Archives For Gulley

Atonement….

April 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

One of the current foundations of the Christianity is the atonement. Generally that is thought to be Jesus taking the wrath of God for us with his substitutional crucifixion in order to appease God wrath toward man’s sinfulness.  I, like many others I’m sure, thought that atonement was a foundational issue with Jesus and the early church.  In reality it was post-Constantine theologians who gave us the doctrine of original sin and the blood atonement, the belief that Jesus came to earth solely for the purpose of dying for our sins, was a doctrine not fully developed in the church until the tenth century.  It was almost upsetting to me to learn this fact since so many of my gathered beliefs hinged on it.

We all like to think that the things we are told to believe about Jesus  were established by him.  In reality the idea of atonement was not settled until centuries after his death. Yes, Jesus mentioned here and there about dying for us but I don’t now believe it was ever a central theme. Even the concept of man’s innate sinfulness is still a matter for disagreements.  Are we born bad and must be saved, as some assert, or are we born good, as others maintain, but have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong? Was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary for the salvation of the world or was he here for other, or maybe additional. purposes?

Many think that if we disregard sacrificial atonement then we must throw Christianity out the window as Jesus’ death meant nothing.  To those the idea of universal salvation is pure heresy. But to others, like Philip Gulley who we are currently studying, it meant no such thing.  They believe that while it was unnecessary for God to come in the form of Jesus to kill himself, Jesus’ time on earth was to among other things to teach us how to live and how to love. While that purpose is very encompassing he also physically conquered death by his resurrection. That is no small thing!

Sacrificial atonement is something that I have always had trouble understanding. Why would God need to take on another form and kill himself to satisfy is own wrath?  Robin Meyers in his book entitled “The Underground Church” stated:

It is no coincidence that it took as long for the idea of the blood atonement to be fully formed as it took for Christians artists to begin to show us an image of the corpse of Jesus hanging on a cross.

No dead Jesus for a thousand years. This is not to say that the suffering of Jesus is unimportant; indeed it bears witness to the depth of his capacity to Love

It is not widely acknowledged in many Christian churches just how unresolved the issue of atonement is. It continues to be widely discussed even today.

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If Grace is trueSince the very beginning, the disciples of Jesus have tried to destroy the opposition. Instead of patiently awaiting the transformation of others, we’ve quickly divided the world into “us” and “them.” We haven’t even reserved this distinction for those of other religions. We’re intolerant of any deviation from the party line. Catholics thought Protestants apostate and damned. Protestants returned the favor, then splintered into a variety of denominations. Many of those knocking on doors and sending missionaries overseas remain convinced their version of the Church is the only true Church.

This exclusive understanding of salvation has its comforts. It allows us to feel special, righteous, and part of the “in” crowd. However, in an increasingly pluralistic world, remaining comfortable with theological exclusivity is more and more difficult….

More disturbing are encounters with gentle, humble, compassionate people who understand salvation differently. What if they’re right and we’re wrong? Most of us ignore that question.

Limiting our interactions to those like us is one cure for discomfort. Another is to redouble our efforts to recruit more disciples to our group. There is strength in numbers. When denominations announce their membership or religions count their adherents, they imply numbers are an assurance of salvation….

We are uncomfortable with the thought that God might be at work in all the world, in all people, and even in all religious systems. Sadly, I’ve discovered that traditional Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share one common belief—they are certain God won’t save everyone.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 157-159). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The fights within the Christian church are the most troubling to me especially those over what to believe and that is almost all of them.  We have drifted so far from Jesus’ teaching to be one and he and the father are one.  Are there really any real Christian churches among us?  This troubling doubt about the homogeneity of the church has caused me to gradually migrate over into the spiritual but not religious category. The zeal that we all use to differentiate ourselves from other Christians, let alone those of other faiths, totally turns me off.

As Mr. Gulley says above I think a primary cause for this division within the church is seeking a cure for discomfort. We just don’t like to believe things that we are uncomfortable with. We want to be with others who think like we do; we just don’t like conflicts in our lives and particularly in our religious lives.  Counting membership is very important to every church I have been a member of. It is not good enough to call someone to Christianity but  instead they must be a part of our sub-sub-sub set of Christianity.

I’m sure it terrifies many Christians to think that maybe God will save everyone in the end and that what we believe in not as critical to our salvation as how we live out our faith.  Being a follower of Christ is not about getting more members, it is about loving each other and loving God.  I like the Lincoln quote about whether God is on our side or are we on God’s side. As for me and my house we will let God be God and not try to take any power from him. If God wants to save us all by one method or another it is certainly not my place to question it.

The one thing I like about the emergent trend now taking over the church is that they say they might not have it right about everything they espouse. Admitting that you could be wrong about some things is the beginning of bringing Jesus’ church back together.

If Grace is trueWe can’t have it both ways. We can’t honor the words of the men and women of the Bible while ignoring their example. They trusted their experiences with God more than the words of those who preceded them. They believed in a God of fresh words. How can we canonize their words but ignore their radical obedience to the voice of a living God? We have become people who read well but listen poorly.

Yet, if we were to read Scripture carefully, we would discover an interesting truth. Of the nearly four hundred and fifty times when Scripture speaks of the “word of God,” only a handful of references imply any written document. In Scripture, the “word of God” is almost always spoken or heard. The word of God is a voice. It is experienced.

Time and again, those who opposed Jesus would quote Scripture. They would remind him of the Sabbath law, the requirement to fast, the provision for divorce, and the penalty for adultery. Jesus seemed unimpressed with a person’s ability to quote Scripture. His interest was in a person’s ability to hear God’s voice. He said, “He who belongs to God hears what God says” (John 8:47). To limit the word of God to the written word is to muzzle God.

This doesn’t mean I reject or ignore the Bible. It means I remember that the God I am reading about is looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear. 

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 40-41). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

We can’t have it both ways.  We can’t say that God told us everything he needed us to know two-thousand years ago and then say that God doesn’t speak to us today. But that is just the dichotomy that many Christians put themselves in so that they can believe that the Bible is literal and inerrant and the final word.  As the quote says “we have become people who read well but listen poorly”. I think that is the case with most Christian denominations today. My Quaker friends, of which the two authors above are members, might be an exception to that general thought but there seem to be few others. It is very interesting to see the quote above about the use of the biblical phrase “word of God” being a spoken word not a written word.

I don’t know about those of Jewish faith if any of them believe in the literal truth in their holy documents but certainly many Christians are told to believe in the literal truth of the Old Testament which is based on the Torah. Jesus again and again throughout his time on earth told us not to believe in things that were considered law by the clergy of his day.  I remember vividly the places where Jesus said “you have heard it said… but….” It seems that Jesus did more discounting of the then Scripture than he did backing it.

As Mr. Gulley said that doesn’t mean that we are to reject or ignore the Bible. We must understand that much of that text was more about passed down stories of ancient times than they were about lessons for today.  God continues to whisper in our ears but he also speaks to me through through these ancient stories…  Yes, as my once clergy friend says I have to be aware that some things I might hear are not from God. But I must also be aware that some things I read in the ancient text are just stories. Jesus told me that much….

Gracae Book CoverI’ve never experienced a God of wrath. I’ve heard such a God preached. I’ve read of such a God. I’ve encountered wrathful people who claimed to be acting on God’s behalf. I’ve even allowed such sentiments to tarnish my view of God. Yet, in the midst of all these distortions, I never experienced a wrathful God.

The God I’ve experienced is the God of Jesus—a God of unlimited patience, infinite love, and eternal faithfulness. Jesus described a God who waits long through the night, with the light lit and the door open, confident his most defiant child will one day realize his love and turn toward home. Jesus revealed a God who loves the unlovable, touches the untouchable, and redeems those thought beyond redemption. He said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9). My earliest experiences were with the love of Jesus.

I want to start off this mini-serious around the book by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland entitled If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person with a quote from the beginning pages. Being I buy most of my books from Amazon I can review a few pages to decide whether I want to purchase the book.  When I read these words I knew this was a book I wanted to learn more from.

I must admit that most of my church experiences have not aligned with the assumption that God will eventually reconcile all souls back to him. Especially from my Protestant years, I was taught  that I was to fear a wrathful God who would send me to an eternity of pain and suffering if I didn’t do what the church leaders told me to do. I was told to fear the power and wrath of God or risk eternal damnation. I was told that God only viewed me as worth no more than a piece of snot but he loved me anyway.

I was told that all the bad things that have happened in my life was probably just God getting back at me for things I had done in my life. It was his retribution for not being perfect. But even with all this rhetoric about a vengeful God I, like the quote above,  can’t say that I have ever really experienced a God of wrath.  I have encountered wrathful people inside and outside the churches I have attended over the years. They insisted on telling me week after week that people like us, that is those who made a declaration of faith in the beliefs they espoused and attended their particular version of church were saved from God’s wrath but just about everyone else would not make the cut.

When I dared to go off on my own and study the words of Jesus without those fearful words being chanted in my ears I discovered a different God. Now I will admit that there are some words attributed to Jesus that I can’t yet understand (I will have to do another series on that topic) but the vast majority that I do presently understand is about a God of love. One who has an agape, that is unconditional and infinite, love for me and all those he created.  With this new view of God I am beginning to align with Mr. Gulley’s notion that God will save every person.  How he is going to do that is not up to me and my petty understanding of him.  I just know that he is an all powerful God and if he loves us as the Bible proclaims then he will eventually bring us all back to his fold.

Much more about this and the book in the following posts.

This is the fourth post in the series on a book by Philip Gulley entitle If God Is Love. Here is the quote for this one.

This wrestling with our theology, though absolutely necessary to spiritual growth, often puts our lives out of joint. On several occasions, I thought, “Remind me again why I wanted to question and challenge the beliefs I was taught.” The answer, as with all change, is because what had once satisfied no longer filled me with joy and peace. This spiritual dissatisfaction is a divine gift. God loves us too much to let us remain less than what we can be. Life is designed to challenge our inadequate beliefs and behaviors. Fortunately, God also guides and directs us in new ways. I discovered different answers to questions I’d thought forever settled.

These words have had a profound effect on me the last few years. I was, in so many words, asked to leave my church of eight years because I had grown spiritually enough to know that some of the things they were teaching were simply not what Jesus intended. That discovery, and the sharing of it with some others did put my life out of joint. But as mentioned above this spiritual dissatisfaction was really a divine gift. I no longer found it necessary to believe that Jesus expected nothing from me while I am on this earth. I can now take his constant mantra about being my brother’s keeper more literally than before.  God just loves us too much to let us remain less than what we can be.

God gives us challenges throughout our lives. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, we simply ignore them and go on as we had before. But when we accept the challenge we grow in ways we never expected. Painful as it was at the time, throwing away the “poor worthless sinner” excuse for doing nothing in the life  has made it much more rewarding than remaining in that dulled state of existence I was in while a member of that congregation.