Sunday, October 26, 2008

Calvinistic Thinking- Limited Atonement

I have a friend who was married for over twenty years. One day she found out that her husband was having an affair. In fact, he had gone to prostitutes for a while and then found this other woman. He was not sorry. Her world collapsed. She would go to work and not remember any of the drive. She became so physically ill she threw up. She couldn't think straight or concentrate for a year. This is what his unfaithfulness did to her. You probably know someone like her- maybe you have even been her before. I think God feels even more deeply than this. I know we like to think of God as someone who is utterly 'other', someone who is completely unaffected by what we do or how we feel. There is some safety in thinking in this way. If God is so far removed- so utterly 'holy' then what we do doesn't really matter. Our sin is not a big deal and therefore God's wrath wont be such a big deal either. This is not who we see in Jesus. This is not who the Word portrays God to be. God is intimately related to us- humankind who are His creation. I think that God being wholly other than we are means that He loves more deeply, more truly, more passionately than we mere humans can imagine. I think that His capacity to suffer is just as deep and wholly other than ours. We black out, we escape into fantasy or delusion, we deny and ignore. He never does. I think He FEELS in a way that we can not understand. He knows every inch of our rejection of His love, every detail of every betrayal and He takes it all in. He absorbs it in ways we will never understand.

As we look to theology to make sense of who God is we are betrayed at a key point and I think it is important to bring it up now. Most of our 'official' theology was written by lawyers. That's right, Calvin, Luther, Augustine and many others were all trained as lawyers. Now, bypassing all the great lawyer jokes I know let's look critically at what this means. I have some good friends who are lawyers and the reality is that they don't think like the rest of us. I read poetry and they read loopholes. Their worldview is different than most of the rest of us. I think that that is very valuable when trying to write a constitution that will protect the rights of a nation's citizens but it is not so helpful- or at least of limited help- in understanding God. Contrary to some popular books the Bible is not a code to be deciphered or a manual to build a healthy life. It is a love story. I heard a man preach once on Genesis 1 and proclaim emphatically that whales were the first mammal that God created. Well, Genesis 1:21 does list sea monsters first when talking about what God created that day... No, I am sorry Genesis 1 is a beautiful poem about the Creation. It is full of wonderful truths about God, nature, and Man. But reading it with a lawyer's eye is like reading Psalm 23 in order to determine how to get the best return on our flock of sheep. Excuse me while I get up, pace back and forth and give a loud frustrated 'AAARRRGGGHHH!'

So now finally, we come to Limited Atonement. Honestly, I have studied this and tried to get my head around what people are saying with this one and I don't get it. Limited Atonement means that Jesus only died for the elect- those who will be saved. He did not die for the those who will not be saved. Rev in the last comment section said truly that people for both sides could trot out our scriptures for both positions for and against this point and we would not get anywhere. I suppose he is right depending on where we want to go. It seems to me that what the Calvinist is saying is that God accomplishes everything He sets out to do and therefore if some are not in the end saved then He must never have purposed their salvation on the cross. That's lawyer talk for sure. Jesus did not hang on the cross writhing back and forth thinking, 'This blood is for Suzy, but not for Jimmy. This blood is for Sammy, but not for Jenifer.' The picture of the nature of Jesus and of His Father from start to finish is that of a God who stands on the hill over Jerusalem and pleads for His people to come to Him. And lest we lose sight of the facts we are all His people. There is no other creator. The only people walking this earth are people He created. 1 John 2:2 says that, 'he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.' There are scriptures that could be construed to mean that this is not so, I suppose but the point of what John is saying here is that you need not fear your sin because Jesus death on the cross covers all sin. I am not a Universalist. I do understand that many will reject His sacrifice. Indeed most today do not know or understand His sacrifice and will therefore not benefit from it. But I do not see any value in delineating some kind of fine line between those Jesus loves and redeems and those whom He loves and who remain lost.

I guess the point I want to make in this post is that I don't really care if technically Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross is only 'for' the redeemed or if He really did mean that His sacrifice was sufficient to cover the sins of all men for all time. The nature of Jesus is that He loves all of us with a real and tangible love that is deeper and more passionate than pitiable human words can convey. Do what you want with the lawyer talk but do not minimize His love because to do so would minimize His pain. The depth of His pain is real just as the depth of His love is. His wrath makes no sense otherwise and His wrath is real as well. Since I have been back in the West I have heard several people say that we hear too much preaching on the love of God, what we need is more preaching on His wrath. I hate this kind of talk with a great hate. It is a misunderstanding of who He is on so many levels. There is no wrath without great love and I don't hear anyone talking about His love with any depth of passion. Preaching on His love is sufficient to change the world. Too many have opted out of the true Gospel for a bunch of lawyer talk that presents passionless principals for living that look nothing like the one who laid down His life for us. Let us be passionate, feeling, loving people who serve and walk in the ways of a passionate, feeling, loving God. Surely His sacrifice has purchased at least that much?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Ministry of Injustice

Well, I had several posts I was meaning to get up here but life has caught up to me. Arwen and I spent several days down in San Antonio without the kids! Then we got back and we hear from Middle Earth that the Ministry of Justice seems to think we are doing evangelism and now they want to shut our aid agency down. I wish I was more guilty than I am but nevertheless they are taking us to court soon and it wont be pretty. I should be able to get back into Gondor in December and then this whole thing will take the best part of next year to sort out but as of right now unless someone steps in and tell the Ministry to back off of us then we will be out sometime in 2009. I am not worried about it as our Father has a good plan. We may yet stay- or if we go we will go on to do His will wherever He calls us to. Arwen and I are at peace and so is our team on the ground. Nevertheless pray for the Boss's own wisdom and power to be at work in our lives and the lives of those in Gondor and throughout Middle Earth.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Calvinist Thinking: Unconditional Election and Irresistable Grace

A few years ago Gandalf had a Bible study with some of the Muslim guys who work for us. I was concerned at first because I did not want the fact that they worked for our aid organization to influence what they would say to us about their faith. The truth is I would rather go to their homes and discuss God. But Gandalf said that God was moving him to do this so he did it. Four of the guys attended every morning and paid close attention to what was said. One guy always found reasons not to be there- he is still working with us and is a great guy but just as lost as the first day we met him. But the others listened and as they did one of them seemed to be changing. He cleaned up his language and really seemed to soften. He was a truck driver and a pretty rough character really. After a couple of months he seemed to be a completely different guy. I am not just talking about language but about optimism, charity, hope, and kindness. We were all quite excited to see the transformation in him. Then one day he got in an argument with one of the other workers. I don't know what started it but as I came out of the office he declared to Gandalf and to the other workers there, 'I will never believe that Jesus was the Son of God.' After that he began to deteriorate quickly. He began swearing, he was rude, he was dishonest. Six months later I fired him for stealing.

Well, you can see where I am going with this already can't you? And some of you are quite unhappy about it I am sure. So, let's start from the top. First, while this is a powerful story in my mind it does not overthrow the Word. My theology is built on the Word of God not my experience. I can misread my experience but the Word says what it says. Today we are looking at the U and the I of the Tulip. They do in fact go together (for many Calvinist the TULIP as a whole goes together) and I could not think of a way of approaching one without talking about the other.

Unconditional Election is an important Calvinist teaching that has much merit for us to consider. Calvin used this concept to emphasis that Man can not earn his salvation. There is nothing that Man can do to 'force' God to do anything. With this concept in mind most Calvinists go on to say that this means that men and women are saved by the grace of God alone and Man's choosing to accept God's offer of Grace is simply Man's preordained response to God's call. To put it more simply God calls and Man must respond with a yes. Calvinists reasoning at this point explains that if Man responds of his own volition to the call of God then that constitutes a 'work' that Man could boast in. "Yes, it was God's lucky day when I said, 'yes' to His call." Irresistible Grace takes the idea one step further and states that whoever is called must answer yes. The reason for this concept is that God is Sovereign and if Man could potentially say no to Him He not only would not be sovereign but again, all those who were smart enough to say yes would have reason to boast.

I hope that I have explained these concepts fairly- if not thoroughly- and that everyone reading has a good grasp of what is being discussed to this point. I apologize to my Calvinist friends who doubtless feel I have done a poor job but in my defense I was never destined to be a great theologian or deep thinker. What I really want to address now is where Jesus stands in all of this.

First, let me say that God's sovereignty is a literal reality and I respect Calvinist for highlighting it. Too often Christians glibly say that 'He is in control' and then live a life of high octane anxiety that clearly indicates they either do not believe He is in control or do not trust Him to control things 'properly.' I do believe that the Bible paints a picture of a God who knows what is going on and is in control of it. Look at Jesus life in total. He knows he is going to the cross. There are a million variables that could take Jesus life in another direction. What if more of the Pharisees believed Him? What if the people really had made Him a King after He fed the 5000? What if Judas got cold feet and backed out of betraying Him? He knew what would happen from the beginning and it happened as prophesies had foretold over a thousand years beforehand. He is in control today just the same. You can't read the Bible and come to any other conclusion honestly. But... and here is the but. But Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace fail to capture what is happening in the life of Jesus and in the world today.

So, moving past our experience with one grumpy driver who rejected Jesus what does the Bible say about this subject. I think of Jesus experience with the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10. A young man comes to Jesus and Mark records that Jesus 'loved him'. But when the young man hears what he needs to do (the conditions?) he walks away sad. Jesus does not chase after him or cajole him in any way. He lets him go. He invited the boy in and the boy refused. To apply Unconditional Election is to make irrelevant half the verses in the Bible. God gives us through out the Old and New Testaments 'conditions' that we are to meet. Isaiah 55 is one of the greatest OT invitations and in Acts 2 we see Peter inviting people to come again. He gives some pretty good conditions for coming- like repentance and belief- and I just can't read these without thinking that God is honest and upfront in His invitation. I do not believe that He is telling everyone that they are welcome when in fact, He is only calling some. I will get to Limited Atonement in the next post. We are commanded to seek the Lord and Jesus informs us that all who seek will find Him. Unconditional? How's this for a condition?
"But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" Romans 10:14
Those are conditions. In our work we see the truth that in places where the Gospel is boldly proclaimed people respond and in places where it is not there is little fruit. We are to go out to the highways and byways and compel them to come in. I appreciate that salvation is a gift from God, provided at great expense by God and it is only by His grace that I am saved. Our works can not save us but we must say yes to His grace. There are many Biblical examples of those who have rejected His grace. The Bible is full of the conditions that must be met to receive His grace. He was very clear about this.

I do not believe that holding such a view denies God's sovereignty. To use a poor analogy that is sure to break down somewhere, God is a master chess player. He will win the game. He is not surprised at the moves being made but anticipates and is prepared for them. Even now He is moving His pieces into position for the final push to the endgame. We must be out and about sharing the Word and giving the invitation. Many will reject Him but some will receive Him and be transformed into an army that will swell the ranks of His Kingdom until the whole of Heaven is filled with grateful souls giving Him the glory He deserves. I do not go in for the saying, 'Pray like it is all up to God and work like it is all up to you.' It makes a nice point about hard work but it is not good theology. No, pray as if it is all up to God and work for God is coming soon and will require an accounting of the use you have made of the costly Grace He has given you. We can resist His Grace as many have- we must not. We must accept His Grace and offer it in turn to a lost and rebellious world. He has commanded us to go and to love and to share. If we fail to meet this condition the judgment will be terrible indeed.

I just reread all of this and I am not happy with it. The bottom line of what I want to present is that of the character of God as demonstrated in Christ. He is an inviting God. In the parable of the Prodigal Son the Father is inviting the younger AND OLDER sons into the banquet. The invitations are genuine. Saying yes is not an act of self righteous works, it is the response He honestly seeks from all of us because He honestly loves all of us.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Practicing what you preach

I will now take a short break from my Calvinistic posts and tell a short story. This story could be construed to illustrate Total Depravity but that is not my intent.

We had a team meeting with our new family a few years ago and Legolas seemed to fit right in. I wanted to impress him with my deep spiritual nature and I gave a devotional on loving our enemy. I gave the example of the local traffic police who pull over drivers and shake them down for money regularly. I said that we needed to see the oppressor as a victim of his own violence. I said we should pray for these guys and present them with the love of Christ just as we do to the down and out. I said a lot of things and the next day as Legolas and I drove down the road the Lord decided he would test out my theory.

As Legolas and I turned a corner there were a couple of traffic police, one in particular that was notorious for being less than fair and truthful. He pulled us over immediately even though I had done nothing wrong at all. He asked for my documents and I pulled them out. My Identification Card, my drivers license, and my... my... hey, where was my local driving talon? It was here before. I looked and looked but now it was gone. He walked over to a large group of his friends with my documents- minus the talon- in hand. He announced to the group of around ten traffic police that wasn't it shameful for this foreigner to be driving without his driving talon. I replied that it was not as shameful as a traffic cop who pulled people over for no offense. Yeah.... how did that devotional sermon go again?
So, we got in my car and followed him to an office. This was unusual but he said we could pay a fine at the office and be on our way. I parked the car and when I went in to pay the fine the clerk said that I could have my car back when I came back with a driving talon. Hold on, I cried, I was just supposed to pay a small fine. Nope. My car was now in the impound lot and the traffic cop was no where to be seen. Legolas was mercifully silent as we walked about a mile down the road to public transport and then on to the talon office where I got a new talon and then headed back to get the car.

We got the car back and I was batting 500. I did not exactly pray the Father's peace on this guy but neither did I lose my temper. My advice to all of you is to preach the Gospel and as you go expect to find the opportunities to live it.