Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Role of Grace

What is the role of "grace" in a theological vision like ours which so clearly emphasizes what mainline Christianity would call "works"? I would say, by the way, that we emphasize "acts of love."

In short, the role of grace is huge and actually traditional in many ways.

We as individuals are, I believe, "saved" by God's grace in the most orthodox sense. What God demands is demanding indeed. In fact, one of the main purposes of this blog is to demonstrate just how demanding God's commands are. We also, of course, try to show that they are demanding in life situations that mainline Christians might not even think raise a moral issue.

No one can live up to "the standard," especially as we've articulated it. I can try and try and try but I will never truly love my neighbor to the same extent that I love myself. That is, I will never be able to treat my winning the lottery or losing a loved one as identical to a stranger winning the lottery or losing a loved one. But I must try. And I must try even though I will inevitably fail to ever fully reach the ideal.

My failure to live up to God's demands is where grace comes in. God has made demands, and I have failed. But God "practices what She preaches." God's love is unconditional. There is no retribution for my failure. God's law, due to God's love, is unenforceable.

There are two questions that must be answered with respect to this statement of "doctrine."

(1) Is this any different from what every Protestant Christian in the world believes?

(2) Doesn't this undercut completely the ringing moral commands you've discussed for months on this blog?

Ansers: (1) Yes, (2) No.

Regarding question one, what I've said so far doesn't differ. But what I am about to say will be different and controversial (though not original).

I believe that God's love is both truly unconditional and active. To speak more concretely, God's love is God's love whether we choose to "accept" that love or not. God's love is not something that we have the power to turn on or off like a light switch or a television set. It endures and applies no matter what we do or believe. There is no retribution. Period. And yes, this is a universalist vision.

Second, I don't believe that this undercuts our moral imperatives. First of all, it certainly does not undercut the moral imperatives more than mainline Christianity. In traditional Christian doctrine, God's commands are equally unenforceable so long as we've "turned on" God's love by believing (or accepting) the right theological tenets. The universalist vision doesn't make God's moral commands any more unenforced. It simply removes a theological barrier to the unenforceability.

In fact, I think our vision of grace has less of an undercutting or qualifying effect on God's moral commands than grace does in mainline Christianity. In mainline Christianity, the "theological imperative" (i.e., turning on God's love by believing the right things) is so important that all moral imperatives - all of God's commands with respect to the world - are deemphasized. This has to be so. There is only so much time in the day and so many Church sermons that can be given. The theological imperative engenders anxiety and elicits a response in terms of time and spiritual resources. By contrast, when God's love is seen is truly unconditional - that is, when we are freed from the theological imperative - we have more time and energy to focus on the moral imperatives.

And why should we follow God's moral commands? Simply because we love God and because God has asked us to do so. My loving my neighbor as myself thereby becomes a completely pure expression of my love for God because the motives are pure. I don't do acts of love out of fear of future retribution. I do them simply as an expression and indication of my love for God.


At 11:34 AM, Blogger ats54 said...

The problem presented by your universalistic position on the love of God is that of conflicting natures of God. If we think of God as most Judeo-Christians (Westerners) do – then God is an infinite God. If God is infinite, the God must be infinite in every characteristic that God expresses (see A.W. Tozer). That means: if God is love (or loving), then God must be love infinitely. If God is gracious, then God must be gracious infinitely. If God is just, then God must be just infinitely – and so on and so on, ad nauseum/ad infinitum.

I think we can all agree that God must be a just God. God cannot be unjust or “a-just” (without justice?). I doubt any of us would want to worship a God without justice. Our souls tell us that much.

With the problem of “what happens to us after we die”, God’s love and grace violently collide with God’s justice. How can a loving God send God’s own creation to a place we call Hell (whether it is fire and brimstone and guys with pointing objects or it is absence of God or nonexistence is another discussion)? Is that love? How can a just God let those that spurn the Divine into communion with the Divine for eternity? That just does not make any sense. So, how can the collision of love/grace and justice be reconciled? I would suggest that this is the crux of the Christian theological problem for the last two millennia. Surely there have been many different opinions posited and rebuffed and supported and derided and excommunicated over the centuries. Many Christians consider universalism to be heresy. I do not see any Biblical support for it – either in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Words of Jesus, or the writings of the Apostles.

My proposal is that God’s love compromises with God’s justice in the idea of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that God can do anything, except make people love God. Any parent knows (and through Christ we have the idea of God as parent) that you cannot make your child love you. You can make them (or try, at least) clean their room, do the dishes, play soccer or be nice to the “different” kid at school – but you cannot make them love you. I believe that God loves us all – unconditionally and infinitely. But, God cannot make us love back. Because of our inherent separation from God – whether through nature or through purposeful sin – a just God cannot accept us and bring us into communion with God for eternity. God cannot corrupt Godself. (Ok, so something else God cannot do.) Therefore, we are all damned to whatever awaits. However, God’s love causes a desire for us to spend eternity with the Divine. This is where grace comes in. We have a choice (presented through Jesus) to love God or to shun God. The choice is ours. God desires all, but not all desire God. As a side affect of God’s love, God does not force anyone to love back. I think we can all agree that forced love is not love – just like forced obedience is not really obedience. In order for perfect and infinite love to co-exist with God for eternity, we must have the choice. We are not automaton robots following our programming.

Out of this show of love, grace and justice we love others. God is not the reason for our love; God is actually the source and object of our love. This is a nice little cyclical (and therefore infinite) system. We love God because of who God is. God loves us because of who God is. God is the source of it all.

We love those on earth because God loves those on earth. If we love others because it gets us into heaven, then we do not truly love them – we are just hedging our bets. We love “the least of these” as a response to God’s love for all of us and, further, God’s concern that even our most basic needs and comforts are met. We see this latter point vividly in the stories commonly known as “The Feeding of the Five Thousand”. In Matthew chapter 14, Mark chapter 6 and John chapter 6 we have this story. Each one mentions that Jesus has the people sit down on the grass. Why would the text specify that there is grass in the area? The countryside has grassy areas and rocky areas – Jesus made sure they sat in a comfortable place. Jesus cared not only about feeding them, but making the crowd comfortable while they filled their bellies. (This story is in Luke chapter 9, but does not mention grass).

This, I believe, is the solution to the root of the Christian theological problem. I think this is the point that many Christians miss (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox alike). This is where many right-wing, conservative Christians miss the mark (widely). They are so focused on God’s justice, that they miss God’s love. This is where many left-wing, liberal (and universal) Christians miss the mark. They are so focused on God’s love, that they forget about God’s justice.

We cannot subdivide God into easily digestible parts.

- 54

At 11:48 AM, Blogger jj said...

I reject your distinction between love and justice.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Lost In NY said...

It's kind of like the whole faith v. works divide.

I don't believe you can have a high level of faith (i.e. approaching God) without works. You can call it faith (like most Christians today do), but it isn't a deep one. Similiarly, I don't believe you can have love (i.e. approaching God) without justice. You can call it love, but it isn't a fulfilling one.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger ats54 said...

I agree that you cannot have real love separate from justice. I also agree that you cannot have true justice that is not tempered by love.

You can reject a distinction all day, but there is a distinction. Do the two concepts need each other? Yes. But it does not mean they are not distinct.

I think jj's response hit the nail on the head of my problem with many left-wing, liberal Christians. They remember the love and forget the justice. By not drawing a distinction, you are tempted to let one or the other fall to the wayside. It is an egregious error.

This conversation is similar to the faith v. works issue. The faith is the tree, the works the fruit. A healthy apple tree will grow apples. Just like a healthy faith will produce works.

But I do not think we can simply say that God’s love and God’s justice are the same thing. I think it is just skirting the issue.

- 54

At 6:38 AM, Blogger jj said...

It is not skirting the issue. It is defining the terms. Justice does not define itself. What is justice? I say justice is the presence of love. At the individual level, justice exists when I love my neighbor as myself. Injustice exists when I love myself over and above my neighbors. At the social level, justice exists where institutions are based on love. At the theological level, justice exists when God exercises Her love. It is "just" then for God NOT to exact retribution on the sinful. It would "unjust" for God to do so. It would be unjust because this would be an unloving act.

You have skirted the issue because you have not defined your terms.

At 11:16 AM, Blogger ats54 said...


Ok, if we take it from your angle:

Justice exists in the environment of love. I hold that God does not force anyone to love back; because coercion is not a loving act. Therefore, the loving - and therefore just - thing to do would to not force anyone to spend eternity with God in the "afterlife". I suggest that those who do not accept God and the simple commands (love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and love your neighbor as yourself) choose not to be with God. Therefore, it would be unloving AND unjust for God to force those people into an eternity with the Divine.

- 54

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Lost In NY said...

To me, that implies that said persons do not cease to exist upon their death. Since mere existence implies the presence of God in my book, those who do not "spend enternity with the Divine" simply are no more. There is no suffering / retribution / etc implied in that, to me.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger jj said...

I don't know for sure what does happen when we die. I just believe that I know what does NOT happen. I do not believe in eternal torment. It is not consistent with a loving God. It is not consistent with a just God.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger DLW said...

If you read Genesis 3, it implies that we humans are only conditionally immortal.

My basic theology of the after-life is that there are eternal consequences for our choices made during this life. We go to Heaven or Hell. Heaven is where God is. Hell is where God ain't. Everything else about Hell are metaphors meant to aid in our understanding. The word used for Hell by Jesus is Gehenna, which literally referred to the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. That was the root metaphor used for the fate of those that rejected to seek a covenantal relationship with God.


At 6:18 PM, Blogger ats54 said...

I am not supporting a "hellfire, brimstone and pitchfork" kind of afterlife for non-believers. I don't really buy into that lock, stock and barrel. I just don't think that every human soul that has existed will continue in "paradise" in whatever form for eternity. Though, I do believe some will.

I am more in the "absence of God" camp. And according to Lost in NY, that may be nonexistence. That works for me too.

But, I would say being "cast" into nonexistence is some sort of retribution.

- 54

At 4:11 PM, Blogger DLW said...

The specific nature of the after life is moot. What matters is the existential choices we are faced with, like with Luke 16:19-31 where are love for God is expressed as inextricably connected with our love for our fellow human.


At 7:46 PM, Blogger jj said...


I could not agree more with your comment immediately above.

At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Molinism rulez!!!


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