Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Grace and Response: A Matter of Order

Many years ago, when I was a young man in Bible college, one of my theology professors said to the class, “When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is fall out of bed onto my knees and pray that I don’t sin!” I remember the discomfort I felt upon hearing this stunning revelation. I knew immediately that I was a wash-out, a spiritual failure, because the first thing I did in the morning was reach for the coffee pot! Still today, I must drink at least two cups of “java” to clear my head before I can vaguely contemplate the sins I am liable to commit before lunch.

Even as a naïve and inexperienced nineteen-year old, I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with my professor’s view of God―at least I hoped there was! It seemed that his “God” was more to be feared than loved. Behind his staggering confession lurked a harsh taskmaster who meticulously keeps count of our sins and shortcomings, so that he can finally mete out the just and terrible punishment we deserve. Decades later, after years of study, I realize that the doctrine of God I was taught in “Bible college” described a deity far different from the loving Father that Jesus Christ came to reveal (Matt 11:27).

Purveyors of Legalism

Since that time, I have encountered other preachers and teachers of “religion” who are fond of portraying “God” as a harsh judge, whose primary concern is crime and punishment or sin and guilt. Because of their one-sided emphasis on law, judgment and penalty, they insist that the most important aspect of Christian life is obedience, which often includes strict adherence to humanly-devised codes of dress, diet and lifestyle.

For these messengers of the “bad news” anti-gospel, obedience and discipline take priority over relationship and grace. God is a judge to be feared or a taskmaster to be served rather than a Father to be adored. Where legalism (i.e., “law”) takes center stage, discipleship and Christian living are reduced to obedience without faith, service without joy, and worship without gratitude. These important aspects of Christian life become burdensome duties to be performed out of fear of retribution rather than grateful responses to the Father’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.
According to the ministers of legalism, grace, forgiveness and justification are conditional. Rather than gifts to be gratefully received, these Gospel promises are held out like carrots to spur overburdened believers to obedience. For the purveyors of religion, the Gospel is a threat rather than a promise, so that discipleship is reduced to a fearful response rather than a joyful encounter with the Father’s love.

The purveyors of law present the Gospel in terms of a “contract”: “If the ‘party of the first part’ (you and me) meets certain conditions, then the ‘party of the second part’ (God) will be gracious.” God’s love and goodness are not offered as gifts to be received but favours to be earned. Rather than the lavish outpouring of God’s innermost heart, divine love is “conditioned” by performance; that is, God will love us only “if” we meet the required standard―and woe to those who fall short, for surely they will be “left behind.”

In addition, a persistent fear lingers among the purveyors of religion, who insist that an emphasis on grace will lead to antinomianism (i.e., “lawlessness”). They refuse to spare the “rod” of law for fear their congregation will be spoiled. With furrowed brow and pointed finger, they try to coerce repentance and piety with the threat of judgment, hellfire and ever-impending doom. The “submission” coerced by the purveyors of religion, however, does not glorify God. Rather, obedience coerced under threat of punishment is “sin,” for it is not of “faith” (see Rom 14:23). Legalism’s emphasis on adherence to law by the power of the will forces believer’s into a “faithless obedience.”[1] To be sure, “legalism is obedience without faith.”[2]

Relationship between Grace and Response

Legalism, with its emphasis on law, judgment and penalty, is founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between grace and law, forgiveness and repentance, and justification and faith. Legalism reverses the proper relationship between divine grace and human response portrayed in scripture, so that grace is conditioned by performance and forgiveness is begrudgingly bestowed following repentance. The legalist bellows, “If you repent, you will be forgiven.”

Grace is not a wage to be earned, however; it is a gift to be received. The Gospel proclaims, “You have been forgiven in Jesus, the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world; therefore, repent and believe the good news!” The Gospel calls us to “change our mind” (i.e., “repent”) about Jesus, repudiate the demands of religion with its “conditional” grace, and embrace the Father’s love that is unconditionally poured out for all in the incarnate Saviour of the world.

In the Book of Exodus, we find the classic model for the proper relationship between grace and response. After he miraculously saved the people from bondage by a series of plagues that devastated Egypt, God led the Hebrew slaves to Mount Sinai, where he “introduced” himself to his people. Speaking through Moses, God said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me….” (Ex 20:3ff). Notice the proper order between divine grace and human response that is revealed in this passage. First, God introduces himself as the God who saves: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the bondage of Egypt.” Second, God summons the people to respond to his gracious initiative: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The relationship between grace and law is set in the context of an indicative (“I have saved you”) followed by an imperative (“You shall have no other gods …”).[3] After saving them from bondage, God gives the people the law as an act of grace, so that this stubborn, stiff-necked band of slaves may learn to live in right relationship with God and neighbour. In turn, God graciously provides the ceremonial-sacrificial liturgy so that the people may respond to divine revelation in an appropriate and reverent manner (Ex 20-40; Lev 1-27). In regard to the relationship between grace and human response, grace is prior, so that law and liturgy is a response to grace, not a condition for it! This passage clearly establishes the relationship between divine grace and human response and sets a pattern that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments: grace is prior to and unconditioned by human response.

The relationship between grace and response is clearly evidenced in the New Testament. Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). The priority of grace is glaringly apparent: “As I have loved you [grace], so you must love one another [response].” Again, Jesus says (John 15:9), “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you [grace]. Now remain in my love” [response]. Perhaps the clearest indication of the relationship between grace and response is found in 1 John (4:19): “We love because he first loved us” (emphasis added).

Grace Before Dinner

Luke (19:1-10) describes an encounter between Jesus and a notorious sinner that perfectly illustrates the proper relationship between divine grace and human response. When Jesus was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, near the end of his earthly ministry, Zacchaeus, who was short in stature, climbed a sycamore tree so that he might see Jesus pass. Seeing him in the tree, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Upon hearing Jesus’ gracious request, Zacchaeus came down from the tree and gladly welcomed Jesus to his home. Immediately the local villagers began to mutter among themselves, for Zacchaeus, like other tax collectors, was regarded as a swindler and a thief, who unlawfully kept for himself a portion of the taxes he collected. Even worse, everyone regarded Zacchaeus as a traitor, because he collaborated with the oppressive Roman regime. Because he was a “sinner,” Zacchaeus was a social outcast, ostracized by the respectable community. Jesus’ surprising request to dine at his home, therefore, was cause for scandal. At dinner, however, Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Then Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This story perfectly illustrates the relationship between grace and response. In the light of Jesus’ love for him, Zacchaeus sees the darkness of his own sin. In response to the love and acceptance he encounters in Jesus, Zacchaeus repents! His repentance, however, is not a shame-based response coerced by law and condemnation. It is a joyful, grateful response to the love and acceptance he encounters in Jesus. The grace of God embodied in Jesus is the immediate cause of the tax collector’s repentance. Zacchaeus’ repentance is not a condition for grace. It is a joyful response to grace!

Grace is Always Prior

We can better understand the relationship between grace and response by noting the difference between “legal” repentance and “evangelical” repentance. “Legal” repentance is a fearful submission to the threat of law and judgment. “Evangelical” repentance, on the other hand, is a joyous response to God’s love for the entire world revealed in Jesus. Zacchaeus’ grateful response to Jesus is a prime example of “evangelical” repentance. The Scottish Reformer John Knox disdained the words “justification by faith,” noting that this recurring slogan implies that justification depends upon the believer’s faith rather than the grace of God. Knox preferred the fuller phrase, “justification by grace through faith” in Jesus, for it accurately represents the proper relationship between grace and justification. Our “right-standing” with God (i.e., “justification”) is freely and unconditionally given us in Jesus, through whom the Father has reconciled the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:19, 20). Faith is not the cause of justification. It is the channel through which we receive the “right-standing” that is already ours in Jesus.

COMMENT: We are not “made right” with God because of our personal faith. To the contrary, we were “made right” in Jesus long before we had a chance to profess our faith. Personal faith is the channel that allows us to receive the grace that is already ours in Jesus. In other words, we do not believe to make it so, we believe because it is so.

The re-discovery of the God of grace revealed in Jesus Christ enabled Reformers like John Knox to re-claim the New Testament promise that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The Reformers rediscovered the Gospel truth elegantly illustrated in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. In the good news of God’s love for humanity revealed in Jesus Christ, grace is prior to human response. Divine love is the cause, repentance and faith are the consequences.

Preaching and Missions

The proper understanding of the relationship between grace and response has a profound effect on preaching and missions. An emphasis on grace frees believers from the burden of legalism (Matt 11:28) in favour of freedom for love of God and neighbour empowered by the Holy Spirit. Discipleship as a response to grace brings glory to God, for it is the expression of love rather than duty (see John 14:23; 15:8). Preachers and teachers who wish to promote love for neighbour in their hearers must focus on Jesus’ love for the sinner, the outcast and the marginalized as revealed in the Gospel. Pastors who want to encourage generosity, service and self-giving should remind their hearers of God’s sacrificial love revealed in Jesus, who heard the cry of the needy, healed the sick, fed the hungry, washed his disciples’ feet and gave his life on the cross as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

When the proper relationship between grace and response is clearly understood, God is glorified because love for God and neighbour rather than fear of judgment and penalty becomes the motive for Christian living. When believers fully understand the good news that underlies the proper relationship between divine grace and human response, the ordinary concerns of Christian life, including worship, Bible study, service and giving, become grateful responses to grace willingly engaged rather than duties grudgingly carried out in order to earn God’s favour. When grace is properly related to response, legalistic demands for obedience and conformity—usually accompanied by an unbiblical threat of hellfire and damnation—may be rejected in favour of the Gospel proclamation of the good news of God’s love for all revealed in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

The proper relation between grace and response has a profound effect on missions and the proclamation of the Gospel. Rather than a “rescue” operation intended to “save” people from hell, missions becomes a joyful and confident invitation for all to receive the grace and goodness of the loving Father, who “was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). Like Jesus, who summoned his hearers to repent and believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15), the messengers of the good news may confidently summon their hearers to repentance, faith and appropriate form of life, not as conditions for divine favour, but as grateful responses to the grace that is already poured out on all humanity by the Father who sent his precious Son, so that he might “lavish” his love upon us in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 1 John 3:1). 

Martin M. Davis, PhD

[1] Deddo, G.W. 2007. The Christian Life and Our Participation in Christ’s Continuing Ministry. In G. Dawson, ed. An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour. London: T & T Clark, p. 157.
[2] Ibid. 
[3] I am paraphrasing theologian James B. Torrance, who often said that “the indicatives of grace are prior to the imperatives of law.”

Saturday, February 16, 2019


The Holy Spirit is the “mediator of communion.” The Holy Spirit “mediates,” or “brings together,” things that are distinct, diverse or even different for the sake of fellowship. The Spirit’s mission is communion, or fellowship, at both the divine and human levels of existence. The Holy Spirit acts as “mediator of communion” in three distinct ways: 1) in the Holy Trinity 2) in the incarnation and 3) in the church.[i]
In the Holy Trinity
The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion in the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit unites the Father and Son in eternal fellowship. Early Christian thinkers described the Holy Spirit as the eternal “bond of love” between the Father and Son. That is, the Father and Son are eternally united in a fellowship of love through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son in the communion of the Spirit. The Son loves the Father in the communion of the Spirit. As the “bond of love,” the Holy Spirit unites the Father and Son in a communion of love. Thus, God eternally exists in a fellowship (“communion”) of love.
In the Incarnation
The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.[ii] As the eternal bond of love between the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit is uniquely qualified to be the mediator of communion between the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, the Eternal Word of God, through whom all things are created and in whom all things exist, takes from the womb of Mary a “body like we sinners have” (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16, 17; Hebrews 1:2, 3: Romans 8:3). The Holy Spirit unites the Eternal Word of God to humanity in the womb of Mary. The Holy Spirit sustains the union of divine and human natures throughout the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. During the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Spirit sustained the relationship between the Father and Son by empowering Jesus to offer perfect faith, love and obedience to his heavenly Father in our place and in our name. In the union between God and humanity established in the incarnation and lived out through the life of Jesus, all humanity is brought into fellowship (or, “reconciled”) with the Father. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:20).
COMMENT: Reconciliation between God and humanity is the work of the Holy Trinity. By the will of the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the eternal Son of God becomes a human being in the womb of Mary in order to reconcile the world to God. The union of God and humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ is sustained throughout Jesus’ earthly life by the Holy Spirit. In the power of the Spirit, the Son offers perfect faith and obedience to the Father in our name for our salvation.
In the Church
The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion in the church. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit broke down barriers of language and culture in order to create a new community. The Spirit united diverse believers from many nations into a fellowship that worships Jesus as Lord and serves one another in love. In the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the end of the age yet to come, the Spirit’s primary mission to the world is fellowship, or “communion.”
The role of the Holy Spirit as mediator of communion helps us to understand the union of Christ with his church. Our union with Christ can be described in “incarnational-Trinitarian” language. In both the incarnation of Jesus Christ and in the church, the Holy Spirit unites and holds together things that are different for the sake of communion.[iii] In the incarnation, the Spirit unites God with humanity in the person of Jesus. In the church, the Holy Spirit unites believers to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is sent from the Father through the Son to awaken believers to the reality of our union with Christ. In the communion of the Spirit, believers actively, knowingly, willingly and thankfully participate in the union between God and humanity established in the incarnation of Christ. As the mediator of communion, the Holy Spirit lifts us up into the life, beauty and joy of the Holy Trinity, where we share in the mutual love and knowing of the Father and Son. The mediation of communion through the ministry of the Holy Spirit—a mediation of mutual love in knowing and of knowing in love—is the origin and goal of all things, made possible by the saving work of Jesus Christ.[iv]
As the “bond of love,” the Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion among believers. The primary work of the Spirit today is to gather the community of faith in order to equip it for mission to the world. The Holy Spirit unites believers as one “Body,” with Jesus Christ as its “Head” (Colossians 1:18). In the communion of the Holy Spirit, believers are gathered in faith, built up in love and sent into the world in hope.[v] The church, gathered into community through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, represents the Kingdom of God among the kingdoms of men. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and moving forward in the name of Jesus Christ, the church is sent into the world with the good news of the Kingdom of God.
The community of faith created by the ministry of the Holy Spirit is different from the communities of the world. In the Body of Christ, believers uphold and support one another rather than trying to cause the other to fall, or stumble. The church is a community of forgiveness, where one sinner my love and forgive another, because the sins of all have been washed away by the blood of Jesus. In the Body of Christ, the individual believer is free to live in relationships where he or she is loved and may love in return. In the communion of the Spirit, the Body of Christ is equipped to engage the world in love while not conforming to its ways.[vi]
Community is important because God does not want faith to be expressed in merely a “private” way within the hearts of believers. Humans are social beings created to live and move and exist within networks of relationships, both with God and with one another. The community of faith bears witness to God’s purpose for human relationships. The mission of Jesus to bring hope to humanity and justice to the nations is (ideally) embodied in the church, as it is equipped to witness to the nations in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not a “private” Spirit. No one owns or controls the Holy Spirit. No one may claim a greater measure of the Spirit’s indwelling than anyone else. The Holy Spirit does not bring private revelations or messages to self-important leaders who claim special privilege with God.  The members of the church, including its leaders, exist in relationship to the community created by the Holy Spirit. In the community of faith, there can be no individualism at the expense of the community and no community at the expense of the individual. In the community of faith—ideally!—each is for all and all are for each. The community of faith is a communion of persons-in-relationship, who are committed to bringing the good news of King Jesus to the world.[vii]
According to theologian Colin Gunton, the Holy Spirit is open to relationship with another.[viii] The Holy Spirit brings together things that are different. The Holy Spirit delights in crossing boundaries. The Spirit gathers people who are different or divided and brings them together in love. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit brought together a diverse body of believers from many cultures, who spoke many languages. From the “many” gathered at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit formed the “one,” a unified body of believers from many nations and cultures with a special mission to the world. 
While the Holy Spirit brings together those who are different, the Spirit does not delight in “same-ness.” The Spirit delights in diversity. God delights in the “unique-ness” of each person. The Holy Spirit does not overpower our individual identities in order to make everyone the same. Rather, the Holy Spirit respects our personhood. The Spirit shapes us into “persons-in-relationship,” where relationship does not destroy our unique identities but, rather, establishes them.[ix] Communion means taking part in relationships without loss of personal identity, or “sense of self.” In communion, our identities as unique persons are enhanced. In short, we become the persons we are meant to be in relationship with others in the communion of the Spirit.
In the church, the Spirit shapes the community of faith by bringing us into relationship with the Father through Jesus, and, in Jesus, with one another. The church is a body of diverse people with the common task of mission to the world. The church is a community, not a collective.[x] In a collective, such as the communist system in the former Soviet Union or present-day North Korea, the rights of the individual are forfeited in service to the all-powerful state (or, government). Individuality and uniqueness are absorbed into a grey mass of conformity and sameness. Freedom of expression is crushed and personal differences are discouraged in favour of uniformity. In contrast, a community is a fellowship of persons who are free to express their individuality and uniqueness in the context of relationships. In community, each member lives and moves and exists as part of the whole, while the whole supports and serves the individuals within it. Community means unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity. Diversity brings richness, creativity and tolerance to the community, while unity ensures both the proper functioning of the community and the well-being of each member. In the church, unity-in-diversity is apparent in spiritual gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The Holy Spirit distributes a diversity of gifts among believers in order to equip the community of faith for its mission to the world. The variety of gifts given to the community of faith attests the Spirit’s desire for diversity within unity.
COMMENT: God values diversity, but God does not value diversity without unity. Diversity without unity encourages separation, division and intolerance, as seen in the tribalism of east Africa or the break-up of society in the United States in favour of “multi-culturalism.” Unity-in-diversity, however, brings richness, growth and tolerance to the community, as seen in churches made up of different tribes, ethnic groups, age groups and races, worshipping and praising God in love and fellowship.
Just as the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity, the Spirit is the bond of love among believers in the community of faith.[xi] As Professor Clark Pinnock notes, fellowship on earth reflects fellowship in heaven. The Holy Trinity is an open, inviting fellowship, and the Spirit wants the church to be the same.[xii] As a community of mutual giving and receiving, the church is meant to reflect the life and love of the Holy Trinity.[xiii] Our fellowship with one another is rooted in the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit, in whose image we are created. Thus, fellowship, or communion, characterises both the relationships of the Holy Trinity and the relationships among believers in the community of faith.[xiv]
Community is central to God’s purpose, because the community of faith reflects the light of the Holy Trinity in a world lost in darkness.[xv] The Holy Trinity is Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three equal divine persons eternally united as “One” in a fellowship of love. The Trinity is a fellowship of persons-in-relationship, where each divine person’s identity is established in relationship to the other. The Father is eternally “Father” only in relation to the Son. The Son is eternally “Son” only in relation to the Father. The Holy Spirit is the “bond of love” that eternally unites the Father and Son in a relationship of mutual giving and receiving. The Holy Trinity eternally exists in diversity: the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. At the same time, the Holy Trinity eternally exists in unity: the Father eternally loves the Son and the Son eternally loves the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The church, as a diverse body of believers united in love (John 13:35), bears witness to the Triune (“three-in-one”) nature of God by reflecting diversity in the unity of love. According to theologian Stanley Grenz:
God intends to bring to pass a reconciled creation in which humans reflect in their relationship to each other and the universe around us the reality of the triune God. God’s actions are aimed at establishing the reconciled community of love as the human reflection of the [Holy] Trinity—the divine nature—which is love.[xvi]
The unity-in-diversity of the church reflects the unity-in-diversity of the Holy Trinity. The church is a diverse but united fellowship of believers worshipping and serving God in a variety of languages, ethnic and cultural forms. As an expression of the unity-in-diversity of the Holy Trinity, the ethnic and cultural diversity of the church is properly reflected in a variety of worship styles and music. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the church, expressed in a communion of believers united in love, offers an alternative to the tribalism, racism and nationalism of the modern world.
COMMENT: God does not value sameness and conformity. God values diversity-in-unity. For this reason, God’s people are free to worship in a variety of ways that reflect their own cultures and traditions. Churches in Africa and Asia should not try to model their worship services after those in the United States, Australia or Europe. While liturgical (“worship”) traditions developed over many centuries should not be ignored, God’s people are free to adapt them (or, reject them) as needed in order to offer worship and praise to God in a manner fitting their cultures, customs and values.
The Goal of Creation
The goal and purpose of creation is “communion.” Out of an abundance of love, God created us for fellowship with himself. We are created to share in the Son’s relationship with the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. By sending his Son for our salvation and by sending the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts by faith, God proves that he does not want to be without us. In the words of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, the greatest Christian thinker of the modern era:
[God] wills to be ours, and he wills that we should be his. He wills to belong to us and he wills that we should belong to him. He does not will to be without us, and he does not will that we should be without him. … The blessings of [the Holy Trinity] are so great that they overflow as blessings to us.[xvii]  
God does not will to be without us. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). It is the nature of love to reach out to another. The Father reaches out through the Son and Spirit to draw us into fellowship, so that we may live forever in the abundance of his love.[xviii] Our fellowship with God is grounded in the freedom of God. Although God “lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him” (1 Timothy 6:16), God is free to give himself to us in an act of love. Despite the vast difference between God’s holiness and our sinfulness, God sovereignly and freely chooses to unite himself to humanity in his Son. The Holy Spirit enacts the freedom of God by bringing us into a real, living union with Christ and, through Christ, with the Father.
Although the goal of creation was achieved in principle in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we live today “between-the-times” of the resurrection and the age to come. The church is the “first fruits” of the new creation. In Israel, the first fruits, or “first crop,” of the harvest was set apart as a special offering to God (Leviticus 23:10; Deuteronomy 26:2-4). As the “first fruits” of the new humanity brought in by Jesus, the community of faith is set apart as a sign of the great harvest to come. According to theologian Clark Pinnock, the church is a “new family, made up of brothers and sisters, among whom Christ is firstborn (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11). Such a community is intended to [show] what God wants the world to be.”[xix] The community of faith is a testimony to God’s purpose for the world. The church is a “human assembly that points to a much larger [assembly] at the end of time.”[xx] The church represents the Kingdom of God that is destined to cover the earth.
According to theologians Hauerwas and Willimon, “The church, as the very body of Christ, is a visible sign of the intimacy that God intends for all through the redemptive, relational power of the Holy Spirit.”[xxi] As a community of faith, love and hope, the church—at least at its best!—is the model for what God finally intends for everyone. The fellowship of the community of faith is an outpost of the Kingdom of heaven in a world divided by suspicion, distrust and violence. The blessings of the Kingdom of God begin to flow into the world through the church, as the Kingdom is enlarged in ever-widening circles through the growing fellowship of believers.
God’s good plan for the world, launched in the Garden of Eden, taken up by Israel, and fulfilled in Jesus, is being carried forward today in the church. Through the community of faith—under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit—the Kingdom of God is spreading across the earth, so that one day the ancient vision of the prophets will be fulfilled, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14).

[i] George Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy spirit, in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, 2000, pp. 177ff.
[ii] Hunsinger, p. 179.
[iii] Hunsinger, pp. 187, 188.
[iv] Hunsinger, p. 179.
[v] Hunsinger, p. 190.
[vi] Hunsinger, p. 191.
[vii] Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.2. pp. 312-314; cf. Hunsinger 190.
[viii] Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many,  p. 181.
[ix] Cf. Gunton, p. 182.
[x] Gunton, p. 183.
[xi] Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, pp. 250, 251.
[xii] Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love, p. 117.
[xiii] Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, pp. 250, 251.
[xiv] Pinnock, p. 117.
[xv] Cf. Pinnock, p. 117.
[xvi] Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, Broadman & Holman, 1994, p. 636. Cited in Pinnock, p. 117.
[xvii] Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1, p. 274; cf. Hunsinger, p. 189.
[xviii] Hunsinger, p. 189.
[xix] Pinnock, p. 118.
[xx] Pinnock, p. 117.
[xxi] Hauerwas & Willimon, Holy Spirit, p. 39.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Discipleship; Living in Union with Christ

Radically and unapologetically Christ-centered
Announcing the publication of my new book (or manual) called "Discipleship: Living in Union with Christ."

Drawing on the thought of T.F. Torrance, as well as James Torrance and Karl Barth, this manual will challenge many readers to think of discipleship in a new way that is based on what Jesus has done for us, not on what we must do for Jesus. Unlike many books on discipleship, this manual does not outline a program to follow in order to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. This manual does not describe a series of steps to take in order to become disciples of Jesus, nor does it provide a list of rules we must follow for discipleship. As we shall learn, discipleship is not a program, a series of steps or a list of rules. Discipleship is the fruit of union with Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.

This manual will challenge you to think of Jesus Christ in ways that you may find new, exciting and surprising. In the pages to follow, you will see that Jesus is bigger, better and more beautiful than many have dared to imagine. You will learn that everything needed for discipleship, or Christian living, is graciously given to us in Jesus.

The manuals, booklets and tracts produced, translated and distributed by AsiAfrica Ministries, Inc. clearly and boldly proclaim the good news of God’s love for all humanity as revealed in Jesus Christ. We believe that your faith will be strengthened and your heart gladdened by the teachings you will discover in this manual.

Martin M. Davis, Ph.D.

Available in paperback or ebook at Amazon.com .

For other recent publications, see my author's page at Amazon here.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Academy of Bible and Theology

Dear Readers,

Recently, I launched a new project called the Academy of Bible and Theology (click here), sponsored by AsiAfrica Ministries, Inc. This program is designed to provide FREE educational courses in the basic doctrines of Christianity for pastors and church leaders in the Global South who have little or no formal biblical-theological training (there are many!). Our theological position is the incarnational-Trinitarian theology of T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth and others.

Our first two courses are already available. They are “The Christian Doctrine of God” and “The Doctrine of Jesus Christ.” These courses are written in simple, basic English for readers whose first language is not English. Both courses draw heavily on the work of Torrance and Barth. I am now working on a third course to be called, “The Christian Life: Living in Relationship with God and Neighbour.” I am inviting you to contribute material for this course.

We have more than 300 students from Africa and Asia with more enrolling daily. If you would like to participate in this project, contact me at office@AsiAfricaMinistries.org.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Annunciation and the Way of Grace

The Annunciation

In the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38), we read the story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the peasant girl Mary that she has been chosen to be the virgin-mother of Jesus Christ. The “Annunciation” is the staggering news that an unmarried Galilean teenager from a backwater village in an inconsequential corner of the Roman Empire will be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and will conceive in her womb the Son of God.

The Priority of Grace

The choice of a simple peasant girl to be the “God-bearer,” that is, the virgin-mother of the incarnate Son of God, is a paradigmatic example of the gracious nature of God’s relationship with humanity—a relationship unilaterally determined by the love and goodness of God that in no way depends upon reciprocal human “worthiness.” The choice of Mary to be the mother of Jesus did not depend on any salutary characteristics she possessed that would “qualify” her for the unique role she would play in God’s redemptive plan. There was nothing remarkable to commend the young peasant girl for the awesome responsibility she was to assume. She brought no resources to the God-human encounter. She had no wealth or social standing; she held no important position in society, even in her small village. In terms of worldly power, possessions and prestige, she was of no consequence. Despite her lack of worldly status, however, the angel Gabriel hailed Mary as the “highly favoured one,” who is “blessed among women” because of the unique role she plays in salvation history as the human mother of the fully divine Son of God (Luke 1:28 NKJV).

Notwithstanding her unique, awe-inspiring status as the virgin-mother of Jesus, however, Mary was an ordinary human being—an “earthen vessel” (2Cor 4:7) made of the dust of the ground, an ordinary “sinner” who had fallen short of the glory of God (see Rom 3:23). To be sure, there was nothing extraordinary about Mary to make her “worthy” of her “highly favoured” position.  
Even Mary’s willing consent to God’s plan for her life was not a precondition for God’s goodness towards her. The choice of the young peasant girl to bear the Son of God was not determined by any prior “decision” on her part. To be sure, Mary could not “decide” of her own accord to become the virgin “mother of God.” To the contrary, as the angelic messenger announced, the divine decision to choose Mary had already been made for her. She could only acknowledge the divine decision made on her behalf and allow the word of God to happen to her (1).
Mary freely received the divine favour that God had sovereignly and graciously chosen to bestow upon her by consenting to the extraordinary plan God had prepared for her life, trusting that with God “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). With simple trust and humility, she replied to the angel, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

“Conditional” Grace (?)

Mary, the virgin-mother of Jesus, is an outstanding example of an ordinary human being whose life is transformed by grace. Unilaterally and unconditionally, God graciously bestowed his favour upon the young peasant girl, apart from any prior attempt on Mary’s part to earn divine favour. With trusting consent to the divine plan for her life, Mary simply received God goodness towards her.
Evangelicals often describe “grace” as “unmerited pardon” or “favour.” Often g-r-a-c-e is defined as “God's riches at Christ’s expense.” Evangelicals rightly assert that we cannot “earn” God’s grace. Despite a proper emphasis on the unmerited nature of grace, however, there are—perhaps unintentionally—implicit yet contradictory “conditions” in much evangelical preaching. In this kind of preaching, the gospel is presented in terms of a “contract”: that is, if the sinner fulfils certain conditions, then God will be gracious. Evangelical preachers may claim that God’s goodness and mercy are available only to those who have made a “decision for Christ,” or who have recited “the sinner’s prayer” and “accepted” Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Preachers with a more legalistic bent may attach other conditions to divine grace, asserting that only those who believe specific doctrines or adhere to certain standards of behaviour deserve God’s favour.

According to much contemporary evangelicalism, human salvation is not complete in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Contrary to the words of Jesus when he hung on the cross, it is not “finished”; rather, some task remains undone, to be completed by the repentant sinner; some doctrine must be fervently believed if the fires of “hell” are to be avoided. For many evangelicals, salvation is a mere “potential,” waiting to be “actualized,” or brought to fruition, by some action on the part of the penitent. Only when the sinner has played his or her part in the drama of salvation is he or she “saved.”

The gospel, however, is the good news that our standing before God does not depend upon any decision, belief or action on our part. We do not have to “earn” God’s favour. The gospel proclaims that God’s goodness is freely bestowed upon all in Jesus Christ. Contrary to evangelicalism, grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and presented as a contract whose conditions must be fulfilled if the sinner is to be “saved.” Contrary to Roman Catholicism, grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and constituted the sole property of the church, so that it may be doled out to sinners via the sacraments, penance or confession.

In contrast to the “contractual” view of grace prominent in evangelicalism, or the “sacerdotal” view of Roman Catholicism, wherein priests are regarded as mediators between God and humanity,  grace is God’s self-giving for all humanity in Jesus Christ (see John 3:16). Hence, grace is personal, for grace is identical with Jesus Christ, in whom the “gift” and the “Giver” are one and the same.

A Sinner Encounters Grace

An outstanding portrayal of a sinner’s encounter with grace as a personal Reality is the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus (Luke 19:1ff). As a “chief tax collector,” a servant of the oppressive, pagan government of occupying Rome, Zacchaeus was regarded as a “sinner”—a social-religious outcast shunned by the respectable members of first-century Jewish society, who doubtless resented the wealth he accumulated by “skimming” money from the taxes he collected from his neighbours.

Upon hearing that Jesus was passing nearby on his way to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus, who was short in stature, climbed a sycamore tree, so that he might get a better look at Jesus. When he saw Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus shunned contemporary social convention by inviting himself to the tax collector’s home. Jesus’ gracious intention to “stay at the house” of the chief tax collector triggered the complaints of the local villagers, who disapproved of the Lord’s willingness to lodge in the home of a “sinner.” As a result of his surprising encounter with grace, Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to return fourfold to any he may have cheated. Upon hearing this, Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9, 10).

It is vital to note that, like the Virgin Mary, Zacchaeus had done absolutely nothing to “deserve” what was nothing less than a divine visitation. Zacchaeus merely climbed a tree to get a better look as Jesus passed. Yet, despite the local villagers’ contempt for the tax collector, Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, engaging him in the midst of his sinfulness and greed. Apart from any attempt to make himself worthy—indeed, with no opportunity to make himself worthy!—Zacchaeus freely “received” (Luke 19:6) Jesus into his home. Through his personal encounter with grace, even the sinner Zacchaeus, like the Virgin Mary, was highly favoured by God!

Here again we see the priority of grace. Note that Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to “accept” him before expressing his wish to stay in the tax collector’s home. To the contrary: Zacchaeus did not “accept” Jesus; Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, who had done nothing more than climb a tree. The sinful tax collector could only receive the favour that Jesus had already decided to freely bestow upon him, for, as Jesus proclaimed, “The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

The Transforming Power of Grace

As the direct result of his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was radically transformed, so that he freely and willingly reached out to his neighbours in repentance and restitution. The transforming power of the divine favour Jesus unconditionally bestowed upon Zacchaeus reveals the abject failure of religion to change the human heart. Religion attempts to control “external” behaviour by its emphasis on law rather than grace, expressed in stern-jawed demands for unquestioning submission to human rules and expectations. Yet human sinfulness is an “internal” problem, originating in the “heart” (Matt 15:19), and even the most stringent outward adherence to the demands of religion cannot transform the human heart or constitute even the most zealous “worthy” of the grace of God.

The proclamation of the gospel heralds the end of religion, where “religion” is understood as any attempt to please or appease God through human effort. Grace cannot be “earned” through the onerous demands of religion; grace can only be received by the empty hand that reaches out in trust to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment (see Matt 9:19-21). Zacchaeus is not transformed by the rituals, rules and regulations of the cumbersome religion of his day; rather, he is condemned by his neighbours and scorned as a “sinner” for his failure to live according to its burdensome demands. Rather, Zacchaeus is transformed by God’s love as revealed in the incarnate Son, as Jesus graciously engages him in intimate fellowship.

Jesus’ loving, gracious engagement with the “sinner” Zacchaeus unveils the eternal heart of God. Because Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the “express image” of God (Heb 1:3), the one in whom the “fullness of the Godhead” dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9), and the eternal Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14), his loving act toward Zacchaeus is an expression of the eternal heart of the Triune God, whom scripture describes as “love” (1John 4:8, 16). Jesus shows how God is toward sinners: God engages us, even in our sinfulness, and pours himself out in self-emptying love for us (see Phil 2:5-11)!

The Way of Grace
Returning to the much-loved story of Gabriel’s appearance to the virgin Mary¸ the “Annunciation” appears at the beginning of the life and mission of Jesus Christ as a sign of the way God’s love has taken, not only for Mary, but for each of us (2). We too are the recipients of God’s goodness, and our standing with our heavenly Father does not depend upon our “worthiness” to receive divine favour. The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In Jesus Christ, the world is fully reconciled to the Father (2Cor 5:19; Col 1:20), who has “lavished” his love upon us and claimed us as his children (1John 3:1 NIV). Like Mary and Zacchaeus, ours is simply to receive by faith the grace of God that is already given us in Jesus Christ.
In the old Latin translation of the New Testament, Gabriel greets the young virgin with words made famous in Schubert’s beloved song, “Ave, Maria!” That is “Hail, Mary!” Because of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, this holy day season the angelic hosts joyfully proclaim: “Hail Mary!” “Hail John!” “Hail Susan!” And “hail to you” dear reader, for the good news of the Advent-Christmas season is that, like Mary, we are all highly favoured by God! (3) Amen.


1.      Torrance, T.F. 1957. “When Christ Comes to the Individual.” In When Christ Comes and Comes Again. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, pp. 31-38.

2.      Ibid.

3.      Ibid.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A.S. Radcliff: The Claim of Humanity in Christ (in the Torrance tradition), Post 20

Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp
The “outworking” of sanctification is more than a noetic (“intellectual”) process, wherein we become aware of who we are in Jesus. We are reconciled not only to look toward Jesus as our example, but also to participate in his relationship with the Father in the Spirit. For Torrance, atonement is not the goal of the incarnation; rather, the telos (goal, end) of Christ’s atoning work is communion. As J.B. Torrance asserts, “In love God created us for ‘sonship,’ to find our true being-in-communion, and in Jesus Christ gives us that gift of communion through the Spirit, of being daughters and sons of the Father.”
Comment: When Torrance says that the goal of the incarnation is not atonement, he means "atonement" in the sense of an external transaction (satisfaction, penal substitution, example). In this case, he is not referring to atonement as "at-one-ment."
Comment: In regard to the reason Jesus came, we rightly assert that Jesus came into the world to save sinners ((Mark 10:45). We must not stop there, however.  According to Jesus, eternal life is knowing the Father and the one whom he sent (John 17:3). Therefore, the over-arching reason that Jesus came was to bring us home to the Father. In other words, as Torrance insists, the goal of the incarnation is not atonement (in an external sense) but communion in the Father-Son relationship through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Radcliff draws on JB Torrance to describe three theological models that differentially relate to the outworking of sanctification. First, the Harnack model represents liberal theology, wherein Jesus is seen as a moral teacher that we are too imitate. Second, the existential model, represented by evangelicalism and Protestantism, recognizes the God-humanward movement in Christ’s atoning death on the cross, yet, because it has no concept of the human-Godward movement of the vicarious humanity of Jesus, our response is burdensome, for it is detached from participation in Christ. Third, the incarnational-Trinitarian model of the Torrance tradition appreciates both the God-humanward movement and the human-Godward movement, wherein the Christian life is viewed as “the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father” (JBT).
Radcliff cites T.A. Noble’s book on the Trinity to assert that if we are to take Jesus as an example, we do better to imitate his relationship with the Father in which we share by the Spirit. As we share in that relationship, the outworking of our sanctification follows. Noble offers an interesting analogy of a man falling in love with a woman to illustrate how the desire for communion may express itself in transformed life. The man finds that his relation with the woman turns him out of himself, as she brings out the best in him. The man does not actively seek this change for the better; he seeks the woman! His transformation is the by-product of the relationship. For Noble, it is “objective experience of the real and living God” that results in the subjective transformation we call sanctification.
     Comment: Noble’s analogy of lovers transformed in relationship is noteworthy.
Sanctification conceived in terms of a participatory relationship challenges the external, legal view of sanctification found in Puritanism, whether old or new. As JB Torrance lamented, Puritan preachers sought to instill obedience in their congregations through law and the fear of consequences of disobedience, thereby subordinating God’s filial (relational) purposes to an over-arching legal framework. As Radcliff notes, the Puritans preached law first in order to instill fear, then offered the Gospel as “solace” to those who chose to embrace Christ.
Comment: The Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards is said to have instilled such terror in his hearers that the congregants literally howled and wailed in fear of hell and damnation. This kind of preaching, which is still with us today, presents the Gospel as a threat, rather than as “good news.” As my partners in Africa tell me, this is common fare in their countries, where the Father is portrayed as the “punishing God.” Of course, they learned this kind of preaching from white evangelical-Protestant missionaries. (For this reason, I am committed to bringing incarnational-Trinitarian theology to east Africa and south Asia.)
The Puritans, both old and new, prioritize law over relationship. For the stern-jawed Puritan, it is law rather than grace that leads to repentance. According to J.I. Packer, for example, “Holiness sets its sights on absolute moral standards and unchanging moral ideals, established by God himself.” In regard to “law-breakers,” notes Packer, God can do nothing other than visit them in “displays of retributive judgment, so that all … may see the glory of his moral inflexibility.” Compare that to Radcliff’s inspiring assertion that repentance involves fixing our eyes on Jesus. Wow! What a difference!
Packer rightly asserts that God is not “morally indifferent,” and we should not act toward him as if he were. However, Packer also asserts that we must seek to please God “by consecrated zeal in keeping his law,” accompanied by regular self-examination to identify our shortcomings. In contrast, Radcliff rightly argues that we are not forgiven so that we may have a second chance at keeping the law. She draws on TF Torrance to assert that the Church is not a group of individuals who follow common moral principles; the Church is a community-of-persons ontologically transformed in Christ, who share by the Spirit in his relationship with the Father. Here again, we see the Torrances assertion that our standing vis-à-vis God is relational, not legal. In the “identity-forming” ministry of the Spirit, notes Julie Canlis, we discover that we are sons and daughters of our Father. The Spirit directs us out of ourselves and away from our own attempts at perfect performance toward our relationship with the Father in Jesus. As Canlis writes, “The Holy Spirit ushers us into adoption, not workaholism; the Spirit tells us not so much what to do, but who we are.” Well said! For TF Torrance, an external conception of holy living by adhering to laws is excluded by Paul’s language of the Church as the “body of Christ.” The church “inheres” in Jesus; it does not follow abstract rules. Again we see the assertion that our standing with our Father is relational, not legal.
Comment: The images in the New Testament that describe the Church are organic, not abstract and legal. We are “the body of Christ.” We are the branches who are nourished by the Vine. We are stones built up into a holy Temple, etc.
Following Torrance and Hauerwas, Radcliff argues that law can become a substitute for relationship. Law becomes an end in itself, a program to be achieved rather than a life to be lived in relationship to the Triune God. Because of the capacity of the human heart for deception, notes T.F. Torrance, we may seek to justify ourselves before God and neighbor by a formal, impersonal fulfillment of law in which we remain internally untouched and uncommitted. For Torrance, this de-humanizing endeavor leads to insincerity and hypocrisy.
Comment: Law keeping can easily degenerate into “form” without “substance.” Tragically, law keeping may allow us to turn a blind eye to the joys and perils of a relationship with the Living God. To encounter the Living God in relationship is to be changed, and change can often be painful! (“What the caterpillar calls the ‘end of the world,’ God calls a butterfly.”)
For JB Torrance, we fulfill the law not through adhering to static rules, “but dynamically through the presence of the Spirit in us and our participation in Christ.” Likewise, notes Radcliff, Barth believes that ethical behavior is a matter of following God’s will by the Spirit through participating in Christ. Similarly, Bonhoeffer asserts that the Christian life comes not from being turned inward upon ourselves but rather being turned out of ourselves in relationship with God. [Contrast this with the neo-Puritan insistence upon the inward term of introspection and self-examination.] I think we can briefly summarize all this by saying that godly living is not the consequence of law keeping, but the fruit of relationship. The outworking of sanctification comes not from knowledge of good and evil (i.e., “ethics”) but from our union with God through Jesus in the Spirit.
Radcliff cites David Torrance, who laments that probably ninety per cent of the sermons preached today emphasize cumbersome exhortations to do what is “right,” so that congregants get tired, weary and frustrated—and  ultimately slip away. Radcliff sees this tendency in a new book by the arch-Calvinist, John Piper, who provides a formula for “fighting” against sin, one that consists primarily of exhortations that rely on willpower and struggle. As Radcliff argues, this obscures Christ as the ground of our sanctification in whose intimate communion with the Father we participate by the Spirit.
In contrast to Piper, David Torrance calls for preaching that is centered on Jesus, so that we might come into relationship with the Father. JB Torrance argues that the preacher’s task is not to throw people back upon themselves (as in Piper’s exhortations to willpower and struggle), but to turn people out of themselves toward Christ, so that we might share by the Spirit in his relationship with the Father. As JB Torrance argues, “God’s primary purpose for humans is ‘filial,’ not ‘judicial,’ [i.e., ‘relational’, not ‘legal’] where we have been created in the image of God to find our true being-in-communion, in ‘sonship,’ in the mutual personal relations of love.” As Radcliff notes, “In the outworking of sanctification, God’s primary purpose for humanity is not to adhere to external rules and regulations (judicial) but to participate by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father (filial)” (p. 186).
Key points:
  • ·       The goal of the incarnation is not atonement [in an external sense], but communion with the Triune God of grace.
  • ·       The outworking of sanctification is not a matter of law keeping but of participation in the Son’s relationship with the Father by the Spirit.
  • ·       Neo-Puritanism prioritizes law over grace and reduces sanctification to a wearing struggle.
  •      Law keeping without relationship is form without substance, leading to insincerity and hypocrisy.
  • ·       Christian living arises as we turn away from ourselves to Jesus and the truth of our identity in him, so that we may share in his relationship with the Father by the  Spirit and grow into who we are “in him” (Radcliff).

Let me conclude with a great quote from the 19th C. South African pastor Andrew Murray. It is an excellent antidote to the inward turn of the neo-Puritanism of Packer, Piper and others. I read it this morning in his devotional book, Humility:
     "Being occupied with self, even amid the deepest self-abhorrence, can never free us from self. … Not to be occupied with your sin, but to be occupied with God, brings deliverance from self."

Grace and Response: A Matter of Order

Many years ago, when I was a young man in Bible college, one of my theology professors said to the class, “When I wake up in the morning, ...