Like Jude, I have much that I wish to say about the salvation that we share; I think several posts will follow on this topic. I begin here with a re-post from October 2007 that sets out some of the fundamental notions underlying my thoughts -- and, I hope, the thoughts of the church -- on our great salvation.
I’ve always thought of hellfire-and-damnation preachers much like I think of grits and sweet, iced tea – as home grown Southern commodities. Oh, I suppose you can get all of then north of the Mason-Dixon line, but there they would be only dim shadows of the full reality we have here in Dixie. Here we have the real Brother Love.
Hot August night and when you’d almost bet
you can hear yourself sweat he walks in.
Eyes black as coal and when he lifts his face
every ear in the place is on him.
Starting soft and slow like a small earthquake,
but when he lets go, half the valley shakes.
Cause it’s Love, Brother Love,
say Brother Love’s traveling salvation show.
Pack up the babies and bring the old ladies
cause everyone goes, everyone knows it’s Brother Love’s show.
-- Neil Diamond (adapted)
I like grits: butter, salt, pepper: please, no sugar – that’s for Yankees who even put it in their cornbread! And sweet tea? Well, that’s the house wine of the South. But, other than as cultural icons – kind of like Elvis – I’m not so fond of hellfire-and-damnation preachers. They tell you with tears in their eyes and a catch in their voice just how much God loves you. Then a moment later – sometimes without missing a single breath – they stride across the stage and with red face and popping veins terrorize you with the eternal fires of hell where the flames are never quenched and the worm never dies and where God is only too pleased to send you forever if you don’t repent this very night. And this always brings the shouts of Amen! from the crowds. “Are you saved, brothers and sisters? If you leave this place and on the way home die in a terrible car wreck, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”
I’ve heard my share of these preachers. They weren’t part of my spiritual traditional directly, but I’ve heard them often enough. And I’ve known a few – genuinely good men worthy of respect. Even so, I don’t care for their preaching. And it’s not just a matter of style; I don’t care for the style, but that’s just personal preference and not important at all. It’s not the simple and unsophisticated faith they typically express that bothers me; after all, God has not chosen to use the wisdom of the world for his glory, but rather the foolishness of the cross proclaimed with simplicity and power – the very wisdom of God. No, it’s their theology; that’s the problem. I find their vision of God more than a little confusing and frankly, disturbing. God loves me and God is willing to torture me forever in the fires of hell. These two notions need a lot more reconciliation than their sermons usually provide, and really than their theology provides. And the incessant question, “Are you saved?” makes me wonder: In their theology am I being saved by God, for God, or from God? It truly begins to sound like the latter. God, who is good, is disposed – by his very goodness – to send me, wretched sinner that I am, to eternal punishment. But Jesus interposes himself between my sinfulness and God’s righteous wrath to save me from God’s vengeance. Jesus saves me from God. Can that be right? Is that really the biblical image of salvation?
Such preaching always leaves me feeling vaguely disquieted, even a bit irritated. It’s taken me a while to realize why, but I think I understand now. These preachers’ vision of God is the God of my childhood; theirs is the same, slightly schizophrenic theology that I’ve struggled to shake but haven’t quite managed to. I find it hard to love their God – easy to fear him, but hard to love him. I find it hard to believe that he loves me. I find it hard to say that their God is good in any normal sense of the word good. And yet, I find it hard to let go of that theology. I am a Western Christian, a product of the Reformation, and that is the God of the Reformation. What is left if I let go of that image – some wimpy, culture-formed god who just wants us all to get along and who embraces us all in the end? That can’t be right either. What I want is the real God. What I want is the true theology of the church – faithfully received from the Apostles and faithfully preserved in Scripture and in the faith and practice of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church. What does the church say about God’s judgment?
He will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is the unanimous testimony of the creeds, Scripture, the Fathers, and the historic church itself. And it must be our starting point: Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Judgment is certain. At issue is what that judgment will look like. At issue is the nature and outcome of that judgment. At issue is our very understanding of God. Perhaps that’s why, in discussing judgment with Nicodemus, Jesus starts with God.
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’ (John 3:16-21, NRSV).
Any discussion of judgment must be firmly rooted in this passage and must keep coming back to it as a compass continually returns to true north.* Let’s lay out the major points here and then flesh them in later.
1. God’s fundamental and unchanging disposition toward the world is love. “For God so loved the world,” means just that. This is true corporately – God loves the whole world – and individually – God loves you. Imagine yourself at your best moment, at that time when you were closest to God. He loved you then. Imagine yourself at your worst moment, at that time when you were farthest from God. He loved you then. God’s unchanging disposition toward the world is love.
2. God sent his Son into the world to save the world – the most costly rescue mission ever mounted. Let’s get this straight at the outset: we are not saved from an angry God by the sacrifice of Jesus. We are saved by the loving God and for the loving God through the sacrifice of Jesus. I think my preacher friends knows this; it’s just that their theology doesn’t give them such a good way of expressing it. It is God’s desire and intent to save the entire world – not just to pardon sinners but to restore all of creation – through his unique Son, Jesus Christ.
3. Judgment began the moment Jesus entered the world as Christ, the Messiah, because at that moment people began making decisions about their relationship with him and to him. The Magi chose to bow down in worship and sacrifice. Herod chose to rise up in rebellion and murder. Jesus’ very presence makes judgment unavoidable. And here is the irony on which everything hinges: we worry about how Jesus will judge us when, in reality, we are the ones judging Jesus.
4. The nature of judgment lies in the human response to the presence of Jesus. “19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I read this verse and imagine roaches in a dark, filthy room scurrying for cover when the light is turned on. Jesus’ presence provokes a response and that response is a self-judgment. Not only do we judge Jesus – whether we will bow before him or rise up against him – we also judge ourselves. If we are resolutely evil – evil and beyond repentance – we will flee from his presence. If we looking for the kingdom of God – perhaps even unknowingly – we will be drawn toward the light of Christ. Our response to the presence of Jesus is the judgment for or against us, and it is ours to make.
Now let’s put some flesh on these bare bones of theology. What does this judgment look like incarnationally? As usual, Jesus tells a story.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2, NRSV).
Already in these introductory verses judgment is occurring; it provides the context for the following parables. Jesus is present and people must make decisions, judgments, about their relationships to and with him. Notice that when the light of Christ shone on Israel it wasn’t the tax collectors and sinners who scurried away toward the dark nooks and crannies, but the religious elite who did so. Unrighteousness wasn’t judged harshly; self-righteousness was.
11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:11-32, NRSV).
In this story one player remains steadfast, unchanging in his true character throughout; one player experiences radical repentance, a recreation of heart and mind; and one player is revealed for what he truly was and is.
From first to last, what is the father’s disposition toward his sons in this parable? Love. Whether the sons are near or far, rebellious or obedient, shameful or upright, the father never wavers in his love for them. His sole judgment is that he will continue to love his sons – no matter what – simply because they are his sons. God’s fundamental and unchanging disposition toward the world is love. God’s fundamental and unchanging disposition toward you is love. Are you a sinner? Well, I am and I can only suppose you are, too. But more importantly, we are children of God through our Lord Jesus Christ and we are the undeserving recipients of God’s unchanging love.
The younger son is a jerk. There’s no need to paint a rosy picture where none exists: he is unconscionably disrespectful, intolerably selfish, unimaginably arrogant, and unashamedly sinful. In short, he looks a lot like me. Until…until the light of the memory of his father’s love pierces the darkness of his despair and he comes to his senses. And this memory forces a judgment. What will be his relationship to the father? Will he return and bow humbly before him seeking hesed, loving compassion, or will he, in continued arrogance distance himself even farther from his father’s grace? Judgment began the moment the memory of the father’s love surfaced, and that judgment was in the hands and heart and mind of the prodigal son. Judgment begins for us the moment Jesus becomes present to us. Jesus’ very presence make judgment unavoidable – not that Jesus judges us, but that we judge him.
The elder son has a thin veneer of righteousness. I even believe his claims – that he had worked faithfully for his father and that he had never disobeyed – don’t you? Externally, here was the perfect son. But he didn’t have his father’s heart. He was every bit as concerned with inheritance as his younger brother had been – concerned with position and pride and importance. And when the light of the father’s love blazed openly upon the returned prodigal, it was the self-righteous elder son who scurried for the darkness of anger and selfishness. The presence of the father’s love revealed the true heart of the elder son and provoked a response of self-judgment and rejection. Our response to Jesus reveals our heart and in that revelation lies the judgment for or against us. When our hearts are opened the judgment we have made about Jesus, and therefore our judgment upon ourselves, is revealed. Perhaps this is what John recorded symbolically in the Revelation:
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and the books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books (Rev 20:11-12, NRSV).
And maybe that’s what Paul had in mind in his instruction to the Roman Christians.
Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury (Rom 2:4-8, NRSV).
Both John and Paul speak of the judgment as an opening, a revelation, of what a man has written in the book of his life, of what he has stored in his heart. This is not as much God’s judgment on man as it is self-judgment. Let’s see what you’ve become. Let’s see your response to the light. What is it that you really want as revealed by the storehouse of your heart? Then that is what you shall have.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is the testimony of the Creed, Scripture, and the voice of the faithful for two millennia. I believe it. Each of us will be judged – will judge ourselves – based upon the totality of our lives and the totality of our response to the Lord Jesus. Did we bow down in worship or did we rise up in rebellion? Did we scurry away from the Light of the World or did we let it fill us so that we became a light for the world? Will our opened hearts reveal the Father’s love or the emptiness of man turned inward upon himself? These are the judgments we will make. These are the judgments were are even now making.
Like the hellfire-and-damnation preachers I believe God loves us. And like them I, too, am concerned with being saved, but not saved from God – rather saved by and for our loving God through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus. In fairness, I’m sure that is what many of them mean. So, we live not in fear, but in love and expectation.
If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in the world we are like him (1 John 4:15-17, NIV).
He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Even so come, Lord Jesus.