Skeptical conversations, part VI: Relationship with God (or not)

Continuing the conversation . . . Parts I-V here.

R: One thing that I think you can see clearly from those four definitions is that they are all, in one way or another, relational language: through his death and resurrection, Christ brought about a new relationship between God and his people. This really speaks, I think, to the contemporary concern (at least among Generation X) with alienation; because it’s true, our sin alienates us from God, who is the source of life, and from our true selves, the people he created us to be—and, for that matter, from each other, as our sinfulness warps and breaks our relationships with each other. Jesus restored our relationship with God, he brought healing to our self-alienation, and in setting us free from sin he brings healing to our relationships with those around us.

Having set out what Jesus’ atoning work accomplished, the other point which must be made is that it is limited, not in its value but its application; as I’ve heard it said, the atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect, for those whom God has chosen.

A: So you believe that God chooses to save some and not others. Wouldn’t that logically mean that he chooses to send people to Hell?

R: In some ways, I suppose; but not really. Let me explain. You’ll remember that earlier I mentioned the doctrine of total depravity, that everything in us and consequently everything we do is marred by sin, and thus that we cannot do anything truly good.

A: Yes.

R: Another name for this is “total inability,” that we are utterly unable at every point to will and to do what God wants us to; thus we cannot choose to turn to him on our own. We cannot go seeking him unless he moves our hearts to do so, and we cannot overcome the sin in our lives without his help. Therefore, we are utterly dependent on the grace of God to save us. But he does not simply offer his grace and leave it up to us to take it or reject it, for two reasons. One is that such an offer would not address our inability to accept it, and as such would be meaningless. The other is simply that God’s grace is far more powerful than that—it is completely irresistible. It is not a matter of saying “yes” to him, because we cannot say “no.”

And so God chose whom he would save, unconditionally—not on the basis of what he foresaw any of us would do, since without his gracious intervention none of us could do anything to deserve to be chosen. Our faith in him is nothing for which we can claim credit, because even our faith is a gift from God. When Jesus died on the cross, his death was effective at that moment to save all those whom God had chosen; he purchased freedom by his blood for all those whom the Father had given him. The result is a permanent change in status for those whom Jesus redeemed—we have been bought at a very great price and reborn as new people, and there is no going back. Salvation is not a matter of making a choice which we can later change, nor is it merely receiving a token good for one admission to heaven, something we can lose on the way there. It is a permanent change in life, and going back would be as impossible as a bullfrog turning back into a tadpole, or a butterfly into a caterpillar.

That is, at any rate, the Reformed understanding of salvation, and it is the one to which I hold, because I think it best reflects the teaching of Scripture. One last point remains to be made, or at least to be underlined: all this is through Christ alone. We do nothing to earn it, nothing to add to it, and nothing that can replace it.

A: You still haven’t answered my question: doesn’t this mean that God chooses some to be saved and others to be damned? And it raises a second question: how does this fit with your earlier insistence that human beings are free agents who make their own choices?

R: The answers to those two questions fit together; but I’ll warn you, we’re venturing into the realm of paradox again. You’ll remember I argued earlier that of everything we do, it is right both to say that God willed that we do it and that we made the decision to do it.

A: Yes, and it even made a little sense.

R: Thanks. Anyway, if that’s true, it’s true at every point, and that includes the point of salvation. It’s also true, I would affirm, to say that God is not capricious. No, his choice of whom he will save is not dependent on any foreseen faith, as though such a thing were possible apart from his gift of grace; but it isn’t random, either. Those whom he does not choose to save, he allows to choose to reject him. Why that is, why some and not others, I don’t know; this is one point where it comes back to the question, “Can God be trusted?” From what I see of his character and his wisdom, I affirm that the judge of all the earth will do right, and that his choices are good and just.

A: That isn’t enough. If it’s simply a matter of God choosing to save some, why doesn’t he choose everyone? Why would a loving God choose to condemn anyone to Hell?

R: Well, to answer your second question first, it isn’t exactly true that God chooses to send people to Hell; rather, he chooses to allow people to send themselves there. It isn’t as if he took our lives, weighed up the good and the bad, and then sentenced us to Heaven or Hell in reward or punishment, as if our life in eternity were somehow disconnected from our life here on earth. No, if our path on earth is away from God, if we reject him, then in the end our choice is fixed for eternity—and that is Hell, or the essence of it. The real question isn’t why would a loving God choose to condemn anyone to Hell, but rather why we would expect a loving God to condemn anyone to Heaven.

A: Huh?

R: If someone has rejected God for their entire life, and then at the end of it found themselves spending eternity with the God they had rejected, would that really be a heaven for them?

A: I see your point. I can’t say as the notion appeals to me all that much.

R: Exactly. Now of course you could say that God could change your heart so that you would want to spend eternity with him; but I don’t suppose that would appeal to you a great deal either. But coming back to your first question, true, if it is simply a matter of his choosing to save some, theoretically he could choose to save everyone. The logic of the system permits it; and perhaps the greatest theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, came very close to affirming universal salvation (and maybe did—it isn’t clear). The only problem is, the Scriptures make it clear that though God desires to save all people, only some will be saved. Why that is, I don’t know; but I trust the wisdom and the heart of God, and I’m quite certain that it isn’t because God likes the idea of condemning people to Hell.

In any case, our salvation isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning, though some Christians would seem to think otherwise. Our justification before God comes through the work of Christ, but having been made right with God, it still remains for us to try to follow him and to be made holy as he is holy; that process is called sanctification, and it means that there is a purpose to living life as a Christian beyond doing the same things everyone else does and waiting for heaven. We have been given new life inside, and now the Holy Spirit is at work, you might say spreading that life all through us, changing us from the inside out.

A: You wouldn’t know it by watching some people. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve been cut off on the freeway by a car with one of those Jesus fish on it?

R: I can guess. It’s one of the reasons I don’t have anything like that on my car—I’m not such a good driver that I want my driving to be part of my Christian witness. But anyway, sanctification only happens by the power of the Spirit.

Posted in Credo, Religion and theology.

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