Michael Spencer: The Face of the Gracious God

In my last post I noted that, in my opinion, evangelicals are deathly afraid of the possibility that God is actually better than we think.  Today I direct your attention to a Michael Spencer post in which he comes around that very idea.  The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God but there are far too many people out there who are invested in an angry God who is planning to justly punish us all but who might let you off if you believe all the right things etc.

The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God. It tells us again the story of the God who loves us, the God we have grieved and abandoned and the God who has taken our judgment and suffered it himself.

We have far too many people selling religion #1. Like the Pharisees, they are the authorized representatives of the grumpy, ticked off, hacked off, very, very angry God who MIGHT….maybe, MIGHT let you off the hook….MAYBE…..IF–and it’s a very big IF–you manage to believe enough, obey enough, get the theology questions right enough, find your way to the right church, follow the right script and get the details right, down to the last “amen.”

We have too many people who have heard that there is good news about God, and then discovered that the good news was covered in 25 pages of fine print explaining why God is actually quite miserable and its your fault. If you fulfill the conditions of the contract–See “Faith is obedience, perfect surrender and a good witness,” pages 203-298–then you have a reasonable hope of avoiding God’s end-of-the-word temper tantrum.

We have far too few Christians who are overwhelmed at the news that God has fired the bookkeepers, sent home the bean counters, dismissed the religion cops and bought party hats for the grumpy old people. The big announcement is this: In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love. Just to enhance his reputation as the God who know how to throw a party, he’s inviting all of us back home, no tickets necessary, no dress code, for a party that will last, literally, forever. With open bar, and all on him. (Oh calm down Baptists. You can go to another room.)

Read:  The Face of the Gracious God by Michael Spencer

Is God Better Than We Think?

I believe evangelicals are deathly afraid of the possibility that maybe God is better than we think.

Consider Rob Bell.  When he published that book a few years back, every prominent leader who was somebody in evangelicalism was lining up to put him on the cross and drive nails into his flesh.  There weren’t enough hammers and nails for the job!

Why did everyone react so viscerally to that book?  Because we’ve convinced ourselves that God is somehow worse.

We are counting on God being worse – because we have so much invested in that.

So many of our most cherished theological assumptions:  total depravity, penal substitutionary atonement, complementarianism, eternal conscious torment, etc. – all arise from the unquestioned assumption that God is worse than we think.

Consider penal substitutionary atonement.  This is all over the place in evangelicalism, and is basically the view that all of humanity is guilty before God, indebted to God, and deserving of eternal punishment.  Jesus paid that debt, so if you believe in Jesus and confess that belief in ways that pass evangelical muster, you are no longer guilty, indebted, deserving of punishment, etc.  You get to go to heaven and be with God when you die.

Now consider the discipline of forgiveness.  Jesus commands us to forgive one another.  Yet within the penal substitutionary atonement scheme of things, God does not forgive us until he has first taken out all his anger on his son.  There must be blood, and God gets his blood.

In essence, we are commanded to be better than God.

When we forgive another without requiring repayment, we are better than God.

How?  Consider this:  I am commanded to forgive individuals who have hurt me in ways that legitimately cost me something.  Yet under the penal substitutionary atonement scheme of things, God cannot and will not forgive me for that incident with the lingerie section of the JC Penney catalog back when I was 17 until he has first killed his son.

I am so over believing that God is worse than me, worse than us, and calling it holy because God is God and he gets to define what love, justice, holiness, etc. look like and we can’t trust our intuition as to what those things look like because of that whole total depravity thing and because his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts and if we can’t understand it then it’s a mystery so just accept it and let it go.

That’s not a mystery.  It’s a copout.

Isaiah 55:8-9 and other such verses that say essentially the same thing are the go-to for any Calvinist who wishes to play the mystery/holiness/God-is-God card.  The verse goes like this:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Yet that verse, so often used to trumpet the holiness/otherness/mystery of God, is part of a larger context which is often conveniently ignored, which says that God is actually better than we thought, better than we even have a frame of reference for.  Here is the verse in context, starting at the beginning of chapter 55 and going all the way to the end:

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”

If God is truly worse than we think, as so much of contemporary evangelicalism is invested in him being…

If, when I show mercy, forgiveness, love, justice, or even simple human decency to another human being, I am somehow better than God…

Then I cannot go on.

Virtually every Christian who has ever walked the face of the earth believes that Jesus is like God.  But how many of us believe it the other way around–that God is like Jesus?

The second part of that–namely, that God is like Jesus–is the big idea behind the entire New Testament.

If that is not true, then wouldn’t we be better off to just ditch the whole Jesus thing, go all the way back to second-temple Judaism, and declare this whole Jesus experiment a failure?

Jesus intentionally challenged and replaced that version of God.  The Gospel accounts are riddled with “I and the Father are one”, “I do only the things that please the Father”, “If you have seen me then you have seen the Father”, and other such statements from Jesus to that effect.  You can’t square that with the version of God that so much of evangelicalism seems so heavily invested in.

Let Jesus have a legitimate say here.  Not just as the title sponsor for all this theological/confessional infrastructure which is built upon believing that God is somehow worse than us and calling it holy because his ways are higher than our ways etc.

God’s ways got a whole lot lower when Jesus came to earth.

Let Jesus have a legitimate say.  If you do, I think you will find that God is actually better than we think.