But Which God?: Revisiting the Law And Gospel Debate

A few months ago, I wrote a brief piece entitled “When John Locke Turned Gospel […]

Brandon Bennett / 10.6.15

A few months ago, I wrote a brief piece entitled “When John Locke Turned Gospel into Law”, one that I considered to be true to the classic Mockingbird message: the unmistakably clear articulation of grace. Trying to connect that message with the philosopher John Locke’s vision of Christianity, I challenged his version of “the covenant of faith” as a false articulation of grace [a kind of afterthought]. Yet to my surprise, the post met with some pushback, and the comments, I must admit, did make a point: Does not Christianity shore up a positive vision of life, and thus an ethic? Is not the Law the ultimate point? Point taken.

The comments reveal a notion shared by many: that God and humans relate primarily according to some sort of contract, some positive legal framework in which man is here and God there (by the way, in theological shoptalk, we are already squarely in little-L law territory here). My concern is that inevitably in this schema the Gospel is quick to become an afterthought that makes up for humanity’s shortcomings, which leaves Jesus well on his way to merely paying for wrong actions [Locke’s “deficiency of works”]. And while there is undoubted truth to Jesus “paying it all,” the problem with this view is that it functionally tends to consider God as absolutely one (Unitarian) and remaining at a distance from creation (Deist). Hence, God has created and entered into a contract with mankind; man has failed; and grace—with Jesus primarily as a Great Teacher and a Generous Uncle—is the fix to the problem (to reiterate: grace is merely a solution to the deficiency of works). The result is ultimately an insipid moralism that trivializes both the Law and especially the Gospel, leaving the Christian life as a sanctification project (however conservative or liberal the sanctification agenda may be).

7-god-as-an-architect-blake1But back to the concern: is there not some legitimate place for some doing in the Christian life? And if so, where does it come from?

In his Systematic Theology, Volume 1, the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson observes, “When a question long resists resolution, the reason is often that a prior question has not been answered, perhaps because it has not been asked” (172). In the current discussion, perhaps we might ask ourselves, “But which God?” And its corollary: “What does it mean to be human in light of God’s self-revelation?”

Let us get straight to the heart of the matter. There is within the one Godhead a plurality of persons—each being fully divine—namely Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christianity speaks of neither a monadic divine entity nor an isolated human self; thus, when Law and Gospel is deployed in a context when this is presumed, its conceptual framework is torn asunder because it has not been worked out in Trinitarian fashion. The Gospel is this announcement from the crucified and risen Lord: the Father affirms his Spirit-filled creation in the Son. Simply put, the Gospel itself hinges upon this Triune God; none other shall do.

In stark contrast to the surrounding nations’ deities, the God of Israel proclaims that he alone is Creator. From the beginning, in Genesis, God portrays himself as totally sovereign, free to create, and unified in his efforts to create. The world does not come to be because of conflict, violence, or sexual politics among the gods (Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek cosmologies), nor is creation self-produced (modern cosmology). In Genesis, creation emerges sheerly from the Father’s abounding goodness through the Divine Speech alone; says John, “All things were made through [this Word]” (1:3). Thus, what we see depicted in chapters 1 and 2 causes us to realize that God in himself is love, that he is self-giving, that he of his own free love reaches out toward another.

Having just created land animals on day 6, God summons himself to a council; he deliberates, saying to himself, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion….” Genesis wants to underscore this image-bearing capacity in 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” God blesses the man and the woman, gives them his creation as pure gift, and endows them as heirs of this new world (1:28-30); having received so much, they are dignified beyond measure: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…” (1:28) That they receive such honor demonstrates that they are loved for their own sake. God’s love to them has not sought out something beautiful to merit this love; it has instead created what is altogether beautiful and lovely. In the end, God can declare his work “very good” (1:31).

plate10bSo what does it mean that man is an image-bearer of God? To invoke the American theologian Jonathan Edwards, “The Holy Spirit is the act of God between the Father and the Son infinitely loving and delighting in each other.” As God has eternally existed as a Spirit-bonded communion of love between the Father and the Son, so man may bear this image of communal love. Thus, as God is free within himself to give of himself, so also man may give of himself. But an individual Adam has no other from whom he may receive and to whom he may give, which is precisely why we are told “it is not good that man should be alone” (2:18). Out of goodness and love, the self-giving God who is love (1 John 4:8) reaches out and invests mankind with this capacity as well. Adam is no longer an isolated self but “one flesh” (2:24): Adam has Eve, and Eve has Adam.

At last, at the end of Genesis 2, we realize what it is to be human: receiving everything from God, mutual sharing and giving with other human beings, and together reciprocating this love to God. In this, God and man are truly united together. Just so, to be fully human means to participate in God’s interpersonal love, thereby already fulfilling the Law, summarized in love of God and neighbor. Theologian Piotr Małysz summarizes it well:

Humans are created to love God, fellow men, and God’s gift of creation. By definition, they are social and vocational beings, relating to others so as to further the others’ good through God-appointed means. In doing this, they surrender their being in all its individualism only to gain it back, in, with and through the being of another. Only by receiving and giving can they realize their humanity. Only thus can they be human beings.

Note carefully here: it is only in participating in the Divine Life that man can truly be living in accordance with this God-given Law. Outside of this Trinitarian self-giving (this Gospel!), mankind can never be the image of God, for it is grace that undergirds his identity from the get-go! In theological jargon, any other attempt to act outside this identity is “law”.

It is with all this in mind that we now can understand the two trees in God’s garden. Of everything there, including the tree of life, man can partake, yet there is one exception: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God’s command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is no mere arbitrary command; it is not simply a random rule that God has dreamt up. Like Baptism and Eucharist operating together, these two trees stand as “sacraments of a given world” (M. Volf). They represent both who God is and who they are. The man and the woman are to receive every good thing from God. In this drama of love between God and man, man must necessarily trust God.


But then that ill-fated event occurs: refusing God’s word of promise, grace, and life, Adam and Eve trusted a lie and attempted to be who they were not. More than a simple breaking of a command, the man and the woman distrusted God, resulting in complete and utter idolatry, for the serpent’s deception lay primarily in attacking the very character of God. In promising that the forbidden fruit would make them “like God” (3:5), the serpent conveyed a totally new god, very much unlike the self-giving Creator. “It is this misrepresentation that makes Adam and Eve forget that they already are like God and quest for a self-devised godhood” (Małysz). And so, in their flight upward, they were reaching toward a god of their own making, a veritable path of self-destruction.

What results in this fall from grace is a reversal of the economy of love in God’s original creation. In opting for the pursuit of self-transcendence, humans chose to be gods in their own eyes, gods who, ironically, are mirror (though vastly enhanced) images of themselves. Thus, their flight of fancy was in disharmony with who they were created to be; as a quest for power and control, it was an act against the loving relationship between the Triune God and mankind. And so it comes to this: Adam and Eve (and all of us with them) no longer trust, no longer receive all they are and have from God. Like the Sisyphean task of endlessly rolling the rock up a hill, mankind’s sin consists in perpetually securing its own identity apart from God. But note: not only does mankind distrust God, human beings distrust one another. Both against God and one another, we are individuals who must do whatever it takes to secure and protect our own autonomous, individual pursuits. Turned inward, sinful humanity consists, therefore, in un-love and unfreedom to go beyond oneself.

One might easily think of being human as one thing and being Christian as another. In other words, Christians might regard themselves as Christian humans as if being a Christian is something additional to their humanity. But might it be the case that to be a Christian is to be more fully human? When the Gospel, the Good News of all that the Father has done in Jesus Christ by the Spirit, is presented to sinful humanity, it calls for faith, a posture of trust in him. As different and new as this News may be, it is most certainly not out of character for God at all, and it does not call mankind to be anything other than human. If Genesis reveals anything, it shows that to be recipients of God’s love is (at least partially) what it means to be created in the image of God. But because we as distrusting, sinful human beings never can be the true image we were created to be, we must rest on Another’s work outside of us to be that for us. “[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God… And you who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col 1:15, 21-22). The selfsame Word through whom the Father spoke creation into existence is now the One through whom he calls sinners to life. United to the Son by the Spirit, Christians are signposts of the new creation who receive sheer delight from the Father. And now at last, the new humanity is remade according to the Divine Image of the Father:

Precisely at the moment when he unites man with Christ, the Holy Spirit bestows freedom on him: he elevates man’s restricted, creaturely freedom to the level of a liberated, mighty, divine freedom, in order then to entrust this grace-gift of freedom to the believer as a freedom truly his own and truly to be exercised by him (Hans Urs von Balthasar).


All this theological labor, and what have we said? Given the everyday assumptions about the divine, those who (understandably) insist on injecting law to muster up some good deeds articulate only what makes sense, and no amount of grace-talk can finally alleviate their concerns. Apart from a thoroughly Trinitarian understanding of creation and re-creation, one cannot imagine the Gospel to allow for any ethic; grace is merely a problem-solver but surely not what defines the whole divine-human relationship. Juxtaposed to such natural religious ideas stands the biblical narrative: salvation is a re-creation where we who are made in God’s image have been refashioned as we were designed: according to the one Image of the Father, namely the Son. As the Spirit hovered over the chaos in Genesis, so he now hovers over the chaos of sin as the same Word is spoken amongst us to bring about the new creation. That humankind should trust in this Word is quite simply what it means to be human; the justification of the ungodly is the rebirth of what was lost unto an ever greater freedom. By the Spirit and united to Christ, the Christian has been freed from the self and for the other. No longer this person or that person acting as individual selves, but one in Christ as the new man participating in Trinitarian love. At last, we have arrived at Paul’s ethic: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8).

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