‘God’ always includes the Son

There is a refrain I hear from some leaders in our churches and teachers in our seminaries about Jesus. It goes something like this.

Jesus Christ is the lens through which we read the Bible.

This notion gets deployed frequently when people are trying to wrestle with the passages in the Bible that depict God calling for blood and unleashing wrath and devastation on the people of God or on other nations.

In broad strokes, I hear people saying that we should use what we know about Jesus Christ to help us interpret these passages, which often means that we should conclude that those passages don’t actually show us a true picture of God but are the creation or projection of the men who wrote those parts of the Bible. In short, we use the lens of Jesus to help us dismiss those passages as not reflecting the true nature and will of God.

This is not the only way that notion of “Jesus as the lens” gets used, but it certainly gets used that way.

This makes no sense to me.

It makes no sense to me because Jesus Christ in the New Testament does not shy away from talk of wrath, fire, and punishment. The “lens” of Jesus that we are offered in this exericse is usually not a complete image of the Jesus of New Testament. The lens itself is an edited view of Jesus. It is not Jesus but our own ideas about who Jesus should be that shapes both the lens and work we do with it in the rest of the Bible.

But it makes no sense to me for an even bigger reason.

It makes no sense to me because I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.

Orthodox Christians worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one and one-in three. In other words, there is no mention of God anywhere in the Bible that is not inclusive of the Son. When God unleashes snakes on the people of Israel or demands the blood of entire villages, the Son is doing those things just as much as the Father and the Holy Spirit. There is no Jesus lens through which we can view the God of the Old Testament because the God of the Old Testament is fully present in Jesus. They are the same. If we think that one some how corrects or screens out the other, we misunderstand what we claim to believe when we sing “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” and recite the creeds.

This does not make it easier for us to grapple with God as revealed to us in the Bible, but that is okay. Making it easy for us rarely seems to be God’s primary motivation.

How to love our neighbor

Christians are called to love God and love their neighbor.

This is the command of Christ.

When I hear or read these words, my thoughts go something like this.

As a Christian who looks to John Wesley as a spiritual teacher, I know that the commands of Christ serve many functions, each one beneficial and fitted to the needs of individuals at different places in their spiritual life.

For the non-spiritual, non-believing person, these commands are rocks to break up our pride and self-confidence. We no more contemplate them before we begin to squirm under their heavy burden. We know that in our heart we are selfish, self-indulgent, full of pride, and hungry for praise. We can no more make these commands a rule of our life from moment to moment than we could make a command to grow wings and fly to the moon a plan for tomorrow.

The person in a state of nature will experience these commands as unpleasant and either put them out of mind or justify their disobedience in some way — often by denying the very notion that obedience to the one who gave the command is required.

For the one who does not dismiss of self-justify their way out of the fetters of this double command of Christ, these words bring us by painful degrees to the recognition that we are the problem, not the giver of the command, and that we are equally powerless to obey as we are to break free of our rebellion. We come to understand that we need salvation — not from an external enemy but from ourselves. Our sin runs deep.

Whether we wrestle with these truths for a few moments for for years, we come at last to know the saving faith of Jesus Christ. We come to know that he won the victory we could not and will pardon us for all our wicked and rebellious ways. He will set us free from the chain of sin, which until recently we treasured as our most cherished possession. He will make us new by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the fruit of this spiritual process, often painful and always transforming, is that we discover we have, by the grace of God, the ability to truly love God and neighbor. We become capable of love that is not tainted by our selfishness and neediness. We become capable of love that is not just another form of self-justification or another way to prop up our own self-esteem. We have overcome the need to regard ourselves highly, and thus by Christ won the great prize of being able to actually love. With this prize in hand, we discover that these commands of Christ confirm and guide us, teaching us again and again what it is to follow our Lord, which we are able to do now thanks to his grace.

As I write these words, I am aware this is not what the world means when it says love is the answer to the world’s problems. I know that the way I write about love here is not what many of my Christian brothers and sisters mean when they say “love wins” or something similar.

I do believe it is how Christians should speak of such things. I believe it is in keeping with what the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church enjoin upon its preachers to preach. To the best of my ability, I hope I do so.

Can we talk about justification?

In “The Principles of a Methodist” John Wesley wrote about justification by faith.

I believe three things must go together for our justification: Upon God’s part, his great mercy and grace; upon Christ’s part, the satisfaction of God’s justice, by the offering his body and shedding his blood; and upon our part, true and living faith in the merits of Jesus Christ.

There is a lot packed into this short summary. Here are  few things that I observe.

First, we just don’t talk about justification much in the church today. For Wesley it was one of the central doctrines that motivated everything he did. We have some words that play in the same ballpark as “justification” — saved, born again, redeemed — but none really captures the sense of the word as Wesley understood it and our doctrinal standards discuss it.

Justification is simply the concept that we are out of line with God and we need to be brought into alignment. We are guilty before God and need to be pardoned. We cannot pay off the debt of our guilt. We can only be forgiven. This is justification, God’s gracious and merciful pardon of sinners, of us.

Perhaps you can pick up why we don’t talk about this much in the church these days. We don’t like to talk about sin. In the church, we like to talk about problems and issues. How do I cope with life when it is hard? How do I strengthen my marriage? How do I overcome anxiety? But we don’t like to talk about sin. And if we don’t know ourselves to be sinners, then we can’t have any interest in what is required for us to be justified.

I notice as well in reflecting on this short passage the emphasis on Jesus’ death as satisfaction required by God’s justice. What does that mean? It means that sin — our sin and that of the world — demands a payment. God’s justice requires that the debt and guilt piled up by our sin be paid off. We can be forgiven but balance must be restored. By his death, Jesus Christ reset the scales. He paid the price that should have been ours to pay and that we could never pay. This is part of why we say above that the mercy of the Father is necessary for our justification. What could have been required of us was not. In the words of the song, Jesus paid it all.

While it is true that the Christian church has never come down to a single understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross — what the theologians call atonement theory — it is undeniable that the people called Methodist preached from the very beginning of the necessity and power of Christ’s satisfaction.

And finally, I notice in reading Wesley’s words the necessity for not just faith, but a living faith that Jesus Christ has in fact won my pardon by the satisfaction he made on the cross. We are called to put our whole trust for peace in this world and glory in the next not in our own goodness, our own efforts, or our own observance of religious duties, but totally and solely in Jesus Christ.

If we have this faith, it will be as plain to see as it is to observe signs of life in any living thing. A living faith grows and bears fruit. It is a source of activity and energy in the life the Christian. It multiplies and reproduces. I depends on the Holy Spirit for its life just as we depend on air for ours. This is the living faith that Wesley preached and handed down to the Methodists after him.

On each of these three points, I believe the United Methodist Church today has much to learn. I know I do.