Fear of the Lord

Throughout Scripture — both Old and New testaments — God’s people are told to fear him, which at first glance seems to be an odd response to a God full of grace and love. Perhaps the most puzzling statement comes when the people of Israel first meet God at the mountain in Exodus 20. Notice what Moses says to the people in response to their fear:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18-20)

On the face of it, Moses’ words seem so strange as to verge on contradiction. What could the fear of the Lord possibly be, that he can speak about it like this?

Perhaps the most common way of making sense of the fear of the Lord is to say that it amounts to reverence for the Lord. While I don’t deny that it involves this, I struggle to see how this could be the whole story. After all, often the fear of the Lord is explained in genuinely scary terms, like our destruction or like the thunder and lightning in the quote above. These show us that God’s greatness can be a real danger to his people. It seems to me, then, that we need a more satisfactory account that does justice to this, without collapsing into the opposite error of denying God’s graciousness.

We mentioned fear in an earlier post on faith and hope, where we said that fear is uncertainty with dissent. That is to say, we fear something because we are uncertain as to whether it will be good or bad for us. Naturally, this often results in us wanting to avoid the thing we fear, lest the bad thing happen. We saw an example of this in that earlier post when the disciples are confronted by Jesus’ power in calming the storm:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The disciples can see that Jesus is powerful, but they are uncertain whether he is good powerful or bad powerful and so they fear him. Note, however, that the fear here is not the right way to respond to Jesus. This is why he asks in exasperation why they are still afraid as opposed to having faith.

Closely related to fear is dread, which is thinking with dissent. When we dread something we are not uncertain about whether it is bad but are convinced to some degree it is. For the sake of illustration, imagine we commit some crime. Initially, we fear being caught, since we’re uncertain about whether it will happen or not. Once we are caught, however, we dread the punishment because we’re pretty confident it will happen.

So we have these two notions, neither of which seem adequate accounts of the fear of the Lord. In both cases, we are repelled from the thing we fear or dread, but the Lord whom we are to fear wants us to draw closer to him. Nevertheless, this sense of fear does seem to be what Moses has in mind when he says, “Do not fear” to the people of Israel. Having been confronted with God in the thunder and lightning, their (quite understandable) response was to stand far off and avoid talking with him. They were repelled from the object of their fear. Moses then urges them not to respond to God in this manner.

As I see it, the fear of the Lord should be understood as follows. God is the source of all goodness, making him unequivocally good for us and something we should be drawn towards. Furthermore, because of his grace, he will accept us and bless us if we come to him. But if we turn away from him — if we turn away from the giver of life — we will die; if we make ourselves his enemies, we will be destroyed. And this would be something very bad for us indeed.

So the fear of the Lord stands somewhere between fear and dread as we’ve outlined them above. There is no uncertainty here, for God has made these terms abundantly clear. And our destruction is only anticipated if we choose to turn away from him. Perhaps we should say, then, that fear of the Lord is conditionality with dissent: the badness of punishment remains an open possibility so long as we are capable of turning away from God, but will not happen so long as we cling to him. We don’t have a word for this — and presumably neither did the authors of Scripture — so we use the word “fear” as the best alternative.

The most significant difference between the fear of the Lord and fear in the typical sense is this: instead of being repelled by him, we are drawn to him and repelled by his absence. We are drawn to live with the giver of life and serve creator of everything, and we are repelled by what will happen if we choose death over life and something created over the creator.

This reading fits well with how the phrase is used throughout Scripture. We see this in Moses’ words above. There he explains that the fear of God must be before them so that they may not sin. And we see something similar in his sermons in Deuteronomy:

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long… It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you — for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God — lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth… And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us. (6:1-2, 13-15, 24-25)

And again we see the same ideas coming up in the Psalms:

Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!… Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. (Psalm 128:1, 4)

And finally, in the New Testament we see it most clearly in Paul’s words to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phillipians 2:12-13)

The verses that follow make it clear that Paul’s intention here is to urge them to continue living lives pleasing to God while they looked forward to “the day of Christ” (v16). This amounts to the same idea as we saw in Moses and the Psalms, but also taking into account the work of Christ.

Examples can be multiplied, but these passages show that understanding the fear of the Lord as conditionality with dissent does justice to its use in Scripture. Most importantly it explains why such fear is a good thing for the people of God to have, without undermining his greatness or his graciousness.

Faith and hope

Our goal here is to unpack the notion of faith so as to overcome confusions in modern thinking on the topic. Lacking a good understanding of the notion actively prevents many people, both Christian and non-Christian, from understanding Scripture. In this post, we will begin an account of faith and give examples from Scripture and everyday life where applicable.

Faith involves thinking

Sometimes, especially in Christian circles, you’ll here that faith is “trust.” This is a good start insofar as (1) our thinking about trust is less confused than our thinking about faith, and (2) it highlights the fact that faith can be both in a person as well as a fact. But it’s just a start, for to give a synonym is not to give an analysis.

Others, who are less charitable to religion, would have us believe that faith is “belief in spite of or contrary to the evidence.” Indeed, this is how Richard Dawkins defines it in his book The God Delusion and how Peter Boghossian defines it in his book A Manual for Creating Atheists. In the TV series Bones, the protagonist defines faith as “irrational belief in a logical impossibility.” Similarly, Bill O’Reilly once gave the advice to “base your opinions on faith when it comes to religious matters, and facts when it comes to secular matters.”

None of this, however, captures how Scripture uses the term or how we tend to use it when we don’t have some theological ax to grind. But it’s difficult to be completely wrong about something, and this “analysis” is no exception. While it’s wrong to say that faith need be contrary to evidence, it does seem that once we achieve “the certitude of sight” we cease to have faith.

This leads us to the realization that faith involves thinking, by which we mean a confidence in something that does not reach complete certitude. Thinking something to be true is to think it more likely true than its negation. Most or all of life involves thinking in this sense of the word. And this fits well with Hebrews 11:1 which says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Aquinas gives the following definition of thinking:

[Thinking] is more strictly taken for that consideration of the intellect, which is accompanied by some kind of inquiry, and which precedes the intellect’s arrival at the stage of perfection that comes with the certitude of sight. (ST II-II Q2 A1 corp)

Thinking well involves matching ones confidence in something in accordance with what the evidence allows. To be more confident than what the evidence allows is overconfidence, and to be less confident is to be unduly skeptical.

Faith is thinking with assent

But faith must be more than mere thinking. I don’t mean by this that faith involves overconfidence, but rather that faith has an extra dimension to it. I do not have faith in someone if I think they’re dangerous or evil. This is because faith is made up of both thinking and desiring. But it is not enough that the thing thought and the thing desired merely coincide with one another: if I think a chair is tall and desire the blueness of the chair, for instance, I do not thereby have faith in the chair. Rather, for faith to occur we need the thinking and the desiring to be essentially linked in a single act. In other words, faith occurs when our thinking and desiring are about the same thing, as when I want a sturdy chair and think this chair is sturdy. We say, then, that faith is thinking with assent.

Assent is a bit of a tricky word. It picks out the “mood” of the thinking, which in this context just means that the content of the thinking involves something desirable or wanted. And since we desire all and only what seems good to us, we might equally say that the thinking involves something that seems good to us.

Let’s consider some examples from everyday life. We have faith in a chair insofar as we think it will hold us up and we desire it to do so. We have faith in our spouse insofar as we think they will not cheat on us and desire that they do not do so. We have faith in someone’s word insofar as we think they will be true to it and desire them to be so. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the children had faith in Aslan insofar as they thought him powerful and saw this as a good thing.

It might be informative to compare faith to its contraries. Since faith has two elements, we have two axes to explore. On the axis of thought, we have thinking, uncertainty, and doubt. Thinking is as we defined above, uncertainty is being unsure either way, and doubt is thinking something is not the case. On the axis of desire, we have assent, quiescence, and dissent. Assent involves desiring, quiescence is indifference with respect to desire, and dissent is desiring something not be the case.

Dread, then, is thinking with dissent: we dread something we think will happen but don’t want to happen. Wishful thinking is a term used for doubting with assent or uncertainty with assent: when we want something we don’t think will happen, we have wishful thinking. Commonly hope is also used this way, but I don’t think this the primary sense of the word (more on that below). Fear is uncertainty with dissent: when something we take to be bad might or might not happen we fear it. Doubting with dissent is the other side of faith: you have faith in A then you doubt with dissent that not-A. Unfortunately, we do not have a word for this in English, so we’ll just a question mark in its place.

doubt uncertainty thinking
dissent ? fear dread
quiescence mere doubt mere uncertainty mere thinking
assent wishful thinking wishful thinking faith

When you know someone is powerful, but are unsure whether they are good, you fear them. When you don’t study for an exam but want to have done well, that’s wishful thinking. An example of two of these working out in Scripture comes in the calming of the storm:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

After seeing Jesus’ power, the disciples fail to have faith in him and instead fear him. They can see that he is powerful, but they are uncertain whether he is good powerful or bad powerful. This is ultimately rooted in their failure to understand what it means to be the Christ in its entirety. Compare this with the father’s response to Jesus later in the gospel:

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24)

Here the father thinks Jesus is good but doubts his power. His problem isn’t fear, but wishful thinking.

Faith and hope

So much for faith, what about hope? We can have faith in things, facts, and outcomes, but when Scripture talks about faith in a future outcome it calls it hope. “Expectation” is thinking that a future outcome will occur, and so hope is expectation with assent. In other words, hope is looking forward to an outcome we see as good or desirable.

Does faith come before hope, or does hope come before faith? It turns out the question is misplaced: neither comes first, but both can reinforce the other. Faith and hope are in the same thing (that is, they have the same object); the difference between them arises in us when we consider our relation to that thing in different ways. Take the example of the chair again. I have faith in the chair’s ability to hold me up, and I have hope that in a few seconds it will hold me up when I sit down on it. The object of my faith and my hope here are the same: the chair’s strength. The difference between faith and hope lies is in how I consider this object: either in itself (faith) or in its future outworking (hope).

The upshot of all of this is that in addition to the faith and hope there is some third thing — the object — and strictly speaking neither faith nor hope comes first, but both flow from this object. Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that we first place our faith or hope in something, and only later realize that the other follows from this. Because of this, there is a sense in which either can follow from the other, so that the two can mutually reinforce one another.

The close interplay between faith and hope is visible in Abraham’s story in Genesis. In chapters 12-17 God repeatedly promises Abraham that he will have many descendants who will be in right relationship with God, and who will be a blessing to the nations of the world. Then in chapter 21, Isaac is born and God promises that “through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Then in chapter 22 God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Have you ever wondered why Abraham is praised for his actions here? It’s not because it’s good to kill children, or because God can somehow make murder good. Rather, as Eleonore Stump explains, it’s because Abraham has faith in God and hope in his promises to make Isaac a great nation even if he killed Isaac. Abraham obviously didn’t know how God would do that, but he’d been shown in the past that God was powerful and able to work beyond the limitations of humans. What he was doing here was holding on to God’s power and goodness:

No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:20-22)

We see hope and faith reinforcing each other throughout Abraham’s interactions with God. Initially, the promise is given, which leads to hope which in turn leads to faith, and God repeats the promises a few times. But God also shows himself as someone capable of doing more than what Abraham could have physically imagined, which reinforces Abraham’s faith in him, resulting in more hope.

Conclusion

We’ve briefly discussed faith and hope quite generally, and used some passages from Scripture for illustrative examples. Later, in a follow up to our earlier post on grace, we will spell out the object of Christian faith in detail.

By grace through faith

Have you noticed that theological discussions about grace almost always tend to include questions about conversion? What I mean is that they often center around the process by which someone moves from hostility towards God to desiring him. In particular, the Christian understands this as coming to faith in God and his gospel.

In Protestant circles the debate about the “doctrines of grace” is about the extent and nature of man’s inability to turn to God by himself, God’s supernatural act to overcome this inability, and the relation all of this has to free will and predestination.[1] In Roman Catholic circles we see something similar, albeit with slightly different distinctions and approaches. St. Aquinas, for instance, speaks of grace as that by which God supernaturally moves man inwardly to the assent of faith.[2] Naturally, such language raises questions of man’s free will in the matter which led to much debate — most notably between the Banezians and the Molinists — and which continues to be discussed today.[3] We can take it back even further: St. Augustine also discusses grace and free will in these terms, and he was around all the way back in the 4th century.[4]

Why do I raise this? Well, because it seems to me that when St. Paul talks about grace he is rather indifferent to questions about conversion. Now technically, there’s nothing wrong with certain debates throughout the centuries using slightly different vocabulary to Paul in the first century; so long as we make the necessary distinctions it won’t get in the way of our understanding of Scripture. The problem, however, is that we don’t make these distinctions, and so it does get in the way of our understanding.

Before we proceed I should make the following disclaimer: I’m in no way discrediting the topics mentioned above as legitimate and important avenues of theological discussion. I myself have drawn much value from them. I’m just interested in the exegetical question.

Some context

It should not be forgotten that Paul was a Jew and so his theology was informed generally by Jewish thought, and particularly by the Old Testament. There is sometimes a tendency to separate New Testament from Old, but unless we have some principled reason for doing so I see no reason why we should. Jesus and the apostles did not understand Jesus’ ministry to have overthrown the old covenants, but rather as something that fulfilled them.

Now, in the Old Testament God’s sovereignty — his guidance of human actions and history — is taken for granted and considered as something obvious and foundational, without much need for exposition. God’s actions are primarily depicted in more “external” terms, such as judging Israel or the other nations, and attempting to convince Israel to return to him. Generally the Old Testament authors focus on human motivations and responsibility for their actions, and only every now and then do they add a throw-away comment about God’s sovereign activity in the background.[5] And only a handful of these could be construed as God’s sovereign role in Israel’s turning to him from their sinful rejection of him. These just aren’t considered pressing questions for these authors.

What is a pressing question — and one which comes up all the time — is whether God will accept them back if they choose to repent.[6] Whether, after rejecting him and returning, he will accept them again and forgive their earlier offense. There’s nothing saying he must forgive them, of course: just as someone who commits a crime is not absolved of it merely by choosing to act like a respectable citizen from that moment onwards, so neither is someone who turns to seek God thereby absolved of their previous sin.

With this we’ve stumbled across an important distinction, the blurring of which is at the heart of our tendency to include questions about conversion with questions about grace: on the one hand someone turns to seek God, and on the other God forgives and accepts them. It seems to me that when Paul discusses grace and related topics he follows the Old Testament in being primarily interested in the second of these issues. We, on the other hand, are often interested in the first. In this sense, then, it seems we’ve gotten things backwards.

A clarification

Before we continue, let’s try get more clear on what we’re talking about. Grace is the solution to a problem, and we’re trying to get at what the authors of Scripture thought this problem was. On the one hand there’s the problem of how someone converts, that is how they turn from rejecting God to desiring him. On the other hand there’s the problem, even once someone has turned to God, of how they become reconciled to him. Let’s call these the inability problem and the alienation problem respectively.

Now we restate everything I’ve been saying with the help of this clarification. For a long time now discussions about grace have had the problem of inability at a fairly central place, while the authors of Scripture seem to be more interested in the problem of alienation.

Romans

We can begin to see all of this from a number of interconnected perspectives. Grace is closely related to a number of important notions at the center of Christian theology, like justification and the work of the Holy Spirit, and so a complete discussion would need to include something on these other notions. Here we will confine ourselves to what Paul says more or less directly about grace, with the hopes of looking at the other notions in more depth some other time. We’ll focus our attention here closely on what Paul says in two of his letters: Romans and Ephesians.

Starting with Romans, a brief summary is in order. In the opening chapters Paul seeks to establish that everyone is under sin and thereby alienated from God. By itself this wouldn’t have been surprising to his Jewish audience, who were familiar with the notion that the nations were alienated from God. They were the exception to this, however, because they were God’s chosen people: God had made a covenant with them (the sign of which was circumcision), and given them the law by which they could know and do his will. To their surprise, though, Paul goes on to include the Jews in his indictment. It is indeed to their advantage that they had all these things (3:1ff), but the law and circumcision themselves are not sufficient. Paul here echoes the prophets (cf. Micah 3, Isaiah 58) in criticizing the tendency to presume upon these Jewish sacraments without actually following through on them in their actions.[7] The fundamental thing needed is a change of heart — returning to God — which we trust will be graciously accepted by God (cf. Deuteronomy 30, Psalm 51, Hosea 14). The law and circumcision are not unrelated to this, of course: circumcision is the sign of the covenant, and the law gives the expression and end of this changed heart. But neither of these things in themselves are the grounds for their right-standing. Indeed, of itself, the law does not solve the problem of sin but only casts it in clearer light. (3:19-20)

It’s important for Paul in these opening chapters that everyone be found in the same boat. The Christians in Rome were divided over the place of the law and circumcision in the Christian life, since up until recently these had been defining features of God’s people. Paul’s point is that they of themselves do nothing to make one part of God’s people.

This sets the stage, then, for Paul’s proposal. While the law is not the solution to universal human alienation from God through sin, it does point to the solution: the person and work of Jesus the Christ. As he goes on to say, both Jew and Gentile “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:23-25)

The first thing to notice is that the grace Paul has in mind is received by faith, as opposed to being the cause of faith. Second, it would miss the overall thrust of Paul’s argument to think of this grace as that which causes some kind of desire for God. The Jew who mistakenly boasts in God on the basis of the law (2:17) desires God; his problem is his basis for boasting in God. Paul’s point is that because the law (and circumcision) does not form such a basis, it should also not be causing these divisions in the Roman church. Both Christian Jew and Gentile are right with God for the same reason: not because the Gentile has been circumcised and started following the distinctively Jewish laws (which would the just make him a Jew), but because both are justified through faith. Thus he continues, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (3:28-29) To cast this in terms of conversion just misses the point. His point is that if a Gentile seeks God he needn’t become a Jew, for this would make God the God of only the Jews. By grace, God overcomes the alienation of both Jew and Gentile through faith. That the person seeks God is assumed; it’s not taken to be the result of anything (at least not here).[8]

The interpretation of these verses ripples through the remainder of the letter to the Romans. This is natural since Paul is starting in these early chapters the line of thought he will carry on through to the end. For our current purposes, perhaps one of the most interesting passages to look at in chapter 7:

Did that which is good [the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (7:13-25)

There is much discussion about how best to interpret the perspective Paul is taking here. One option is that he’s talking about the Christian experience of the struggle with sin. It’s unclear, however, why sin would still produce death in a believer. Another option is that Paul is talking from the perspective of a Jew prior to the coming of Christ. It’s unclear, however, why Paul would speak in the present tense and why only now he takes this perspective (presumably he’s been speaking from the Christian perspective since at least 6:1).

I think both of these options are getting at something, but missing it slightly because each assumes the grace in question involves something like conversion. If we apply the correction we were talking about earlier, a nice third option becomes available: Paul is speaking from the perspective of the person who desires God — and who sees his law as good — but who is nonetheless alienated from God because of their sin. At this point he’s bracketing out the grace he’s mentioned before so that he can situate it as the solution he sees it as: the way a person who has turned to God but remains stained by sin, can be reconciled with God.

Put another way, we might say that Paul is considering two logically distinct stages in someone being made righteous through faith: the stage at which the person turns to God but is still under sin, and the stage at which God graciously accepts him and forgives his sin. The former stage takes up most of the space, and is summarized with the exasperated question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The latter stage let’s loose the solution Paul has been discussing for the past few chapters whereby he is able to exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

This passage is pivotal in Paul’s argument in chapters 5-8. In it he comes to the end of a dialectic he’s been following since the beginning of chapter 5, getting ever and ever more detailed about the relationship between notions like the law, grace, sin, death, and life. In chapter 8 he’ll address all of these in reverse order, “redressing” them appropriately in his account of God’s work at the cross. Take, for example, 8:31-39. Sometimes v35 is read in terms of inability, and so taken to be talking about Christians persevering in their faith. But if we consider the surrounding context as well as the context of the quote in v36, it becomes clear that it should be read in terms of alienation. The love of Christ, here, is expressed in his interceding for us, and Paul’s point is that nothing will get in the way of his doing this. This section “redresses” 5:1-2, in which Paul explains that through Christ our faith is enough to be right with God.

One more example of Paul’s focus on alienation: most of the discussion in Romans involves correcting the error of some of the Jewish Christians who were saying that something in addition to faith was necessary to deal with the alienation from God. Paul’s point is that this grace from God directly connects faith to reconciliation with him, so that nothing additional is needed and so there is nothing aside from God’s mercy that we can point to as the means by which we dealt with it. In Chapter 11, however, Paul briefly addresses an erroneous thought that might enter the Gentile’s mind as a result of this. He says,

… do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (11:18-23)

It is because we continue to trust in his dealing with the alienation, as opposed to us having fixed it somehow, that we continue to be grafted in. Notice towards the end that the grafting occurs logically after the belief, which doesn’t make sense if the problem in view is one of inability. The power (and grace) of God in focus is his ability to graft those who believe back in, ie. address their alienation from him and his people.

Ephesians

Let’s turn now to consider Ephesians more briefly. The passage I have in mind is Ephesians 2:1-10. Here Paul tells us that previously we were “dead in our trespasses” but that “by grace through faith” God has saved us. Here it is common to see people interpret the phrase “dead in our trespasses” as meaning that we are like corpses, incapable of turning to God. That is, they interpret the phrase to be a statement of the inability problem. In this case, God’s saving us “by grace through faith” refers to him giving us faith.

It seems to me, however, that this way of reading the passage divorces it from the broader Pauline context to which it belongs. When Paul talks about death in relation to sin or grace he has in mind a judgment or consequence, not an inability.[9] Indeed, our quote from Romans 7 above is a clear example of this. To be sure, there are cases where Paul does use death to refer to inability — he speaks of Abraham as considering his body “as good as dead” in Romans 4 — but these cases are not discussing death in the context of sin or grace. Biologically speaking Paul understands that death is the greatest of all inabilities, but theologically speaking he uses it to refer to judgment or consequence, which is part of the problem of alienation.

On an alienation reading, then, when Paul says that we were “dead in our trespasses” he means something like we were “under the reign of death” or we were “on the track to death.” And, importantly, this is true even if we’ve turned back to God since the stain of sin still alienates us from God. But he graciously saved us from this through Jesus, a grace we receive through faith. Paul is not here interested in our conversion per se, but in our movement from being worthy of judgment to being reconciled with God.

Besides making more sense in the broader Pauline context, there are three other reasons to prefer this alienation reading to the inability reading. First, Paul uses the phrase “dead in our trespasses” interchangeably with the phrase “children of wrath,” and the latter clearly refers to judgment. Second, Paul contrasts us being dead with us being “seated in the heavenly places” (v6), which is what we’d expect on the alienation reading, but not on the inability reading. Third, when Paul uses the phrase elsewhere it clearly refers to the alienation reading. In Colossians Paul says,

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. (2:13-14a)

Notice how God made us alive in this passage: by forgiving our sins. It is not by supernaturally enabling us to turn to him or by infusing us with faith, but by forgiving the thing keeping us alienated from him.

Coming back to the Ephesians passage, we have one more thing to comment on. Paul says towards the end that,

… by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (2:8-9)

On the inability reading, the gift is the faith. On the preferred alienation reading, the whole process is the gift: God’s grace in Jesus is received through faith. This has the advantage of cohering well with the parallel phrase in Romans 3 we discussed earlier, as well as connecting this gift in v8 with the discussion of the preceding verses about God’s grace. Paul is explaining to these people who desire God in their faith, that God has made a way for this to be enough to overcome the alienation of their sin. Nothing they did achieved this, it is was a gift from God.

Concluding thoughts

We’ve examined two passages where Paul is talking explicitly about grace and seen that in neither case is he particularly interested in the question of conversion or the inability of us to turn to him.[10] Paul is talking to people who now desire God and, reflecting on the Old Testament reassurances, is explaining how God has overcome the stain of sin in them and thereby reconciled them to himself. Just like the criminal’s repentance does not by itself undo their crimes, so neither does the sinners repentance by itself undo their sin. This is the problem Paul sees God’s grace solving. It is only because of God’s grace shown in the cross that this barrier can be overcome, and repentant sinners can be declared sons of God.

Had God not shown this grace, people might turn to him in faith but this would be in vain since they would still stand alienated from him. Indeed, there’s nothing they could do to change this since it’s a result of past sins and no-one can change the past. God’s grace bridges this gap and undoes the alienation for those who turn to him in faith. Now he waits for us to so turn. In this way, we receive this grace in faith.

Notes

  1. Contemporary authors that jump to mind are people like Michael Horton, John Piper, Roger Olson, and Kenneth Keathley.
  2. “Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace.” (ST II-II Q6 A1 corp.)
  3. See, for instance, Bernard Longeran’s incredible (and equally intense) book Grace and Freedom, Harm Goris’ Free Creatures of an Eternal God, and Alfred Fredosso’s God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes.
  4. See, for instance, his De libero arbitrio, his De natura et gratia, and his De gratia Christi et de peccato originali. See Eleonore Stump’s Augustine on Free Will for a nice contemporary discussion on all of this.
  5. See, for example, Genesis 50:20, 1 Samuel 2:25, and Isaiah 63:17.
  6. Many of us will be familiar with the promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28-29, but we forget that after all this, in chapter 30, Moses reassures the Jews that after they’ve failed God and returned to him that he will mercifully restore their fortunes: “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you… return to the Lord your God… and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you…” (30:1-3) Allusions to this promise from God appear throughout the Old Testament. See, for example, Psalm 32:1-2, 51:9, Isaiah 64:9, Ezekiel 18:21-23, and Zechariah 1:3.
  7. This the same problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. An example that jumps to mind is his criticism of the traditions of the Pharisees that were established under the pretense of serving God, but ended up merely undermining this purpose (cf. Mark 7:1-13). See also, this blog post.
  8. Perhaps people think in terms of conversion because in chapter 1 we have someone hostile to God. But this ignores chapter 2, where both Jew and Gentile seek to do Gods will.
  9. See, for example, Romans 1:32, 5:12, 6:21, 7:13-25, and Colossians 2:13-14. Note that in Ephesians 4:17-18, while he doesn’t use the word “dead,” he talks about “alienation from the life of God,” which fits well with my point here and plausibly refers back to what we was talking about here in Ephesians 2.
  10. This is not to say he is never interested in the question of conversion. It’s just not as prominent as some have come to think, and he doesn’t even use the word “grace” when discussing it. For example, in 1 Corinthians he talks about how the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (2:14)

How can a loving God send people to hell?

I was recently asked to contribute a piece for a local Christian magazine called Scope Magazine, on the topic of how a loving God could send people to hell. Below is the unedited version I sent them. The official (and slightly edited) version can be read online here.

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable Christian doctrines is the doctrine of hell. How is it, the question goes, that a loving God can send people to hell? Surely a God who truly loved all of mankind would allow everyone, without exception, into heaven? It seems to me, however, that reality is not as clear-cut as it first appears. A complete discussion would take more space than we have available to us, so my goal here is to draw a broad outline of the reasons why.

Let’s start by defining our terms. What is hell? While it is often pictured as fire and brimstone, it seems that the essence of hell is to be the opposite of heaven. What, then, is heaven? Christians have traditionally understood heaven to be the everlasting and direct experience of God himself. But wait, isn’t heaven supposed to be fun? Well, it depends. God is the supremely good and most beautiful thing in all reality, and to the extent a person realizes this they will desire God above all else. To such a person nothing could be more pleasurable than such an experience. And to be cut off from such goodness and beauty would be, for anyone, an undesirable fate indeed.

What is love? At its core, love is willing the good of another, appreciating the good in them, and striving to be with them in some way. If the love is mutual, then we build an every-growing bond. If the love is not mutual, then what can we do but make ourselves available in the hopes that one day the love will perhaps become mutual? To force oneself upon the other does not seem to be in line with loving them; rather love calls for some measure of honoring their wishes.

Putting these two together we begin to see something like the doctrine of hell: God has revealed himself in such a way that anyone who sincerely and consistently seeks him out will come to know him, and those who willfully ignore him will not have him forced upon them, neither in this life nor in the next. As Frank Turek has said, “God loves you too much to force you into his presence against your will.” Furthermore, while there is a certain continuity between this life and the next, we must realize that resurrection brings with it some measure of transformation. And the same permanence of will that safeguards an everlasting desire for God in heaven also safeguards an everlasting obstinance toward God in hell.

Consider this from another angle: we note that respect for someone flows out of love for them. When it comes to their actions, this means recognizing their responsibility as proportional to their abilities. So, it is out of respect we treat adults like adults, children like children, and animals like animals. This respect governs how we praise and reward someone for the good they’ve done, and blame and punish them for the bad they’ve done. In short, our respect for someone leads to a desire for justice for them. So God’s love for us leads to a desire for justice for us, and so he holds each of us accountable in perfect proportion to the bad we’ve done.

Now, God is the ultimate king over all creation and a being of infinite worth. To reject him or ignore him, therefore, is to be responsible for a kind of “grand cosmic treason”. Since in this case, the victim is of infinite worth, this represents a crime of infinite gravity, for which justice demands an infinite punishment. More broadly, Christians have traditionally held that God will judge each person proportional to their response to what they have been given, which fits quite well with our intuitions on the matter even if we disagree on the particular outworkings.

In summary, God’s honor and respect for us, both of which flow from his love for us, seem to suggest something like the doctrine of hell when properly understood. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the clearest expressions of God’s love, namely that he would make himself a man and die for us. While perhaps not immediately obvious how, this act secures two consequences relevant to our topic here: it enables us to respond to God so as to enter into that bond of mutual love, and it acquits us of our guilt before him and thereby redeems us from punishment.

Joy and hope

In a previous post, I took joy to be happiness with respect to our ultimate good. We also spoke about two ways in which happiness is achieved: through the acquisition of a good or the continued possession of a good.

The Aristotelian inside me was unsatisfied with this, for we usually take happiness to be identical with the ultimate good. Clearly in the earlier post I was using the term in a less precise sense. After thinking about it a bit more I realised that what I actually meant by happiness was “pleasure” or “delight”. But then what is delight? Aquinas takes delight to be the appetite’s rest in good. Appetite, here, is the faculty with which we desire the good, and rest presumably involves the achievement of good (either by acquisition or continued possession).

So delight is to good as joy is to ultimate good. This leaves us free to use happiness in the Aristotelian sense, which pleases me greatly. Indeed, we can say that delight is to good as joy is to happiness.

Let’s take the account further. Hope can be taken as expectation with assent. That is, we expect an outcome to occur that we see as good. To compare this with alternatives: expectation with dissent is dread, doubting with assent is wishing, and unknowing (neither expecting nor doubting) with dissent is fear.

Consider hope with respect to our ultimate good.[1] It seems that this hope supports joy, and is to some extent necessary for it. That we’re looking forward to our ultimate good is clearly related to joy, which just is delight in our ultimate good. However, the expectation part is also important. After all, if in our life we contribute to something that we’re not expecting to achieve at the end of the day, then our efforts will seem to be in vain.[2] That the good is ultimate means that joy and hope involve good that is stable, that is, for continued (indeed, indefinite) possession. We don’t always desire goods in a way that we necessarily desire their continued possession. For example, we desire money for the sake of spending it. Because an ultimate good is not desired for the sake of something else, however, we necessarily desire its continued possession. Our joy, then, needs to be proportioned to (1) the goodness and (2) certainty of achieving our ultimate good as well as (3) the stability of that good.

Perhaps this is at the heart of the problem faced in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher is looking everywhere for an appropriate place for his hope, but finds nothing that is good, certain, and lasting.

Notes

  1. This is what the New Testament usually means by hope.
  2. Or ultimately meaningless. It is no mistake that the word in Ecclesiastes is translated as “meaningless” by some translations and “vanity” by others.

Independence or community?

Every now and then I contribute to a Christian magazine published at the University of Cape Town called The Good News. This time round a question was posed to a Christian (me) and an atheist. Each of us were given 350 words to answer it from our respective worldviews. The question this time was, “Were humans born to live independently from each other with an ‘every-man for himself’ kind of mentality?” My answer is as follows:

The short answer is no. On the Christian worldview we are born as distinct individuals to participate in loving community. We are called to love God above all things and love others (Mark 12:30f). This is not arbitrary either: God is the most perfect being (Ps 145:3), and while humans are animals, we are not merely animals: we are also image-bearers of God (Gen 1:27). What this means is that, in some finite way, we reflect his infinite greatness.

Now, it is by virtue of being image-bearers of God that all human beings are valuable. Moreover, since this is something intrinsic to being a human, it follows that all human beings are equally valuable, and therefore deserving of equal respect and love. This does not depend on their place in society, the amount of money in their bank accounts, or how much they agree with us. We can point to no difference as a basis for putting ourselves above or before anyone else, for we are all equally valuable and all called to love one another. This involves appreciating others, willing the good for them, and striving for union with them. How much further from self-centred could we get?

As I reflect on the society around me, however, it seems that we are turning away from unconditioned love and universal value, towards self-centredness and valuing people based solely on their usefulness. We see this in how we treat our poor, our unborn, our cleaners, and often even those dear to us. The Christian worldview is not ignorant of this: we are broken, deeply affected by sin (Rom 3:9ff). In a way, every human is predisposed towards putting themselves first, then others, and then, maybe, God. Nonetheless, we were born to live with and for others, and to this we must strive.

We see this goal embodied in Jesus, the perfect image-bearer. He told us to love and value one another, and modelled this by calling people from all social classes (Mark 2:15, 12:34) and laying down his life for our sake (1 John 3:16).

It’s 350 words if we count each pair of parentheses as one word. That’s ok, right?

Covenantal Modalism

This probably isn’t a novel idea, but I thought it was worth sharing. I was talking to my friend, Marcus, about various theological topics and at some point the question of the nature of blessing in the Old and New Testaments came up. I was trying very hard to articulate generally how I saw the relationship between the different covenants we see in the Bible, and more particularly the difference between what blessing looks like in pre-exilic Israel and post-Easter Christianity. Then, it dawned on me how I might explain my position, and that’s what I’m going to do here. But before I can, we need to have a vague understanding of two other views:

Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism

Now, my understanding of “Covenant Theology” or “Dispensationalism” is weak at best, so please bear with me as I stumble through this. These are the two most common Biblical Theological[1] “frameworks” which form a general context for understanding individual parts of Scripture (we’ll see how this works out later in this post).

Part of each framework involves an understanding of the relationship between the different covenants we find in Scripture: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, Mosaic, and New. Now, for the sake of simplicity, I’m only going to focus on two of the bigger ones (since these are often the ones in focus), and just pretend like my comments can be acceptably generalised to the others too. The Mosaic covenant was given at Mt. Sinai when God founded the nation of Israel. He entered into a covenant with them and gave them the Mosaic law (the 10 commandments start this off). Now, part of the covenant involved blessings contingent on Israel’s obedience to God (Deut 28, Ps 1). These blessings, at least in part, took the form of prosperous living in the promise land, which in turn was a symbol of “closeness” to God (since, minimally, it was achieved by obedience):

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands…The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity – in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground – in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.

The New covenant was inaugurated by the coming of Christ. We are blessed by Christ’s sacrifice for our sake, enabling us to approach God by justifying us (Rom 3:21-26). Now already questions start arising: is the blessing spoken of in Ps 1 and Deut 28 relevant to us in the New covenant? How are we to view the Mosaic law? We can compare Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism on how they answer the latter of these two questions[2].

Covenant Theologian’s answer to the question is that Christ fulfilled (that is, brought to completion) some of the aspects of the law, and the aspects that he didn’t fulfil continue to be binding on us. Typically, in the Reformed tradition (of which Covenant Theology is a part of), the Mosaic law is split into three sections: moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. Moral laws are easily identified (do not lie, do not murder, do not commit adultery, etc.), ceremonial laws involve the sacrificial, food and separation laws found mainly in Leviticus, and civil laws are what’s left, usually involving civil matters (one example: there’s a law about putting a railing round the roof of one’s house). Now the Covenant Theologian will say that only the moral law continues into the New covenant. Everyone is agreed that the ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Christ[3], and some agree that the civil laws ceased when God’s people ceased being a single nation[4]. Covenant Theology tends to stress the unification of the covenants (focussing mainly on continuation) and as such we speak about administrations of a fixed covenant[5] rather than different covenants. If we were to draw a sort-of “continuation diagram” between the two covenants on the Covenant Theologian’s view, it’d look like this:

Covenant Theology

By way of explanation: the dots represent the starts of the two administrations we’re talking about (I’m keeping them as “covenant” in the diagram for the sake of consistency with diagrams), the bottom line represents the continuous covenant that spans the different administrations, the middle line represents those things that continued through to the new covenant, the top line represents those things that were fulfilled.

If Covenant Theology stresses continuity, Dispensationalism stresses discontinuity. On this view, the Mosaic covenant (or dispensation) came to complete fulfilment at Christ’s coming and as such, the law completely ends. Only what is commanded in the New Testament, by the Lord, is considered binding in the New covenant[6]. Of course, here we don’t need the tripartite breakdown of the law, although it still remains enlightening. It must be stressed that the Dispensationalists don’t believe that successive dispensations/covenants abrogate[7] the previous ones. Rather, they end up getting developed into new ones or fulfilled. For example, everyone agrees that the Mosaic covenant had purposes that didn’t involve making people right with God. If all these purposes were brought to completion in Christ’s work, then he can be said to fulfil the law without abrogating it. Anyway, as you might have guessed, our continuation diagram for Dispensationalism looks like this:

Dispensationalism

Note that here there’s a break between the covenants/dispensations to represent the discontinuity that arises between the two covenants[8].

Covenant Modalism and the Mosaic Law

Now we’ve set the scene for my view, which I call “Covenant Modalism”. As with many of the views I end up holding[9], it serves as a sort-of middle ground between the two views we’ve just considered. The way I see it, the Covenant Theologian seems right in thinking that there is a single unified covenant[10], but at the same time I feel the pull from the Dispensationalist’s position, and so it seems that this unified covenant expresses or manifests itself in different modes (thus, Covenant Modalism) at different times. To see what I mean, consider again the Mosaic Law. Plausibly, God has a moral will and the Mosaic Law is an expression of that will accommodated to Israel as a ancient near-eastern theocratic nation[11]. Our standing before God is reckoned according to how we obey his moral will (cf. Rom 2:6-11) and this has always been the case, however the mode of our knowledge and the expression of that law has changed. Before and after the Mosaic Law, we have no codified law, as Israel did, which stipulates specific statutes (sometimes in specific circumstances) and specific punishments. Instead, we have conscience and possibly other expositions of God’s will, like the teachings of Jesus. So, as you might’ve guessed, I understand the beatitudes not as an exposition of the Mosaic Law itself, but of the principles that lay behind that Law[12]. So how do we understand the Law on this view? Well, prior to the Law God had a moral will and mankind was held accountable to it[13]. When Israel entered into the Mosaic covenant with God, he expressed his will in the Law and in doing so made his will more explicit. Now that we’re in the New covenant, God’s will remains the same and the Law still stands as an exposition of it, but we are only held accountable to God’s will, which has been expounded by Jesus and the New Testament authors. We can represent this Covenant Modalism with the following continuation diagram:

Covenant Modalism

Note that God’s moral will (the principles that get expressed in the Mosaic Law) is part of the unified covenant which continues all the way through.

Covenant Modalism and Life

Now we come full circle to the very problem I was originally trying to solve: how the understanding of blessing changes through the covenants. It seems to me that at the heart of blessing has always been right standing with and “nearness” to God, even though the way this is expressed may differ between the covenants. For example, when establishing the Abrahamic covenant God says, “and I will be their God” (Gen 17:8, referring to Abraham’s descendants). And for Israel (a couple of centuries after that discussion with Abe), prosperity in the land (Deut 28) and being “watched over by God” (Ps 1) was an expression of right standing with God. Presumably, being in the land also meant being able to worship God properly, using the tabernacle/temple, which counts as being nearer in my books. And for today, Christ’s people are made right with God through his sacrifice (Mark 10:45, Rom 3) and will ultimately be in his presence one day in heaven: how much nearer could you get?

Notes

  1. I defined “Biblical Theology”, as I’m using it here, in a previous post: where we consider a theme that spans and progresses as we move through the Bible. Examples of this are “the Law and how it applies to us in the Christian era” and “the progressive revelation of the Trinity”.
  2. I’m only going to offer one version of each of these. In reality there are a number of variations on both of these views, but for the sake of simplicity I plan not to go there.
  3. Hebrews is a great book to get this from. Furthermore, Christ declares that the food laws are no longer binding, his death on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, and the separation laws don’t make sense in a context where God’s people are no longer a single nation.
  4. Theonomists, however, hold that the civil laws, or at least the principles underlying them, continue to the New covenant. Non-theonomists say that only the moral laws continue.
  5. In reality there’s discussion about whether there aren’t two covenants that remain fixed: the covenant of works (where we can hypothetically, but not actually, earn our righteousness by being perfect) and the covenant of grace (where we are counted as righteous on account of our faith).
  6. It’s interesting I speak of both new testament and new covenant here, since testament = covenant. However, as with many things, the two have come to designate different things: a collection of letters and an agreement between man and God, effected by Christ, respectively.
  7. I’m using “abrogate” here to refer to a “going back on one’s word” or “changing one’s mind” kind of way.
  8. It might be a slight misrepresentation, since some dispensationalists hold that the New covenant was an addition to the Mosaic covenant, not a fulfilment, but whatever.
  9. Just wait until you see, in a later post, what I think about the doctrines of grace. Arminians and Calvinists would spit on me 😛 It’s lonely in the middle.
  10. The same nuance as in note 5 applies here too.
  11. Consider, for example, Jesus’ response about ethics in Mark 10:5-8. Here he seems to be citing God’s moral will as expressed in the order of creation as having been accommodated for them in the Mosaic Law. Also, see Paul Copan’s article here.
  12. Often people speak of the “spirit of the Law” versus the “letter of the Law”. I think this captures the essence of the former more nicely than other views.
  13. Often people will raise the question of how we could’ve been held accountable to a law we didn’t know. Of course, one’s accountability is proportional, at least in part, to one’s knowledge (Luke 12:41-48). We’re not making any claims about that here, just that man did have moral duties.