Zen and the Art of Law and Gospel: A Conference Breakout with Jim McNeely

I am very excited about the upcoming Mockingbird Conference! First, and possibly most importantly, I […]

Mockingbird / 3.26.15

I am very excited about the upcoming Mockingbird Conference! First, and possibly most importantly, I have been asked to do a few magic tricks at the conference. If you come, you will be one of the few humans ever to witness a one-time demonstration of the power of the amazing Cords of Shastri, which have been lost for over 600 years, but which have recently come into my possession. I will bring these to New York City for this one event. I repeat, this is a feat of legerdemain which has not been performed for over 600 years! I swear its true! Generations of conjurers have been longing to see these in action, and all you have to do is show up at this conference! I’ve got other amazing feats to demonstrate as well. Most of them don’t even have a single shred of spiritual significance to them, so those of you who fear too much spiritual relevance can take solace that there will be a good sampling of useless entertainment!

1_WA_young-canopy1As a minor addition to this, apparently the Mockingbird event organizers are going to let me stand up somewhere in front of people and talk! They asked me to write a bit about what I might be talking about.

My session is a careful rethink of the idea of law and gospel, and its relation to personal transformation. It probably seems like every Christian post in some circles somehow boils down to some obscure insight about law, gospel, and personal transformation. I think that if you take this law and gospel distinction down to its basic core concepts, you’ll find that it addresses every person’s core identity and need, and it provides a rather shocking degree of solution to that need.

What is really at the heart of the conversation here is the conditionality of love. Either, love has certain boundaries, beyond which there is rejection and justified hatred, or there are no boundaries, and love endures all challenges. Either, the threat of punishment is hanging over the relationship if one doesn’t measure up to certain expectations, or there is no threat at all and there is always the expectation of a powerful forgiveness. Jesus displays a powerful unconditionality of love, in that even as He was rejected, abandoned, betrayed, slandered, deliberately misunderstood, and brutally killed, He proclaimed forgiveness and proved its durability when He subsequently rose from the dead. The cross and the resurrection are the extreme public display of the kind of love He always exhibits at all times towards us.

We were not merely introduced into a temporary suspension of condemnation through Christ. We were introduced into an ongoing persistent love. We were introduced into a world where we are persistently loved despite our malicious selfishness over and over and over. It isn’t magic or correct theology or even Holy Spirit-bred resolve which transforms us. It is this enormous passionate endless persistent affection for us which keeps loving us when we keep failing which transforms us. It is a love which isn’t conditional upon our transformation which transforms us. It is God’s love for us which is poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Through His grace He keeps beaming infinite sacrificial love at us quite apart from the question of how much we deserve it.

how1aIronically, people fear that a limitless unbounded comprehensive grace which forgives everything forever will release people into a life of license and sin. This is the perennial Romans 6:1 objection to the gospel. Most people solve this problem somewhere in their mind by going back to the cross and disqualifying its power and scope. This has the net effect of making Jesus’ death for us of no account, since conditionality and boundary is written back into the relationship.

The other day, I was sitting in one of the beautiful parks around where I live in Bellingham, WA, in the far northwestern part of Washington state. The trees are spectacular here. I thought that, given their size and the speed at which they grow, because of the perfect conditions, maybe if I watched closely I could actually observe a bit of growth happen. So I sat for all of 10 minutes or so, watching the very top of one particular tree. It was clear and windless, so I thought I had a good chance.

I have to confess, I didn’t see anything happen. The growth happens much too slowly to observe without time-lapse photography. I think that people change in the same way. The message we proclaim is not a message which presses the need for transformation, even though the right kind of transformation will come in its time. Grace allows the freedom to release people from the demand to change a certain way within a certain timeframe. Atheists and Muslims and Mormons and Agnostics know that we must strive to be good – this is not the Christian distinctive. What persists more than our need to change is our daily assurance that God loves us and has died to justify us. We are very greatly loved in the midst of our failure, and that is our true transformation. Grace says that God is in it with us for the long haul. If we come on some particular day and we do not leave visibly transformed or touched, that is nothing to Him. He is eternal and He has loved us with an eternal love. He sees the big picture for us. We can trust that it is not we who are at work on ourselves, but that He is at work to perfect what He started.