By Linda Rex
So far in this series, I have written about how Christ is our reconciliation and perfect relationship with our Abba, but often we seek to hide our sin and brokenness rather than humbly bringing it into the light of God’s love so we can live fully in the reconciliation which is ours in Christ Jesus. I showed how Scripture shows that even though it may seem from our human view that God loves some people more than others and even though our current experience may make us believe otherwise, each of us individually is a beloved child of Abba, included in God’s love and life through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit.
People who do not know God or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love, even as they resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself. They are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ and God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world. Even though the part they play may be a negative or passive one, Christ still seeks expression by the Spirit through them and God continues to work to bring about his will here on earth as it is in heaven. But these people do not experience the benefits of what Christ has worked out in restoring our right relationship with Abba because they do not believe.
How is it possible for someone who does not believe in God or Jesus to participate in God’s love and life? Well, first of all, no one has any existence whatsoever apart from Jesus Christ. We read in Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (NASB)” We don’t exist independently of God even though we often act like we do and make decisions as if we do. Our ignorance or disbelief does not stop God from loving us and caring for us. He makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust, and often intervenes in situations because he feels compassion for someone rather than just because they believe or are obedient to him.
Secondly, when the Word took on our human flesh, he joined our humanity with God’s divinity in hypostatic union—a union which is very real, but not participated in or experienced by us as human beings except by faith in Jesus by the Spirit. Our active participation in Christ’s perfected humanity by faith means we are able to experience the benefits of living in Christ’s perfect harmony with Abba by the Spirit. We are able to experience and live in warm fellowship with the indwelling Christ, who with Abba and by the Spirit, takes up residence in human hearts and begins to transform them from the inside out. Someone who does not know or believe in Jesus may be a passive participant, while the reconciliation which Jesus made possible remains one-sided and their relationship with God stunted and incomplete.
God is at work in this world in many ways—just look around. He’s feeding people, teaching people, healing people, protecting people. People participate in what God is doing in this world in ways sometimes they don’t even recognize. I was thinking of that earlier this week as I grabbed some clothes out of the dryer and began folding them. My usual thought is frustration at having to take the time to do this mundane chore. But this time the Spirit snuck right in there and gave me a heart of gratitude that I had clothes to fold. Then the next thought I had was, I am folding clothes with Jesus, participating with him in the care of the home he has given me to use and take care of. All of a sudden, I didn’t mind so much having to get this chore done because I was doing it with Jesus.
When we think in terms of our existence as being entered into by and shared in a real way with our Lord Jesus Christ, we begin to see other people are included in the same manner in God’s life. The garbage truck came by today and gathered up all the garbage in the cans pushed out to the street. Those diligent men participated in Christ’s effort to keep this world a little cleaner. Was what they did exactly how Jesus might do it if he were here? No, probably not. But in many ways, the way we participate with Jesus in things is like the toddler pushing a little plastic mower as he follows his dad pushing the big gas-powered mower across the lawn. Our efforts are feeble and broken, but we share in a real way with what God is doing in this world in and through Jesus Christ. It’s all about relationship—God’s relationship with us is secure in Christ, and we are free to respond or not to in return.
Lastly, when we look at what God is doing in the world, we need to be reminded that God’s thoughts and ways are much different than ours. He is a relational God, and much of what he does is wrapped up in creating and restoring relationships between himself and us and between each of us. When we look at events in the Old Testament, and God’s covenant relationship with Israel, we must remember God’s overall intent was the redemption of all humanity, not just working with a particular person or people.
And we need to remember God exists beyond our human time while at the same time entering into our time in and through Jesus. So we cannot look at God’s involvement in human affairs merely from a linear point of view, with one event happening after the other. We need to grasp the possibilities which were opened up in the incarnation of Christ including the reality of his being the beginning and the ending of all things, the Alpha and the Omega.
The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, spoke about the Jews as stumbling over the stumbling block who is Christ, but only so that the Gentiles could be gathered in. He gives the impression that in due time many who were lost will be gathered in at a later date as they come to understand and trust in the grace of God offered us through Jesus Christ. But he also in that same context, uses the word “remnant” to describe the Jews, as though only a few would be saved.
Jesus made an interesting observation about the people who died when the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by him, as well as those killed in the cities of Tyre and Sidon. He told the seventy when he sent them out to preach the gospel, heal and cast out demons that they should expect to be rejected by some people. In that case, he said:
“But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom than for that city. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades! The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10:10-16 NASB).
Jesus indicated that given the opportunity, these people who died would have repented if they had seen or experienced the miracles Jesus was doing. They would have humbled themselves and responded to the gospel of Jesus with humility and repentance. He said it would go better in the final judgment for these pagan unbelieving Gentiles than it would for those who had heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and refused it in these places Jesus had sent his disciples.
It is because of these and other passages in Scripture that I have some reservations about condemning all past unbelievers straight into hell. If Jesus believed they would have repented if given the opportunity, why would he ignore that and just reject and condemn them? If Jesus is God’s final judgment on sin and death, perhaps we need to rethink how we approach this whole topic. Instead of approaching it in terms of cause and effect, we should approach it in terms of relationship—the relationship Jesus forged for all humanity with his Abba in his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and which he has made available to all in and through his Holy Spirit. Why assume that God is indifferent to or has rejected each and every idolatrous person throughout history, when his ultimate purpose was to include them all in his love and life?
The apostle Paul wrote: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:32-36 NASB). There is a centrality to Christ which we must keep in mind when thinking about judgment and the ways of God. We don’t want to limit God’s grace and love, but we also must acknowledge there are consequences to refusing to live in the truth of who we are in Jesus. God is not willing that any perish (2 Peter 3:9) but there are some who have clung to the blindness of Satan which has twisted their souls and have refused to turn and repent.
In any case, each and every person is loved by God and forgiven in Jesus, and blessed with the presence of the Spirit in their lives. They are free to receive this or reject it. As they go through life the Spirit continues to work to draw them deeper into relationship with their Abba and to trust in what Jesus has done for them. What God will do for each and every person after they die, then, is fully up to Jesus, for he is both the Judge and the Judged.
Dear Abba, thank you for all you have done for us in Jesus. We are grateful to share life with you and to participate with you in all the things you are doing in this world through Jesus and in the Spirit. May we respond fully with gratitude, humility, repentance, and trust as you draw us to yourself. We give you the praise and glory, and in your Name Jesus, we pray. Amen.
“And the LORD said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.’ Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the LORD. Abraham came near and said, ‘Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not 1spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?’” Genesis 18:20-25 NASB
by Linda Rex
At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in Grace Communion International have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)
So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?”
This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.
So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.
Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.
In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.
This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.
But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.
This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.
As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.
The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:
Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.
But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.
It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.
My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”
The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.
When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.
Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV