Grace and Truth or Love and Truth?

I take my sense of the word “grace” mostly from the New Testament (the word “charis” in Greek), though the English word grace is also found in Jeremiah 31, a crucial chapter relative to the “new covenant.”  Now there are some 155 uses of “charis” in the the NT (115 or so being translated as “grace”) and all of them bear examination.  For the sake of space I am focusing here on Romans 4:16.1

I have chosen this example because it offers a terse but ready contextualization for the use of grace (“charis”) in what I believe to be its correct context: in connection with both promise and covenant.

Romans 4:16  “For this reason it [the promise to Abraham] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those that share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all . . .”  Grace in this sense means “a beneficent disposition towards someone” in the sense of “that which one grants to another / the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.”  (From the Bauer-Danke Greek / English lexicon).

Two points appear important:

On the one hand, Romans 4:1-25 is considered to be a logical unit and the use of grace in Rom 4:16 in contextualized by its use in Rom 4:4, where “charis” is translated as “gift.”  Particularly, grace is the mode or manner of the action—the ‘how’, if you like.  So we have the close association between grace and gift: that which is given freely and without being earned.

On the other hand, Rom 4:16 is a wonderful encapsulation of grace within its actual context: the extraordinary reality that a) God committed to a promise before entering into the covenant (in Gen 12) and b) God “made good” on this promise by “making good” on the covenant, through the life and death of Jesus the Christ (see Rom 3:21-26, much of Rom 5, etc.).

In other words, grace (“charis”) is how God both a) began his main dealings with humankind through Israel and b) completed those dealing to the inclusion of all peoples, through Jesus.  But note that if grace is how God acted, it is not why.

Why did God choose to freely give both full relationship (via the covenant) and the means for that relationship to be accomplished (via the life and death of Jesus)?  While I would like to go much deeper with my argument here, the most basic answer is that God acted / chose to act according to God’s character.  And against those who focus on sovereignty to the exclusion of all else, the Bible clearly characterizes God as both sovereign and father / parent.

So with such clear biblical indications as “God is love” (1 John 4) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him should may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3), I attribute the ‘Why’ of God’s action to God’s passionate love (in general and for humanity specifically), such that God enacted God’s love toward us for the purpose of furthering relationship with us and for establishing God’s kingdom with and through us.

God does require certain things of us as our sovereign, but the gift—the grace—of God comes to us as a matter of God’s love and specifically as an expression of God’s fatherly and parental love. In other words, grace is that mode of expression by which God most truly expresses God-self: grace shows God’s love in its truest and fullest light.

In this sense, while I deeply value grace as God’s “mode of engagement” that makes my relationship with God possible (i.e., how the relationship has been made possible) love, along with truth, is the overarching orientation both from God to me and from me to God.

Love is the reason why God offered grace in the first place (and God could legitimately do so because God is truly sovereign and truly father / parent).  Likewise, being loved by God and truly known by God are the reasons why I am nowhere more content and more myself than in my relationship with God (and why I both am passionately in love with God and seek to proclaim God’s existence and character as being truly true).

Without Jesus, apparently, we all “Suck”

What?!

But, on second thought, maybe I should not be too surprised:

In Kyle Idleman’s popular not a fan he states “that the reason that we were put on this planet is to answer this one question,” that being, “What if there really is a heaven and a hell, and where I spend eternity comes down to this one question?”  (p. 21, italics his).

For Kyle, Christianity is about reward and punishment.  Either we will accept Jesus and believe (and so receive the reward of heaven) or we reject Jesus and disbelieve (and so suffer the punishment of hell).  Further, throughout the book Kyle is at pains to emphasize how Christianity “costs” a great deal, such as how Christians should hate everyone else by comparison to how much they love God and how, as a Christian, I should “empty myself of me” to make space for the Holy Spirit. (pp 65 & 95).

So where Christianity is about gaining reward and avoiding punishment, and where loving God means (practically) hating others and effacing myself, it’s not surprising to find something like www.withoutjesusisuck.com (WJIS).  Both exemplify a key notion in evangelical Christianity: at best you’re a problem; at worst you’re worthless.

But this should raise a few questions:

Why would God create something that “sucks”?  Why, indeed, would God love something that “sucks”?  And why would God purportedly die for something that “sucks”?

Now many evangelicals would be quick to interject: “No!  God created us as wonderful, and then we messed it up by sinning.  While we sin we can do nothing right.  And the fact that God loves us so much that God gave up his only son to die for us and take away our sin, that is the wonder and mystery of God’s love that we can never comprehend.”

Yet the upshot of an incomprehensible situation, obviously, is that we can’t figure it out.  So we have only two options: either believe or don’t.  In fact, we are right back with Kyle Idleman’s two choices.  And really, if you can actually believe that God is real, then practically there is no choice: no sane or moral person would choose not to be a Christian.  Pretty nifty how that works, huh?

Not really.  I think it’s crap (and I’m not even Scottish).

First, the idea that God’s love for us is incomprehensible is both bogus and unbiblical.  Bogus because if God’s “love” were completely unrelated to human love then it would be impossible to experience it as love—it would not be “love” in any sense that we know it.  Unbiblical because the Bible is totally clear on this point: in order to be in right relationship with God we can and must experience God’s love, we must “taste and see” God’s goodness 1.  And this experience must, at minimum, be comprehensible and “square with” our general understandings of love.

Second, God loves us now, as we are.  For as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, sin is not the problem but its symptom.  The problem?  Not being in right relationship with God, and a major part of the solution (along with having better, truer understandings of who God is, who humans are, and how the two should relate) is that we experience God’s love and understand it as such.

Third, it is clear that I can and do act, think, etc., in ways that are good.  Not “good” in some sort of absolute, modernist way—no one is arguing for that.  No, in the same way that Postmodernism never means “absolutely anything goes” (outside of advertisements for pizza toppings), so “doing right things” is not a claim to absolute goodness that challenges either God’s holiness or the necessity of Jesus dying in fulfillment of the covenant.

So you don’t suck, and neither do I.

God loves you, and God loves me. God loves us now, as we really are, and also as we best could be, as seen through the lens of God’s love and God’s truth.

And that’s the T-shirt we need.

Is Christianity “the one true way”?

 

I believe that it is.  But what does this mean?

To begin, I do not mean that only in Christianity is there truth.  Nor do I mean that one can only understand truth if one is a Christian.  Rather, I mean that only in Christianity do I find love that is fully true and fully “for me” and truth that knows me, affirms me, critiques me, and yet offers me back to myself as more the self I long to be than any other.

Here’s why:

My imagination, reason, emotions—all of my faculties and what it is for me to be human and “me”—and my experiences with and of God point to love and truth as being at the core of human existence.  In other words, they are the most essential elements for and within the existence of human beings.

Now this is a big claim, I know.  And beyond questions about a) the exact nature of love and truth, and b) my response to those who don’t value truth and love as I do, there is another issue: isn’t personal experience rather too limited a basis for one’s beliefs?

For I have not arrived at this conclusion based on an existential comparison of various religions—I have not been a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, etc. and then compared such with my experience as a Christian.

No, my claim is not that my experience is more real / meaningful than that of others, but that a) love and truth are more essential to right human existence than all else, and b) that love and truth have their origin in the Christian God love and that in relationship with this God we experience the fulfillment of love and truth in our lives.

So my personal experience must be commensurate with who God claims to be.  Only then will there be reciprocity between my truth, as truth-for-me, and God’s ultimate truth, or Truth.

In other words, examining a religion’s truth claims is crucial, because we can only expect from a religion what it claims to offer.  And for me the biblical truth claims are radically different from what I perceive elsewhere:

  1. God created us to be in loving, truthful relationship with us and so that we might be likewise related with God, the earth, our fellows, and ourselves;
  2. We do things that sunder those relationship, which we call ‘sin’;
  3. God chose a people (Israel) and made an arrangement with them (a covenant) for the purpose of dealing with sin and its result, which is separation from God and ultimately death (more on this later).  By Israel keeping the covenant the whole world was to come into right relationship with God;
  4. However, Israel instead viewed the covenant as a matter of national pride (rather than national responsibility) and distorted its laws, which broke the covenant;
  5. Jesus came to fulfill the covenant by living as Israel was to have lived and by accepting the consequences of Israel having broken the covenant (i.e., death) upon his person, so that Israel was not destroyed;
  6. Fulfilling the covenant did not simply result in continuing the old testamental norms but inaugurated the far grander reality of the Kingdom of God, whereby all of existence is able to be reconciled to God through Jesus;
  7. This “new way” meant that the whole world could now be in right  relationship with God, and that God was not simply our sovereign (as with Israel) but our father (as Jesus taught a revolutionary new way to pray: “Our Father who is in heaven . . .”);
  8. So Christians are essentially characterized in two ways, as reflects who God is: as servants who offer obedient service to God the sovereign (i.e., being beholden to God’s t/Truth) and as children who love God, even as God who is our true Father loves us (i.e., being in love with God, who loves us and is love).

The point is this: love and truth are integral to God’s nature (and to the relationship that God desires with us), yet they are likewise quintessentially human (as essential to becoming fully the creatures that we are meant to be, through being in right relationship with God).