One of the things that really bothers me in some Christian circles is the hyper-defense of God’s power and sovereignty. Now, for the record, I am Lutheran in background and emphasis, and Lutherans are not typically known for being big on ‘sovereignty’ type stuff. We’re supposed to see that sort of thing among Calvinists. Actually, though, I see it within Lutherans as much as I see it anywhere else so rather than pick on my Calvinist friends allow me to illustrate it from my own home denomination. (The faithful reader knows that I rarely, rarely, rarely address denominational issues and hardly even allude to them. Stick with me here.)
Lutherans are big on being saved by grace through faith, and not by works. They make a big deal about how a person’s efforts- their own reason and strength (read: or personal decision) aids in one’s salvation. Of course, this is proper to a point. But what then would we make of a comment such as this one from the Apostle Paul? Paul says,
I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. (1 Cor 9:22)
Whoa. Hold the horses. Paul is saving people? Holy cats. I thought that was the work of God! The sole, and exclusive domain of the Holy Spirit! And yet here you have Paul issuing forth blasphemy!
The Lutherans that I know who ‘hyper-defend’ God seem oblivious to this passage, and numerous ones like it. There is irony in this, because Lutherans are theologically equipped to incorporate Paul’s statement in a cogent manner, talking about things like the ‘means of grace,’ the emphasis on vocation, and things of that sort. In this case we might point out that while it is God who saves, surely, he has decided to do this through certain means- and these means include the body of Christ, the Church. (They would add: ‘through the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments.)
But sometimes they just get all in a fit all the same if you include people as agents carrying out God’s mission. That is when you see the ‘hyper-defense’ on display, as if by acknowledging the fact that God uses people to carry out his will, that takes away from the credit that God rightly deserves.
The simple fact is that the Biblical witness is pretty clear: God does tend to use people to carry out his plans on earth. He could have delivered the Israelites from Egypt without involving Moses at all. Sure enough, it was by God’s power that the people were delivered, but he still brought Moses in. Then of course Jesus appointed disciples to go out after his death and resurrection to spread the word. God certainly could have just personally appeared to each and every person on the planet and delivered his message directly. For that matter, he could speak into our minds and be done with it. But he doesn’t do that. Not only does he work through ‘means,’ but he works through people- that is, people themselves are means.
I won’t speculate as to why he has chosen to operate that way. I can venture one thing- I think it is because he wishes to give us the dignity and honor to be ambassadors in that way. I have other thoughts, but it is enough here simply to realize he uses people. This is the clear biblical witness, and it doesn’t take away from God’s sovereignty one bit. If anything (in my book) it makes it all the more impressive.
On top of all of this, when we say that God uses people to carry out his mission on earth, we’re thinking primarily of the Church. And that brings us right back around to the fact that God is doing all of it, because on account of the Mysterious power and plan of God, Jesus walks the earth still, incarnate in the Church- for the bride and bridegroom are ‘one flesh.’ (Eph. 5). The Church is the physical hands and feet of Christ. I believe this as a literal reality. Not a metaphor.
So, it really bugs me when I hear nice and sincere Christians encountering a good that needs to be done and they chuck it off to God to do. Sure, if that ‘good’ is outside your capacity, commit it to prayer and do whatever else you can. But if it is in your power to step in, and you don’t, figuring that God will be the one, just exactly how did you expect God to help that person? Manna from heaven? Ravens? Can God do that? Absolutely. Is that the customary way he operates? No. Christ did show up, physically, to help that person.
There is an old story about a man who is adrift in the ocean and prays to God for help. Three times a ship comes by and they offer to help him and each time he says, “No, I prayed to God to save me, and I’m going to wait!” So the guy gets eaten by sharks and now he’s standing before God and he says, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God looks at him with a blank look and says, “What do you think the ships were for, dude?”
Well, the converse of this story is that the sailors are the hands and feet of God. I hear some Christians talk and I can see them on their ship, seeing the guy adrift and saying to him, “Don’t worry, we prayed for God to help you. He’ll be along shortly to save you!” Uh, yea…
This is reflected in the Scriptures, but I get the feeling that many Christians think that Jesus, John, James, Paul, and Peter were joking. You see, there are a lot of Christians who think that loving God consists of singing praise hymns and getting all warm and fuzzy when they hear an inspiring message from the pulpit. Communion with God stuff. There is probably something to that, don’t get me wrong, but that is not how the New Testament lays out love. Jesus and the apostles are all in agreement on this: if you love God, you will love your brother. If you don’t love your brother, whom you can see, you may think you love God- whom you can’t- but guess what? You don’t. (The book of 1 John sums this up well- see for example 4:19-21)
When we think about what God has done, we naturally want to respond in gratitude and we are rightly enthralled by the Grace of God. But we shouldn’t confuse this enthrallment as exhaustive of what it means to love God. God has told us what what he wants from those who love him, and it isn’t heapings of praise songs or even hymns. It’s really straight forward. Jesus lays it out pretty well in the latter chapters of John: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my command.” “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
What is the command? Was it unclear? Was he joking? He says what you’re supposed to do if you love God- its to love one another. And in light of the foregoing, you should see why: when we love one another, God is loving the other person through us. That’s why we can’t kick it up the chain of command when some opportunity to help someone is in front of us, and it is in our power to do something. There is no ‘up the chain.’ There is just us. Granted, we will often lack the exact thing needful. Yes, we can pray. But we can also come along side- and we ought to, for the comfort we may bring is the very Comfort of God.
And that isn’t a metaphor.
(2 Cor. 1:3-7)
CAVEAT CAVEAT CAVEAT DISCLAIMER DISCLAIMER Yes, I know that I fail on all of these points myself and yes I know that there are a great many saints that do not need to hear such exhortations and yes I know that it remains true that all this is not our own efforts but in the final analysis is the power of God through the Holy Spirit etc… which is pretty much my point… CAVEAT CAVEAT CAVEAT DISCLAIMER DISCLAIMER