Friday, June 16, 2017

A Response to Dr. David Lose: Rejecting a False God

It is a sad reality that the theology of the church not only must defend itself against attacks from those on the outside, but it also must defend itself from attacks from within.  In the postmodern world in which  we live, the church has become more and more lax in dealing with such attacks preferring to live and let live.  Gone are the days when heretics would be punched in the face (#Athanasius).  Well, we might not want to return to that state of argument, but an unwillingness to defend against certain thoughts might end up being worse as more and more unorthodox thought gets pushed into the church culture, resulting in fewer and fewer people knowing the reality of the Christian faith and what it proclaims.

Recently, I was made aware of a post by a former president of a seminary in my own denomination: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  The post was titled: Is God Angry with You: A Good Friday Reflection, and it was written by Dr. David Lose who was President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  Dr. Lose’s article deals with the atonement--a Christian term that means being made right with God.  The nature of how we are made right with God has been a matter of debate in the church from time to time, and Lose does his best to discredit one of the dominant theories: penal-substitutionary atonement.  Unfortunately, Lose does very little in the way of engaging those who ascribe to the theory, and he acts as if the questions he raises have no answers.  In this blog post, I will delve into Lose’s questions, offer answers, and also rebut much of the theology Lose seems to embrace.

It is unfortunate that I have to do such a thing, but I love the church of which I am a part.  And I heartily believe that the path to which Lose subscribes actually does more harm than good and will lead to a continued decline in membership and ministry in the ELCA.  I believe that a theological grounding based in substitutionary atonement is one of the factors to which we should return to reverse that trend.  I will begin with Lose’s first question.

“Why should one person’s punishment--even if that person is the Son of God--count for all the others?”

The answer is: Because all sin is ultimately against God.  Lose doesn’t seem to hold this view.  Later in the article, he says this:

“First, it appeals to a crude sense of justice achieved through retributive violence. Theologians defending penal substitution almost always invite us to imagine that if our house were broken into, or if someone we loved were murdered, we’d want justice — that is, that the offender would be punished. But this argument assumes God can’t transcend our own moral limitations. Just because we may cry for justice and vengeance when we are wronged doesn’t mean God will.”

It seems to me, there is a hidden assumption in Lose’s thought: that justice is a human construct.  “If someone breaks into our house WE (emphasis mine) want justice.” But most theologians do not believe that justice is a human construct.  We believe that God initiates justice, and that justice is deeply embedded not only in human experience but also within nature.  This video shows an experiment with monkeys dealing with inequity; it seems to hint that the concept of justice isn’t just a human one.

St. Paul writes about justice being a part of the very fabric of creation in the early chapters of the book of Romans.  “20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”  Paul unabashedly believes that we can come to know that there are laws of justice and fairness that should govern us, and those laws are put in place by the Law Giver: God.

Which leads us to say: If justice originates with God and not with humanity, then God is bound to uphold His laws of fairness.  If God does not uphold His laws fairly and equitably, God is not just and is certainly not worthy of worship.  And it is a fact of reality that the vast majority of people on earth NEVER experience justice.  The millions killed by the Khmer Rouge; the millions killed by Stalin and Lenin; the millions killed by Hitler and the Nazis never will receive any form of justice what-so-ever, and they are just the tip of the iceberg in regards to human history.  But in Lose’s theological construct, none of these folks ever receive justice.  What then, does that say about Lose’s God?  

That God is diminished immensely--just like Lose’s Jesus is diminished.  Because it’s not just the “Son of God” who is receiving the punishment as Lose would have us believe.  Jesus, in orthodox Christian belief, is the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate.  Therefore, it is not some lesser being than God receiving punishment.  It is God taking the punishment that was deserved for us.  The christology that Lose is embodying is a lower christology that does not give Jesus the proper status accorded to him by the orthodox Christian faith.  If Jesus is God, then He can pay the price for all sins.  (More on that later.)

Part #2: “Doesn’t that essentially negate the idea of personal responsibility?  If Jesus endured punishment for all sins that have been or ever will be committed, why wouldn’t we be motivated to sin all the more knowing the penalty has already been paid?”

Lose acts as if this criticism hasn’t been around since the inception of Christianity.  It is a criticism Paul deals with at length in the book of Romans.  It is a criticism that Luther had to deal with during the Reformation.  

But before we even address that, let’s push Lose’s own theology to its conclusion:

“Rather, threatened by the wild, uncontrollable, and unconditional love and forgiveness of God Jesus proclaimed, the political and religious authorities put Jesus to death to quash the hope he created and retain their power.  But God vindicated Jesus’ message by raising him from the dead (something notoriously under-emphasized by substitution theologians), demonstrating that such self-giving love is more powerful than hate and that God’s promise of life is stronger than death. From this point of view, God in Jesus joins us in absolute solidarity by taking on our lot and our life, even to the point of death, and at the same time promises that death does not have the last word; that, in the end, life and love win. No wrath, no anger, no horrendous punishment or logic-bending substitution schemes necessary.”

So, wild, uncontrollable, and unconditional love and forgiveness does not posit the same problem as knowing the penalty has already been paid for every wrong and sin?  Actually, it does, but with much deeper ramifications because there are absolutely no consequences to any of our actions--well, at least if we can get away with whatever wrong we commit.  Penal substitutionary atonement admits the guilt and admits that there are consequences to breaking the law of God. It admits that we are guilty and deserve punishment rather than love.  It admits that punishment must be doled out in order for there to be justice.  But God in his wisdom takes that punishment for us giving us precisely what we do not deserve.  

But now, we must move on to why we do not seek to sin.  St. Paul covers this thoroughly in the book of Romans chapter 6.  First, he uses some ancient thought about having a representative.  For those who know the story of David and Goliath, this should make some sense.  In this story, the Israelite army and the Philistine army faced off against one another.  Day after day, the Philistine champion, Goliath came forward and challenged the Israelites, but no Israelite soldier would come to face him.  Why?

It was more than simply that Goliath was a monster of a man and the odds were that the Israelite soldier would die--for Goliath was the Philistine representative.  He was speaking for the entire Philistine nation.  He was challenging Israel to send a similar representative.  These two representatives would face off.  Whichever individual representative won would win for the entire nation.  Whatever happened to the individual happened for the entire nation.  If the representative won, the nation won.  If the representative lost, the nation lost.  David eventually comes forward to carry the day for the Israelites.

Paul uses similar thought at the beginning of Romans 6 to show that when we trust in what Jesus has accomplished through his substitutionary atonement, Jesus becomes our representative.  Therefore, what happens to Jesus, happens to us.  We die with Jesus.  We are raised with Jesus, and the life we now live, we live in a similar fashion to Jesus.  And Paul is explicit in what kind of life that entails, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” --Romans 6:10-11.  We now live for God.  Now, if you live for God, what kind of life do you seek to live?  Do you seek to sin?  Absolutely not.  This is Paul’s first response to whether or not you desire to sin.
Paul continues his train of thought by invoking a change in obedience.  For before one comes to faith in Jesus, one is a “slave” to sin.  David Foster Wallace in his speech to Kenyon College articulates this very well:

Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason to maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you choose to worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.  Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing you will die a thousand million deaths before they finally grieve you.  Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are default settings.

Wallace’s shows that we serve--are enslaved to--our deepest heart’s desire.  When God becomes our deepest heart’s desire, we now seek Him and His will.  “17But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”  Again, if you are seeking to serve God, do you want to sin?  Absolutely not.  For a theologian of Lose’s status, the failure to articulate this argument from Scripture is rather stunning.

Part 3: “Second, can you really call it forgiveness if someone else had to pay? If I fall behind on my mortgage payments and the bank wants to foreclose, but someone else steps forward to pay my balance, the bank hasn’t actually forgiven me anything; it just found someone else to pay. Forgiveness is releasing someone’s debt, not distributing it to another.”

There are two things to say in response to Lose’s line of questioning. The first response is the following: Let’s say your child is running through the store despite your pleas to stop.  While running he knocks an item off the shelf and breaks it.  The child is responsible for the damages, and should pay for them.  Does the parent call the store manager and say, “My child was disobeying my orders and broke this product.  Kindly call the police and have him arrested so that he may pay his debt to your store and to society.”?  Any loving parent would do no such thing. Any loving parent would pay for the item incurring the debt for the child.  Is this forgiveness?  It absolutely is.  The cost of the item had to be paid.  The child would have to pay.  The store would have to pay. The parent would have to pay.  The damages had to be accounted for.  If a parent pays the damages for the child, the debt is forgiven.  It’s canceled.  It’s still forgiveness.  

We will use Lose’s own analogy of a bank and his mortgage to illustrate the second point.  Lose would have us believe that forgiveness is simply the bank “releasing” his debt, but that’s not exactly what happens, is it?  The bank used its money (or the money others put into it) and loaned it to Dr. Lose to buy his house.  If the bank forgives Dr. Lose’s debt, then the bank pays for Dr. Lose’s house!  The debt vanishes for Dr. Lose, but at great cost to the bank iteself!!!  

Forgiveness comes with a cost.  It always comes with a cost.  With financial debt, the cost is money.  If you forgive someone who has harmed you with words, you choose to bear the emotional cost and pain of that harm.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this abundantly clear in his book The Cost of Discipleship: Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.  Lose would have us think that forgiveness is cheap, but that is far from the case.

I argued earlier that all sin is committed against God, therefore we are in debt to God for our failures to live up to His commands--which are written into the very fabric of creation.  Christian orthodox belief teaches that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity--that Jesus is God.  Lose actually diminishes Jesus’ role to a “third party.”  He is wrong in his assertion.  There is no third party payment (as in the case of the parent paying for his child’s breaking of the object in the store even though that is still forgiveness).  There is only a transaction between God and humanity.  There is only a transaction between Jesus and ourselves.  Therefore Lose’s argument fails on two counts: payment by a third party is indeed still forgiveness, and there isn’t even a third party to consider in penal substitutionary atonement.  

Part 4: “Third, what kind of picture of God does the penal-substitution theory construct? Anslem’s original theory, developed around the beginning of the second millenium, revolved around a feudal sense of honor and cosmic balance. The death of the innocent Son satisfies the divine right to recompense for the offense against God’s honor caused by human sin and restores balance to the moral universe. During the later middle ages the concern shifted from honor to justice and punishment, Jesus serving as something of a divine whipping boy. Later still, and now on North American soil, the theory has developed further to emphasize God’s wrath as motivation for repentance.”

It is often standard practice to take another’s position, caricature it, and then beat down the caricature.  Lose does so here.  Let me show you how by painting the picture of God that penal-substitution theory actually constructs, and I will use the book of Romans chapters 1-3 to do so.  Therefore, my argument is not my argument, it’s actually an argument promoted by one of the earliest apostles of Christianity: St. Paul.

God’s just and righteous law can be understood from observations in the natural world.  (Romans 1:19)
People have rejected that law and sinned (Romans 1:20-32)
Therefore, they are under God’s wrath.  (Romans 1:18)
God has also revealed His specific law to the Jewish people, but they have failed to follow it and are therefore under God’s wrath.  (Romans 2:1-3:8)
Therefore, none are righteous and all deserve condemnation (Romans 3:20)

Indeed, if God is the divine law giver, and all sins are actually committed against God, then we deserve God’s wrath and anger.  God is a God of justice, and justice must be served.
But why such severe punishment for menial sins?  Sins that we would consider almost harmless?  White lies?  Minor theft?  Impure thoughts?  The answer comes from the fact that we are dealing with an eternal time scale.  Any marksman will tell you that when you are sighting in a gun, you do not become satisfied with being off by only ¼ inch at 50 yards.  Why?  Because at 100 yards, you are much further off.  At 200 yards, you are inches off.  At 500 yards, you could be feet off.  As the distance progresses, the deviation becomes more and more pronounced.  On an eternal time scale, the deviation of those sins that we presume to be minor becomes enormous.  To ignore this would be reprehensible.

But penal substitutionary atonement doesn’t ignore it at all.  It acknowledges it and demands that the sin be accounted for.  And it is accounted for, but not by us.

For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.  (Romans 3:22b-25a)  God atones for sin by taking on flesh and blood and substituting himself on our behalf.  He becomes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  

So, penal substitutionary atonement portrays God as one who is unrelenting in pursuit of justice--who demands that wrongs be righted and that people pay for their failure to adhere to justice.  It also portrays God as loving us so much that He is willing to die in our place--to suffer the consequences for our unjust actions when we least deserved it.  God loves us even when we are most unlovable.  Penal substitutionary atonement shows God to be both just and merciful--to be neither a uncaring tyrant who rules with an iron fist nor an it-doesn’t-matter-what-you-do-because-you-will-be-forgiven, permissive deity.  And we do not repent because we are frightened of God’s wrath.  We repent because we know that instead of receiving that wrath, we have been given mercy instead, and we long to please the God who was willing to die on our behalf.

Part 5  “In addition to these questions, the major problem with this understanding of God and the cross is that it enjoys relatively little support from the biblical witness. In particular, note that Jesus doesn’t wait until after his sacrifice on the cross to offer God’s forgiveness; in fact, it’s the very fact that Jesus goes all over the place announcing God’s forgiveness that riles up his opponents in the first place. Again and again, people take exception to Jesus’ declaration that “your sins are forgiven,” at various points questioning his authority or accusing him of blasphemy (Mark 2:1-12).”

This is quite a startling claim, and I personally wonder how it is that Lose can make such a claim.  It could be that Lose is appealing to a particular methodology of interpreting scripture that allows him to disregard certain parts of scripture in favor of others.  For instance, when I attended both college and seminary, I was taught that it was perfectly acceptable to take Jesus’ quotes throughout the gospels and decide (according to certain criteria which may or may not actually be accurate) which quotes were “really Jesus” and which quotes were “the author’s putting words into Jesus’ mouth.”  It was also appropriate to talk about “Paul’s theology”, “John’s theology”, “Peter’s theology,” and the like.  In so doing, one could lessen the authority of one author over another.

Now, when you approach scripture in this fashion, you can easily say, “ enjoys relatively little support from the biblical witness.”  In reality, there is quite a lot of support for substitutionary atonement all throughout the New Testament.  But, I will get to that in a minute.  Let me first deal with Lose’s claim in Mark 2:1-12.  Let’s look at this text:

When he (Jesus) returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. 4And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ 6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ 8At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? 10But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— 11‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’12And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

Let’s examine the reason the scribes question Jesus’ authority to offer forgiveness.  The reason the scribes have this in their hearts is because of a thread that runs through the prevailing culture of the day; a thread that said: the reason a person becomes sick, paralyzed, or has anything bad happen to them is a result of that person’s sin.  So, if a person did something wrong–broke a commandment, failed to offer a sacrifice, or what have you–then God would strike them with a malady.  God would put that person under His curse.  Because of this view, the scribes believed that the paralyzed man was under God’s curse.  They believed he was suffering as a consequence of his sin.  No man could remove that curse.  No man could bring that kind of forgiveness.  Only God could.  At the very least, Jesus is putting Himself as God’s spokesperson, and that was completely and utterly disrespectful for a man to do.  At the very worst, Jesus was blaspheming because he was presuming to be God and doing something only God could do.  

But Jesus knew the hearts of the scribes, and He knew this was a teachable moment.  Jesus turns to the scribes and asks, “Which is easier: to say your sins are forgiven or rise, take up your mat and walk?”  In reality the easiest thing to say was, “Your sins are forgiven.”  This actually could not be verified immediately.  No one could tell if God had indeed forgiven a person’s sin, so it was easy to say but hard to verify.  On the other hand, to say, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk,” was to take a troublesome risk.  If you were to say this, it could easily be verified.  If you were to say this and the person were not able to walk, then you would revealed as a fraud.  You would be shown to have no blessing or authorization of God.  And in reality, neither of these things are easy at all.  Both of these things are impossible for humans.  But both are quite easy for God.

Jesus brings this straight forward to the crowd when He then says, “But so that you will know that the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins on earth,” turning toward the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, take up your mat and go home.”  And the man did.  Jesus shows that He indeed has both the power of forgiveness and the power to heal.  And everyone went away praising God and saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”

Now, what hadn’t the crowd seen before?  What cause them to rejoice so much?  From their perspective, they had never seen a man remove God’s curse from one who was afflicted.  They had never seen a man remove God’s punishment from someone who had sinned.  Such a thing was unheard of.  Jesus became the one who forgave, cured, and restored to wholeness.  And the orthodox Christian faith says, the reason he was able to do this is because Jesus was indeed God.  So now, the scribes either had to believe that Jesus was indeed God’s spokesperson or that Jesus was indeed God.  (There are several hints throughout the book that indicate that Mark is revealing the latter.) One wonders if Lose has this high of a christology here?  Most likely not.

And if Jesus is indeed being revealed as God, Jesus’ statement in Mark 10.45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” has some important connotations.   Let me simply quote Mark Edwards in the Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark:
The most distinctive role of the Son of Man, however, is his giving “his life as a ransom.”  In the language of the day, ransom referred to bail paid for prisoners of war and slaves, or release from jail. Both the Hebrew kipper and Greek lytron behind “ransom” mean “to cover over,” “atone for,” or “expiate.”  The thought of v.45 actually exceeds Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord, for Jesus is not a passive (and perhaps unknowing) instrument of Yahweh.  The initiative of his atoning work lies within himself as the Son of Man, who, in stark contrast to the power-mongers of v.42, freely offers his life as the ransom price for all (John 10:11; Rom 8:2-4).  As God’s own delegate, and through his suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus freely and obediently offers his life as a substitute in behalf of humanity.  Jesus is supremely conscious of offering a payment to God that can be offered by no one else.  The ransom Jesus offers in his life is not contingent on something outside himself.  Origin (third century A.D.) would later develop the theory that the ransom of Jesus was necessitated by and paid to Satan.  Satan, however, is not mentioned in 8:33, and there he attempts to avert Jesus from suffering and death!  The death of the Son of Man on behalf of “the many” is a sacrifice of obedience to God’s will, a full expression of his love, and a full satisfaction of God’s justice. (pp. 327-328)

Edwards is not alone in his interpretation of this statement.  Agreeing with him are Craig A. Evans (Word Biblical Commentary); William L. Lane (The New International Commentary on the New Testament); Walter  Wessel (New Expositor’s Bible Commentary); and N.T. Wright (Mark for Everyone).  I am sure that there are more, but I have exhausted my commentaries.

What it is helpful to see is that in the same book that Lose quotes to diminish the evidence for substitutionary atonement, we actually have very strong reference for substitutionary atonement.  Let’s add a few more scriptural references:

The book of Matthew follows Mark’s lead with ransom terminology: Matthew 20: 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  (This is sacrificial atonement language par excellance.)

Romans 3:21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ* for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement* by his blood, effective through faith.

Hebrews 2:14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters* in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.

1 John 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 Peter 1:18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.

There is actually quite a bit of scriptural weight behind sacrificial atonement.  More than Lose seems to want to admit.

Part 6: “What’s at stake in this second concern, I think, is that the penal-substitution theory promotes the seductive illusion that we know just how God works and can therefore determine who enjoys God’s favor. The tricky thing about the God Jesus proclaimed, however, is that pretty much whenever you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find this God on the other side of the line. When Jesus came preaching and teaching that God’s love was boundless and then demonstrated it by socializing with those people the religious and political authorities knew were despised by God, they crucified him for daring to declare the unlovable beloved and the God-forsaken saved.”

I don’t know if Lose is joking here or what.  First, let’s look at what he says and then offer a bit of a response.  
Lose begins with this criticism: “penal substitution theory promotes the seductive illusion that we know just how God works and can therefore determine who enjoys God’s favor.”  Now, at first glance, this seems to indicate that we should approach how God operates with a sense of humility.   We should never be firm in how we believe God operates.  We can address this in a moment, but first let’s look at what Lose then does himself.

He states: “the God Jesus proclaimed is tricky because when you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, this God is on the other side of the line.”  Wait a minute.  Did Lose just do what I think he did?  Yes.  As a matter of fact he did.  He essentially said: we know just how God works and we can determine who’s in and who’s out.  We know who’s in when we draw a line and say, “God’s on this side.”  We know then He is actually on the other side!  Therefore, Lose knows exactly how God operates!!  

How does he come to this conclusion?  He comes to this conclusion by appealing to the Jesus revealed in Scripture.  As Lose reads the gospels, he sees a Jesus who “came preaching and teaching that God’s love was boundless and then demonstrated it by socializing with those people the religious and political authorities knew were despised by God, they crucified him for daring to declare the unlovable beloved and the God-forsaken saved.”  I have no issue with Lose saying that Jesus did such things because the statement is absolutely true!!  But it is also incomplete.  Because Jesus drew lines.  Oh, you can take those sayings and teachings of Jesus away if you appeal to the type of interpretation methodology I described earlier, but if you take the gospels as they are written, then there is no doubt that Jesus drew lines of inclusion and exclusion.  Generally speaking, the lines of inclusion were drawn around those who knew they were sinful and humbly sought God’s forgiveness, and the lines of exclusion kept out those who were self-righteous and believed they had somehow earned God’s favor.  

And why in the world can we presume to know this?  Lose seems to indicate that knowledge of God is beyond our understanding (even though he doesn’t practice what he preaches).  Ah, but if God revealed His nature to us?  If God communicated with us?  If God spoke to us?  Then, wouldn’t it be reasonable for us to say, “God has shared with us how He acts toward us.  God has told us who is in and who is out.  We are not speaking on our own behalf, but are speaking on behalf of the one who came to earth and spoke His Word.”  

Most of us who subscribe to penal-substitutionary atonement believe that 1) Jesus was God, 2) that Jesus revealed God’s nature to us, and 3) we can be confident that the biblical writers captured what Jesus said and did with a high degree of certainty.  We do not arrogantly proclaim to know the mind of God, for that is a mystery we continually seek to enter into.  However, we believe that there are aspects of God’s nature that He has taken great pains to reveal to us.  Unfortunately, David Lose would seek to minimize parts of that revelation and emphasize those parts that make him most comfortable.  Therefore, he has actually constructed a god of his own making instead of being faithful to the God revealed in the pages of scripture.  I wish this were not the case as he is a leader in the denomination that I serve.  And indeed, if this is a god of Lose’s own making instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that god must be rejected.  We do not need any false gods in a declining church!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Romans 9:14-18: Do You Have Free Will?

I will begin my sermon to you this morning by asking you a big question: do you believe that you have free will?  You may groan.  I can already hear your thoughts: Pastor, you just got back from vacation and rest, and you hit us with that of question?  Are you insane?

My sanity is irrelevant, but I’d probably answer in the affirmative.  I am a bit insane, but to return to the original question I think is more pertinent.  Do you believe that you have free will?  Most of us would probably without hesitation answer, “yes.”   We believe and act as though we have free will.  Our entire criminal justice system is based on the idea that we have free will.  Our entire society is based on the idea that we are free to choose what we want to buy; what we want to do; what career we want to pursue.  So why even ask the question?

Well, for a couple of reasons because there are more than a few folks who argue that we don’t have free will, but that we simply are under the illusion that we have free will.  There are some noted scientists including Stephen Hawking who believe that we are governed by our genetics and scientific law, we have no choice in what we do.  Sam Harris, a noted atheist and neuroscientist, talks about studies that show us making choices before the brain is even aware of our choice.  He concludes that we aren’t in control of our actions.  I share this so that you are aware that there are those who are making strong, scientific, secular arguments that we don’t have free will.  But it is not only some in the secular crowd that believe we have no free will.  There are many theists and Christians who do not believe in free will either.  Some Christians believe that God has planned out every single moment of our lives.  God has counted the numbers of hairs on our head–for those of us who still have hair, and He knows all and has all power.  And if He is all powerful, then He controls everything.  Nothing happens without His say so.  Oftentimes we call this predestination.

I am reminded of the story of the preacher during the civil war who preached encouragement to a platoon heading into battle. “Men,” he said, “God has ordered the days of your life.  He has planned everything out for you.  If it is not your day to die, no bullet from the enemy can harm you.  Have no fear!”

As the battle waged, enemy forces pushed the platoon back to the point where even the good reverend had bullets whizzing by him.  And it just so happened that the reverend found himself taking shelter behind a tree with a private whom he had preached to earlier that day.

The private looked at the reverend cowering behind the tree and said, “Reverend, I thought you said that if it wasn’t our time to go, no bullet could harm us.  Why are you hiding behind this tree?”

The reverend retorted quickly, “My son, you misunderstand the finer points of predestination.  This tree was predestined to be here, and I was predestined to be behind it.”

You may be wondering why I am even bringing this up or even spending time on it, and the answer has to do with the nature of who God is.  If God controls everything–each and every moment of our lives, then we have to wrestle with some significant questions.  If God controls us as a cosmic puppet-master, then why does He allow evil in the world?  Why did He allow that microburst to affect us last week and devastate so many houses in Sealy–including some of our members homes?  If God is in control of our actions, then why does he allow people to kill and murder?  If He is in control, does that make God a murderer?  If God is in control of everything, is God just?  Is He righteous?

Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, we come before you today exploring the mystery of your will and your power.  Do you give us free will?  Are you in control of everything?  And if you are in control of everything, do you cause evil to happen?  Open our hearts and our minds to understand you, to know you, to have some insight into how you work to ensure that your goodness shines through, and that we can have confidence in knowing that you are just.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

This question of whether or not God is just is front and center in our biblical text this morning from the book of Romans.  Paul is dealing with the fact that most of his fellow Jews have not come to belief in Jesus Christ.  This has called into question whether or not the promises that God made to the people of Israel in the Old Testament are still valid.  Can God revoke a promise that He has made?  Paul is making the case that God has not revoked those promises and will not revoke those promises because God is consistent.  Paul has begun working through the Old Testament to show this, and Paul began by showing that God made choices along the way when it came to passing down the covenant promises.  God chose Isaac instead of Ishmael.  God chose Jacob instead of Esau.

But that has led to the question: if God chooses one person over another in regards to the passing down of the covenant, is God just?  Is God righteous?  Is it fair that God chooses one over another?

The short snippet from Romans 9 that we have before us this morning deals with these questions head on.  Paul begins with these words, “14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses,‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ 16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”

Let’s delve into what Paul says here about Moses.  Paul quotes a snippet of Exodus 33, and this is quite a chapter.  At the beginning of the chapter, God is angry beyond belief.  The people He had brought out of Egypt had worshiped a golden calf saying that it had brought them out of Egypt instead of the God who had brought the ten plagues upon the Egyptians and had parted the Red Sea.  In a short period of time, they had rejected their Deliverer, and God was intent upon abandoning them.

In fact, God said straight up to Moses, “Take these people into the land of Canaan, but I will not go with you.”  God was leaving them on their own.  But Moses interceded for the people.  Moses begged God to go with them, and God relented.  God decided to stay with His people.  Then Moses asked God to show His glory to him.  And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”

Interestingly enough, God is especially showing mercy on His chosen people.   They deserve His wrath and punishment for abandoning Him.  They deserve His abandonment because they abandoned Him.  But He is merciful toward them.  He gives them what they do not deserve.  And this is at the heart of God’s statement here.  This is why Paul quotes it.  For at the beginning of the book of Romans, Paul showed that all are deserving of God’s wrath and punishment.  All have fallen short of the glory of God.  None deserve His mercy and compassion.  They didn’t in the Old Testament; yet, instead of bringing condemnation on everyone, God chose to have compassion.  Instead of being just–giving people what they deserve, God chose mercy.  That was actually a marvel and wonder.  This is why Paul includes that statement, “ So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”  If the passing of the covenant were dependent upon human will or strength, the covenant would never be passed on because we would not be worthy of having that covenant.  The Israelites were certainly not worthy of having that covenant bestowed upon them, but God showed mercy and compassion.

And if Paul would have stopped here, we wouldn’t be having too many discussions about free will and predestination.  But Paul doesn’t stop with these words.  He continues with more from the Exodus.  Verse 17 “For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ 18So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.”

This is a bit concerning because it very much looks like God hardens a person’s heart so that they never come to believe in Him.  It looks like God actually condemns a person because of God’s own actions.  But we need to remember what was going on here.  We need to remember that God was using Pharaoh for a purpose.  God was using Pharaoh to reveal to the world who God is and what God can do.

Remember first off, Pharaoh was not a good guy.  Pharaoh had ordered the killing of all the first born sons of the Israelites.  He had also enslaved them and made them do back-breaking work.  Pharaoh was guilty of infanticide, genocide, and enslavement.  And God needed to show the world that God was a God of justice–God would not allow infanticide against His people to go unpunished; God would not allow genocide against His people to go unpunished; God would not allow the crime of slavery against His people to go unpunished.  And so, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that justice could be served.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that the world could see what kind of God the Israelites had.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s ultimate plan of revelation could be made manifest.

And I think it is this that unlocks the meaning behind verse 18, “So then he [God] has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.”  God needed to have mercy on the Israelites to bring His covenant promises to fruition.  God needed to harden Pharaoh’s heart to bring His covenant promises to fruition.  Sometimes God must show mercy to keep His promises, and sometimes God needs to harden the hearts of people to bring his covenant promises to fruition.

Now, what does that mean?  What does that have to do with our free will?  I think it means this: we both have free will and we don’t.  That sounds really, really stupid, but hear me out.  In these verses from the book of Romans, Paul shows that God has a plan and a purpose.  God has a covenant to fulfill.  God has made particular promises to the people of Israel and now to the rest of the world through Jesus Christ.  And despite our individual choices, God will work to make that covenant come true.  Let me say that again: despite our individual choices, God will work to make His covenant promises come true.  And so, we have free will to make our choices, but God will work–sometimes despite our choices–to make sure His promises come true.

Let me try and show you how this works with a previous reference to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Today is Pentecost, so I should talk about the Holy Spirit at least a little.  Remember several weeks ago when I preached the sermon about prayer–that we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words?  Think about how that works out.  Think about how that process takes place.  We pray.  Our prayers are our choice.  We put together the words.  We put together the phrases.  Sometimes, we don’t know what to say and we are simply silent.  We are exercising our free will in these prayers.  We are exercising our free expression, but then the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.  The Holy Spirit takes our prayers and molds them and makes them into prayers that are holy and acceptable before God.  The Holy Spirit transforms them so that they are in accord with God’s will and not our own.  So, we have free will to ask for whatever we wish.  We have free will to pray for whatever we wish, but then we don’t have free will in how those prayers are delivered.  We don’t have free will in the overall outcome of those prayers.  God’s will will prevail.

God’s will indeed will prevail.  And that is what we most need to hold onto.  God’s promise will not be revoked.  And God will do what it takes to ensure that His promises will come to fruition.  We will see this play out even more in the weeks to come as Paul continues to wrestle with what is going on.  We will see that sometimes, God will harden people’s hearts–so that His promises will come true.  And ultimately, God’s mercy and love will reign.  Ultimately, God’s compassion will shine through–even though Israel’s heart is hardened.  Even though, sometimes our hearts are hardened.

For God ultimately, God wants no heart to remain hardened.  Ultimately God wants every heart to come to Him.  Ultimately, God wants to save the world.  That’s at the heart of the Gospel: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  And God acted through Jesus in a manner that is designed to melt even the hardest heart–having Jesus die for us when we least deserved it.  Giving us a priceless gift when we were least worthy of it.

And God will pull out all the stops to bring you to know His love.  Sometimes He will show great mercy to you so that you can sense His love.  Sometimes He may harden you so that the glory of His promises can be revealed not only to you but to others.  For it is His will that will reign supreme.  It is His love that is meant to be revealed to the world.  Sometimes because of our choices, and sometimes despite them.

Let us pray, Gracious God, help us to see that your will reigns supreme.  Help us to see that even though you may harden our hearts–even though you may harden the hearts of others, that in the long run, you are working to reveal your love in Jesus Christ to the world.  May our free will come to align with your will so that you may receive glory and honor.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.