Scripture and Experience
Last week, we talked about how we view God’s goals in interacting with humanity. I argued that the gospel is not about offering us a more successful version of the life we already have. It is (among other things) about offering us a new life.
There is another side of this matter to consider, though. Like with so many other things, the witness of Scripture about what theologians call “the economy of God” is complex, carefully nuanced, and full of tensions. For example, the same Paul who wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19b-20a) also wrote, “Whatever a person plants, that is what he or she will harvest” (Galatians 6:7b).
It isn’t just the Scriptures that give us a reason to pause; our experiences do, too. Sure, we have seen people who got more than their fair share of suffering or success, and our hearts cry out in grief, despair, and frustration because of it. But we have also experienced the truth of what Paul says in Galatians 6. We have seen firsthand how sin gives birth to destruction—not only for the person who does it but also for everyone around them.
Grace and Accountability
With these dualities in mind, let’s look a little more closely at how God works to accomplish His purposes in the world. The basic questions is, “Does God give us what we deserve?” The obvious answer is, “No, God does not.” The giants of the Western theological tradition (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc.) may disagree about a lot of things, but they agree that sending Christ was an act of grace, initiated and carried out by God himself. D. A. Carson, N. T. Wright, and Douglas Campbell may not be able to agree on the color of the sky or whether grass is green, but they would (probably) agree that there is no sense in which we deserve God’s saving work. It only happens because God is true to His nature. He created us, and He remains committed to us in spite of all that we have done to deserve otherwise.
Nevertheless, the writers of the New Testament did not completely abandon a transactional understanding of how destruction and life are handed out. Jesus gets the transactional party started in Matthew 25:14-46 when he tells the parable of the talents (a unit of measurement and money) and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus asserts that there are certain patterns of behavior that lead to life and other patterns of behavior that lead to destruction. These patterns of life cannot be achieved apart from the person of Christ and the community committed to that message, so Jesus is not proposing an alternative way to obtain salvation. He is, however, re-enforcing what he had already said in Matthew 7:21-23—that it is not enough to merely claim affiliation with Jesus and his followers. One must demonstrate that affiliation through obedience.
Paul (2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 5:19-21), John (Revelation 21:7-8; 22:12), and James (James 1:25) simply follow Jesus’ lead. Paul and John insist that those who do evil will not receive eternal salvation. James insists that obedience to “the law” will result in blessing (presumably in the present), and Paul insists that there will be some kind of eternal system of rewards (and punishment?) that is based on what we do in the present age.
Understandably, texts like these make a lot of Protestants nervous. They want to believe that God acts on the basis of “unmerited favor” (the definition of grace typically employed in conservative Protestant churches), not on the basis of merit. They feel this way not only because they believe that this is what the Bible teaches but also because they are appropriately aware of their own spiritual and moral deficiencies.
I think that it will help us if we remember that, in God’s mind and actions, two seemingly incompatible principles can be operative at the same time (as good theologians of every age and of every persuasion recognize). The history of God’s interactions with Israel demonstrates that salvation is His work, but it also demonstrates that salvation is not something that happens without the participation of those who are being saved in the process (mainly through trust that works itself out in obedience). Yes, Jesus condemns affiliation without obedience, but in the same breath he also condemns the idea that someone can earn salvation on the basis of their list of accomplishments.
It will also help us understand the Scriptures—and our experience—if we recognize that the mechanisms that God has established for our participation in His saving and blessing work are themselves an act of grace. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that salvation only comes to those who recognize their need and call upon Jesus in faith. Why should this action on our part result in God accepting us and adopting us into his family (cf. Galatians 3:26-4:7)? Why should God, on the basis of our confession that “Jesus is Lord,” take upon himself the responsibility of transforming us from the marred and sinful creatures that we are into creatures that truly represent God in all His glory and goodness?
And yet, because of the grace that God has built into the system, this is exactly what happens. Our faithfulness to Christ triggers a cascade of events in which we continue to play a vital part through our cooperation with the Spirit’s work in our lives. The result of that cascade of events is that we receive far more than we deserve.
So what does all of this mean for how we interpret the Bible, understand our experiences, and pursue our commitment to Christ? What are the practical implications of God’s transactional methodology for our theology, our ministry, our society, and our daily life?
I think that there are at least six implications that can be derived from the transactional way in which God’s economy works itself out in the world. Perhaps you can come up with others.
We must construct a cosmology and a soteriology that makes room for human agency. The political commentator Rush Limbaugh used to argue that it was sheer arrogance for humans to believe that they can alter the health of the planet on a large scale. There are certain things that only God can do, but the very nature of creation speaks to the fact that God has invited humanity to participate in a meaningful way in the story of the universe. If we do not play our part properly, then things will not work the way that God intends them to work.
We must preserve the notion of divine punishment without presuming to know in real time when that punishment has been inflicted. It is clear that punishment for evildoers is an indispensable part of the Christian world-view (despite protests to the contrary by ideologically liberal Protestants). We are complicit in the destruction of our neighbors if we do not use the best theological, philosophical, and scientific information available to warn them of the risk factors that their sin creates. Nevertheless, Jesus himself warns against equating someone’s circumstances with the quality of their character or the level of their rightness before God (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-7). We do enormous and sometimes irreparable harm to the cause of Christ when we presume to know the mind of God or use the reality of His punitive justice as a weapon in our political, social, or theological debates.
We must recognize—and celebrate—the fact that the scales of justice have been tipped in our favor. Not only has Jesus paid the penalty that we all should have paid (yes, I do still believe in substitutionary atonement), but Jesus is clear that all people everywhere are the beneficiaries of divine benevolence (Matthew 5:45). Interestingly, Jesus does not use this principle as a justification for releasing all the murderers from death row; rather, he gets a lot more personal. He demands that we all give up our right to hate our enemies. God reserves the right to inflict vengeance upon evildoers, and it is a right that He willexercise (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19). But God’s benevolence and patience are to be our model, even when we come into contact with those who wish nothing for us but calamity and heartache.
We must be more faithful and forceful in making the connection between so-called “personal” sin and societal ills. The biblical witness does not give us the right to go around blaming every crime victim or every poor person for the things that have happened to them. But neither does it permit us to ignore the ways in which human sinfulness contributes to human suffering. We need to lovingly remind people that their behaviors have consequences—not only for them but also for the people that they love.
We must recognize the role that punitive justice can play in bringing hope, healing, restoration, and transformation. It seems to me that our approach to sharing the gospel with those who have been run over by life is often little more than to wag our finger at them and say “You’re a sinner, too!” We can do better. The Bible has given us resources to do better. But we won’t do better if we fail to recognize the transactional way in which God often operates. There are voices in Christianity today that present God only in terms of grace and love and never in terms of a rigorous demand for holiness and justice. These are loaded words; I get that. There are many ways to understand them—and just as many ways to apply them in public and private life. Still, it seems to me that we cannot be authentically Christian if we do not stand with the lowly and oppressed—not just in solidarity with their suffering but also in demanding that those who have hurt them be punished for what they have done.
We must care about who people can become and not just who they are now. One of the ways God has tipped the scales of justice in our favor is by directing our attention to the future rather than the past or the present. God does not compromise his righteous requirements—not least because they constitute the essence of a good life. But, in Christ God provides a means by which we can receive forgiveness for what we have done. Moreover, God indwells us through the Holy Spirit so that we can actually become all that He intended us to be. The hope that dwells within us—the hope that dwells within me—is that we will not always be slaves to those things that are destined to destroy us. Every day with Jesus is a day closer to being all that God created me to be. I don’t have to live in fear of judgment, because God is changing the very essence of who I am.