17 April 2006

God and Sinners Reconciled

(The following thoughts came to me on Good Friday. Although it's now Easter Monday, better late than never, I guess.)

From 2 Corinthians 5:19 - In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (NRSV)

Since reading Richard Lischer's book, The End of Words, I have decided that 2 Corinthians 5:19 is a better 'sound bite' for communicating the Gospel than the ubiquitous John 3:16. I'm not saying I disagree with John 3:16, but I don't think it speaks easily to people today.

Here's how I'd unpack 2 Corinthians 5:19:

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself - In a world where humanity is alientated from God, it is God who makes the first move towards us. God does this in the incarnation - in Christ.

not counting their trespasses against them - This is the really important bit to me. God forgives us. Full stop. Period. No strings attached. That's what is meant by Grace. Forget about all the good Christian people who say that you have to repent before God forgives you. That's not the way it works. God forgives us and, in consequence of that forgiveness, we repent. It is in being forgiven that we know we are sinful, not in recognising our sinfulness that we obtain God's forgiveness. That's another reason why the Gospel is a scandal and another reason why it is 'upside down'.

Imagine this. A family member comes up to me and says: 'I forgive you.' I am am not aware of having offended this person but when they explain what happened I realise that I have indeed offended them. Then I apologise and thank them for their forgivness. Sound good? But how many times do I respond instead by saying 'What do you mean, you forgive me?! I have done nothing to you! How dare you forgive me!' If I'm honest, I react in the second way far too often. I suspect it's because many of us react in this second way that we either don't see that God has forgiven us already or that we are offended by the idea of a God who forgives someone before they have repented.

Finally, 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us that God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. When we have been reconciled with God, we are then in a position to proclaim to others that reconciliation with God is on offer to them too.

As James Alison puts it, what we find difficult is not asking to be forgiven, what we find hard is receiving God's forgiveness before we even ask for it.

To me, this is the scandalous message of the cross.

Credit for ideas in this post to:
James Alison, Paul Fiddes and Richard Lischer.


David said...

If we are truly forgiven without asking for it, does this mean that no one will be punished for their sin?

PamBG said...

I don't know, David. Do you think that punishment is important? I still hold that if you think a person must repent first, then you believe in mercy but not grace. Or am I missing something?

If you can explain to me how grace can be conditional on a human being making the first move, then I'm open to rethinking. However, I am a Methodist and we do believe in prevenient grace; prevenient grace seems to demand the universal offer of forgivenes. (I don't believe in universal salvation but that is because I believe in free will, not because I believe that justice demands eternal punishment.)

David said...

Thanks for your reply Pam. I quite agree...I believe in prevenient grace too. I wasn't sure if you were universal in your thinking. Perhaps that is what I was driving at.

Interesting that you believe in free will...correct me if I am wrong, but doesn't a belief in prevenient grace disqualify belief in free will? ie- I have always thought that the Bible teaches we have no free will. We cannot chose God on our own. We need Him to choose us. Or am I thinking of irresistable grace here?

And also- I am not a universalist either. But again, does that necessitate a belief in some form of punishment?

PamBG said...

My entire Christian life has been non-Calvinist and I don't feel qualified to comment on a term such as 'irresistible grace' which is not part of my tradition. My simplistic understanding of that term is 'Once saved, always saved', something I don't believe in as I believe that it is possible to fall away from God.

'Prevenient grace', as I understand it, is the belief that it is God, and not the human person, who makes the first move toward the reconciliation of God with humanity. I don't see this concept as disqualifying belief in free will.

Here is an illustration that a Lutheran minister gave to me: God puts the engagement ring on our finger (universal offer of grace), but we have the free will to take off the engagement ring and to reject the relationship that it implies.

I don't believe in eternal divine punishment for finite human sins, but I do believe in there being consequences for our actions. Often these consequences are 'earthly' and practical: immorality may lead to the breakdown of a relationship or the eventual inability to have a fulfilling relationship. Many times the consequences are also spiritual and we are further alienated from God by our sin.

I see 'the place in eternity where we reject God' in a similar way to CS Lewis' idea. I'm thinking about the person who declined the invitation to heaven because there were no 'Rev Dr Professor So-and-Sos' in heaven but everyone was viewed as being of equal worth: the person didn't want to enter heave because God's standards weren't high enough.

I think this is very biblical: weren't the religious establishment always telling Jesus that his taste in companions didn't make the grade religiously?

Of course, the sting in the tail is that, as someone who wants very much to be faithful, *I* might end up being the person who thinks God's standards aren't high enough This is the reason I need to be quite sure that I can never save myself, that it's God who does all the running in terms of saving me and that my identity as his child rests solely in God's amazing grace.

Or so it seems to me.