Friday, September 26, 2008

God’s Project

Rom. 8:26-39[1]

I think that one of the great tragedies of the Christian faith is the fact that, despite the overwhelming testimony of the Scriptures to the contrary, Christians throughout the centuries have believed that God’s whole project of salvation is a “transaction”—God offers us forgiveness, new life, and hope in return for our faith and obedience. In my opinion, what the Bible teaches is that God’s whole project of salvation is about a relationship—God loves us unconditionally and irrevocably, and is working to restore us all to the kind of relationship with God that we were all meant to have. It is God’s project from beginning to end—God’s desire, God’s design, God’s work, God’s grace.

I had an interesting experience this week. I decided to Google the words “transaction” and “salvation” to see what I could come up with. I found a Wikipedia entry entitled, “The Economy of Salvation,” which simply and clearly articulated the idea that God’s “project” is to offer us the chance to take part in the transaction of salvation. The idea is basically that through Jesus’ sacrifice, which is a price paid to make it possible for us to be forgiven for our sins, God offers us salvation. The transaction is complete when accept it through faith and allegiance to him. From this perspective, salvation could be expressed by saying, “Jesus paid the price for your sins on the cross, and if you will turn to him in faith and repentance, God will forgive your sins.” Those who view salvation in this way will say, “I was saved on such-and-such a date.”

Well, it’s a good thing I’m a member of Wikipedia. All I had to do was log in and edit the entry. I changed it to express the fact that there is another way to look at it. What I added is that other Christians, especially in the Reformed Tradition, view salvation from a more relational perspective. From this point of view, God takes the initiative in restoring and reconciling our relationship long before any of us can take the step of faith or obedience. The work of salvation was completed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. From this standpoint, salvation could be expressed by saying, “Jesus died and rose again to accomplish your salvation; God has already forgiven your sins. All that is left for you to do is accept that you are loved by God.” Those who view salvation from this perspective will say, “I was saved on a hill outside Jerusalem about 2000 years ago.”

I think that’s what Paul is saying in our lesson from Romans today. The essential, overarching concept in this passage is God’s “purpose,” or “project.” Paul says that God’s project is to conform us all to the image of Jesus the Christ. Of course, he says that God carries out that project by choosing, calling, justifying and glorifying fallen humankind. When we think of “choosing,” we might be tempted as John Calvin was to think that God chooses some and rejects others. But I think it is important to ask, “Whom does God choose?” Well, according to Paul, God chooses Jesus, and in him chooses us all (Eph. 1:4).[2] I think it’s even more important to ask, “Whom does God justify?” This is one of Paul’s favorite concepts for salvation. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says a lot about whom God justifies. At one point he says is that God is the one who justifies the “ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). In fact, it might be more precise to say that God justifies the “godless”![3] That should shock and surprise us a bit. Even with all of our theology of grace, we still have a bit of “segregation” in us when it comes to salvation. I guess the way to put it is this: if God justifies the godless, whom does God not justify?

So basically, Paul says that God’s “purpose” or “project” is expressed in choosing, calling, justifying, and glorifying us all. And just to make sure we don’t miss the point, he reminds us that there is nothing in all creation that can ever separate us from the love God has for us and has given us in Jesus the Christ. Again, some might want to quibble here—they will say that nothing in all creation can separate us, but we can separate ourselves by our own refusal to take the step of faith and obedience. As my favorite theologian asks, however, is our willfulness more definitive than God’s love and grace?[4] I think not!

Paul believed that God’s “project” is to reconcile the entire created order and restore it to its rightful place in obedience to Christ. He believed that there would come a time when “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” and that in the end God would be “all in all.”[5] Paul’s gospel is a gospel of grace—of receiving something undeserved. It is a gospel about the God who loves us unconditionally, the God who accepts us, the God who above all else is for us.[6] I think what Paul is trying to communicate to us about God is that God is “for us.” In all that God does, God is “for us.” “For us” defines God’s essential nature.[7] And this good new creates in us the confidence that God’s love “lasts for ever and that it will not rest until it possesses us wholly.”[8]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/27/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Perhaps the most famous advocate of this view is Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, 2.2, 115-17. See also ibid., 59-60, 101, 103-105.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 94: God has always worked as “the God of the godless.”

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 140-43.

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:10-11. See also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411: “What our God has created He will also uphold, and sooner or later control by His Grace.” See further Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 178, 244; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-39, 57, 151; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 76, 85; Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 147-49.

[6] Emil Brunner, Christian Doctrine of God, 184; Hans Küng, Does God Exist?, 675; Hans Küng, Eternal Life, 212; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 94.

[7] Brunner, Christian Doctrine of God, 192.

[8] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, 344. Our Confession of 1967 puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.” Confession of 1967, 9.53.

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