Reflections On How The “Love of God” Changes Us

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the weakened message of the church in his day as follows:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1]  Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique could easily be said today of evangelical Christianity.  Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance than today’s populistic, evangelical churches?  Have you noticed how the prayers of repentance and confession have dropped out of the order of services in many churches?  Have you noticed the quiet re-writing of some of the older hymns to drop out references to wrath, repentance and judgment?  Thankfully, there is a growing realization that, in our attempt to stay at the cultural center of consensus (rather than the prophetic margins) we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the gospel.

No where is this problem more evident than how the phrase, “the love of God” is used today.   So much of the biblical meaning has been squeezed out to comply with modern sensibilities.  The word “love” is used in our society for everything from “I love chocolate cake” to “I love that movie” to “for God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.”  The ancient Greeks,  as you know, had four words for love:  eros (erotic love), philia (devoted friendship), storge (parental affection towards children), and agápe (God’s love/ 1 Cor. 13 type love).  Each of these words have nuances of meaning and are used in a variety of ways in the New Testament.   But, it remains instructive.   When we say we ‘love our children’ most understand that this involves a wide range of responses and responsibilities which cannot be understood in merely emotive ways (though it would not exclude this).  When we love our children it involves, among others, acts of compassion towards them, learning to listen, honest truth telling, wise instruction, empathy when they are hurting, forbearing patience, loving discipline, the setting of boundaries, and so forth.  To neglect any of these would not be expressive of the full range of what it means to love.  This is, likewise, true in our relationship with God.  It is misguided, for example, to insist that God’s love towards us does not, at times, involve his disciplining us for our own good.  God has given us moral boundaries, not because He is a tyrannical kill-joy, but because he longs for us to know the deepest joy of His design.  In fact, God is so committed in his covenant-love toward us that He sometimes opposes us in our own inclinations, and deeds, and ideas as to what we think is right because His love is a holy love.

In today’s morally vacuous climate, we can easily become influenced by sentimental concepts of love which precludes his righteous judgment, or his loving discipline.   However, one of the surest signs of God’s love for us is that, like a good parent, He disciplines us, sets moral boundaries, makes judgments according to his revealed will, and so forth.  Sometimes His “discipline” and “truth telling” can really hurt and make us want to flee in the opposite direction.  However, we know from Scripture that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  Paul says that “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).

[1] Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.

Are there really any atheists?

Professor Richard Dawkins has been called the world’s most notorious atheist.  Indeed, his atheism is so militant that he is widely regarded as the poster-child for the modern so-called “new Atheist” movement.

His wildly popular books, The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, among others, are regularly cited in atheist articles, books and blogs.  Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion has sold more than 2 million copies and is now in 31 languages.  Dawkins has called all forms of religious belief, “a fixed false belief.”  Dawkins once  declared that “we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.”  He was once asked about the contribution of seminaries and divinity schools to the world to which Dawkins replied, “What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?”

It is, therefore, worth noting that Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, does not actually call himself an atheist.  In a debate earlier this year with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dawkins surprised some by his reaction to a statement made by the Archbishop.  During an exchange, Rowan Williams referred to Dawkins as the world’s most famous atheist.  Dawkins responded by saying that he is not an atheist, but rather considers himself an agnostic (   To be fair to Richard Dawkins, he later made it clear (as did many of his devotees) that this did not represent a shift in his views.  Apparently, the world’s most famous atheist has really been an agnostic all along.   Let’s unpack some of the implications of this.

First, let’s clarify the two terms.  An atheist believes that there is no God.  An agnostic affirms that one can never know for certain whether God exists or not.  Notice the two terms atheist and agnostic both begin with the so-called ‘privative a’ (sometimes called the privative alpha).  This is a feature in ancient Greek and in Sanskrit which gets transported into English and a few other languages which use the prefix “a” to negate what follows.  The word theist, for example, means one who believes that God exists.   By placing a privative ‘a’ prefix on the word ‘theist’ an a-theist is one who does NOT believe in God.  This is also true with the word agnostic.  A close examination of the word ‘agnostic’ reveals that the root word is the word ‘gnosis,’ the Greek word for “knowledge.”  The privative ‘a’ attached to the word for knowledge means, quite literally, “no knowledge.”  An agnostic is one who has “no knowledge” about whether God exists or does not exist.

Richard Dawkins explains his agnostic position by saying that it is impossible to “prove” that God exists, so the corollary must also be true; namely, that it is impossible to “prove” that God does not exist.  This seems to concede the very point that many of us have made to our atheist friends; namely that propositions such as “God is” or “God is not” fall outside the normal boundaries of scientific discovery and enquiry.  To use C. S. Lewis’ famous analogy, it would be like trying to find Shakespeare in a Shakespeare play.  Shakespeare is the author of the whole play and therefore transcends it all.  As philosophers and theologians often point out, scientists may be excellent at physics, but metaphysics is outside their remit.  In fact, the very fact that the proposition “God does not exist” cannot be scientifically proven, means that (by their own testimony) there really are no atheists in the world.  There can only be agnostics.

Let me explain.  Because atheists live in what Francis Schaeffer used to call a “one story” universe, they have no access to any knowledge outside of empirically confirmable data.  Since God transcends the empirical world, then they are only left with “no knowledge,” i.e. agnosticism.  Christians, in contrast, live in a two story universe where God has chosen to reveal himself through creation, scripture, the incarnation, and so forth.  Thus, we have access to knowledge which transcends what can be known through empirical scientific enquiry.  Thus, we can be theists, but they can only be, agnostic.  Since no one can prove that God does not exist, there can be no atheist in the world.  Thousands of so called atheists, in atheist blogs and books and so forth should come clean and call themselves the “new agnostic” movement.  Even Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion should be reprinted as a question, not a statement. It should be, The God Delusion? since Dawkins cannot prove (by his own testimony) that belief in God is delusional.  He clearly thinks so, but he cannot know for certain.

Richard Dawkins (and all the host of atheists, er… agnostics, who are out there) have given their lives to a negation; namely they have committed themselves to the proposition that  one cannot know for certain if there is a God.  It is, to put it bluntly, a ‘knowledge about no knowledge.’   I am sure that there are many honest people who affirm such a non-affirmation.  But, surely it is clear that the legs of such a world-view cannot carry one too far.

A Few Thoughts on the Mystery of the Inspiration of Holy Scripture

Do you know the difference between the words “irrupt” and “erupt”? Irrupt means to come “crashing in” or “bursting in,” whereas erupt means to burst forth or break out. A volcano erupts, i.e. it spews forth lava, fire and smoke. God’s salvation irrupts into the world. The incarnation is something which comes crashing in from the outside, not something which arises from the inside. Yet, in the mystery of the incarnation, as an historical event, it seems to be both irruption and eruption. It is clearly the intervention from outside time and space, yet it also emerges within the confines of space and time and human history. Jesus irrupts into the world as the Theantropic One, yet he also erupts from Mary’s womb as Jesus of Nazareth. Ah, the great mystery which is ours in Jesus!

The Apostle Paul boldly proclaims in 2 Tim. 3:16 that “all scripture is inspired by God.” The English word “inspiration” implies breathing “in” and, in its normal usage refers to something which happens in us, i.e. we are inspired. The actual word in the N.T. literally means that “all Scripture is God-breathed,” i.e. it is a breath from God. So, what is Scripture? We have, in mystery, both the Word of God and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or one of John’s Epistles. I want to go on record affirming my own confidence that the Bible is, indeed, the Word of God. It is God-breathed. If we ever lose confidence in God’s Word, the seeds of our demise as ministers of the gospel have been sown. I firmly believe that all Scripture is, indeed, God-breathed and the Scripture is without error. This does not mean, of course, that the Scripture fell out of the sky or was dictated to passive recipients. That is the Islamic, not Christian, understanding of revelation.

Muhammad was, by the Islamic account, a passive recipient who merely heard and recorded what was being conveyed to him by the angel Gabriel between the years 610 and 632 A.D. The Christian position, as I understand it, involves a mysterious intersection of irruption and eruption. Paul, John, Matthew and the other authors wrote their gospels or epistles using their own particular style and force of words (eruption), but the Holy Spirit sovereignly restrained them from making any error such that the documents which were produced were the very words of God (irruption), expressed in the particularities of a specific language without violating the nature of human thought, culture and expression (eruption), yet conveying exactly what God wanted us to hear and to know (irruption).

It is actually a great insight into the Christian understanding of how God draws us into the very center of his redemptive work and allows us to participate with him in his great, unfolding, cosmic plan. God could have dropped the Bible out of the sky. God could have saved people without the church or evangelists or human agency. God does not require partners to be whole and complete. The Triune God is. He is forever and eternally blessed – and we can neither add, nor detract, from that eternal blessedness. As the Puritans used to say, “God is in himself a sweet society.” However, God has chosen to unfold his plan with us, and through us, and in us. We get drawn up into – yea, summoned into – the presence of the very life and work of the Triune God. We become, amazingly, his co-workers, his co-writers, his co-witnesses, his co-servers, etc.

All of ministry must, therefore, be seen (as Scripture itself is seen), as an expression of God’s breath of life through the particularities of human agency. Obviously, in our case, the Holy Spirit does not always restrain us from error, though he surely must restrain us from countless errors or sins which we never realize, as he guides the unfolding missio dei (mission of God) through us. In our own lives His irruption does not always perfectly align with our eruptions.

One of our prayers is that we would fully recognize his guiding presence through our lives and we would be more receptive to the daily restraints and leading of the Holy Spirit. Someday (in the New Creation) when we see him as He truly is, our inhales and exhales (our inspirations and his ex-spirations) will fully match and resonate with his own in perfect and eternal harmony.

Sanctification, A Reorientation of the Heart: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Fourth, I am a Methodist because of Wesley’s strong emphasis on the importance of holiness in the life of the believer and the necessity of Christian sanctification. On New Year’s Eve 1738 Wesley went to another society meeting. It was an all-night prayer vigil to bring in the new year 1739. In the early hours of January 1, 1739 something dramatic happened to Wesley. He received a sanctifying experience where God re-oriented his heart and life. Listen to Wesley’s own words:

On Monday morning, January 1, 1739, Mr. Hall and my brother Charles
were present in Fetters Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. At about
three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power
of God came mightily upon us insomuch that many cried out for exceeding
joy and many fell down to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little
from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty, we broke out
with one voice, ‘We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.’

This experience helped Wesley understand God’s ongoing work in the life of the believer. We have already seen the role of prevenient grace prior to our conversion. Then, we examined the role of justifying grace at the point of conversion. Now, we will look at Wesley’s understanding of how God continues to work in the life of the believer through sanctifying grace. Methodists have a view of God’s grace working before, at, and after conversion. This helps build on the Reformation which focused on becoming a Christian to the broader biblical emphasis on what it means to be a Christian.

The doctrine of entire sanctification is one of the most misunderstood of all Methodist doctrines. When most of us hear the word sanctification we think of it as a forensic term – i.e. sanctified means that you are divinely certified before God’s court of justice as someone without any sin in your life and, once sanctified, you will never sin again. That is not what Wesley taught or meant by sanctification. For Wesley, sanctification is not primarily a forensic term. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification, in contrast, is inherently relational since it involves the whole of our daily interactions.

For Wesley, sanctification is what happens when we are brought fully into relationship with the Triune God. For Wesley, sin and God’s righteous judgment can never be reduced to only breaking God’s Law, i.e. forensic guilt. Our sins are, of course, never less than that. But they are also deeply relational. When we sin we not only break God’s law (I John 3:4), but we also breach a relationship. When we sin we, at that moment, elect the absence of God in our lives. Sin separates us from God himself, not just from our right standing under God’s law.

Methodists build on the Reformers’ understanding of “alien righteousness” by declaring that we must not only be declared righteous, we must increasingly live righteous lives. Luther famously declared that Christians are “dung hills covered in snow.” Wesley would not disagree, but would assert that salvation is about more than justification. Righteousness for Wesley is more than God just looking at us through a different set of glasses, i.e., we are filthy rags, but God sees us through the blood of Christ and, thereby, sees the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Wesley argued that alien, imputed righteousness must increasingly become native, actualized righteousness; wrought in us not by our own strength but through the power of the living God. We are marked, oriented, and re-oriented by love.

We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but we are sanctified by faith as we enter into full relationship with the Triune God. Wesley taught that we are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith. As a relational term, entire sanctification means that your whole life, your body, and your spirit have been re-oriented. Entire sanctification means that our entire heart has been re-oriented towards the joyful company of the Triune God. You are in a new colloquy. It was, for Wesley, not the end of some long, drudge out of the life of sin, but joining the joyful assembly of those who have truly found joy. For Wesley, holiness is the crown of true happiness.

To be sanctified is to receive a gift from God which changes our hearts and reorients our relationship with the Triune God and with others, giving us the capacity to love God and neighbor in new and profound ways. The language of “entire sanctification” in Methodism uses the word entire in reference to Greek, not Latin. In Greek entire or complete can still be improved upon. It is a new orientation which no longer looks back on the old life of sin, but is always looking forward to the New Creation. It is a life which has been engulfed by new realities, eschatological realities, not the realities of that which are passing away.

Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins which we avoid. Methodists believe that even if you were to eradicate every sin in your life, you would only be halfway there. Because, for Wesley, holiness is never just about sins we avoid, it is about fruit which we produce! In Wesley, faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed. We no longer have a view of holiness which is legalistic, private, negative, or static. It is not merely legal, but relational; not merely private, but embedded in community; not negative, but a true vision of the inbreaking of God’s rule and reign! The witness of the Spirit, which confirms faith, becomes in Wesley the power of the Spirit to produce fruit and to transform the world – to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world!

1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, January 1, 1739(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 170.

When Efficiency Doesn’t Get the Job Done… Living into the Extravagance of God- by Timothy C. Tennent

The longer I walk with the Lord, the more I become aware of the unfathomable depth of his grace and mercy in our lives. God’s grace really is amazing. His love is scandalizingly extravagant. If you lend your support to a righteous person or to a prophet by bringing him or her even a “cup of cold water” you will receive the reward of the righteous and the prophet (Matt. 10:42). God is that extravagant with his generosity.

This astounding truth really came home to me this week in a fresh way. I mentioned in my last blog entry how my daughter was going to have the privilege of preaching the first sermon in the Chasi language in the history of the world. For those who didn’t catch that entry, our daughter is working among an unreached group in the middle of rural Tanzania. They have been working over the last year to learn the language of the Wasi people. A few months ago they began a service in Chasi and began to introduce a few Chasi hymns, but the sermon was still in English or Swahili. The time had finally arrived last Sunday (June 12) to preach the first sermon in Chasi. There are ten people on this team who have moved to this area and are learning the language; Four are Americans, two are from Britain and four are from Tanzania itself, but are also having to learn this particular language (spoken by about 40,000 people). Our daughter was asked to give the first sermon. Her text was Hebrews 10:1-4 which is the passage which says that the Law and sacrifices are only a shadow pointing to Christ. This group in Tanzania knows something of the law through Islam (they are nominally Islamic) and they know the need of sacrifice through their traditional religion. The point of Bethany’s sermon was that of the text; namely, that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” The provision of the blood of bulls and goats was in anticipation of a future payment; namely, Christ himself.

Sunday finally arrived and the entire team gathered along with a few Christians from a neighboring language group who are praying for them. However, only three Chasi came to the service and, of those three, two left once the singing was over. Thus, Bethany was in a room where everyone in the entire room could speak English except for one Chasi man. The sermon went forth in Chasi to the one man.

It is here that I want to return to the theme of the extravagance of God. We are so efficiency oriented and so pragmatic that we would never expend such resources for such a meager event (from the world’s perspective). To have ten people leave their homeland, leave their family and friends, leave behind basic comforts such as running water and electricity, and relocate all the way to the heart of Africa and spend months and months learning a language in order to preach the gospel to one man is highly “inefficient.” But, such is the extravagance of God. In fact, this is precisely what God has done in all of our lives. The whole incarnation is about this kind of extravagance. The incarnation is so radical that it strikes us as “foolishness” and a “stumbling block.” That’s the whole point! We can’t imagine the generosity of God. God became man. It wasn’t some kind of temporary disguise or holographic projection. In Jesus Christ God became a man. His love is so extravagant that he steps into our lives and calls us and woos us to himself, despite the deafness of our ears and the leanness of our souls.

I want to live in this kind of extravagance. I want to better exude the radical extravagance of God’s love for a lost world. The cross of Jesus Christ teaches us that God’s greatest redemptive work unfolds under the cloak of failure. I think the same is true when one man hears the gospel among the Wasi. It occurs when we bring that one cup of cold water to the righteous or do anything else in the name of Christ. This past week Bethany sang a new tune into the ears of one Chasi man in the middle of Tanzania. That song, in time, just might become another Hallelujah chorus.