A Better Gospel

In the comments following my previous post on the problems with a particular form of the evangelical gospel presentation, I was asked how I would go about presenting the gospel, and how I would capture some of the core gospel themes for which I argued in my conclusion. Given the importance of this question, I thought that it would be worth reposting and slightly expanding on my remarks here. The gospel should be at the heart of all that we are, do, and think as Christians, so getting it right must be of paramount importance for us. The following thoughts, which are presented in no particular order, are not a gospel presentation itself, but are some pointers to how we might best go about presenting it.

A Multi-faceted Gospel

First, I don’t think in terms of a single gospel presentation. The unity of the gospel does not reside in a particular presentation, logic, or formula, but in God’s gracious self-revealing saving work in Jesus Christ. The gospel is good news to us in innumerable different ways. Different aspects of the good news may be especially important for particular people or cultures at particular times. Rather than trying to force all people through one conveyor belt approach to presenting the gospel, I believe that we need to know the gospel inside out, so that we can improvise our presentation of it in a way that looks each person straight in the eyes, speaking God’s grace in Christ directly into their unique situation. Of course, this demands an intimate acquaintance with the gospel on our part and a profound reliance upon the guidance and work of the Holy Spirit as we bear witness to Christ to each person or context.

For certain people we might tell the gospel as the message of deliverance from the fear of death, loss, and failure and all that that entails. For others the gospel might be the message of a rescue from chaos, whether that is societal, personal, or cosmic. For others, the gospel might be less a message of rescue or deliverance, and more a message of transcendent beauty and joy and of the ultimate affirmation of the goodness of creation. For others, the gospel is the personal message of their value and place in the world and in the sight of God. For others, the gospel is the assurance of meaning and purpose in human life and action. For others, the gospel is the message of forgiveness for past sins, the overcoming of present ones, and deliverance from crippling personal and cultural guilt. For others, the gospel is the message of the liberation of the oppressed and the defeat of all tyrants. For others, the gospel is the message of the overcoming of all human divisions, the bringing together of all ethnicities, people groups, male and female, the generations, etc. The gospel is all of these things – and much more besides – for all of us, of course, but we may need to accent different dimensions of the message in particular times and places.

A Story, Not a Formula

Second, I would focus upon telling a story, rather than explaining some logic or formula. In the video in my previous post, much of the presentation consists of supposed logical demands of justice, which cannot actually be found on the pages of Scripture itself, and which are alien to much that is there. A logical system or a formula is akin to a mechanistic process that we go through. However, such a system cannot capture our hearts and imaginations. Rather than a system or formula, God has given us a drama, a drama which we are taken up within, a drama in which the script becomes embedded and embodied in us in Christ. Unlike a system or formula, this drama radically transforms us as subjects, in our identity, our agency, our subjectivity, and our actions. This drama makes us part of a body of actors in Christ, and reveals the whole creation to be God’s stage.

Most of the Bible is concerned with telling stories, stories within a great Story. Our world has lost its cohesion, its narratability, and all scatter to their private narratives. To this world, God has given a Word, a story, in which all of our disparate plots can become united, in one glorious dénouement. As we learn to tell the gospel as story, we will begin to recognize why the Gospels that God inspired are fundamentally stories. We will also start to appreciate the importance of Israel and the Old Testament within God’s story.

Restorative Justice

Third, God’s love for his creation, his determination not to let sin destroy it, and his commitment to restorative justice, setting to rights all that has gone wrong, would be central. Rather than a stress upon punitive justice, restorative justice would be the dominant theme. God’s justice is about wiping the tears from all eyes, about healing all harms, about repairing all breaches, and righting all wrongs.

God is faithful to his creation and to his people in covenant. The world wasn’t created in a neutral state, related to God purely in terms of absolute justice, but was created in an act of love and in a gracious relationship. Rather than bare and cold justice at the root, creation springs from divine love and gracious gift. God’s creation is one of peace and communion, of growth and fecundity, of joy and laughter, of blessing and provision. God’s justice is about restoring and perfecting this creation, about forming a creation so glorious that it bursts the humble seed casing of this present heavens and earth to burgeon and to bloom eternal.

The Place of Hell

Fourth, hell would have a very different place in the picture that I am suggesting. Rather than being the threat that frames the whole message of good news, hell would be entirely framed by the message of divine love and commitment to restoring creation. The possibility of eternal loss would be presented as something lying in far closer continuity with current dehumanizing patterns of life. In understanding hell, the focus would be on eternal loss as a consequence of rejection of God’s image in ourselves, others, and most particularly in Christ.

Hell would not be presented as being primarily about eternal ‘punishment’ inflicted by God upon the sinner, but about the natural consequences of our erasure of God’s image in ourselves and others. Punishment is an important part of the biblical picture, of course, but far more dominant is loss, separation, and fruitless regret. When hell is spoken of, it would have to be seen as bound up with God’s purpose to set the world to rights. Those who cling to wickedness and oppression and reject God’s good purpose in Christ risk the eternal consequences that result from spurning the source of all life and goodness.

The Perfection of the Creation, Not Just its Salvation

Fifth, God created a world that he desired to grow into the fullness of fellowship with himself. The world is created good, but immature and not yet perfect. The created world is like a toddler that needs to grow up into the fullness of adulthood. Sin throws this development off course and twists it. God’s purpose exceeds overcoming the effects of sin, being designed to bring the creation to its full stature and glory, and to flood it with his presence. This is a key dimension of the gospel message: a perfected and glorified new creation.

Christ at the Heart

Sixth, the purpose of God for creation is Christ. It is in Christ that we see the content of God’s will for us. It is in his communion with the Father, the loving faithfulness of his life, and the resurrection of his body that we see what God has in store for humanity and the creation. It is in Christ that we know the communion between God and the creation that was intended from the start. In presenting the gospel, Christ must always be in the absolute centre of our picture. Anything else is not the gospel.

A Gospel for Flesh and Blood

Seventh, in speaking of the problems of death and alienation, I would root these firmly in our physical existence. The alienation resulting from sin and death is an alienation between human persons, not just between God and the individual soul. It is an alienation that exists between us and our bodies. It is an alienation that exists between bodies. It is an alienation that exists between us and the creation. It is an alienation that is at work within the creation itself. It is not merely a matter of individual sins, but of evil systems and structures that oppress us. It is a matter of nations and powers, of ideologies and systems, of families and communities. Christ came to address all of these things. Christ came to save all of these things. A gospel that throws a lifebuoy to souls, but has nothing to say about the environment, racism, broken families, disabled bodies, wars, and famines is not a gospel that can really save me.

Humanity Made New

Eighth, God’s restoration of his image in man would be presented as integral to the gospel. Sanctification is not merely something that we do out of gratitude, or a work of God of secondary importance, but is integral to God’s purpose and our salvation. To be saved is to have God’s Law written on our hearts and to be conformed to his image. The good news of the gospel is that God has promised to accomplish and perfect this work in us, and that we can receive it by faith, and not as an autonomous work that we must accomplish for ourselves. When we see Christ, we will be like him. Are there many truths that are more exciting than that?

A God Who Welcomes Sinners

Ninth, people will only truly see their sin for what it is when they see Jesus Christ for who he is. Consequently, I would focus a lot less upon drawing people’s attention directly to their sin, and a lot more upon Christ as the Image of God, and the pattern of true humanity. I would present people with God’s overwhelming love, welcome, and salvation. Sin is revealed through this. As we enter into God’s light, we see ourselves for what we really are. However, within this way of presenting the gospel, our sins take on a very different aspect. Christ hasn’t come to condemn us, but to welcome us. As we are overwhelmed by God’s love and welcome, we will become increasingly aware of our sin as something holding us back and tying us down, and will long to be free of it, so that we can run to God with lighter feet. We do not need to feel condemned to bemoan our sin. We must teach a gospel of love and reconciliation, rather than one of condemnation and fear.

A God Who Makes All Things New!

Tenth, within the ‘gospel’ video in my previous post, the resurrection is merely a great miracle to prove that Jesus is God: ‘I rose from the dead to prove that I was God and that everything that I said was true.’ Everything focuses on the cross as a means of paying the price that means that we don’t go to hell. My approach to telling the gospel message would place the accent firmly upon the truth that Christ has risen from the dead, and is Lord of all. Christ’s death is not merely paying the punishment for our sins, but is the assumption of the full weight of death and alienation, so that it might be decisively and definitely overcome. The resurrection is the great victory. It is the exclamation mark of the gospel: ‘Christ is risen! Alleluia!’ It is the assurance and foretaste of God’s purposes for the whole creation. It is the promise that God will make all things new.

This, I believe, is truly good news.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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37 Responses to A Better Gospel

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong With The Evangelical Gospel? | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Great post, Alastair. The best of yours that I’ve read.

  3. Becky White says:

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes! The inability of so many Christians to articulate the Gospel is tragic. The result of our careless presentation of the Gospel seems to be that anyone can say anything they like about a ‘mean judgmental God’ who they just ‘can’t believe in’ and hardly anybody seems to be able to correct this or to explain the awesome, redemptive love of a perfect Christ who longs to gather us all to him as opposed to a terrifying dictator who longs to send everybody to hell except for a lucky, arbitrary few.

  4. Luke says:

    I’m appreciating these posts a lot. The Gospel as it was presented to me when I was younger was clearly about relationship (vs life-line out of hell), but there was still a lot of other elements mixed in which has made it difficult to enjoy and savor (and share with others). Your writing has helped a bit in adjusting my perspective/understanding and I find myself actually desiring to search the scriptures to know this Gospel inside and out, as you say.

  5. What resources would you recommend that help us become versed in the better more complete gospel? This is outstanding.

    • Thanks, Sean!

      Perhaps above all else I would recommend spending time just reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading (or perhaps even better, hearing) the Gospels themselves, along with the rest of the Scriptures, in fellowship with other faithful Christians, and within the life of discipleship in the Church. If there is one quality that adulterated forms of the gospel have in common, it is that they lose the balance and accent of Scripture, stressing one biblical truth to the neglect of others. They rely heavily upon people’s limited knowledge of the Scriptures themselves. If we know the text really well, we will be able to sense when something isn’t quite right or balanced in someone’s gospel presentation.

      When it comes to guides to help us read the text, in the past I have found some of N.T. (‘Tom’) Wright’s work helpful in rethinking the balance in these areas. Even though I do not share all of his conclusions (like anyone, his work must constantly be tested by the Scriptures), his stress upon such things as resurrection, the new heavens and new earth, story, and restorative justice is very helpful.

      • Dave Beldman says:

        For resources you might want to have a look at Craig Bartholomew and Mike Goheen’s Drama of Scripture (or the slimmer version called True Story of the Whole World) and the companion volume to Drama called Living at the Crossroads.

  6. Justin says:

    Great thoughts and blog! You remind me a lot of another author I’ve stumbled upon who is thoughtfully critiquing evangelicalism (http://bestchristianuevermet.wordpress.com) ! Keep it going!

  7. Jim says:

    Hi Alastair,

    I very much enjoyed the article, especially your description of how the “gospel” can mean so many different things to many different people. But I am curious as to how you would reconcile what to me seem like two opposing views in your description of hell, and of God making all things new:

    “Those who cling to wickedness and oppression and reject God’s good purpose in Christ risk the eternal consequences that result from spurning the source of all life and goodness.”

    “Christ’s death is not merely paying the punishment for our sins, but is the assumption of the full weight of death and alienation, so that it might be decisively and definitely overcome. The resurrection is the great victory. It is the exclamation mark of the gospel: ‘Christ is risen! Alleluia!’ It is the assurance and foretaste of God’s purposes for the whole creation. It is the promise that God will make all things new.”

    If, as you say, “the assumption of the full weight of death and alienation, so that it might be decisively and definitely overcome,” is true, and that “God will make all things new,” how is it possible for someone… anyone… to be left out of the overcoming of their alienation, and their being made new? It seems that you describe a beautiful, all-encompassing victory in “God’s purposes for the whole creation,” but somehow preface that by saying that some (“those who cling to wickedness and oppression”) will be left out of that victory. Are you implying that God cannot overcome their alienation? And just what are the “eternal consequences” of His failure to do so?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Thanks for the question, Jim. It is an important one.

      Here my concern is that we say neither more nor less than the Scripture permits us to. The Scripture speaks of hell as a genuine possibility, but also in a way that often differs markedly from the manner that it functions in popular evangelical thought (the focus isn’t primarily on individual souls in the way that it is for many evangelicals, but can be on nations, cities, etc.). There are deep and difficult questions here, and we should be careful of dodging them or adopting a tidy ‘solution’.

      In Christ’s death and resurrection every gulf that might separate man from God is bridged. Christ’s Lordship is established over all. All creation will be ‘reconciled’ to God or ‘gathered together’ in Christ, and every knee will bow and tongue confess him as Lord. However, the Scriptures, while proclaiming this universal reconciliation of the cosmos to Christ’s gracious rule, seems to deny universal salvation. Both sides of the picture need to be maintained here.

      On the one hand, we don’t seem to be able to say that there is any part of the creation that continues in rebellion, evil that persists, or individual that doesn’t somehow have a place in God’s comprehensively restored order. On the other hand, we seem to have to maintain that not all enjoy the blessing of the resurrection to life, but are resurrected to dishonour.

      No wickedness, evil, or continuing rebellion will persist into the new heavens and new earth. However, those who reject and attack the image of God in themselves, others, Christ, and his body end up destroying their being and rejecting the source of their life. Perhaps such persons will continue to exist in fruitless remorse, recognizing the justice of God’s judgment. Perhaps they will be more like corpses, than living persons (have-beens, rather than continuing beings).

      I don’t know what God will do, but I do know that he is gracious and just, not wishing that any should perish. I know that he does not lie or mislead his people, and that if he warns us of the possibility of eternal loss we should pay heed. I also know that God is the God of surprises, whose fulfilments of promises don’t always take the form that we expect. It is within the context of these commitments that I approach the difficult question of hell.

      • Jim says:

        Alistair, I appreciate your thoughtful and gracious response. And while I understand your desire to avoid adding to scripture, I think your conclusion that some will suffer “eternal loss” contradicts your belief in the universal reconciliation of the cosmos, which includes all of mankind. If even one suffers eternal loss then God has NOT reconciled all to Himself. If even one ends up as a “corpse” then God has failed to resurrect them to LIFE, and has therefore been defeated by death.

        It is the potter who makes one vessel for honor and another for dishonor, but it is also the potter who takes that same vessel that was “marred in HIS hands” and “shapes it into another vessel as it seemed best to him” (Jer. 18:4). While I respect your right to see things differently, I think your conclusion essentially says that God cannot heal all vessels — that some are beyond His power to redeem — so I must humbly disagree. I believe that you will be most pleasantly surprised at the extent of God’s love and power.

        Blessings to you.

  8. Paul D Baxter says:

    Al,

    I suppose it’s only fair to note that the story of Israel is absent from from this post as well. But I love you anyway.

  9. Susan says:

    This post (and the previous one as well) is excellent, mostly because it has reminded me how small and narrow and limited I can start to treat the Gospel message. It’s become this buzz-word and I’ve had to stop and ask myself, “Do you even know what you are talking about?” The beauty of the Gospel lies in both its simplicity and depth. Simple enough for a child to understand, deep enough that we can (and should!) spend all of our days meditating on it. But daily meditation and wrestling through how the Gospel should affect every area of our life, that’s hard work that we often don’t want to engage in, and so we try to boil it down to a two minute spiel, a snazzy video, or 4 step process. It makes us feel better, but we are left walking through life with a shallow understanding.

  10. pduggie says:

    Good stuff Alastair. Can some of the presentations of the gospel above leave out a requirement to “repent”? (I notice, as well as israel being missing, the word ‘repent’ is missing).

    Can I look at an alienated world around me, and hear a gospel message of God’s bridging of alienation and perhaps not realize that I am as much culpable for the alienation as, say all those evil folks who are not of my politics or class who seem so guilty of alienating? Maybe more than me? When does it become clear to me that I have offended?

    Or if I feel my life is purposeless and I hear that a kingdom of heaven is inaugurated, and I’m asked to participate in the reconciling of all things and this is my true purpose, can I do so without seeing my previously purposeless life as one of wicked sin that needs an atoning sacrifice?

    Wouldn’t EVERY gospel need a presentation of a need for repentence? The problem with the video gospel OP is that it boils down to nothing but explaining to someone why they need to repent and why it matters when they do, but I don’t think that can be justly eliminated, or we leave people dead in their sins, while assuring them they have responded rightly to the gospel.

    I’m sure you have an answer, just my concern at the moment

    • Thanks for the question, pduggie. You raise an important issue.

      No, I don’t think that we can neglect the need for repentance. However, there is a crucial difference between approaches here.

      The approach of the video, and most conventional gospel presentations for that matter, is that of presenting the gospel as an ordo salutis or salvation system. Within such an approach, the gospel is the provision of salvation through repentance and faith. In this sense, repentance is an intrinsic part of this gospel itself.

      Within the approach that I am arguing for, the relationship between the gospel and repentance differs. Repentance is still necessary. However, the gospel is not an ordo salutis or salvation system, but an announcement of an objective fact. It is not primarily the offer of salvation on condition of faith and repentance, but the announcement of the arrival of the kingdom in Jesus Christ, whether we respond to this in faith or not. The centre of gravity is no longer the destiny of the individual soul, but the inauguration of the kingdom in human history.

      This shift places our response to the gospel in a far less determinative position. No longer conditioned by our response as an ‘offer’, the gospel is a fact with which we need to align ourselves through repentance and faith (a response that God evokes and enables through effectual calling). Repentance and faith don’t cease to be important as the manner in which we align ourselves with Christ’s new creation order, but the accent of the gospel shifts away from them in a manner that thoroughly subordinates them to God’s action to which the gospel testifies.

      • Jim says:

        Alastair, you make some beautiful points here about how repentance is “necessary,” but that it is a response “that God evokes and enables through effectual calling,” rather than an “offer” that we must respond to. How does your view then, that there will be some who are eternally lost, align with this thinking? Are you saying that God will only evoke and enable repentance in some, as in the Calvinist notion of limited atonement and election? If so, and in conjunction with your statement that “the centre of gravity is no longer the destiny of the individual soul, but the inauguration of the kingdom in human history,” are you implying that God is not interested in the salvation of individuals but in displaying His power instead?

        If “our response to the gospel” is a “far less determinative position,” and one which is “subordinate to God’s action,” how can you blame some for “clinging to wickedness and oppression,” and thus ending up “eternally lost,” if it is God who decides who to evoke repentance in, and not the individual who must “decide” to repent? Aren’t we all clinging to wickedness – in bondage to sin – until God frees our hearts and minds? Or are some of us, like yourself perhaps, just better than others to start with?

        I look forward to your thoughts.

      • Jim,

        First of all, I don’t hold to the doctrine of limited atonement, and have yet to be persuaded that Calvin did either. I hold to a doctrine of election. However, the core content of my doctrine of election is not God’s choice of a particular group of individuals and the damning of the rest, but the eternal determination of God to form a new humanity in his Son. In this sense, we can know that we are elect in Christ. Understood this way, the election of individuals is not an unmediated election by hidden decree, but God’s bringing persons into fellowship with the Son, whom he loved before the foundation of the world. As election is mediated, there is no absolute decree of reprobation symmetrical to that of election. Reprobation is thus rendered contingent. God does not will the damnation of any in the sense that he wills salvation.

        Once again, I would argue that what we need to do here is to focus on what the Scriptures tell us. The Scripture teaches us about such things as effectual call. It teaches us of God’s desire that all should repent. It also presents us with situations where God’s expressed desire does not actually transpire in history (Christ weeping over Jerusalem, as one of several examples). It teaches us that man is truly culpable for his unbelief, that salvation is offered freely to all, and that God isn’t holding anyone back. When people reject the gospel, they reject the gospel, not because God determines that they must, but out of their own volition.

        Those who are called are not called on the basis of their superior character, but purely by divine grace. Effectual call is a gracious act whereby God overcomes our resistance through opening our eyes to his goodness. When someone rejects the gospel, they do so out of their own volition and are thoroughly culpable; when someone accepts the gospel, they do so as God opens their eyes so that they might freely accept him, which is why it is an act of divine grace for which God receives the glory.

        Effectual call is also mysterious: we will never fully understand the relationship between God’s will and ours, although we know that both retain their integrity, are non-competing, operate on different planes of causality, and that God’s will is efficacious.

        The Scripture also presents us with hell as a genuine possibility. We may speculate as to whether or not this possibility will be realized, and be troubled by the idea that it would be consistent with God’s character, but we cannot deny it as a genuine possibility and, as such, not utterly inconsistent with God’s character.

        The crux of the issue, as I see it is this. There is a huge danger, perfectly exemplified in the video that prompted these posts, to substitute our logical systems for the revealed word of God, to draw conclusions about how God must do things on the basis of some speculative argument, an argument that ends up neglecting, distorting, abstracting, exaggerating, or abandoning certain aspects of God’s revelation. When we do this we put our reason above Scripture in authority. Part of what it means to be subject to the authority of Scripture is to be prepared humbly to admit that God’s ways are often mysterious to us and we don’t understand, yet we will not establish a more understandable God – an idol constructed by our reason, in effect – to replace him.

        I don’t know how all of the pieces fit together, and I doubt that I ever will. All I know is that God has revealed these truths to us for our good, and that the hidden mysteries are his business, not ours. My duty is to retain all of the pieces, seek to maintain the biblical tensions between them; I dare not sacrifice any of them for the sake of a tidy logical system.

  11. Norman says:

    Alastair, this is fantastic. I want to see that third paragraph used in a sermon, something like this:

    “What is the gospel? Alastair Roberts describes the gospel as the message of deliverance from the fear of death, loss, and failure and all that that entails. It is the message of a rescue from social, personal, and cosmic chaos. The gospel is a message of transcendent beauty and joy and of the ultimate affirmation of the goodness of creation. It is the personal message of our value and place in the world and in the sight of God, and the assurance of meaning and purpose in human life and action. The gospel is the message of forgiveness for past sins, the overcoming of present ones, and deliverance from crippling personal and cultural guilt; the message of the liberation of the oppressed and the defeat of all tyrants; and the message of the overcoming of all human divisions, the bringing together of all ethnicities, people groups, male and female, the generations, etc. The gospel is all of these things – and much more besides.”

  12. Jim says:

    Alastair, since there is no “reply” available for your last response to me I will comment here.

    While I appreciate your honesty – “I don’t know how all of the pieces fit together” – once again I will point out that your own claims contradict one another. In this response I will show you just one.

    “I don’t hold to the doctrine of limited atonement”
    and
    “Effectual call is a gracious act whereby God overcomes our resistance through opening our eyes to his goodness.”

    What you fail to see is that if God will only overcome the resistance and open the eyes of SOME to his goodness, then He is LIMITING the atonement and CHOOSING who will be saved, and who will be damned. If it is God, as you have so clearly claimed, who decides who to evoke repentance in – and does NOT do that for all – then He is most certainly NOT “desiring” that all repent. If He truly desired that ALL would repent He would lead ALL to repentance. By your own claims He will not. It is then HIS choice that the rest be damned to eternal hell. Your attempts at blaming man for being sinful by NATURE – which is GOD’S design – is simply your desire to let God off the hook for choosing to love some and hate the rest in your fear of insulting Him.

    Apparently it IS by virtue of your “superior character” that you were called, because you must have used your volition to “accept” the gospel – which is simply another contradiction on your part.

    Forgive me, but you keep “putting the pieces together” into a picture of LIMITED atonement and LIMITED election, but then try to avoid the ugliness of that image by blaming man for his own nature. Either God is sovereign in salvation or He is not. It seems that you can’t decide.

    Peace to you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jim. Sorry about my delay in getting back to you. I had rather a lot of work on my plate yesterday.

      Firstly, I do not believe that there is any contradiction between a denial of limited atonement, and an assertion of effectual call. Doctrines of limited atonement generally seem to depend upon a particular understanding of the manner in which atonement works, within which the atonement directly and immediately relates to each individual, downplaying the mediating work of the Spirit in the body of Christ, or in which a doctrine of particular individual election holds a strong teleological priority

      Secondly, you seem to be working in terms of far too flat a conception of God’s will. Just because God is able to effect a situation, but doesn’t, should not be taken to mean that he does not positively will that situation. If one of your friend’s children were to be run over by a car – surely something that God could have prevented in a myriad ways – does that mean that God desired the child to be paralyzed for the rest of their life?

      Thirdly, man’s sinful nature is not God’s creation, but is the result of the fall. Sin is not a ‘thing’, but is a perversion, twisting, and negation of the good that God created.

      Fourthly, you are framing God’s action in terms of the category of ‘choice’, a category that is heavily loaded in several respects. Such a category of ‘choice’ allows counterfactual situations (or the notion of alternative possible scenarios) to provide a dominating frame for our understanding and interpretation of what actually is the case. There are significant theological questions that can be raised about this as a method of understanding divine providence, and I am not prepared to admit the category as an appropriate one in the circumstances. If we did not weigh the meaning of divine action in terms of a chosen preference over counterfactuals, we would arrive at a quite different account of divine desire.

      Fifthly, the fact that I accepted the gospel voluntarily does not mean that I was the underlying source of either the freedom or the orientation of will with which I accepted it. Human freedom is neither autonomous from other persons, nor autonomous from our natures. Once again you seem to be working in terms of a concept – freedom, in this case – that is heavily philosophically loaded, and which I firmly reject as unnecessary (and also, ultimately, incoherent and unsustainable).

      Sixthly, I have already denied that I hold a doctrine of limited atonement, and I don’t believe in ‘limited’ election, but Christologically mediated election, which does not necessarily exclude anyone in principle, although it is only entered into by those in Christ.

      Once again, I would stress that my goal here is not to resolve the conundrums. I believe that no necessary contradiction exists, although how these things fit together may not be completely clear. However, it seems to me that your comment once again illustrates the danger of taking logic as our primary guide. There is the fact that you made a number of claims about things that supposedly logically follow from my positions, when in fact there are ways of understanding my claims in which they most definitely do not. If you can use logic in a way that badly misunderstands what must follow from another human being’s claims, isn’t there a possibility that logic might not always be the surest guide when it comes to understanding what follows from scriptural claims?

      Finally, were your claims applied consistently, particularly the idea that if God does not do something that he can do he must not desire it, the questions of theodicy would be profoundly harder than they already are. At such points we must exercise restraint and stick within the bounds of revelation, even if we don’t understand how it fits together.

  13. Jim says:

    Alastair, please don’t worry about taking some time to respond as I always appreciate your efforts to outline your views. While we clearly are at opposite spectrums in our views on God’s plan for His creation I do highly respect your honesty and integrity and your passion for studying the word of God.

    I do think there is a world of difference between God “allowing” a child to be paralyzed for life, and Him “not choosing to elect” someone to heaven but abandoning them to eternal hell instead, but since you and I could spend years debating these differences I really see no need for us to continue doing so. As I eluded to before, our views on the nature of God are quite different, and while I could present arguments against every one of your points above I do not think it is my place to hog the comment section of your blog. That would simply be rude and arrogant on my part, and I respect you too much to ever even consider badgering you in such a manner.

    I wish you all the best.

  14. Ben Hopkins says:

    Hi Alistair. First – you write beautifully and clearly. Thank you for that. Second – I love what you are trying to do. The systematic two-ways-to-live evangelical gospel is very hard to love and desire to share with everyone we know however hard we try to make ourselves love it. And the multifaceted gospel you outline is attractive. However, although justification for all your claims can be found in the Bible, other things in the Bible seem to completely undermine it. Your Gospel portrays God as someone who cares deeply for every individual, who treats them justly, who offers hope to all, who is out to liberate and renew. Such a God would be worthy of our praise.

    It is hard to believe that eternal damnation in Hell might be “consistent” with the character of such a God, but you said we must accept the “possibility”. Well, my reading of the Bible suggests that God won’t have any difficulty condemning individuals to eternal damnation. A God capable of some of the things outlined below is capable of anything…

    Killed the entire population of the world (except Noah and family)
    Killed all the firstborn children of Egypt
    Credited Abraham for his willingness to kill his own Son.
    On Elisha’s command provided two bears to maul 42 “small boys” who dared to call the prophet baldhead.
    Caused the ground to swallow up the whole of Achan’s family.
    Explicitly commanded the execution of men, women and children.
    Sanctioned taking young girls to be sex slaves.
    Gladly accepted the execution of Saul’s grandchildren to cover their grandfather’s sin.
    Sent a plague which killed tens of thousands because David conducted a census.
    Struck down an innocent bloke who was just trying to help by stabilizing the ark of the covenant.
    Turned Lot’s wife to salt because she was curious about what hell fire and brimstone looks like.
    Helped Esther, so that the Jews would have the chance to kill thousands of their enemies across the Roman empire.
    Had a little game with the devil which meant allowing Satan to kill Job’s children and slaves.
    Inspired the Psalmist to compose such gems as “may the heads of (my enemies’) babies be smashed upon the rocks”.

    These are just some OT stories I remember off the top of my head. Sorry I haven’t referenced them. But I’ve no doubt you are aware of them all. And I expect they trouble you as much as they trouble me.

    Jesus, thankfully, ushered in a new era in which lightning bolts from above became mercifully rare. And he spoke of and pointed to a God who didn’t seem likely to use lightning bolts either. It seems to me you are trying to describe that God – a God who doesn’t condemn souls to eternal damnation, punish grandchildren for their father’s sin, who pleads with people to change instead of destroying them and their families for good measure. This good God understands why people are broken, and doesn’t condemn them but urges them to flee from sin for their own good. But you (unlike Jesus) are trying to describe this worship-able God within the constraints of a belief in Biblical infallibility. Jesus was able to say “It is written an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you love your enemies…” He identified that OT scriptures were morally errant and he set out to correct them. In the same way, we ought to say “it is written that God commanded Israel to kill Canaanite women and children. But we say God is good and he would never do that! It is written that God told Abraham to kill his Son. We say God would never do that! It is written that God killed the firstborn of Egypt. We say God would never do that! It is written that God stopped the sun in the sky for an hour. We say it’s incredibly incredibly unlikely that God did that! (But that’s another topic…).”

    Anyway, back to the main point – whether the God of the Bible really might condemn people to an eternity in Hell. Unfortunately, the OT God doesn’t disappear Anno Domini… Ananias and Sapphira get some pretty standard OT treatment. And then in Revelation God throws down hail and fire on the Earth, turns the sea to blood and poisons water sources the world over with the mysterious Wormwood. The loving God then sends terrifying locusts with lions’ teeth, instructing them not to kill, but to torment for 5 months all those who don’t have God’s seal on their foreheads, he sends out angels to kill a third of mankind… And that’s only the trumpets. We also have the plagues.

    God, then, in his “great justice (REV 16:5) (Rev gives people “what they deserve”… God’s enemies are afflicted with terrible boils. All the water in the Earth is turned to blood (on top of the third turned to blood earlier). Then the sun scorches the unlucky remaining few with fire and then, to wrap it all up, a colossal earthquake is followed by a storm of hundred pound hailstones. And then, at last, he lets them die and go off to an eternity of further torment.

    Of course, I know all this is symbolic – but symbolic of what? It’s hard to view it as anything other than God directly inflicting terrible suffering on people mainly because they don’t see that the proper response to horrific suffering is to glorify the deity that inflicted it on them. Huh?

    Jonathan Edwards presumably had all this in mind when he proclaimed that “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” I wish it were otherwise, but I think this description of God is much easier to defend Biblically than yours.

    • Jim says:

      Ben, you make some excellent points. I would ask you then, concerning your conclusion that the Jonathan Edwards view of God is much easier to defend, if you would love, adore, praise, and worship THAT God? Are you able to complete the “greatest commandment” – to love God with all your heart and soul and mind – when you view Him in that manner? Simply, if you do believe in God, what does your heart tell you about Him, and what does Christ’s example (“If you have seen me you have seen the Father”) reveal to you?

      • Ben Hopkins says:

        Believing, as I had been told to since birth, to believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God, I tried for 15 years to make myself love the God it describes. There were times when I managed it, but I fear that was because I was loving the God of my wishful thinking and not the God portrayed in a lot of the scriptures. Eventually I realised that either the Bible was all true and I couldn’t love God, or the Bible wasn’t all true, and there might be a God I could love. So, in answer to your first question – I could never worship, love and adore Jonathan Edwards’ God. I probably could worship the God of the multifaceted gospel outlined above – but in order to believe God is like that I have to reject the infallibility of scripture, which changes everything – maybe love God with all your heart isn’t the Greatest commandment. Maybe Christ didn’t really say if you’ve seen the Father you’ve seen me… Everything becomes so much less clear without the doctrine of Biblical infallibility, but at least without it we have a chance of defining a Gospel which is really attractive and can really change the world, a Gospel which is really good and therefore reflects the good God I really hope exists.

  15. Jim says:

    To Ben,

    Thanks for a very honest and sincere response, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I think a big part of doing away with the “doctrine of Biblical infallibility” is understanding that we are reading TRANSLATIONS, which themselves are INTERPRETATIONS done with human bias, and that we are trying to make sense of them from a time and culture that is far removed from when and where they were written. I very much like your supposition that the actions which the OT people CLAIMED that “God said to do,” were being corrected by Jesus as “morally errant” exactly because God would NOT have said to do them.

    I also think that those teaching you that the “Bible is the infallible word of God” really meant that “THEIR interpretation of the Bible” is the infallible word of God. It is those long standing religious traditions – the “traditions of MEN” – which scripture refers to as “making the word of God of no effect.” They take the goodness of God’s plan for His creation, and twist it into an unrecognizable mishmash of penal substitution, salvation by works, and eternal torment for those who aren’t “elect,” or “smart enough” to be a Christian. I believe that when we finally do come to understand the STORIES and SYMBOLOGY which make up the biblical narrative, we will find that God, as revealed in Christ, truly is the savior of the world.

    Peace to you.

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  19. @Alastair

    I think the key message is “A Story, Not a Formula”.

    Following-on from this; is the point that, for there to be a story, God must be conceptualized in anthropomorphic terms; and specifically as the perfect loving Father whose actions – including his punishments – are motivated by the love of his children; yet who will not interfere with the free agency of his children.

    Additional to this is that Christians are not in this story as isolated individuals, but as part of the nation of Israel.

    So God is dealing with us, his children, as a ‘family’.

    Thus, many of the problems moderns have of understanding the gospel come from a too-abstract concept of God, a failure to acknowledge the centrality of our free agency, and our reluctance to regard our individual selves as inextricably part of the ‘nation’ of Israel.

  20. Peter says:

    “Consequently, I would focus a lot less upon drawing people’s attention directly to their sin…” I understand and agree with much of what you say but if the word “repent” is what Jesus and His disciples preached and if they used God’s law to remind people of their sins, why do you disagree with evangelizing that way? People are not only ignorant of their own sin, they are oblivious to how abhorrent it is before God and how much it deforms their soul!

    In evangelism, our primary concern, as was Jesus’, is to bring people’s attention to their sin. Matthew 19:20-22 shows a rich man realizing his love of money, making it his god. He thought he was good enough for the Kingdom. What you say about God restoring and renewing applies to many situations, but it should come second to guiding people to repentance, then to Christ.

    • Thanks for the comment, Peter. You raise an important question. Drawing people’s attention to their sin has its place. My problem is not with drawing people’s attention to sin per se, but to the intensity of the focus that is placed on this in many evangelical circles.

      The primary concern of evangelism is bound up in the word: it is the bringing of good news. The bad news comes to us framed by the good. There are occasions when people think that they have accepted or are rightly related to the good news but need to be alerted to the bad news relative to their condition, such as in the example you give of the rich young ruler. However, our typical proclamation of the Good News needs to be a proclamation where good news is most primary.

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