. His understanding of the graciousness of grace is entirely traditional. A convenient summary of his little book can be found in the 'Dictionary of Biblical Theology'.
Accepting the assignment to live your life with purpse and to live out your chart ultimately begins with personal awareness. If taking this hard look at yourself seems daunting, another way to accomplish this same goal is to begin the search by helping others. This route shifts the focus away from your needs and eventually reveals the status of your inner being. If, on the other hand, you are prepared to look at yourelf, then go for it. Start within.