This is not a thorough or careful treatment of this question, but rather a meditation. And by meditation, I’m afraid I mean “steam of consciousness”.
Faithful Roman Catholics pray and ask Mary, the mother of Christ (most likely awaiting the resurrection) to pray for them “now and at the hour of our death”.
Some people even in the modern age will gain audience with a person known to be “close to God” or possibly just “spiritual” and ask them to pray for them.
If the Pope prays for you, that’s good right? But is it any better than your grandma praying for you? If not, then who cares?
Other Christians teach that fasting or unusual persistence will give you “power” with God. How this is different than the prophets of Baal cutting themselves in the showdown with Elijah is unclear, but it’s a fairly prevalent idea, both in modern renewal movements and among some of the church fathers.
In the final chapter of the book of Job, Job’s three friends make sacrifices to God and ask Job to pray for them. In fact, God commands them to do this and ask Job to pray for them, because God is going to listen to Job’s intercession and not theirs. Job is functioning as a priest for them in this case.
And of course the Levitical priests in the Old Testament had a special function. They really did communicate to God in certain ways that the average Joe could not do. Their role was formal, but it was truly priestly. They were gatekeepers to heavenly communication, though they were bound by the law to help facilitate all who approached. They were not supposed to be filters.
But now, in the New Testament, Post-Jesus, what do we see? Is this still the case? Does it matter at all WHO prays for you? Does God hear the prayers of one person louder than another? The typcical modern Evangelical answer is “OF COURSE NOT!”. What a silly idea. We are all absolutely equal. Men and women. (Imported from the secular feminist movement.) Old and young (Imported from every youth rebellion ever.) Jew and Gentile, Slave and Free, Poor and Billionaire, Israeli and Greek and Roman and Brazillian and Canadian. We all be God’s children and God be everywhere, and He be listening to us, so enough with this nonsense of Him hearing one person more than another, or paying attention to one person more than another. The (gospel?) has leveled the playing field to the consistency of a shiny tabletop. There is a good reason why most post-reformation ministers (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, etc.) were no longer named “priests”. We are all priests, all of us, and only one step away from Jesus, rather than 2 steps. So when we pray, it’s got just as much power or ear as Mother Theresa or Pope Francis, or the holy magical hermit of your choice or even the dead famous saint of your choice. Boom! We’re all equal now ’cause Jesus. Everyone’s cell phone on earth has 4 bars.
But, is this really in line with what we find in scripture? Is it really in line with what we still teach (theologically, implied in catechism, today)? Is it really in line with what we seem to find in reality?
As much as we might profess (or formally “confess”), it seems like the state of the matter is otherwise. God maybe hears some people more than others. Is this just an illusion – projection – our own faulty interpretation of events? Perhaps, but if God listened to Job and NOT to Eliphaz back then, what about now? If Paul’s hankerchief had magic powers, what about my hankerchief? No? Why not!? I thought we were all equal?
Is there any value in having the pastor pray for you, versus having your friend pray for you, OR you just asking yourself? Isn’t God listening equally to all three people? Is any one of them automatically more persuasive?
I don’t have a real solid answer to this, though I can say that I nonetheless lean in an Evangelical (personal) direction on this entire discussion. But this does strike at the heart of what the Christian life and Christian faith look like on the ground level – in the dirt itself. How you answer the question “Does God actually listen to some people more than others?” has real implications in a number of areas of life.
I’ve heard it said by some people attempting to rid prayer of any semblance of magic, that prayer is actually just for US, for the one praying, and not for God. It changes OUR hearts (like cardiovascular exercise) but doesn’t actually move the unmovable, unchangable God. But it doesn’t take a genius or a Ph.D. to scoff at this statement and come to the obvious conclusion of “well, what’s the freakin’ point then?” I don’t think this is a foolish question showing an obvious lack of trust in the Triune God. Maybe it’s just the completely rational response of a very faithful person who suspects he’s being taught a bunch of B.S.
You know what I think might, JUST MIGHT, be a more honest answer to this question? “Yes“. God does actually pay attention to some people more than others. At least sort of. And it’s OK. He can do that if He wants to.
He actually pays special attention to a husband’s prayers about his wife, rather than prayers from some guy about some gal. He actually does pay particular attention to the prayers of a pastor for his flock, rather than the same random guy on the street asking the same thing for the same person. The 12 original Apostles really were special in some sense, though we evangelicals, (especially Pentecostal ones who belong to churches with “Apostolic” in the title) are lothe to admit. And having your father prayer for you just might actually be better than having your buddy pray for you, if possible.
This all sounds crazy, I know. But we live in a universe with rules. Jesus commended the Roman Centurion for his realization that, because of his hierarchical authority over nature and/or demons, Jesus didn’t even have to visit his house to perform a healing. Jesus just had a say the word. The man’s faith was greatly praised. Do we have the same faith? Do we have the same humility? Can we admit that we aren’t “all that”, (despite the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”) and ask for help, but not alone?
I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be alone. Will you pray for me?
I already posted twice about two especially curious passages of demonology in Athanasius’s original hagiography of St. Antony of the Desert. Here are the other most interesting passages I came across, with a few notes. Page numbers are from the Gregg edition, which seemed very readable to me.
A great quote comparing economics and the gospel:
The entire life span of men is very brief when measured against the ages to come, so that all our time is nothing in comparison with eternal life. Everything in the world is sold for what it is worth, and someone trades an item for its equivalent. But the promise of eternal life is purchased for very little.
An interesting passage about worshipping the creature rather than the creator. Great metaphors near the end.
You wish to say that these things are told by you in the manner of myth, and you allegorize the rape of Persephone, referring it to the earth, and the lameness of Hephaestus to fire, and Here to the air, and Apollos to the sun, and Artemis to the moon, and Poseidon to the sea, nonetheless you do not worship God himself – on the contrary, you serve the creature instead of the God who created all things. Perhaps it was because of the creation’s beauty that you composed such tales. Nevertheless it is fitting for you to go only so far as to admire, not to deify, the things created, lest you render the honor due the maker to the things made. Otherwise, the time has come for you to transfer honor due the architect to the house he has made or that due the general to the soldier.
This passage here – if applied to secular humanism and scientism of today – sounds like it could have been written just yesterday rather than in the fourth century. Amazingly timeless!
Your religion was never persecuted, and in every city it is honored among men, and yet our doctrines flourish and increase beyond yours. Your views perish, though acclaimed and celebrated far and wide. But the faith and teaching of Christ, ridiculed by you and persecuted frequently by rulers, has filled the world. For when did the knowledge of God shine with such brilliance? When did moderation and virtue of virginity so manifest itself? Or when was death so despised, if it was not when the cross of Christ came?
From the Letter to Marcellinus, an excellent description of how the psalms function as a workbook or activity manual for the rest of scripture.
For in other other books one hears only what one must do and what one must not do. And one listens to the Prophets so as solely to have knowledge of the coming Savior. One turns his attention to the histories, on the basis of which he can know the deeds of the kings and saints. But in the Book of Psalms the one who hears, in addition to learning these things, also comprehends and is taught in it the emotions of the soul, and, consequently, on the basis of that which affects him and by which he is constrained, he also is enabled by this book to possess the image deriving from the words. Therefore, through hearing, it teaches not only not to disregard passion, but also how one must heal passion through speaking and acting. Now there certainly are in the other books preventative words that forbid wickedness, but in this book is also prescribed how one must abstain. Of such a sort is the commandment to repent – for to repent is to cease from sin. Herein is prescribed also how to repent and what one must say in the circumstances of repentance. In the Psalms it is written and inscribed how one must bear sufferings, what one must say to one suffering afflictions, what to say after afflictions, how each person is tested, and what the words of those who hope in God are. Furthermore, there is a command to give thanks in all circumstances, but the Psalms also teach what one must say when giving thanks.
And finally, an interesting footnote I came across on how from early on the Christian church put the brakes on zealous young men who were a little too eager to go get themselves killed doing something stupid in the name of God.
From an early point there was suspicion within the Church of those who were too eager for martyrdom. Anthony’s unwillingness “to hand himself over” is more dramatically presented in the nearly ritual attempts of Bishop Polycarp to evade his pursuers in Mart. Polycarp 5-6. The author of the martyrology states clearly in the preceding section: “Therefore brethren, we do not commend those who surrender themselves, for such is not the teaching of the Gospel.” The Council of Elvira in Spain in 305 reached the decision that overzealous Christians whose provocative actions involved the smashing of idols were not to be regarded, if apprehended and punished, as martyrs.
p.139, note 99
Contrast this with how the leaders of Islam over the centuries and recently, have frequently NOT done as much to curtail this sort of thing.
Do demons (or Satan) know the future? “No.” says St. Anthony (or rather says St. Athanasius, his biographer), it’s just that they have very fast communication or movement speed at their disposal. Really. They see events happening very far away – long before any messenger or news can be sent by typical human means. Then they rush off and use their inside information to inform soothsayers, or give their targets the real information in a vision (along with some lies) so that the mixing of real intel with the false will strengthen their control over the hearer.
In a lengthy and fascinating passage that I’ll quote below, Athanasius explains how of course only God can know the future, but that demons can travel far faster than even a man on horseback. Using this knowledge, they twisted it to their advantage in a world were communication was very slow. Though he doesn’t use the phrase “familiar spirit”, this is exactly what Athanasius is describing.
This makes for an interesting shift in just the past couple of decades. We now have global satellite networks hooked into billions of cell phones. Even people in rural Africa and Asia have mobile phones. News travels fast. I can pick up my phone right now and speak, in real time, to someone on the other side of the earth. For the bulk of human history, nothing like this was possible for man, but something like it WAS available to angels, be they light or dark. And so now man’s own ability to communicate surpasses that of the demons.
Many are skeptical of all this old demonology of course, but still, if any of Athanasius’s description of the spirit world is accurate, then this has serious implications. It means that one of the demon’s primary advantages and tools has been neutralized. False prophecy based on the knowledge of distant events is no longer remarkable to man. He has only to watch breaking news on the television. The legit fortune teller or witch doctor USED TO have something really interesting to say on occasion, but no more. Our world is so full of computer magic, that the old “real” magic the demons seemed to have now seems like no big deal. All their many other ways of tempting us and whispering words of despair into our hearts are still available to them and I assume still work to great effect. But their days of controlling people with false knowledge of the future are largely (and recently!) over – at least of the sort that Athanasius describes here.
Furthermore, should [demons] pretend to prophesy, let no one be won over. It frequently happens that they tell us days in advance about brothers who are to travel our way some days later – and these people do arrive. The demons do this not out of any concern for their hearers, but in order to persuade them to trust them, and after that, having brought them under control, to destroy them. Therefore we must not pay attention to them, but overthrow them even while they are speaking, since we have no need of them. For what is so marvelous, if they who use bodies thinner in substance than those of humans, spying those who begin their journey, get a head start in the running and announce their arrival? This sort of thing someone riding a horse also foretells, preceding those who journey on foot. So it is not necessary to marvel at them in this case. They have no foreknowledge of things that have not yet occurred; God is the only one who knows all things before their birth. But these, like thieves, run ahead and report what they see. To how many do they right now give signs regarding our affairs – that we are gathered together and that we are speaking against them – before someone could leave from among us and make a report! But some boy swift of foot could do this, outrunning one who is slower.
What I am saying is this. Should someone begin to travel from the Thebaid, or from some other place, they do not know before he begins to walk if he will walk. But after they see him walking, they run ahead, and before he comes they announce him. And so it is that these travelers arrive after a few days. But often, when people on a journey turn back, the demons are caught in a lie.
So, too, there are times when they talk nonsense about the water of the River. For when they observe numerous rains occurring in parts of Ethiopia, knowing how the flooding of the River originates there, before the water enters Egypt the rush ahead and report it. But even men could have told this, if they were able to run as fast these [demons]. In just that way these demons also choose to hurry ahead and declare signs to others for the sole purpose of deceiving.
So it was that the oracles of the Greeks arose and they were led astray in the former times by the demons. But so also has this deceit been brought to an end from this time forward, for the Lord came, who reduced to impotency not only their villainy, but the demons themselves. For they know nothing by their own power, but like thieves they pass along what they pick up from others, and they are more nearly speculators than prognosticators. If, therefore, they sometimes speak the truth, do not let anyone marvel at them for this. It happens also that physicians who deal with illness, observing the same disease in different people, offer a prognosis, frequently conjecturing from what is familiar to them. And again, ships’ helmsmen and farmers, looking at the weather conditions with practiced eyes, can predict if it will be stormy or fair. Now someone would not say on this account that they are foretelling through divine inspiration, but rather, on the basis of experience and practice. So if the demons also sometimes say these same things by conjecture, let no one, for this reason, be amazed at them or pay attention to them.
What is the purpose of the enthusiasm for knowing such things, even if one could, in truth, know them? This does not produce virtue, nor represent any evidence at all of good character. None of us is judged for what he does not know, any more than one is counted blessed because he is learned and possesses knowledge. It is rather in regard to these questions that each faces judgement: whether he has kept the faith and sincerely observed the commandments.
Therefore we are not to attach much importance to these other things, and not for the purpose of gaining foreknowledge are we to train ourselves and labor – but rather in order that we may please God in the way we lead our lives. And we ought neither to pray that we might have the power to know things before they occur, nor ought we to ask this as a reward for our discipline – but rather that the Lord may be our fellow worker for the conquest of the devil. But if sometime the capacity for foreknowledge matters to us, let us be pure in understanding. For I believe that when a soul is pure in every way and in its natural state, it is able, having become clearsighted, to see more and farther than the demons, since it has the Lord who reveals things to it.
(Gregg ed. p.55-56)
I wonder what other implications this has.
From St. Athanasius’s Life of Anthony:
It is possible, then [the demons] model themselves after the form of monks, for them to pretend to speak like the devout, so that by means of the similarity of form they deceive, and then drag those whom they have beguiled wherever they wish. Nevertheless it is unnecessary to heed them, even if they awaken you for prayer, or counsel you to eat nothing tat all, or pretend to level accusations and reproaches concerning actions for which, at another time, they excused us. They do not do these things for the sake of piety or truth, but so that they might bring the simple to despair, and declare [spiritual discipline] useless, and make men sick of the solitary life as something burdensome and very oppressive, and trip up those who, opposing them, lead it. (Gregg ed., p.50)
It is interesting here that in this description from St. Anthony, the demons do not appear in a form tempting one to sin outright, but rather to place a heavy burden on the victim to do good works, that they might be driven to despair at their failure. The guise here is demon as Puritan – urging you to always be praying and fasting and doing good, beyond what your own psyche and body can handle. Throwing your hands up in the air, you (quite rightly in one sense) declare the whole thing to be an impossible task and give up. But the Lord’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. (Matthew 11:30) Therefore, when we preach a heavy burden of spiritual discipline to our flock or to our children, we must be sure we are not doing the work of demons who would break their spirits and make the Way of Christ seem discouraging and cruel to them. In our present age, this is likely to be a more potent weapon of theirs than nightmares.
The following is a reimagining of Isaiah 44:28 and following.
Who says of Nicholas Cage, ‘He is My shepherd?’
And he shall perform my pleasure,
Saying to the Church, ‘You shall endure in hope.’
And to dispensational conspiracy theorists, ‘Your foundation shall be laid bare.’
Thus says the Lord to His anointed,
To Nicholas Cage, who I have given immense raw talent and a right hand that volunteers for every single film that comes along – fabulous and terrible alike.
To confuse the numerology and charts of engineers, that none of my disciples had followed for 50 generations, yea, even all of 1800 years.
I have empowered him to lay bare the pride of America, of those that have forgotten their brothers and sisters in the south, in Africa, in Asia, and in Rome – that virtually none of them have ever taken this “rapture” seriously, and still do not today.
First I sent to them my boy Kirk Cameron, and he was silly, but not nearly silly enough, for my children are hard of hearing.
But now, their armor shall be loosed and many will no longer be able to keep a straight face.
They shall return to my Word, and find their hope in me does not demand them to divine the future.
They will discover my love for them does not require arcane differential calculus spanning the Aramaic Daniel to the end of the writings of my Beloved John.
I will gird you, though you have not known Me,
By your brashness oh Nicholas, will my shepherds – kept quiet in the shadows this past century – be emboldened to speak up and let those in the New World know that the Way of my Son need not require such baggage.
Behold, I the Lord make all things new!
When Paul is standing before King Agrippa near the end of Acts, he recounts his conversion on the road to Damascus. This time though, he quotes Jesus’s words to him at greater length than we are told of back in chapter 9. The addition is somewhat surprising:
And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feed for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and other the things which will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”
-Acts 26:15-18 (Emphasis mine)
Wait a minute. Where is all the penal substitutionary atonement language? Only a couple years earlier in A.D. 56, Paul had finished writing the definitive handbook of soteriology – the epistle to the Romans. So why no talk of sacrifice or guilt or even redemption? Apparently those aren’t the word’s Christ used (in a short space of time) to describe the gospel. Instead, the Lord tells Paul he will be a witness, giving them a message that will turn them from:
- Darkness –> Light
- Power of Satan –> God
- Sin –> Forgiveness and Inheritance
Heck, the devil even makes a showing here, but not a lot of other things you might expect. Now I think the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is all well and good and in harmony with the whole of scripture, but is it really what we need to spend all our time going on and on about at every opportunity? By Jesus’s own summary here, the gospel sounds a lot more like Christus Victor. When my guilt is before me, I need a savior who erases it all. But at other times, I need a savior who kicks the prince of darkness in the teeth. Rejoice, for He is both!
In John 12, we find a curious incident where, just like at Jesus’s baptism, a thunderous voice speaks audibly and loudly from heaven. Why? It comes as answer to Jesus’s own question. A question that turns out to be rhetorical, as he explains afterwards.
“Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.”
Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.”
Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake.
“Father, glorify you name!”
“Son, I already have, and I’ll do it again.”
“Yeah, I know. But these folks around here don’t know, so thanks for saying something they could hear.”
The voice is not answering for the sake of the asker, but for the sake of others – the listeners in, the eavesdroppers, us. Divine revelation is of no use sealed up. What good is it to simply know there exists a locked briefcase filled with secrets? That the briefcase contains love letters is of far more interest.
So we find the same thing when Jesus speaks to John at the beginning of Revelation.
I [John] was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,” and, “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia.
John is seeing a vision. Nobody else can see it. So what does Jesus tell him to do from the get go? Write everything down. He is commanded to take notes, digest it, make copies, and mail it to a bunch of people. Why? For their sake, so they can share in the vision too.
Why did Jesus go through just John to deliver this particular (and very important) message? There are of course other ways he could have gone about it. He could have come to each of the local church leaders in turn, delivering them all the same message. He has plenty of time after all, being eternal. He could have also taken this to it’s logical end and had the holy spirit deliver the vision to every Christian on earth.
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
– Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17
OK great, so why not THIS dream then? I will take a stab at answering that. I think it was probably for consistency’s sake – so conflicting and muddled accounts were not produced. It was also for authority’s sake. Divine revelation involving locals would naturally come to the locals. Prophecy involving the fate of the whole earth and human race should come not to every local, but to a figure of authority capable of being taken seriously by all – the last living apostle.
And so we have John’s Revelation, well-preserved for us today, contemporary visions of heaven notwithstanding. It’s written down for our sake.
I think so much more is for our sake too. Flowers are beautiful and diverse primarily to relay information of his creative genius. The scripture is preserved for our sake – not because HE needs paper and ink, but because we do. We love things we can hold in our hands. He even gives us parents and lovers, that we might know something (however obscured) of his ways, and even enter into some temporary and tainted knockoff of his Trinitarian communion. He makes this possible too, for our sake.
About A.D. 360, Athanasius wrote an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert – one of the most influential monks of early Christianity. Though Anthony grew up in a “Christian home” as we would say today, it was an event that took place when he was a young man really woke him up:
He was left alone, after his parent’s death, with one quite young sister. He was about eighteen or even twenty years old, and he was responsible both for the home and his sister. Six months had not passed since the death of his parents when, going to the Lord’s house as usual and gathering his thoughts, he considered while he walked how the apostles, forsaking everything, followed the Savior, and how in Acts some sold what they possessed and took the proceeds and placed them at the feet of the apostles for distribution among those in need, and what great hope is stored up for such people in heaven.
He went into the church pondering these things, and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It was as if by God’s design he held the saints in his recollection, and as if the passage were read on his account. Immediately Antony went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had from his forebears (three hundred fertile and very beautiful arourae [~200 acres]), so that they would not disturb him or his sister in the least. And selling all the rest that was portable, when he collected sufficient money, he donated it to the poor, keeping a few things for his sister.
-Athanasius, The Life of Antony, Translated by Robert C. Gregg
I think contemporary evangelicals would be shocked to find an account like this in such a “Catholic” source – from the fourth century no less. Antony just happened to walk into church when a certain bible passage was being read, and the words jumped off the page, “as if by God’s design… the passage were read on his account.” This sounds exactly like how evangelicals (myself included) are taught to read scripture – always ready for the moment when the words become immediately and intensely personal by the power of the holy spirit working directly in the individual.
Of course, we are not talking about Anthony’s conversion here, but still, this is not at all the kind of language one would find today in the writings of very catholic (small ‘c’ but likely Roman or Orthodox) minded or covenental (again, small ‘c’ but likely Reformed) minded theologians and pastors. The 2oth century of modern Evangelicism greatly OVER emphasized the individual by all wise accounts. A corrective to this is welcome and healthy. And yet let us not forget that here we find the seeds of this immediate individualization of scripture – plain as day – in the writings of one of the early church fathers. That the Word of God cuts one (and sometimes JUST one – you) to the heart is not something we should ever downplay.
This is the indication given for the psalm – number 67 in this case. “On stringed instruments”. The Lord gave us voices, and those are the most natural instruments of all. The Lord gave us arms and hands and that is why every nation and every tongue has always had drums of some sort, even if they just beat two rocks together, it was man’s glory to do so. But stringed instruments take time and care to build. They take special wood and resonators. Even a primitive one is more complicated that a piece of furniture. The strings themselves are now made of steel or nylon, but then it would have been the guts of animals – killed and carefully extracted, cut to length and precariously tuned. If there is anything the ancient stringed musician would have done differently than those of today, it is that he would have played carefully so as not to put his instrument drastically out of tune every two minutes. We can wail on our cryogenic poly-coated nickel wires. He could not. How would one achieve volume then? The same way an orchestra does – with many players. Witness the Ethiopian Christians marching here during Timkat (epiphany).
A stringed instrument is a cultivated thing, an artifact requiring a lot of time to make and much skill to play well. If anyone has a high view of scripture and it’s inspired writing and preservation, he should marvel that this indication has been well-kept. You are supposed to sing this praise song to God WHILE playing a harp or lute. Seriously. That wasn’t added later by someone trying to spice things up. It was there at it’s conception and the first time it was sung in the temple of Mt. Zion while David still reigned as king.
When the Lion of Judah returns to earth, will he find a people who have been taught to despise guitars? I think he will find more than a few. Their love of the voice will likely more than make up for things I suppose, but what a shame. “Oh, but those darn stringed instruments have been used and abused for more twisted and terrible ends than you could imagine as of late! Did you watch the last music video awards show?” True, true. Now quit making excuses and get back to work. Find a way to redeem them! Is the Spirit of Life not up for the job? Figure it out! All you who are keen to reform worship, I give you a challenging but worthwhile task: find a place for the stringed instruments. Locking them out and keeping just the keyboard is punting. The Lord is worthy of praise with these things as well.
Why do I sometimes write things about Jesus that make me sound like I might be a universalist? (One who, in evangelical lingo, thinks everyone on earth is going to be “saved” without doing anything at all, not even asking for it.)
Yesterday, I wrote a post about the wonder and outrage of Jesus not condemning the women obviously caught in adultery in John 8. It would have been nice if, in the text, this forgiveness were coupled with a contrite heart before and reformed living afterward, but we are given none of those tidy things – only the unilateral excuse the creator.
This sort of reading of the gospels always makes more than a few folks squirm. Am I denying the existence (or at least MEANINGFUL existence) of sin? Am saying there is no hell? At least I must be very nearly implying that it’s OK for us to ignore the law that grace may abound. (Romans 6). And because of the theological danger of this position or at least this emphasis, I must be genuinely foolish to speak this way. Now, my writing is not very public – only a few people read this blog. My preaching is not particularly public either – it is infrequent and at a relatively small church. But whenever I talk like I did in the previous post, I get some push-back. Someone is always a bit upset.
So why DO I speak like this? Even yesterday, only an hour after I wrote that reflection, I read this excellent comment by Alastair Roberts in an unrelated thread:
The Christ who weeps over Jerusalem is also the Christ who brings dreadful destruction upon Jerusalem in AD70. The Christ who stands silent before his accusers is also the Christ who stops every mouth as the judge of the world. The Christ who performs a symbolic test of jealousy upon the woman caught in adultery and does not condemn her is also the Christ who performs the most dreadful judgment upon the adulterous Babylon. The Christ who hangs powerless on the cross is also the powerful Christ of the resurrection and ascension who rules with a rod of iron until all enemies are put under his feet and who treads out their blood in the winepress of God’s wrath. We need to hold these two parts of the picture together.
So when I write something like I did yesterday, it seems that I’m not holding the two parts of the picture together. Whenever I or anyone else quotes Robert Capon, it seems the same thing is going on. The same could be true for writings of Brennan Manning, Tullian Tchividjian, Richard Rohr, and some other suspicious characters. We should know better (and we DO know better!) than to talk so “one-sided” about the nature of the holy God.
Well, here is my answer to this query:
The reason for talking this way, for OVER-stating the grace of Christ, is because you have already heard the flip side a hundred times more frequently, both in explicit teaching and cultural cues. Having grown up in church, I estimate I have easily heard in excess of 2000 sermons in my life – the bulk of them closely and carefully tied to specific passages of scripture. And I reckon that fewer than 5% of them have successfully articulated the boundless love of Christ. The rest, 95%+, though often shooting to strike some kind of balance, have been heavily lopsided in the other direction.
Jesus loves you BUT “true repentance”. Jesus loves you BUT “victorious Christianity”. Jesus loves you BUT “know a tree by it’s fruit”. Jesus loves you BUT “parenting well is REALLY important”. Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for you to get your act together, etc. We have plenty, PLENTY of this sort of thing, even in Christian communities who, on paper, have a wonderfully complete and holistic confession filled with a high-proof elixir of grace. It doesn’t seem to matter. They are all awash in this kind of crushing news. It creeps in everywhere.
And so, speaking like this, with the grace “turned up to eleven”, is a remedy for a very real and destructive problem. Properly informed Christians get all upset when they read something from (for example) Robert Capon that sounds “universalist” and dangerous, but they forget that he is not there to write a systematic theology. The language is calculated. It’s provocative on purpose, not by accident. It’s not just for anyone, but for people in a certain context – one soaked in too much conditional love. And even though it sometimes causes confusion, I think that at the end of the day, it works. It effectively serves as a corrective. So look for more of it here on occasion and don’t be so quick to freak out when you see it elsewhere. For some, it may be brand spankin’ new GOOD news that wakes them up.