Lessons in Faith: The Nature and Character of God

Lessons in Faith: The Nature and Character of God

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This entry is an excerpt from a forthcoming release from Seedbed by Dennis F. Kinlaw. We are pleased to publish a series of theological reflections collected over the span of his life of service.

God taught me many lessons about faith, but the most important thing was not about our world and how to live in it. It was about the nature and character of God, the One who gave us our world and who wants to draw us into an intimate fellowship with Himself. The full richness of the understanding of God and the extensive implications of that insight did not fully dawn on me in college. It took awhile for me to realize that I had been given a conception of God that was really quite different from that of many evangelical Christians. I found myself more comfortable with it as the years passed because I found it spiritually so stimulating and intellectually so satisfying.

The power and the creative character of what I had learned has come home afresh to me through reading in a new history of religion in America, Mark Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Noll writes about the Methodist revival. In 1771 when Francis Asbury came to this country there were 300 Wesleyans and four Methodist preachers in America. Before Asbury died that 300 had grown to some 180,000, of whom some 140,000 were white and some 40,00 plus were African-Americans. A million people could be found in their camp meetings. By 1860 one of every three church members in the United States was a Methodist. But perhaps more significant, Noll tells us that theology generally “was moving in an Arminian or a Methodist direction” and that “many of America’s traditionally Calvinistic denominations were coming to sound more and more Methodistic…” and Methodism “was becoming America’s most successful religion . . .” (Mark Noll. America’s God. [Oxford University Press:  Oxford, 2002], 342).

It should be noticed that the theology that produced this transformation in the American religious scene was what the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, and the Baptists, those who had had the center of the religious stage, considered heterodox, a departure from orthodoxy. It was, in fact, discontinuous with that of Jonathan Edwards and the others who had been the primary factors in determining the religious character of the eighteenth century in the life of the country. The key figure in all of this change, as we said, was Francis Asbury who was the primary spokesman for this different theology but who also, because of that theology brought a different approach to ministry to the country. He found He could not be content to settle comfortably in the East but determined, as far as he was able with his itinerants, to proclaim the gospel as they understood it in every village and cabin and to every person in the new nation. Their theology was a prime factor in their passion—to reach every cabin for Christ.

What was that theology? Noll is quite clear in his presentation of it. First, Wesleyans believed that, when Christ died on the Cross, He died for all people. They affirmed that God’s love is universal and that God is not willing that anyone should perish. Thus, just as salvation is needed by all, it is also available to all. This view of God and his love, for the descendants of Edwards and his like, was heterodox and dangerous. Secondly, the Methodists held that, since people are bound in the bondage of sin and cannot even will to be free, God in his love comes in a grace which they called “prevenient” and seeks every sinner. He is not content that they should be lost. Thirdly, this gift of grace is not saving but restores a self-determining capacity that had been lost in the fall, a self-determining capacity that makes a person able to respond to the overture of grace but responsible for the rejection of that grace. This gift, in Noll’s terms, enabled the recipient “to choose for God and for a holy life.” The fourth distinctive was the belief that after justification a believer retains free will that makes it possible for one to turn away from Christ and lose his or her salvation. Finally, as Noll says, “in an affirmation that was as faithfully championed by Methodists as it was derided by their foes, they held that it was possible by God’s grace for Christian believers to become perfectly sanctified, or, in John Wesley’s phrase, to enjoy ‘a deliverance from inward as well as outward sin’” (336).

This theology had a remarkably transforming influence on the American religious scene. It was this view of God that gave the itinerants their passion, that drove them. This theology changed the character of a significant part of the American public.

Does one’s theology actually make a difference in one’s daily life? Asbury realized that theology had potentially saving implications for all humans. He also knew that his theology meant that he had a responsibility to see that, if humanly possible, every person in this new country had an opportunity to receive that salvation. Suddenly, I felt I had a key to the understanding of what drove this man who in over forty years never had a post office box, a home or even a bed of his own. He slept away from home every night for forty-four years. His home was a saddle. What was it that drove him? The fact was that God had put His own love in Asbury’s heart, and now he must care, as His Father did, for all. His view of the universal character of the atonement meant that there was something universal about his call. The gospel was for everyone. Therefore it must be carried to all, so Asbury took up that burden.

The practical implications of this theology are staggering. When Jonathan Edwards, another great American theologian, arose in the morning he knew that every person that He would meet that day would need the salvation that He had to present, but he could only hope that somewhere among those to whom he would preach, there would be a few who could respond to his offer because God had decided to include them in his elect. When he stood to preach, he could only hope that there might be some of the elect in his congregation who could respond to the gospel. Asbury, on the other hand, was convinced that when he arose in the morning that every person whom he would meet that day needed the salvation that he had to offer and could, because of the work of the Spirit in prevenient grace, respond positively to Christ. When he arose in those frontier cabins to preach to his small audience, he knew that every person to whom he had the privilege of presenting the gospel was a potential saint. This theology gave him a confidence that he did not work alone, that the Spirit of God went before him in the life of every person that he would meet. Francis Asbury knew that he was never first in anyone’s life. The Spirit in prevenient grace preceded him. His role was that of a second witness, simply to recommend the One who was already at work in the life of the one to whom he spoke. The passion that came from Asbury’s view of God drove him and became the cause of spiritual and moral change for the nation. That view of God means that love is not just something God does, it is who He is. It is this understanding of God that our world needs so desperately.

Not only does this theology give us a different view of God; it also gives a different view of the purposes of the atonement and the potential contained in that atonement for all the world. Wesley and Asbury believed in justification by faith and were one in that with the Reformed tradition, Edward’s tradition. They also believed that Christ died to do much more. Salvation was not just for the forgiveness of sins. It was for much more than a ticket to get people satisfactorily past the final judgment. It also contained within it the power to remake men and women through the coming of the very life of God in new birth into the one who would believe. God Himself through his indwelling Spirit gives us a greater power than that in the world. That means that sin is not inescapable for the believer. There is really a power in that divine life that now lives within us to enable us to live a life of victory and not of defeat in respect to sin. As John says, “Greater is He that is in us than He that is in the world.” There was also the conviction that when God comes into a person in His Spirit that He sheds abroad in the inner heart of the believer the very love of God that the three persons of the Triune-Godhead have for one another, the love that is the very nature of God. Thus a person can through that indwelling Spirit know what it means to have a clean heart if one chooses to free the Spirit to do what He wants to do within us. As Noll says about Wesley’s faith, he believed that in the blood of Christ there was potentially for every human person “a deliverance from inward as well as outward sin,” that one could actually come to where he or she, through the indwelling Spirit and that divine love, could fulfill the law that calls us to love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul and with all of our being and our neighbor as ourselves.

That theology was considered heterodox to the most of the non-Methodist contemporaries of Asbury. That means that we must not avoid the question as to whether Asbury and his successors made too great a claim for the redemptive purposes of God. The question is not about human capabilities. Rather, it is a question about the power of the blood of Christ. Does the shed blood of Christ have within it the power to reach into the depths of the human heart with full cleansing power?

A story from the life of Corrie Ten Boom has helped me at this point. After a brutal experience in a Nazi concentration camp where her sister whom she loved very much had died, Corrie found herself with a ministry of healing for the broken people who survived that war. She came to see that a major theme for her must be that of forgiveness, that there could really be no healing unless, through the grace of God, people found the power to forgive those who had so brutally sinned against them.

She was in Munich and had just finished speaking to the German audience on the necessity for Christians of forgiveness. She was greeting the people when she realized that a man standing in line waiting to speak with her had a familiar face. He was smiling eagerly and warmly as He waited. Suddenly she realized that this man had been a guard in the prison camp where she and her sister had been imprisoned and where her sister had died. In fact, He was one of the guards who stood by mocking while she and her sister and the other women in the prison took their showers. The memory of the faces of those guards flooded her consciousness. Instantly she was back in the concentration camp in that shower room with its piles of clothing, the smells, and the leering faces of the guards. As he extended his hand, she heard him say, “Thank you, Fraulein, for that wonderful message on forgiveness. To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away.”

Corrie said that she suddenly found that she was frozen, and her hand would not move in response to his. She could not lift it. Thoughts of anger and resentment, everything but forgiveness flooded her mind. In desperation, she prayed a silent prayer: “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.” Suddenly, an incredible thing happened. From her shoulder down her arm and through her hand a hot current seemed pass, and her hand reached out to grasp his. At that moment, into her heart flooded a love that, she said, almost overcame her. Her biographers speak for her:

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. (Corrie Ten Boom, ed by John and Elizabeth Sherrill. The Hiding Place [Bantam Books:  New York, 1971] pg 238.)

As I read this story, I was moved by the fact that it was not Corrie Ten Boom’s love that was manifested there. It was God’s own love, the love which the cross of Christ reveals to us, which flooded her. That is the love that Paul says is the fulfillment of the divine law. Is it really possible, as Wesley said, for God’s law to be fulfilled in me, for the divine love to be perfected in me so that Christ’s love controls my very being? Corrie’s story seems to confirm that possibility. But more, it seems to say that, if I do not know and if I do not have that love abiding within in me, it is because I have refused it. It is because I choose not to have it. Our God is a giving God, and He wants to give us Himself, and He is love. If I choose to receive what He offers, there can be in my life reflections of the very nature of God, not because of who I am in myself, but because the Holy One dwells within me.

A dentist friend of mine was in Romania on a missions trip. He learned there of an experience that illustrates what I think we want to say. A Romanian layman was working in a prison with a man who was on death’s row for murder. He went as far as he could in witnessing to the prisoner. He found himself wishing that He could find someone with greater wisdom and understanding to help the prisoner. He called a pastor and asked him if he would visit the prisoner. When He described who the prisoner was, was, he immediately heard the voice of the pastor saying gruffly and decisively, “No! I cannot do that.”  The layman was surprised and disappointed.

A few days later though he received a call from that pastor. The pastor thanked him for calling him and said that he had been to visit the prisoner.  “I needed to go visit him for my own sake, not just for his. I was able to lead to Christ the very person who had murdered my own son. Thank you for calling me. I needed to go.”   After the layman had called, the Spirit had begun  to wrestle with this broken hearted father; finally, he knew what he had to do as a follower of Christ Jesus. He allowed God put within him what was not naturally there, God’s own love, and he led a soul to Christ and found cleansing and healing for his own soul as well.

There seems to be a potential in grace that most of us do not believe. Francis Asbury believed that God in Christ did a lot more for us on the cross than just provide for the forgiveness of sins and our justification before the eternal Judge. He believed that Christ died to share his very life with us so that we can live in the power of his life, not our own. Asbury was convinced that Christ died so that the human heart can be wholly Christ’s, clean and filled with divine love. Because of all of this, Asbury had a great inner compulsion to share this good news with everyone. I find my heart filled with gratitude to God that in His goodness God has let me be a part of this holy tradition, and I believe God wants to stir our hearts again to believe that theology that we confess so that our world can know Christ.