Let’s look at the Damned Ideas from our video on Friday. I believe this video is captured from the summer West Coast Conference 2012 of Ligionier Ministries, the ministry founded by R.C. Sproul.
What happens when Christians are more afraid of misrepresenting God’s love than God’s wrath?
I was raised on the gospel, the story of Jesus, his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. I believed this proposition and confessed my sin because I wanted to go to heaven. I was 5 and 11 and 13 and 16 and 18 years old and I doubted, at all of those ages, if God heard me or even wanted me to pray such a prayer.
Though I had been educated in conservative evangelical Christianity I didn’t know the central tenet of the gospel, though I heard many times that outsiders didn’t know the gospel like we did. Thirteen years of Christian school, 25 years of church, 7 years at Pensacola Christian College where my family insisted I go to get “a good Biblical foundation,” years of reading theology books that fit my a fundamentalist and reformed tradition (and a few that veered outside of it), I didn’t yet grasp the meaning of the gospel at my core. I tried to piece together how it could be good news that “God’s acceptance of me comes with correct belief propositions, enough repentance, and a pure faith.” Following Pascal Wager, I figured the safest bet would be to follow those most zealous.
We were warned repeatedly about the danger of rejecting the gospel. We knew plenty about wrath and hell. The rapture movies gave me panic attacks.
“Gospel” meant heavenly blessing in my tradition coupled with earthly asceticism. We feared the ‘Gospel.” We were warned repeatedly about the danger of rejecting the gospel. We knew plenty about wrath and hell. The rapture movies gave me panic attacks. I couldn’t read theologians interpreting Jonathan Edwards or peek into the written sermons of Robert Murray M’Chayne, without fear that my bedroom would implode at any moment swallowing me in the bosom of damnation. When I tried to understand the gospel, I discovered how theologians preferred to talk of facts of the gospel rather than the meaning of “good news” or the point of human people. The Gospel was a terrifying mystery to me, unless it came packaged in children’s songs. When we became adults, spiritually mature, anti-emotional, anti-vulnerable, doctrinally sound, we put away childish things.
Living in the Dark
Most people I speak with about the Christian faith show an awareness of that famous Christian doctrine: that God is a terror to be feared and that his wrath is bearing down on humans. Most urbanites cannot avoid it, as the preachers emerge on the street corners in the evenings where the foot traffic flows. Beware! Doom is nigh! Wrath is upon you! God abhors you! Repent! Most Americans know about the Bible’s hell. The fear of hell has been the evangelical message for the last 100 years and the Puritan message even further back.
Those who preach hell most are often those who know their neighbors least. They believe fear will motivate the masses, just as it motivates themselves. They puzzle that a more powerful motivation than self-preservation could even exist. Is there another, better reason to avoid hell?
What would be required of them and us if God loved people this way and asked us to do the same!? That’s what liberals believe!
Truth is, most people have tasted the dark. They stuff their pain. They feel lost. They hide behind their theologies, ideologies, consumerism, and other means to avoid life. Many Christians fear they lack the saving faith in Jesus to avoid hell, even though they try to believe with all they have and attend church hoping to find favor in some way. Most people would like to believe in a God who notices them, who knows them by name, who, in a word, LOVES them even when they have mountain doubt and mustard-seed faith.
But most people feel overlooked by God, even Christians who feel their lives and concerns are too petty to bother that all-powerful deity in the heavens. We humans wonder what we are missing, a special prayer, a trinket, a ritual, an act of devotion, or connection to a certain celebrity preacher telling us we are okay. But with the theological teaching of Sproul and MacArthur in this video, they know that God has stored up wrath, abhorrence, and hellfire, that God, until you are in, does not love you enough to help you get in. Sure, he’ll send some rain for your crops, but your dirty, abhorrent soul is worth little energy. Many Christians believe they aren’t good enough for grace because they do not feel good enough to be honest in these kinds of churches. Grace ends up only for those who have no secrets and no sin.
But we all have secrets and sin, including sin we don’t even know to confess. So it’s much easier to control grace when we wrap it in words like “sound doctrine” and “discernment” and conjuring up images that we are the “elect,” the insiders with whom God is best pleased. Grace, today, means conformity to religious men. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image,” Anne Lamott quotes her priestly friend, “when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Most Christians cannot stand up to doctrinal scrutiny much less to stand before the scrutiny of a wrathful God. Yet does God even require it? Sproul’s idea that this isn’t Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood hardly helps.
I grew up with Mister Rogers on the television. Hearing Sproul’s reference, I did some more reflection and research into my childhood neighbor. As one euologist explained, Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, was a man of prayer who “personified grace.”
Rogers was an ordained (reformed) Presbyterian minister, seminary graduate, and lover of theology. In his children’s show, I was never preached at or made to fear. I was cared for, even through the medium of a television. Those who knew Rogers describe him as someone with disciplined insight to find out your needs and help you meet them. In a way that MacArthur and Sproul now mock, Mr. Rogers taught America what God’s love and grace look like on a daily level.
For Mister Rogers, grace meant you loved people regardless of the toys they bring or the hangups they have. He respected all of his audience. Fred Rogers answered the question the “Who is my neighbor?” in every show. Remember who asked Jesus this question? The guy with all the right doctrine who didn’t like Jesus’. They behave like King Friday, the puppet from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe, “filled with self-doubt and worries that people won’t love him unless he comes across as someone who is very important.”
In a way that MacArthur and Sproul now mock, Mr. Rogers taught America what God’s love and grace look like on a daily level.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. Would God ask us to do something He himself is unwilling to do?
“Every time I walk into the studio, I say to myself [as a prayer], ‘Let some word that is heard be Yours.’ The Holy Spirit translates our best efforts into what needs to be communicated to that person in his or her place of need. The longer I live, the more I know it’s true,” said Mister Rogers.
Can We Waste God’s Love?
If you were asked the question Sproul and MacArthur were asked, how would you answer it? I would like to hear your response in the comments. Keep it brief and give your answer as if someone’s life depended on it.
Does God unconditionally love people?
In Friday’s video we heard caveats, qualifiers, equivocations, and how terror turns people to righteousness. I see the historical reactive fundamentalists tradition these men have lived through. In the 20th century most evangelical Christians were afraid people would waste or abuse or take advantage of the love of God. They would say “We can’t give people a license to sin” when then tempered God’s love for prostitutes. So they preached the wrath of God to motivate us to be more appreciative, less wasteful, humiliated, and, in some respect, more controlled. The messenger became the arbiter of our salvation, telling us if our approved lifestyle meant God loved us (or not) or has saved us (or not). “That’s what liberals believe,” I heard it said in PCC chapels.
Today, we’re reaping the cost. More Christians each week are leaving weekly church attendance. And today, Christians are known for defending the wrath of God, but not the love of God without caveats and conditions to be worthy of such love.
MacArthur and Sproul equivocate love and relationship in their own lives. It scares the crap out of them to love someone without conditions.
I would answer this question differently than these men. I believe God daily allows us to abuse his love, to waste, to ignore, to forget, to be ungrateful for his love. The cross itself proves that God permits us to abuse, misunderstand, and overlook his love. Jesus’ death wasn’t God at a weak point when he was feeling particularly indulgent. The cross was a demonstration of the love God had from the foundation of the world, and will continue to have for us, whether we like it or not.
God’s love does not automatically mean relationship and forgiveness. It does mean God wants us and He wants his love to be known! Yet in the video, it appeared MacArthur and Sproul equivocate love and relationship in their own lives. It scares the crap out of them to love someone without conditions. What would be required of them and us if God loved people this way and asked us to do the same!? Rather, they would let people misunderstand God’s wrath than risk them misunderstanding God’s love. How backwards! Perfect love casts out all fear. If we should be concerned about anything gospel related, we ought to be concerned that people will misunderstand God’s wrath. Yet, in this video, these men know wrath so well and love so poorly, have they not been made perfect in love?
If people are afraid of God, they do not know his love. Maybe the disaster of today’s evangelical irrelevance is a direct result of people’s weariness with a God who is angry all the time unless we conform to certain groups that sound hateful to their neighbors. The solution of Sproul and MacArthur to cure a nation of unrighteousness may be the very thing leading it confidently into unrighteousness!
There is nothing radical or new about judgment. Every religion has it. There is something deeply radical about love.
Love us subtle and customized. It cannot be controlled. It gives without strings. It touches us in places fear cannot reach.
He “loved you into existence” as Mr. Rogers would say. He calls you “very good,” as Moses would say.
I am becoming more convinced that the language of “grace” and “gospel” is the costume of today’s Pharisees. Those who talk the most about “the gospel” are actually using the gospel to coerce others with judgment. A “saved” soul means more power in numbers and money for their cause. When the Pharisees and Prostitutes are both invited to Jesus’ feast, it is the prostitutes who come and the Pharisees who judge. What kind of person would warn others and give caveats of the unending lovingkindness of God? You can’t control people who know they are loved.
And God’s love is like Mister Rogers. To have any kind of relationship, you must tune in.
God loves you no matter what. He wants you holy and whole. That sunshine today is God’s love. That rain to water your fields is God’s love. That breathe you just took, that heartbeat that pounded within you unnoticed is God’s love. God’s deliverance of Israel through the Sea, his giving of Torah, his revelation of his name through the Jewish people, his blood spilled on the cross, his defeat over death is all his love. That loving teacher, pastor, or friend is God’s love. He doesn’t do these things because of Christ covers your nasty wormy excuse for a human being; he does these things because of YOU. He wants you, not because you can fill pews and offering plates, not because you are a good “soul winner,” but because he made you. The only condition on God’s love is that you do or will one day exist. And this love is a fury, as Chesterton would say, that seeks to nurture you to trust (have faith in) God.
He “loved you into existence” as Mr. Rogers would say. He calls you “very good,” as Moses would say.
For God so loved this world that he gave his son.
Love Never Fails
We love him because he first loved us. Most people have a hard time believing love can be this good. Helping them see it is likely the largest hurdle of the evangelist.
Any idea is damned that gets in the way of that. This is the meaning of the gospel that I missed in my early Christian formation. Until I was 25, I missed at core what love does to the human heart to bring us to God and his holiness and our full humanness. When we understand it, our edges will soften, our fear of being wrong will dissolve, our posture will change from defensiveness to learning, and our neighbor will be everyone and not just our tribe of agreers. Love, not wrath, creates the safe space we need to freely examine our own hearts because our hearts are wanted by God. Judgment is but a warning of consequences for us to pause and look for love, but consequences do not overshadow or “balance out,” or run the Gospel Story. Love runs God’s story.
Yes, some people come to God because they fear hell. But most people today are numb to religious coercion and are looking for better news than merely viewing the universe as a cosmic courtroom. In Scripture, people came to Jesus because they saw, many for the first time, what real love looks like. Our very hearts were built to respond to this love as the good news.
Dear saints of God, unleash it.
Read a marvelous biographical sketch of Mister Rogers from Christianity Today.
Is God’s love unconditional? I would like to hear your response in the comments. Keep it brief and give your answer as if someone’s life depended on it.