Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is God "for" us?

"The grace of God is concealed under His sentence and judgment, His Yes under His No.  The man elected by God is the man who with his contradiction is broken and destroyed by the greater contradiction of God." Karl Barth, CD IV/1, p.173 (T&T Clark Edition)
Traditionally speaking, Pentecostalism is not Calvinistic.  Church of God (Cleveland) theologian Steven Jack Land states in his book, Pentecostal Spirituality, that Pentecostal Christianity which is true to the first ten years of the movement's existence (which he terms the movement's "heart" and not its "infancy") "is more Arminian than Calvinist in its approach to issues of human agency and perseverance" (p.18).  And after giving a further rundown of where Pentecostalism stands in relation to the other great traditions of the Christian faith (i.e. more Calvinist than Lutheran in its approach to the Law, more Eastern than Western in its approach to the spiritual life, and so on), Land states,
 "Pentecostalism, therefore, exists in continuity but differentiating discontinuity with other Christian spiritualities.  To the extent that it has a distinctive spirituality and theology, it may not be seen, used, or identified with an experience or experiential episodes.  There may be Pentecostal-like experiences but Pentecostal spirituality is another matter." (p.19, emphasis mine)
I am still working my way through Land's book, and was very excited to see him interacting with Barth quite a bit later on.  For now, my take on what Land is getting at is that Pentecostalism cannot be boiled down to "Spirit baptism."  A Christian piety that is in essence entirely Reformed, for example, but that "includes" a doctrine of Spirit-baptism as a second work of grace or that includes tongue-speaking and other sign gifts in prayer and worship, would not in Land's view qualify as "Pentecostal."  His book is an effort to both discover and prescribe a holistic picture of Pentecostal spirituality, indeed of Pentecostalism, that allows it to function as its own stream and not as an odd subset of the evangelical-fundamentalist camp.

At first, I was not sure if I would qualify as "Pentecostal" to Land.  I am still not sure, to be honest.  But then again, I have not gotten very far into his book.  I am also not reading it to find out if I am Pentecostal anyway, but to be guided in my own Pentecostal life, so I suppose its a moot point.  But working my way through his book reminded me of a significant intersection between the theology of Karl Barth and the best of what I know of as Pentecostalism: the question of God's fundamental attitude towards humanity.

In much of Reformed Christianity, particularly under the influence of the Puritans, the question of whether God is "for" me can almost sound idolatrous.  God is for himself, of course!  And I think that biblically, this is true.  God's fundamental stance is "for himself" - for his own glory, for his own will to be done, etc.  But sometimes this topic can degenerate into a picture of God as indifferent toward mankind, or even indignant.  He has given us much, we have squandered it, and God can't wait to crush most of us.  He has chosen to elect a few (for his own glory, of course), but damn the rest.  And even those of us who are pretty sure we might be elect better keep our house in order.  If we don't, we might find out after all that God has predestined us to hell and wants to damn us with the rest of the world.  It is an important lesson in God's unassailable sovereignty and of the fearfulness of his judgment, but the picture it gives us of God can be quite skewed.  It is a picture of a God who primarily wants to damn people.

In much of classical Pentecostalism we can get the same picture, but we come to it by an opposite route.  Just today, a woman posted a reminder for us all on a social media website that "faith without works is dead."  In other words, we better get our act in gear doing "good works" and avoiding sin, or in the end God may say that our trust in Christ is not good enough and will damn us anyway.  So here we have a picture of a God who perhaps does not want to damn people, but who is keeping track of our spiritual score-sheets and is certainly more than willing to damn us if we get lazy and watch a sitcom when we could be serving in a soup kitchen.

Something that is refreshing in Barth's understanding of the gospel is how he makes sense of humanity's plight and of God's answer to that plight.  For Barth, God's approach to man is always grace.  He has only ever had one covenant with man, one answer to man.  God's will for man is life.  Thus, sin is man's contradiction to God's Yes to man.  God offers life, man chooses death.
"He chooses a freedom which is no freedom.  He is therefore a prisoner of a world-process, of chance, of all-powerful natural and historical forces, above all of himself.  He tries to be his own master, and to control his relations to God and the world and his fellow-man.  And as he does so, the onslaught of nothingness prevails against him, controlling him in death in an irresistible and senseless way and to his own loss." (Barth, CD IV/1 p.173)
Barth's theology is a radical affirmation of the apostle John's statement that "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).  God is life, and offers us life.  Death is the result of humanity's refusal of life for a no-life. 

Barth's take on election (which changed in emphasis, but not necessarily in content, throughout his writing career) fits into this picture.  First, election means that God chooses to be God for man.  God is "for us."  God himself is elect.  Second, election means that humanity as a whole is chosen by God.  God has always only ever had one Word for mankind: grace.  So not only has God chosen to be God for man, God has chosen that man be man for God.  God has chosen this relationship.  But this also means that, from eternity past, God has chosen to be God for man and man for God in Christ.  Jesus was always God's plan, which is different than saying sin was always God's plan.  But because sin has happened (which God always knew would happen), Jesus Christ is also God for man and man for God as a solution to the sin problem.  In Barth's words, Jesus is "the Judge judged in our place."  He keeps the covenant for us and also takes the judgment we deserve.  Jesus has repaired the relationship between man and God.  He has reconciled us.  From then on, God has been at work in Christ by the Spirit applying that reconciliation to human lives by the ministry of the church.

But something that is fundamental to Barth's thought - something which he is willing to even risk speaking in contradictory and paradoxical terms to make "clear" - is that election is still relational and that God's fundamental stance is still always for man.  Grace is still always grace.  Wrath and judgment are simply what grace looks like when it confronts sin.  The elect are those who "realize" their predicament, who are "too weak" to fight off God's loving advance, and who accept who they are in Christ and walk into the new life that comes from knowing the Truth.

Despite its history of petty legalisms, name-it-and-claim-it preachers, Word of Faith "healers," and other aberrations, a fundamental feature of Pentecostal faith (as I understand it) is also the understanding that God is primarily for us.  For the early Pentecostals, God was a God of wrath and judgement, to be sure.  The God of the Bible is a God of wrath and judgement, so their understanding was solidly based.  But underlying all their other understandings was the primary realization that God is a generous God, a loving God who "baptizes us in the Spirit of his Love," who heals, who reconciles, who has regard for the poor, who wants many to be saved, who is no respecter of persons, who accepts all to who come to him by faith, who does not desire that any perish but that all come to repentance.  The God who we meet in Christ, the God who we meet in the Bible, is the God that the Pentecostals discovered is, radically, for us.  This is the same God who Barth discovered, and who we can discover too as we behold Christ, receive of his Spirit, and mediate on his written Word.  He is a God of grace.  He is a God of healing and hope.  He is a God who is for us!  Hallelujah! 

1 comment:

  1. I actually preach this often. Greatpost!