Tuesday, May 29, 2007

God's Lavish Grace

Weeks ago, for the last chapel of the semester, I spoke from the first few chapters of the book of Ephesians. This past Sunday, the pastor at my home church, Dr. Don Shoemaker of Grace Community Church Seal Beach, started what promises to be an excellent series on the book of Ephesians. What both I and Pastor Shoemaker emphasized was God’s grace and election. Many people wrestle with the doctrine of election. They don’t like the idea that God chooses to save some but does not choose to save everyone. Pastor Shoemaker pointed out that we believe parents are doing something good and moral when they adopt an orphan. But we do not claim that the same adopting parents are being immoral by refusing to adopt all orphans. Human beings are all in rebellion against God. Our state from birth is one of hatred and antipathy toward God. God chooses to rescue some of us from this by changing our hearts and minds through the work of His Holy Spirit to bring us to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. When we are drawn to Christ, we put faith in His saving work believing in who He is and what He did—that is, that He is both fully God and fully man and that He made a complete sacrifice for our sins once and for all on the cross, paying for all of our sins and also attributing to us His perfectly lived righteous life. It is in this way that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But it is God’s work of election to bring us to this salvation and there is no room for us to boast or brag. We have not done anything praiseworthy or laudable in order to be saved. Instead, everything has been done by God in and through Jesus Christ: “In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of His glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory.” Ephesians 1:11-14. As this passage indicates, God provides evidence of His work in us by sealing us with the Holy Spirit. It is the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance of salvation. The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should and does work a slow transformation in us through which we become better people than we used to be. But it is not this process of sanctification (“setting ourselves aside from sin for God”) that is the cause of our salvation. We are saved because Christ’s righteousness is attributed to us and because Christ’s sacrifice paid for our sins, not because we do good things to merit or earn our salvation.

These doctrines are very difficult for some people. Many people are quite disturbed by the idea that God makes choices for reasons apparently having nothing to do with our own merit or worthiness or will. By contrast, I find this quite comforting. If my salvation depended on me, I would be in a most definite and permanent anxious state, terrified of my inability to please God. But, thankfully, my salvation doesn’t depend upon me. I am thankful for God’s lavish and generous grace that salvation has come to me based on Christ’s merit rather than my own. I am thankful that my salvation depends on the sovereign and unstoppable divine being who created and sustains the universe rather than upon my corrupt and finite abilities. How generous and kind God is to the elect in choosing us when we have done nothing to merit His selection. Truly, He is the generous and kind God.

Some people are still worried about those who they believe are not elected. Of course only God can know whether someone is actually of the elect or not. We can see evidences of their earthly statements and professions, but we cannot know what is in their hearts or in the mind of God. If we are concerned about the salvation of another person, it makes sense for us to do two things; to communicate the gospel to them and to pray that they will be among the elect. Neither of these things is unreasonable. If God does not decide who to elect based upon merit, there is no reason to believe that He does not decide based at least in part upon the prayers of those who are among the elect. And certainly no one who is not among the elect will truly seek God and seek to be saved through prayer. So if you are worried about whether or not you are elect, asking God to elect you and save you is obviously a prayer to which God would say yes. Much more, we should pray for others who concern us. In addition, we should preach the gospel to people so that from an earthly perspective, they have the opportunity to believe and put faith in Christ. While the Bible clearly teaches election in Ephesians and elsewhere, it also clearly teaches that we have an obligation to preach the gospel. From an earthly perspective people do indeed need to choose to put their faith in Christ and His work on the cross. From an earthly perspective, the more they know about it, the more likely it is that they will believe it. The choice to save is God’s. He clearly uses us in the process through which He works.

Is this difficult and mysterious? Of course. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is so incredibly sensible. Christianity is unlike the many religions invented by human beings and designed to please human needs and desires. Christianity (as Carnel wrote) is internally consistent, fits the facts and is reasonable. Christianity is also something so complicated yet simple, ingenious yet unfathomable, seemingly paradoxical yet utterly sensible. Christianity is the sort of system that no human being could have designed or would have designed. No sensible human would have designed a religion that included the doctrine of the trinity or the tension between the preaching of the gospel and divine election. No human being would have at the same time made salvation totally dependent upon God and not upon our good works, and yet also asked that human beings abide by the moral law even though their salvation was not dependent upon the moral law because they were saved by grace through faith in Christ. No human being would have God become man and yet remain fully divine for fear of either elevating the human or compromising the divine in the minds of confused followers. And no human being would have made their designed religion completely contingent upon the resurrection of Christ from the dead since no human being could pull off a genuine resurrection and since so few people believe even in the real one that was witnessed by many people who gave their lives in confirmation of their testimony. But the real God is a lavish, gracious and kind God. The God of the Bible has expressed to us His amazing ways which are both fully rational and enigmatic, completely sensible and inexplicable, completely systematic and fully surprising, just and yet lavishly gracious. The more we say yes to God and enter into a deeper and deeper relationship with Him and knowledge of His ways, the more amazed we are by all that we learn.


Lynn Green said...

You use a false analogy in your discussion of election. If orphan the parents did not choose was taken from the orphanage and throw into a fire to burn for all eternity, then, yes, the parents would be considered immoral for not saving the child from that fate if they were capable of doing so. That is what evangelical Christian claim happens to people who don't adopt the same set of beliefs about God and Jesus as they do.
This is why I have trouble with the evangelical doctrine of blood atonement. To me, it makes God less moral that we are. I would adopt ever orphan if I was capable of doing so.

Dean McConnell said...

You are right that the analogy is not perfect. Analogies never are. But the real difference is that actual orphans have little if any moral distance between themselves and potential adoptive parents. And, presumably, most orphans want to be adopted. This is not the case with God and people. We humans are a desperately wicked bunch. We hate God and think, wish for, and do evil things pretty much constantly. And we do not want to be adopted. Without God’s transforming power none of us would want to spend ten seconds in the presence of God let alone eternity. Apart from God choosing some of us, we would all gladly choose hell. I think C.S. Lewis was right about that in his book “The Great Divorce.” God would be more than morally justified in letting us all have our own way and allowing us to separate ourselves from Him for eternity. God is not morally blameworthy for letting people have what they want. The amazing thing is that God has won any of us over and saved us without violence to our wills or a more radical discontinuity in life. It is amazing that God was willing to suffer for us and enter into our suffering.

Real wisdom comes in accepting God as He is and letting Him transform us and the world around us, not in rejecting God and seeking to remake the world in the image of our own desires.

Sacchiel said...

It would make sense since we deserve not heaven, but the despair that comes from our sinfulness.

Lynn Green said...

I disagree with your notion that we hate God. Few of us do. We don't wish for evil. In fact, the evil that we do comes from the fact that we wish some good that comes at the expense of others. Here's another Lewis quote (or near quote), "Evil is a good thing spoiled." Osama bin Laden thought, in fact still thinks, he was doing God's will. So did Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh, Jim Jones. So did Jerry Falwell. The list goes on and on. The problem is that we are finite, but we forget that fact and act as if we have the whole truth. There is more evil done in the name of doctrine than is ever done in the name of Satan.

Dean McConnell said...


I do not think scripture, history, or experience bears you out.

If we all loved God we would obey Him. Despite any limits of our finite nature we all intentionally do things and think thoughts we know to be in rebellion against God. Every parent has seen a child deliberately do something dangerous they have just been told not to do. Adults are no better with God than children are with parents.

You appear to assume the standard of good and evil is relative to the individual. This is not so. Good and evil are related to God Himself. He is the measure of all things and has revealed enough about morality to all people for us to be morally accountable for falling short of God’s standards. We all sin and we know we all sin even when we are in self denial or corporate denial. What Bin Laden does either includes evil or not, without regard to his feelings, opinions, or claims. Bin Laden’s actions are not only evil, but more evil than the run-of-the-mill evil of all human beings. All humans are guilty of unjust attitudes toward other human beings. We may have attitudes that amount to wishing for mass murder in God’s eyes, but we don’t all actually commit mass murder as Bin Laden has not only done, but continues to aspire to do. That Bin Laden misrepresents God and God’s law is not mitigation, but an additional set of sins. But really, Al Qaeda’s jihadist ideology owes far more to Martin Heidegger than to Mohamed. I think all the people you site (except Falwell) knew in their deep conscience that they were doing evil and in acting in rebellion against God. While our ability to apply the rules of morality is imperfect, and we do all make genuine mistakes, we knowingly choose evil often enough. What makes it worse is when lie to ourselves and claim we do not sin or do moral evil.

While it may not be true for you, I suspect the reason most people who hold to your view of good and evil do so is that they want to justify themselves because there is some sin they think they cannot live without, and they are too proud to admit the sin and accept God’s grace when it might come with the cost of God’s light on the dark part of their lives.

I do not think it just to attribute real religious motives to those who misrepresent God and use religion as a rationalization, diversion, or confidence game while not really believing it themselves.

The evil done by people claiming (but not always really having) a religious motive is insignificant compared to the havoc created by avowed materialists for power, utopian schemes, and money. The French Revolution, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, North Korea, Mao, Hitler, and the myriads of individuals and companies seeking wealth and power without concern for morality, have killed more, robbed more, and displaced more than all the others despite the competition of the Spanish Inquisition, Islam, and Imperial Japan. These did not act in the name of Satin, but in the name of self. Even the utopians sought to substitute a heaven on earth without God for God’s real order.