May 15, 2003
My recent writings on theological topics have generated a number of questions from those few people who are masochistic enough to read this stuff. What follows is an exchange of correspondence between G, one of my readers, and me on a number of issues arising from my Easter Message and my Preach, Teach and Encourage follow up.
The correspondence has been sanitized to remove personal identifying information and to eliminate extraneous discussions. An ellipse in brackets (“[…]”) reflects irrelevant text that has been removed. Other text in brackets is new or revised material that replaces personal identifying information.
The exchange of correspondence begins with my note to him following up on a conversation about my work that we had just concluded.
Driving home I thought of an excellent personal example of "assuming liabilities." As I explained, [I know a woman who has a] gay friend, [who] has colorectal cancer as well as HIV. He is in an abusive relationship with a guy who is simply taking advantage of him.
[My friend] could simply "preach, teach and encourage." If [she] did that, [she] would just tell him not to renew his lease, plan to move home with his mother in [his home state], don't let D (the abusive other) take the furniture, go talk to his lenders and get out of his auto payments, etc. That's all good advice, but for this guy it's not enough. He doesn't have the skills to do this, particularly since he is so sick.
So, [she’s] offered to "assume" a lot of his problems. [She] told him that [she would arrange for a lawyer to] go with him to the banks and explain that they can wait for him to default on the car loans, go through the trouble of repossessing the cars (one of which will be in [his home state with him] and one will be with D, God knows where), etc. or they can have the keys today in exchange for a cancelled note. All he has to do is be there to sign the release. [She’ll] arrange to have the furniture put in a storage container and shipped to his mother. Same thing. He just has to sign the papers. He can come live in [her] house until his medical condition is stabilized and he's ready to go back to [his home state]. ([She] is already making the co-payments for the HIV meds that he can't afford.)
Since, assuming he's sinned at all, [she’s] exercised the power of God's forgiveness that [she] received as a result of Christ's gift of the Spirit, [she] didn't retain any sins he may have committed. But, [she has] offered to assume his burdens and sins (if and to the extent they are sins). [Her] offer, if accepted, will impose on [her] - voluntarily - obligations that [she doesn’t] have now.
Going back to the business sale analogy, the buyer can buy the assets and leave the liabilities behind, or can buy the stock and take on the liabilities automatically. Often, that result is not desirable. Thus, to achieve an optimal result, the buyer of assets can assume - voluntarily - liabilities that would otherwise be left behind with the seller, or the seller of stock can assume back - again voluntarily - liabilities that otherwise would go with the buyer.
So, too, Christians can assume the burdens or sins that they may have forgiven (and, therefore, not retained) or the burdens of others that are not necessarily the result of sin. In the transactional context, the decision to assume liabilities is a financial one. In the theological context, the decision to assume burdens is a manifestation of love.
The point of my Easter message is that the greatest commandment calls us to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves, but there is no definition of what that means. Is it enough to simply "preach, teach and encourage" or do we have to assume the burdens and pain of others?
I submit that each of us derives more (that is, creates more life meaning and greater contribution toward salvation) from the latter than the former. But as to whether and when loving our neighbor compels us to "assume" rather than "preach, teach and encourage" is a decision left to our discretion and conscience - a decision we make at the peril of being wrong. That is the existential problem facing the Christian believer: When have the obligations of the greatest commandment been satisfied?
I like your example of what it means to
"assume" the problems of sin or "retain" the sins of
others. It is much clearer to me now and I am inspired by the notion.
One issue. On two occasions (once in the Easter mesage and then in the e-mail you wrote) you speak of "contribution toward salvation." There is no such thing as far as I know. Salvation is simply a result of grace and grace is actually in stark contrast to "earning" anything. Am I misunderstanding your intent or are you one of those "salvation by works" guys? We are saved by grace and not by works least any man should boast (paraphrase).
I'd love to discuss grace with you, even if we fundamentally agree.
As for salvation, I am decidedly not a "salvation by works" guy. I see why my "contributes toward salvation" language - admittedly poorly worded - would be confusing.
I'm not entirely sure that I've fully clarified my thinking on what salvation means, although I'm going to take a shot at it subject to my retained right to change my mind later. I suspect that my view of salvation is decidedly "off the reservation", but I'll pass it along for whatever it is worth. I will also share my understanding of grace.
Without Christ, the existentialist philosophers are right. Life has no quintessential meaning and the individual is faced with the hopeless task of creating meaning solely through acts of individual free will.
Before Christ, Judaism had a more or less legalistic view of righteousness and salvation. (Yes, I realize this is a gross overstatement, but I want to keep this message relatively short.). The Judaic construct was based on a series of covenants between God and His chosen people in which God offers salvation as consideration for honor and worship by His people expressed through obedience to a series of commandments and laws. To the extent this characterization is accurate, Judaism is a "justification by works" theology.
Now, you can find Biblical support for almost any proposition, but I believe that God’s decision to provide a human ministry together with a gracious, total and absolute forgiveness of sin was a total rejection of His former “justification by works” model. I come to this conclusion based on my reading of the Jeremiah covenant. The new paradigm is a “covenant” based on grace and love.
Christ established the new relationship with the greatest commandment. As I said in my Easter message, this is good news and bad news.
The good news is that the rigidity of the Law has been replaced with a subjective standard, thereby affording the believer greater opportunity to utilize free will in pursuit of righteousness and salvation.
The bad news is that the certainty of the Law has been replaced with a subjective standard, thereby imposing on the believer greater responsibility for exercising free will in pursuit of righteousness and salvation.
Thus, the believer is faced with an existential challenge only slightly less discouraging than that faced by the non-believer. The non-believer has no standard to determine the likely contribution of his acts of free will to the meaning of his life. The Christian has only the minimal standard of the greatest commandment.
So, how does this relate to salvation? And, what does salvation mean, anyway?
Keeping in mind that I’m still formulating my views on this issue, salvation cannot mean exoneration of sin, because that has already been achieved by Christ’s assumption of the sins of the world and subsequent death. The sins of the believer are already forgiven, so salvation cannot mean salvation from the consequences of sin.
My theology of existential Christianity is that believers are relieved of their sins, but are then left to create meaning for their lives writing on a clean slate, so to speak. They exercise free will to pursue conformance with the greatest commandment, but face the uncertainty that necessarily results from the subjectivity of that commandment. So, the believer never knows whether or not he had achieved, or maximized, the meaning of his existence. He is afflicted with the same existential angst as the non-believer.
Here is where I go way off the reservation. I do not know what “everlasting life” means, and I do not know that I believe in Heaven as it is commonly portrayed. And, I don’t know whether or not it matters. I believe, however, that there is for each of us a judgment day, although I do not believe that day is some unspecified day at the end of time. Instead, I believe that judgment day is the day of death and it is on that day that the believer achieves, or receives – I’m not sure how to put it – God’s salvation, which consists of total relief of the believer’s existential angst and uncertainty.
This is, as you correctly note, a gift of grace, without regard to whatever measure of meaning that the believer has, in fact, achieved for his life. Regardless of whether, or the extent to which, the believer has succeeded in maximizing life’s meaning by exercise of free will, he is relieved of his anxiety and fear. It is enough that he tried. The non-believer faces death never knowing whether or not his life had any meaning and without any relief from his fear of failure.
As for grace itself, I return to my legal perspective. The Old Testament story is one of a series of covenants between God and His chosen people. “Covenant” is another word that lawyers know well. “Covenant” means contract and contracts, in turn, are promises that the law will recognize and enforce. The essence of a contract is consideration, an exchange of promises. A naked promise is not enforceable.
If, for example, I say, “G, I will give you $100” and then reneg, you cannot sue me because my promise is not supported by consideration on your part and, therefore, my promise is not one that the law will recognize and enforce. On the other hand, if I say, “G, I will give you $100 in exchange for your promise to provide [consulting services]”, and you say, “OK”, the law will force me to pay the money (and will force you to provide the [services]).
If you look at the Old Testament, it is a series of contracts between God and His people. “You obey these commandments and I will give you the Promised Land.” “You obey these commandments and you will be My chosen people.” Etc. In every case, there was an exchange of promises between God and people.
As I see it, grace is an enforceable naked promise. Ordinarily, you cannot rely on a naked promise because it is not enforceable. God’s grace, however, is a naked promise of unconditional love and redemption on which the believer can rely without having provided specific consideration in return.
Thus, returning to the [customer/consulting services] analogy, if I give you a check for $100 and you spend time with me, but you spend all the time talking about the weather or baseball scores [instead of providing consulting services], I’ll stop payment on the check and defend your claim for the money by arguing that you didn’t provide the consideration you promised. The Christian believer does not face that risk. However inadequate his (reasonable, good faith) performance during his life, he can rely on God’s grace without risk.
Down to theology.
 Jer 31:33-34
is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the LORD .
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD ,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,"
declares the LORD .
"For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more."
 Mat 22:34-38
34Hearing that Jesus had
silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them,
an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
 Christ also said that His message was not in derogation of the Law. See, Mat 5:17-19, below. His point, in my view, was that those who comply with the greatest commandment will coincidently find themselves complying with the Law.
17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.