Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jesus the Judge

One profitable way to read John's gospel is as a lawsuit.  In sending his Son, God prosecutes the world, beginning with his own people.  The unfolding story of the gospel is the story of a sharp division, which is brought to light by (caused by?) the presence of God's Christ.  This could be unpacked at length, but for now I just want to point you to John 3:16-21.

A few things:
v16.  Jesus was sent to save the world, at great cost to himself.  Of course, John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the Bible, and the basic concept is very familiar.  But it is useful, devotionally and theologically, to be reminded of it.  The reason Jesus came into the world was to save the world.
v17.  This is explicitly contrasted with condemnation, for which Jesus did not come into the world.  The condemnation of the world was no part of the goal of Jesus' sending, which was aimed wholly at the salvation of the world through him.
v18.  Nevertheless, the result of Jesus' coming is a division.  Those who trust in him are not condemned; those who do not are shown to be "condemned already".  Is this the bringing to light of a pre-existing condemnation?  Not quite, because the reason for the condemnation is explicitly that they have not trusted Jesus.  He is the dividing line.
v19-20.  The rejection of Jesus is in line with people's prior behaviour - having always loved the darkness, they hate the manifestation of pure light which draws near in Christ.  Desiring to continue in evil deeds, they retreat from the light.
v21.  Those who do not retreat, but who come into the light, show in so doing that they are drawn by God, and that their good deeds are to be attributed only to his working.

So, Jesus' coming is all gospel, and Jesus' presence is all light - no alien God, no hidden God, in this passage. Jesus Christ is pure saving revelation of the one good God.  He divides the world, not by turning towards one part in love and another in rejection, or by showing one part his gospel face and another part his law face.  He divides the world by being the gospel - by loving with an everlasting love, and going to Calvary.


  1. Hi Dan,

    I think you are caricaturing the doctrine of the hidden God in your final para, although I can understand that. The focus of that doctrine is on how God is experienced, and they are not two sides of the one character of God. That is the very reason for the terms 'hidden' (i.e. God not seen as who he is - the God of mercy and love) and 'alien' (i.e. God not acting in his proper way in-line with his heart).

    A few questions though:
    > Granted Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world. Any comments on Jesus as judge at the second coming?
    > Granted Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, is God passive in the condemnation of sin? Are the only active parties in condemnation human beings (ala CH Dodd on Romans [if I remember rightly])?
    > Granted Jesus is light and in him there is no darkness at all. Does that mean that God is not present in darkness? Where is God in suffering, hell and condemnation? (cf. 139) I think you would agree that he is there... but that he is experienced as hidden and his work as strange/alien (Isaiah 28:21).

  2. Hi Dave,

    You make a fair point about my caricature. I think the terminology of the 'hidden' God is pretty unhelpful, though, in that it points in the direction I've taken it here even if that isn't the intention of the doctrine. Personally, I think the doctrine springs from Luther's experience, and perhaps makes sense in an age of religiosity without the gospel. I don't think it really works in a post-Christian context, and that makes me wonder whether it ever *really* works. But that is a thought I haven't really developed, so I'll leave it there.

    On your questions:
    >I had this thought myself, as I was thinking through John 3. Not sure I have a good answer, which bothers me, because I think not holding together the different portraits of Christ (as creator, saviour, final judge) is a big theological problem. I'll put some more thought into it.
    >No, I think God is active in judging the world. But I think I think (deliberate repetition) that the world is judged by the gospel, not by the law. Need to think more carefully about what I think that means.
    >No, I don't think God is experienced as hidden in hell (to pick the most extreme example). I think he is experienced as revealed (2 Thess 1:7f). Again, I need to think through more carefully exactly what that means. One not-at-all-developed thought relates to love and fire, and the way these are sometimes tied together in Scripture.

    So, lots more thinking to do. There are more fundamental theological issues driving our differences, I think - especially about the nature of revelation, and the question of what relationship people stand in to God before they are encountered by revelation. I'd love to explore that a bit more, if there is somewhere you could point me? (Or, if I'm barking up the wrong tree, let me know where you see the root of the disagreement lying).

  3. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your (as ever) thoughtful and intelligent thoughts. You always stretch me beyond my limits somewhat.

    I could explain how I would answer my questions but that would take a while and I'm not sure it would be productive.

    On the fundamental theological things lying behind our differences (although I rejoice that we agree on so much that is more important) I think that there are the issues that you mention as well as the fact that I am happier with a bit of dualism v. unity.

    1. You wonder how you can "[hold] together the different portraits of Christ" and I would not bother making the attempt! I would attempt to hold together the different portraits of Christ in his love and mercy, and those portraits of him in his hatred of sin and judgment, but I would not attempt to hold them all together. I (/Lutherans) would confess that they do belong together, but also believe that how they belong together is beyond our ability to know but that the mercy has priority over the wrath (hence the terms 'proper'/'revealed' v. 'alien'/'hidden') - and in that way I am not a fully-blown dualist. Here are some relevant posts of mine: here, here and here.

    2. On the question of where people stand before they hear the Gospel...
    You say "what relationship people stand in to God before they are encountered by revelation" and I question whether there is a time before anyone is encountered by revelation! People are always being encountered by revelation in creation and as long as they exist are in relationship to God (as is everything, everywhere). The question then becomes what is the nature of that revelation/relationship (and the revelation=the relationship really, because what God says is what is in reality).

    If you are wanting some reading then I would suggest The Living Word: A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church by Gustaf Wingren. You can pick it up cheap from Abebooks. It’s not too long or short and quite an exhilarating read. I really think you’d enjoy it, even if you didn’t agree with it. It is theology with the same sort of vigor you get in Barth. Not that Wingren was a genius like Barth by any mean. Despite its title it is quite broad in its scope and more like a tract for the times than a ‘study’.

    Wingren was a Swedish Lutheran. Interestingly, and not insignificantly, The Living Word was written shortly after he spent a term substituting for Barth as a lecturer at Basel (he apparently had a tough time).

  4. Useful thoughts, as ever. I haven't had much exposure to Lutheranism, so it's useful to be made to think about the issues. I confess that what little contact I have had makes me feel very Reformed... ;o)

    On 1, I think this is at the heart of my problem. To quote the master (commenting on Wingren, amongst others): "I do not understand... with what biblical or inherent right, on the basis of what conception of God, His work and His revelation, and above all in the light of what Christology, they can speak, not of one intrinsically true and clear Word of God, but of two Words in which he speaks alternately and in different ways to man according to some unknown rule." (IV/3, p370) I confess that I don't understand how this can be done either. Moreover, I am fearful for the pastoral outworking. In particular, I wonder how and on what grounds one can maintain on Lutheran soil that God's mercy has priority over his wrath, and how anyone can be assured that God will be merciful to them. To caricature again, but with the hope of expressing what I feel the consequences of this doctrine are likely to be, God seems a little schizophrenic on this picture, and the only way we can trust him is if we ignore the fact that sometimes he appears to be completely different. I'm not sure I can get over that.

    2 is more immediately interesting to me, because of course it is an intraReformed as well as a Lutheran-Reformed debate. I partly agree and partly disagree with what you're saying, I think - the disagreement revolving around a definition of revelation. But this is a huge issue, and one I might come back to some other time.

    Thanks for the stimulating comments - I may try to track down Wingren at some point.

  5. That's a good Barth quote. I am in awe that you have read so much of him.

    In response to your points I'd come back, again and again, to the cross and the resurrection.

    In Christ, how do we hear God? First he kills and then he makes alive. It is not schizophrenic because he kills in order to bring to new life.

    How can we say God's mercy has priority over his wrath?

    We can't by speculation or experience, but we can on the basis of Christ's death and resurrection alone. It is only because Christ was raised that we know that mercy is God's proper work and his purpose behind his alien work. Reading Romans 9-11 recently strongly reinforced that for me.

    I fear for the pastoral outworking of the Gospel-law scheme myself.

  6. Dave,

    I find almost nothing to disagree with in your last comment - which makes me wonder whether we've understood each other! That is something I am going to take away and think about before I post anything further on the topic.

    Thanks for pushing me on this - helpful stuff.

  7. Interesting. I do wonder how much we'd differ when we come down to the day-to-day.