Love and Justification

Theologians are always debating the righteousness of God in justification.  Is it imputed?  Is it infused?  Is it forensic?

I can’t tell you the torture I put myself through for decades over this kind of stuff.  Like a navigator who knows if his calculation is off by the slightest degree he will miss the mark, I constantly feel like I have to get these formulations down at the outset, forgetting that all I really have to do is follow the One who not only knows but is the Way.  I swear Christians make this so hard, though.

I could and perhaps will say more about that, but I have to be gone the next couple of days, so for now, just this.

From Lewis, a close paraphrase: God does not make us good [righteous] so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He makes us good [righteous].

Not a righteousness [goodness] that comes through the law, be it God’s covenant law (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath keeping, dietary, etc.), like the arguments of the New Perspectives on Paul, which make a lot of sense to me, nor by the law as in moral laws, but by His grace.

Nouwen: “God’s love does not depend on our repentance or inward or outer changes.”

While I want to be one of those who repents and changes inwardly and outwardly, and believe I am, even if I’m not God loves me.  This is not the message I have heard from the church, but the deficiency may be in me.

I have either heard wrongly many evangelical and/or reformed writers, teachers and preachers, or they have not said it in a way I could hear well.

God’s love precedes his imputed, infused or forensic righteousness in each of us.  His love precedes creation, and creation flowed out of it.  His love precedes the Fall.  His love preceeds the Incarnation and is the very reason for it.  God’s love precedes the cross and made the cross itself inevitable.

Intentional or not the Calvinist/Reformed tradition has taught me that unless I am among the elect I am not and never can be righteous.  It has followed in my mind that if I am not among the elect, therefore righteous, God does not love me.  No matter what they say, one can not know with certainty, I don’t believe, if one is elect.

I don’t care how much good fruit you produce in keeping with righteousness, you’re going to sin, and we are never going to be certain if our motivations are right, and they never will be completely pure.  If our motivations are not right, our actions can’t be fully right-eous.  It produces an effort to prove one’s righteousness to one’s self, so that one can be assured of God’s love and forgiveness.

So, how do I ever know I am really being Christ to other’s, really being transformed, really putting on Christ and not trying to prove to myself and others I am among the elect out of fear of damnation rather than love of God and neighbor?  I don’t see how, but maybe that’s because I’m not elect.

Maybe the elect all have specific, dramatic conversion experiences and are then perpetually filled with peace, joy, gratitude and contentment, never stop growing, love selflessly and sacrificially and forgive everything all the time.  Maybe the elect know they are elect and those who think they are elect and don’t know it are deceived and it’s impossible for one to be among the elect and not know it. It’s a nightmare of a labyrinth.

Yesterday I heard a radio preacher I like.  I’m not going to mention names because it’s a distraction.  I went to his web site and was reading the days devotion.  There’s a line in it I heard countless times in the Evangelical circles in which I ran in college, and to whom I owe a great debt:

“The Holy Spirit…tells us that we are nothing, but that ‘Christ is all in all.’”

Indeed, Christ is all in all.  However, the message I heard over and over is that I am nothing or I am worthless.  The fact is that we elevate Christ so high that we forget what all the bother was about.  Christ is exalted; He is supreme; all creation will bow before His majesty, glory and power when it is made His footstool.

No question, no doubt, but is it possible that in the way we do, we corrupt even that to the point that we claim for Christ something He never claimed for himself: that God bounded Himself in flesh, space and time, suffered and died for…nothing?  That’s the word I hear all the time.  Not ‘nothing’ as in for “no reason,” but ‘nothing’ as in “worthless,” the other word I hear all the time.

Like Jeremiah’s potter, God is reshaping spoiled vessels.  Spoiled is not the same as nothing; it’s not the same as worthless.  The misshapen vessels have such infinite value and worth that even if they are not usable in their current distorted shape, the Potter loves them so much, that rather than just discarding them and starting over, He reshapes, remolds, restores, recreates them.

God does not make us good so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He is making us good.

To preach Christ and Him crucified is to preach his radical, all-encompassing, unalterable love for us.

I suppose the concern, as it has been for me often, is that if we preach this love to ourselves and others it might lead to encouraging sin to abound so grace can abound even more, or it might make us think there is to be no striving or pressing on towards the goal.

If that is what we or others hear it is not the Good News because the Good News is that because God loves us we can be recreated, not stay the same miserable, spoiled vessels and the Potter merely says “Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to begin with.  It will look lovely in this spot or I can just use it for this purpose instead.  Silly me.  What was I thinking?”

The full quote above from the devotion, which was adapted from Spurgeon, is “But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self: he tells us that we are nothing, but that ‘Christ is all in all.’”

I’m not at all certain the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self.  Away from false self, fallen self, sinful self, but not true self.  Paul spends much time in 1 Corinthians 15 expounding on the resurrection of the body.  We must avoid a purely spiritualized theology.  Theology is incarnational and embodied. The Word made flesh and the risen Christ.  We can not stop at the cross for all it’s majesty and glory.

There IS a me, a true me, a me crafted, knit together and wonderfully made. God does not want me to forget this self, but to become it.  To remember it, not as though I have a memory of it, but His memory of it.  His memory of ME.

We live in a self-absorbed, self-fulfillment, self-obsessed me-driven world in the grip of relativism.  Be that as it may, like with everything else, it’s not purely and solely a lie.  All good lies have an element of the truth, and the truth is that there is a me for God to love.  Distorted, warped, and idolized though self-love may be in this world does not mean the solution is the forget self; it’s to remember our true self.

God is not running an assembly line in which we turn to Him, climb on the conveyor belt and God stamps out a Jesus such that when we stand before Him all He sees is His Son.

In The Wrinkle in Time, Meg defeats the lies of the enemy with this truth: “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”  Because I am clothed in Christ does not mean there is no me to be clothed.  Because I am made like Jesus does not mean I am the same as Jesus.

I don’t know how many times I have heard “When God looks at you on Judgment Day, He will see Jesus.”  When I stand before God He will see the true me I can only be IN Christ.

Heaven will not be populated with a bunch of Jesus clones.  Only Jesus is Jesus, thanks be to God.  Heaven will be populated with resurrected, unique, infinitely  precious, incalculably valuable people of inestimable worth, spoiled vessels recreated.

God does not make us good so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He is making us good.

To me, it makes all the difference in the world.

God’s Faithfulness or My Faith

Our views of God are critically affected when, in an attempt to understand Him and know Him, we make Him into our image so we can relate better.  We are people made in the image of God, so we look at ourselves like shadows on Plato’s cave wall, instead of looking at the one who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3)  Yes, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14), but we are only broken images, not “exact imprints.”

Gideon’s story in Judges 6-8 reflects this well.  I think it’s possible that the angel who appeared to Gideon might have been a manifestation of Christ prior to His incarnation (like perhaps with Jacob) because Gideon actually makes an offering to him and then feels doomed when he realizes who it is.  The angel does not tell Gideon not to make a sacrifice or build an alter after, as one might suspect and angel would, and the angel touched the sacrifice with his staff and it was consumed.

It is not instrumental to the story nor is it a matter of doctrine to believe one way or the other, but I find it intriguing, and like to think of the story this way because it shows God’s extraordinary faithfulness in the face of our lack of faith, so I will write as if it was a non-material manifestation of our Lord even though if it was a messenger it was still God speaking.

Gideon had his strengths, to be sure, but he also made those from Missouri look like pure mystics in comparison. Like usual, showing He can use the “weakest member from the weakest clan,” God called Gideon.  Gideon shows how corrupted Israel had become (his father even had an alter to Ba’al) by saying “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us.”

This is actually encouraging to me.  While I don’t like it when I too feel that way, God demonstrates it’s not Gideon’s faith but His faithfulness that matters.  He doesn’t consume Gideon on the spot, as He could and would be just and right in doing, as with any of us.  The Lord actually addressed Gideon as “Mighty hero,” and when Gideon showed his doubt, God didn’t rebuke him; he actually commissioned him: “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites.  I am sending you!”

Incredible!  God says “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you”–perhaps even as the one uttering those very words.  Gideon basically replies “Yeah, right.  You say so, but it’s obvious to any rational person He’s not.” And God’s response is to commission him!

It gets better.  Gideon then whines like Moses and Pigglet “Bbbb-but, I’m too ttttt-timid.” (I’m not mocking the man, but Moses stuttered, too, right?)  With infinite patience, the Lord says “I’ll be with you.”  Gideon b?n Missouri says “show me.”  “If you are truly going to help me, show me a sign.” So he runs home, whips up some tasty goat and bread and rushes back.  Then after the Lord consumes the offering Gideon has what might have been the granddaddy of all “Oh, crap!” moments in history.

So now he’s on board, kinda, sorta, at least for a while.  God tells him to destroy a pagan alter and a pagan pole, build a true alter and sacrifice a bull.  Well, OK, Gideon does it, but he takes 10 servants with him and “did it at night because he was afraid.”  He almost gets killed again, this time by the people, but his father grows a pair and defends him.

Is Gideon ready to go up to the big leagues, get in the Show.  Nope.  Basically he’s still going with “the strength he has,” which is just fine because it’s God’s faithfulness that matters and not Gideon’s weak faith.  Gideon still wants to be sure God really wants him to actually go into battle against the allied armies.  So this time he asks God for a sign, and then when he gets it replies like a Teletubbie: “Again, again!”  (OK, I’m missing my children’s childhood.  I loved Pooh and hated the Teletubbies, but I have a fondness for them now.)

God gives Gideon the back-to-back signs he asked for.  He roust the allied armies with 100 men, kills their leaders and then kills the town people who refused to help him.  He refuses to be king and tells the people “The Lord will rule over you.”

<<Fade to Black>>

But wait!  It’s just a “Return of the King” type long pause to make you think it’s over.  This man who had just been used by God to rescue his people now asks them all for a gold earing from the plunder which he uses to make a sacred ephod and place in his hometown.  According to the Talmud, the wearing of the ephod atoned for the sin of idolatry on the part of the Children of Israel.  Yet, they had just days before been rescued from years of immersion in a pagan, idol-worshiping culture.  So what did they do?  “The Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping it, and it became a trap for Gideon and his family.”

It’s no where indicated God told him to do that, and wisdom would have dictated not creating something so like an idol in that culture and climate because, as you say “He is not made with human hands” and they still were acculturated after years of living within that worldview to think He was.

Idolatry, weak faith, making God into our image, cultural conditioning, pagan warriors, fear, uncertainty, doubt.  Through the whole story, again and again, God proves Himself faithful.

I am like the weak parts of Gideon, Jim, and we live in a pagan culture (no sense pretending we don’t) but you know what?  God is still God and He loves me.  “All the promises of God have their Yes! in Christ Jesus” my Lord.

Faith alone?  I wonder sometimes.  James actually says “Not by faith alone.”  However, I don’t ever wonder if it’s Faithfulness Alone.  Whatever else this new life is, surely it’s grounded on God’s faithfulness.  By His faithful mercy and grace, He’s taking me along for the ride.  From my perspective it is a scary ride.  Sometimes we’re lost in the jungle, sometimes caught in raging waters, sometimes doingImmelmann’s in a dogfight, sometimes crawling through a desert.

Thanks be to God it’s not dependent on my frail faith but on His Glorious Faithfulness.  Thanks be to God that He is not made in my image.