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.

The missional catechesis of Mr. Wesley: Wesleyan catechesis, part 4

We are examining the multi-faceted strands of the genius of Wesleyan catechesis.  So far, we have explored the role of God’s prior action in prevenient grace (part 1), Wesley’s notion of “waiting in the means of grace” (part 2), and the role of the community in spiritual formation (part 3).  Today’s blog will explore the missional side of Wesleyan catechesis.

Most readers of this blog will be aware that the Christian monastic tradition is a very diverse, multi-faceted tradition.  The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism.  They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream.  Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux,  the Rhineland mystics (e.g. St. Hildegarde or Meister Ecihart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton.  This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina (divine reading of Scripture).  This is a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world.  This is the great active tradition.   The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life.  However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor.  St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order.  Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor.   Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter.  Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world.  Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor.  While Wesley was deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, he really couldn’t imagine catechesis which was not also missional.  This is why holiness for Wesley is never merely personal holiness; it is active, missional holiness.  This is crucial for Wesley’s view of catechesis.  Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons.  For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him.  Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e. we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

It is, of course, a grave error to interpret Wesley’s social activism as either a form of “works-righteousness” (we are justified through our works) or the kind of humanistic social agenda which so often masquerades as Christianity today.  No, this is why these reflections have been placed in the larger context of God’s prevenient grace (God in moving and acting before we get to the soup kitchen or to the mission field or to brick yards or to the pulpit), but also the importance of waiting “in the means of grace.”   All action in the world takes place as a response to his revelation (in the Word and in Christ).

In future blog posts we will explore two more features of Wesleyan catechesis.

Scholars on Fire

Have you ever read something that you knew the minute you read it, you would never forget it.  I had that experience almost thirty years ago.  I read a statement in Christianity Today which I have never forgotten.  It was a letter to the editor.  Apparently, in a previous edition of Christianity Today, an article had appeared concerning some of the liberal scholars’ latest doubts about the authority of the N.T. and the historical Jesus.  The statement which riveted my attention was found the following month on the editorial page.  Some dear saint had written in a reply to Christianity Today. He was clearly upset with all of these so-called “findings” of enlightened liberal scholarship.  In his letter to the editor he shared that he was just a simple believer.  He remarked, I don’t know any Greek or any Hebrew or any of that stuff, he exclaimed, but I know these liberal scholars are dead wrong.  And it was then that he made his riveting statement which I’ve never forgotten.  He said, and I quote, “To these scholars, I’m probably just a simple-minded fool, but I’d rather be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice“!  I’d rather be a fool on fire for Jesus than a scholar on ice!  I think many of us can appreciate and feel his angst.  But his choice is a tough one isn’t it… a fool on fire, or a scholar on ice… it’s like being given the choice to live in Hiroshima in Aug. of 1945,  or on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912.

But his statement reveals an assumption that is all too often made in Christian circles.  The idea is that devotion to God often leads to a warm heart and an empty head.  The life of the mind is suspect and we should avoid scholarship in the interest of devotion to Christ and personal salvation:   Better to be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice.  We forget that God has called us to something greater, something which transcends these kinds of classic divides and tensions.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary – where scholarship is on fire… where the life of the mind enlarges the heart… and the devoted heart helps us capture the mind of Christ.   Welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary where the phrase “the mind and heart go hand in hand” is not just a slogan, but a description of who we are.  Welcome to the world of John Wesley where sound learning and vital piety are wedded in a nuptial embrace.  Welcome to scholarship on fire!

Someday, if you earn the privilege of earning a graduate degree from Asbury, you will be a thinking, thoughtful reflective Christian, with a heart on fire for Jesus Christ!   Indeed, this rare, but blessed bond of head and heart is precisely what God has called you and me to be.  You are not being called at Asbury seminary to check your brain at the door… you are not being called to give up your devotion to Jesus.. your love of Jesus… your desire to spread the good news….  To spread scriptural holiness throughout the world….  To be educated…   You’re not being called to keep the two in balance….  We’ re not talking about balance… but a  marriage… that was Wesley’s genius… the marriage of heart of head… Having, to use his words, “hearts aflame with the love of God” and a having “the mind of Christ.”  Your intellect and your affections are knit together in a holy matrimony with Jesus Christ.  Any man who gets up and reads Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ in the morning and the Greek New Testament in the afternoon and still be at the brickyards to preach at dusk is my kind of man, how about you?

This is an excerpt from a message given by Dr. Tennent at the Fall ’09 New Student Orientation.  Click here to listen to the entire message.

Committed to Holiness

For many Christians, the Bible feels like the federal tax code: complicated, contradictory, and awkwardly cobbled together over many years. Small wonder that our libraries are filled with commentaries promising to decode the puzzles we stumble over as we read.

But if we press on, we will discover that the trail sometimes rises up to a high point, to a lookout with a panoramic view of everything below. Standing above it all, we can now see that the maze of twisting trails actually makes sense. A meaningful, unified landscape emerges.

A well-educated man once asked Jesus to identify the most important of all God’s instructions. Quite a challenge, given that 613 specific commands had been tagged and categorized by the scholars of the day! How would Jesus answer? You could say that Jesus “took the man on a hike” to the highest overlook of them all, to a view that simplifies everything: “You shall love the Lord your God”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus not only declared that no commandments were greater than these, but that the whole of Scripture (the law and the prophets) depends on just these two commandments (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).

The apostle Paul presses exactly the same point: “…he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments…are summed up in this one sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 12:8-10; Gal. 5:14; see Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18)

John Wesley, the fountainhead of the Methodist revival, had obviously hiked to this very overlook and gazed out across the same landscape. He never tired of reducing everything (the gospel, his ministry, Christianity) to this exquisite simplicity: Love. To wander from this not only leads us away from Wesley, but surrenders away the heart of Scriptural Christianity.

Love has suffered much at the hands of it admirers. For many, it has slipped into a sentimental “niceness” that is toothless, timid and bland. Such love offers a warm (and often naïve) pat on the back to anybody passing by. Others who fear such a fate for love would convert it entirely into actions of mercy, stripped of any emotions of empathy or attraction, driven only by our naked choice to do the right thing. “Don’t confuse love with feelings; show me practical results.”

But the best portrait of love is painted by the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Despite being so familiar and simple, this verse (along with other biblical portraits of the Father’s character) actually lays out key characteristics of real, full-blooded love: Though sin is clearly seen, 1) the lover deeply values “the other”; 2) the lover energetically pursues the “the other”; 3) the lover gladly pours out him/herself for “the other”; 4) the lover’s self-giving enables “the other” to break into fullness of life; and 5) the lover defies all boundaries to love: everyone becomes “the cherished other.” Simply put, the lover is genuinely and joyfully other-centered.

Not surprisingly, sin stands in the opposite camp. If love is other-centered, sin is self-centered. The “works of the flesh” described in Galatians 5 have often been dubbed the “hyphenated” sins because, at bottom, they entangle us in self-promotion, self-worship and self-defensiveness. Now we can see a double simplicity stretching across the whole landscape. Here’s the sum of the matter: God wants to shift us out of self-centered living and into other-centered living. In other words, God wants us to make us resemble himself!

We must not mislabel this project. It is not “Goal 5, Subpoint 2a.” We must not mistake it for a merely inward, personal, or private experience reserved for folks with a pietistic bent. Love towers above all other projects, trumps all other goals and infuses everything that would bear real fruit (I Cor. 13). It refuses to be added like a few grains of salt to the programs we devise, because love itself is the main program, the primary agenda. It is God’s own passionate reaching outward through us, seeking to value all others and embrace all others right out of death and into the full life of God. At their best, our programs merely guide and protect this outward flow of real life.

Of course the Christian life involves daily, incremental growth across a wide range of issues. How many different virtues are there to strengthen? How many different sins must we learn to avoid? How many different calls are we urged to answer? But what if, beneath all this complexity, we were to address the great simplicity head-on? What if we were to ask, along with John Wesley, whether God could…and would somehow work systemically in us, to move us from being self-centered persons to being other-centered persons? Can that kind of transformation take place? Is such grace available? Can we, in this lifetime, by an infusion of God’s own love, actually become persons of active, self-giving, other-centered love? (Col. 3:7-10; Eph. 3:14-21; Rom. 5:5)

A thousand objections will be raised against these daring questions. Sadly, our own track record (whether personally or collectively) would seem to answer them with a resounding “No!” Those of us who have grown up within the movement have often witnessed the painful wreckage caused by enthusiasm running beyond the bounds of Scriptural wisdom. But then again, is it really safer to taxi around on the tarmac to avoid the dangers of take-off? It would seem that spiritual deadness and defeat have taken a far greater toll over the years than excessive hunger for godliness.

The founders of our seminary, along with thousands back reaching to John Wesley, would answer these same questions with a resounding “Yes!” Add to these the countless witnesses from other Christian traditions who (though they would explain it with different metaphors and images) have been so bathed in God’s love for them that they have become outward-flowing fountains of God’s own love to the world.

In many ways our seminary is emerging into a new day. Could another gift of God for us at this point of renewal be that we be re-captured by a vision of the possibilities of grace…in the form of love? Is this not, truly, the Gospel?

Tennent Response:
A well-known reviewer of Christian books once declared that any truly Christian book must contain three elements: color, fire and music. He reasoned that any book which lacked those qualities, however erudite, somehow failed to convey the real essence of Christianity. This is precisely the point which this article so ably sets forth for us. Without love, there is no genuine Christian life and experience. Without love, there is no authentic Christian witness. Without love, we cannot even claim to be doctrinally sound. Love is the color, fire and music of the Christian life. Without it, we are “only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol” (I Cor. 13:1).

The kind of love which this article calls for is, of course, impossible to produce in our own power. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ alone is the embodiment of this kind of love. It can only be manifest in the Christian life as we are “in Christ.” The love which marks the Christian experience is actually the sign and seal of the in-breaking of the New Creation which is embodied in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and which awaits us in all of its fullness at the climax of the ages. In Jesus Christ, this love becomes manifest in our present life and experience as Christians. Now that we are “in Christ” we are able to live out this love in the present age through the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling in us.

By God’s grace, I heartily resound with the prayer of the article; namely, that Asbury Seminary is on its way up the trail to that dazzling vantage point where we, as a community, can see that the many complex challenges of living Christianly in the 21st century can only be met in and through love – that love which has been embodied in Jesus Christ and which we have been called to embody in the world.