Wednesday, October 05, 2016

God our Savior

God Our Savior
1 Timothy 2:1-7[1]
It might shock you, but I would say that we get many of our ideas about God from pagan religions, rather than from the Bible. I think we are actually much more comfortable with the gods of Greek and Roman mythology than we are with the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. We understand the pagan gods. They act like us. They get angry and take their anger out on others. They have wants and needs and desires and they will do whatever it takes to get what they want. And so if you do what the gods want, then you’re happy and blessed, but if you don’t they will very likely smite you. It’s not a particularly attractive picture, but it’s one we can grasp.
I think we have a hard time grasping the idea of a God who loves us simply because we exist. Some of us may have a hard time identifying with the notion of love that is unconditional and never-ending, no matter what.[2] It seems that in our experience with life, there are always strings attached when it comes to love. Or expectations we have to live up to. Or disappointments when someone lets us down. The idea that someone might love us for no particular reason, and that there’s nothing we could do to change that love, is one that simply doesn’t compute with many of us. And so we have difficulty accepting the message that God loves us all unconditionally and irrevocably, because it doesn’t fit our experience with life.
That is precisely the message of our Scripture lesson for today from First Timothy. Simply put, “God our Savior … desires everyone to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:3-4). And to that end, “Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The language is clearly all-inclusive, embracing “everyone.” That may come as a surprise to you, because it’s not the typical way in which we understand God’s “plan of salvation.” We tend to think of salvation not as a gift of God’s grace, but as a transaction. Those of us who do the right things, like believing in Jesus, going to church, a living the right kind of life, receive salvation as a reward for our efforts.
This view of salvation has been around for a long time. From the earliest days of the church, the accepted view was that “outside the church there is no salvation.” This makes the statement from our Scripture lesson problematic, to say the least. When you take that point of view, it’s hard to believe that God “desires everyone to be saved.” And so we have come up with a number of “adjustments” to make this bold declaration more palatable to us. Some will say “God desires everyone to be saved,” but “everyone” equals all kinds of people, not all people. Others say “God desires everyone to be saved,” but “everyone” equals all those whom God has chosen for salvation, not all people.[3] The conclusion seems unavoidable that what they are really saying is that “God does not desire everyone to be saved”![4]
I think there are a variety of reasons why we take this verse of Scripture and twist it around to mean the opposite of what it says. For one thing, we want life to be fair. If you’re like me, and you’ve been in church all your life, it can seem unfair that God offers salvation to everyone without conditions. I’ve had a long-standing member of a Presbyterian church ask the question, “If God is going to save everyone, then why do we go to church?” Of course, this betrays the assumption that we can somehow earn God’s love by attending church. In reality, that kind of thinking has it all backwards. We don’t go to church in order to earn God’s love. We go to church because we’ve encountered the incredible love God gives all of us, and in response we want to live our lives by loving God in every way we can.
I think another reason for this kind of thinking is that we think that people ought to get what they deserve. It can seem like “cheating” for someone who has lived however they pleased to get to experience God’s salvation just the same as those who have tried to practice kindness and compassion and justice. I also had a church member tell me “There are some people I want to go to hell!” Again, this misses the point of the gospel. The gift of salvation isn’t something we can somehow do enough good to “deserve.” The message of Scripture is that none of us can ever “deserve” God’s love. That’s why it’s a gift—for everyone. That’s a good thing for all of us—regardless of what we think we “deserve.”
I can accept and endorse the fact that there are different interpretations of the Christian faith.  There always have been, and there always will be.  But I never have and never will embrace a view of God that excludes the vast majority of humanity from the gift of salvation through Christ. I choose to take the Scripture at face value when it says “God desires everyone to be saved”!  And I believe it is valid both biblically and theologically to hope for and believe in God’s eventual redemption of all people.[5] The foundation for this faith is nothing less than God’s character: it’s who God is—God our Savior.[6]
I realize this sermon may leave some of you scratching your heads. It may not sound like any sermon you’ve ever heard before.[7] Unfortunately, the idea that we have to please God by earning God’s love and by doing enough good to deserve salvation has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, sheer repetition has reinforced this idea so much that many of us assume it to be true. But I would say that it is not consistent with the message of Scripture. The Bible teaches us that God loves us simply because that’s who God is. And there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve that love. The flip side of it is that there is nothing we can ever do to lose God’s love. The good news of the Gospel is that God loves us all, and because of that love he “desires for everyone to be saved.” That is the purpose and the goal toward which God has been working throughout the centuries because it’s who God is: God our Savior.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/18/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 136, where he (as a Reformed theologian) points out that the Reformed tradition with its doctrine of dual predestination “has caused much uncertainty and has robbed many Christians of the joy of the Christian faith.”
[3] An interesting variation of this view is the one that says that “God desires all people to be saved” except “all people” equals all those whom God knows in advance will actually believe if they have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Cf. Douglas R. Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, ed. by S. Gundry, et. al, 198. They actually say it this way: “anyone who dies without hearing the good news is a person who would not have believed had he heard.”
[4] Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1, where he says “since election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation … those whom God passes over, he condemns.”  Calvin was influenced by Augustine of Hippo, who argued that God’s desire for “all people to be saved” only applies to those whom God has predestined to salvation, and excludes all others, even infants who die without being baptized. See Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, 14.44; On the Predestination of the Saints, 18.36; Enchiridion, 27, 103; cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition I:321; Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV:443.  On infants, see Augustine, On the Soul and its Origin, 4.11.16; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition I:297-98.
[5] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is directed towards that divine future in which God will have all his creatures beside him to all eternity. That is to say, our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” Many throughout the history of the church have endorsed this view, beginning with Origen of Caesarea.  See J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, I: 151-52; V:116-17, 224; J. Quasten, Patrology II:87-91, quoting Origen, Contra Celsus 8,72: “stronger than all evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him; and this healing he applies, according to the will of God, to every man.”  Cf. also Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Orations, 26, who claimed that even the “inventor of evil” would eventually be healed by God’s grace.  See Quasten, Patrology, III:289-90
[6] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus” New Interpreters Bible XI:798, where he says that this is “a statement that is as clear as any assertion of ‘Christian universalism’: God wills the salvation of everyone. The God who wished to save Paul, ‘chief of sinners’ (1:15), could hardly want anything less for everyone else (v. 4); the earlier Paul had spoken with equal boldness (Rom 11:32).” He continues (ibid.), “The fact that God is one (the primary Jewish confession, Shema; Deut 6:4) leads inevitably to the conclusion that God is God of all (as in Rom 3:29-30) and, therefore, is concerned for all. … In a formulation pushing toward universalism (“gave himself a ransom for all”), the limitation of effective mediation to Christ Jesus is not to exclude from salvation those who have not heard of Christ, but to affirm that effective salvation, wherever it is experienced, will be found to have been mediated through Christ.”
[7] W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 93–94, offers a more palatable solution to the problem: he argues that in light of the context, the point of this passage is that the church at Ephesus is to include all people in their witness and prayers. In my opinion, this simply avoids the question whether we have confidence that God is able and willing to accomplish his will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Dunn’s solution is preferable (cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:799-800): “The problem with any theological system that turns its back on universalism, for no doubt good reasons of logic and self-reassurance, is that the resulting system postulates either a less generous God or a less omnipotent God than 1 Timothy envisions (cf. Rom 11:32). Here as elsewhere theological assertions need always to be qualified by the note of eschatological reserve. God’s ultimate purpose is ultimate and, therefore, still unknown, as well as the divine means of achieving that purpose. All human judgment is subject to eschatological verification. At this point, theology must simply give way to wondering worship (as in Rom 11:33-36).”

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