Saturday 10 May 2008

A bargain with God?

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Not long after I became a Christian, a friend of mine gave me a collection of sermons by Karl Barth. The collection was appropriately entitled Deliverance to the Captives; all the sermons were preached towards the end of Barth’s life in the city prison in Basel. One sermon in particular shocked and overwhelmed me. It was entitled “The Criminals with Him”, and took as its text a verse from Luke’s passion narrative: “They crucified him with the criminals, one on either side of him” (Luke 23:33). “Do you know what this implies?” asked Barth. “Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship.” And Barth went on to conclude: “In reality we all are these crucified criminals. And only one thing matters now. Are we ready to be told what we are? Are we ready to hear the promise given to the condemned, [and] to ‘get in line behind’ [them]?”

“Get in line behind them?” I thought. Hang on a minute, Karl! I know you’re big on grace, but aren’t you getting carried away, isn’t this taking grace a bit too far? I mean isn’t this unjust, criminals at the front of the queue to the kingdom, evil folk ahead of the good? I was particularly miffed at what Barth preached because I myself came to Christ – or rather Christ to me – out of a rather sordid existence, having lived for a time on the streets of Amsterdam and London, homeless and broke, begging, taking drugs, shoplifting just to survive. I knew what kind of people wheeled and dealed there, the crime and the violence. And now Barth tells me that I’m going to have to get in line behind this scum? And, adding insult to injury, observe: Barth made no distinction between the penitent and the impenitent thief – both were going to precede me. And, in fact, these weren’t just thieves, they were what we would now call terrorists.

Can you sympathise with my annoyance and discomfort? I’m sure you can. For my anger and confusion are, I think, typical of Christians – indeed they are the temptation of all good people, especially all good religious people. For here is what religion, at bottom, is all about: it’s about making a bargain with God. And the bargain goes like this: Lord, I give you my faith and all that goes with it: the church-going, the praying, the giving, the rectitude, the extra mile, and so on; and you, God, in return, you’ve got to be fair. If I keep my side of the bargain, I expect you to bless me with good things – health, work, family. I don’t expect life to be all strawberries and cream, but I do expect a sense of proportion – no serious illnesses, traumatic divorce, or kids on crack. Of course if I don’t keep my side of the bargain, if I lapse and behave very badly – hey, nobody’s perfect! – fair enough, I get what’s coming to me. But, Lord, we both keep to the contract. And there is an unwritten codicil to this contract: other people – they too must get what they deserve: as the righteous must prosper, so the sinner must suffer.

This is religion. Isn’t that the way it is? Isn’t that why we get so bloody, viciously vengeful, when criminals and murderers “get off lightly”? That’s not in the contract! May they rot in hell! And isn’t that why suffering, especially seemingly undeserved suffering, especially my underserved suffering, is so faith-threatening? How can it be that my child is crippled in a car accident, or my wife gets ovarian cancer and dies in a matter of months? That’s not part of the bargain!

Well, today I am here to tell you that God doesn’t do bargains. I mean the whole idea, really, is a no-brainer. Why should God do deals with us? What do we have to offer God that he doesn’t already have? And indeed – pardon the sacrilege – why should we trust God to deliver the goods we’re expecting? I mean the deity has form, doesn’t he? Two words should suffice: Good Friday. For heaven’s sake, man, God didn’t deliver his own totally sinless and obedient Son from torture and death, he watched him get strung up between those two thieves, terrorists – so what, am I God’s gift that I am going to be exempted from fortune’s slings and arrows? What makes me a special case? The idea that God might owe me for good – or them for bad – really, folks, it is fairyland. Deserve? As outlaw William Munny (Clint Eastwood) says in that great line from Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

A bargain? Think again. But we can only think again when we abandon religion and accept revelation – which is what Christianity is: revelation. Unlike religion, revelation is not something that confirms the way we think and what we think we know. On the contrary, revelation rudely interrupts the way we go about our existential business, shaking and shattering our conventional norms and complacent assurances. Although revelation is a gift – it is good news – our first response is always recoil, resistance, outrage at such an unexpected and unasked-for invasion of our moral space. In order to be redeemed, our cover must be blown, and our worlds blown away.

Do you know Flannery O’Connor’s short story entitled – succinctly – “Revelation”? It is about one Mrs Turpin from the deep South. Mrs Turpin is a hard-working, upright, church-going farmer’s wife. One day, at her doctor’s office, she is bad-mouthing the white trash and lazy blacks she has to put up with. Suddenly a mentally disturbed girl in the waiting room throws a book at her and calls her a “wart hog from hell”. Visibly shaken, Mrs Turpin returns to her farm, unable to get the girl’s offensive words out of her mind. “Wart hog” indeed! For Mrs Turpin knows that she is a good person, certainly far superior to red necks and “niggers”, and she reminds God of her rectitude, as well as of all the good work she does, especially for the church. Then she angrily asks, referring to the girl’s outrageous insult, “What did you send me a message like that for?” And then, suddenly – revelation! As she stares into the pigpen, Mrs Turpin is given a glimpse of “the very heart of mystery,” and she begins to absorb some “abysmal life-giving knowledge.” She has a vision of a parade of souls marching to heaven, with white trash, blacks, freaks, lunatics and other social outcasts up front, leading the way, and, taking up the rear, folk like herself, “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Yes, religion is a bargain, but revelation is no bargain, revelation is grace, it is free. Nothing is necessary, all is a gift. We have no rights, we are never owed, and we are never one up on the bastards and undeserving. That “scum” I thought I’d left behind – I didn’t: it was me too, and I took it with me. But no matter: God’s sun shines and his rain falls on the good and the evil without distinction. As Oxford Regius Professor of Divinity Marilyn McCord Adams puts it: “Expecting God to be interested in invidious distinctions among us would be like our judging the ladybugs to see which had paid us the appropriate honour!”

God is sheer, exuberant, overflowing, prodigal love, inside and out, from top to bottom. May God grant us the insight and wisdom that Mrs Turpin takes home with her that fateful night: “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”


Anonymous said...

Great Law/Gospel sermon!

I need to have that "religious person" beaten out of me on Sunday morning by God' unmitigated law and I need to have the unmitigated pure sweet sound of the gospel handed over to me (done to me) with no strings attached.

Kep those stinking 'biblical principles' out of my church.

Slay me and raise me.

Thanks much!

- Steve Martin

Anonymous said...

I find your sermon enlightening and fresh, Kim. But I must say I have to disagree with what I believe to be some basic presuppositions of your sermon.

1) Grace is proclaimed as something like a formal justification, which does not have a real impact on the life of the Christian. I cannot agree with this, if grace is conceived of as formal and impersonal. For me, grace must be life-altering in matters of faith as well as works. “Therefore, my dear friends, [...] continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Epistle to the Philippians 2:12-13) Grace makes us more loveable to God, it perfects us. Of course this can not mean that we forget our past which is Nothingness or that we start thinking we are righteous by ourselves.

2) The quote "Expecting God to be interested..." seems to compare us to God in a manner which seems inappropriate. We do not have eternity to see and witness the ladybug and its actions. Furthermore, we are not like the other creatures driven by mere impulse and instinct. We can sin, the ladybug can not. God can judge, we can not. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21)

The fact that God has eternity to see every detail of each and every one of our lives makes our lives and how we lead them quite important. It is of importance if we are self-righteous bigots or if we are obedient and humble.

Maybe I am reading too much into your sermon, in that case Mea Culpa. But it seems to me that (at least) the two points I disagree with can lead to cheap grace. It lessens God's importance, since it will all be forgiven "anyways".

Lord's peace,

Anonymous said...

When we talk about God or religion of any kind, we should show some respect. We should not disturb others feeling. If any negative criticism come to mind, should not publish to make the world more understanding.

Anonymous said...

Geez, Hilaron, its one sermon. I think Kim is an astute enough theologian to know that justification must lead to sanctification or it is not actually justification. You can only do so much per Sunday...
I very much enjoyed this, Kim, and thank you so much for introducing me to one of O'Connor's stories that I have not yet read. She's remarkable, as I have learned since reading Archbishop Rowan's Grace and Necessity and turning to her works.

Anonymous said...

egregious: Yes, it's one sermon. Since I enjoy reading Kim's sermons and mostly find them very tuned to the Spirit, I was somewhat shocked at certain aspects of this sermon. I was simply unable to keep my mouth shut. But, then again, what would have happened if Christ had just ignored the doubts of Thomas, instead of showing him his resurrection body? I'll take honesty over false humility any day of the week.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,

Thanks for your comments.

Yes, one sermon. But, further, two Flannery O'Connor quotes may help in judging it.

The first is a comment O'Connor made about Kafka's Metamorphosis: "The truth is not distorted here, but rather a certain distortion is used to get at the truth."

And the second is her wonderful bon mot about Barth himself: "I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around."

Some twisting, jarring, and a few unpolished, overturned tables go with the territory of this sermon (in fact, with many of my sermons).

Anonymous said...

O'Conner was a Roman Catholic, and what's interesting to me is how she turns the Catholic doctrine of purgatory on its head in that short story. It's not our vices that are consumed by the purifying fire; it's our virtues.

Chris TerryNelson said...


You're out to raise the objection of a "legal fiction" as far as I can tell, which is an important sticking point for us Protestants, and the grace that is preached should be costly grace.

Grace makes us more loveable to God, it perfects us. Of course this can not mean that we forget our past which is Nothingness or that we start thinking we are righteous by ourselves.

What follows comes from the fact that I'm a Protestant, and I'm a Protestant precisely because of what follows:

What is the point of being made loveable if God already had loveed us by communicating His grace to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? It seems to me that Grace is a very abstract and impersonal way to speak of God when we are more concerned with being concrete about sanctification. What must be avoided is playing off justification against sanctification and vice versa. Instead (and here's the Barth-twist), they have to be seen as two simultaneous aspects of the same reconciling event of Jesus Christ first, and only in Him can we say something about ourselves and being made perfect. What God declares God makes effective in Jesus Christ, therefore also for those elected in Him.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marvin,

Good point about O'Connor's understanding of purgatory. Mark Twain gives us a Protestant version of the purgation of our virtues:

"We get the notion early, and keep it always, that we repent of bad deeds only; whereas we do a formidably large business in repenting good deeds which we have done. Often when we repent of a sin, we do it perfunctorily from principle, coldly and from the head; but when we repent of a good deed the repentance comes hot and bitter and straight from the heart."

Christopher said...

Kim and CT, what then do we make of all the exhortations in scripture to conduct ourselves in such and such a way---as "we learned Christ" (Ephesians)?

That is to say, how does the understanding of grace and election put forward in this sermon apply to our mission, vocation and ecclesiology?

Maybe I just need to read more Barth?

Pieter Pronk said...

More Barth would probably make you understand where Kim's sermon is coming from, especially on justification and sanctification.

I was thinking of suggesting reading the sermon on Romans 7:14 by Kohlbrugge (1803-1875) as well. But it's just soo hard to find in english I guess. Barth was quite fond of this Dutch theologian, and ,in my opinion, especially of Kohlbrugge's christological theology and his views on justification and sanctification.

"Throw away your sanctification-crutches, far away from you! You won't be able to climb mount Sion with them." was one of Kohlbrugge's most famous lines.

While you probably don't mean it like that, it is kind of telling that you talk about "our mission" or "our vocation" or "our ecclesiology" even? When they become "ours" they are probably what Kohlbrugge means with our "sanctification-crutches".

Btw, I can see where you question comes from, and i somewhat agree with it. But those kinds of questions usually collide with radical theologies of people like Kohlbrugge and Barth. "Nothing from us, but all from Him"

Anonymous said...


I think I know why some are a bit bothered by your sermon, Kim.

It's just too gracious.

And that is exactly what bothers them about the cross of Christ. it's just too gracious.
"Yeah, that's pretty good Jesus, but scoot over and make some room up there for me...let me show you how serious I am about this repentance and goodness business, as well."

It's just plain wrap religion in a fancy box with different colored string.

God's grace, His unmerited favor upon the ungodly, has never been that popular and it never will be.
So when you hear complaints from the religionists, know that you are in some mighty fine company.

Thanks again for handing Him over with no strings attached. I for one need Him that way, and indeed that is the only way He wants it to be.

- Steve Martin

Anonymous said...

Steve Martin: Yes, the Cross is gracious. But it is a Cross. It's not a cuddly teddybear. In the words of Bonhoeffer, costly grace is costly because it demands that we take the Cross of Christ upon us, it is grace because it is the Cross of Christ. We must die with Christ to live His Resurrection.

Christ died for us, but he did not die instead of us. We too must die and any notion of escaping this truth is one of the Church's deadliest enemies.

Lord's peace,

Pieter Pronk said...

What could I add to the cost of my Saviour dying on the cross?

Nothing could be more costly.

Christ died for us. Really the sentence ends there, when speaking of real cost.

There, two thousand years ago, on that horrible skull of Golgota, was the price paid.

Any trying to make that into "well, yes.. then the price has been paid, but you need to add a little to that price yourself" takes away from that glorious truth that, really, there, two thousand years ago, on that horrible skull of Golgota, the price was paid.

Anonymous said...

Pieter Pronk: How do you cope with Gospel passages such as these?

"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6)

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13)

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:37-39)

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)

"The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:25)

All these are direct quotations of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can you deny the fact that Christ actually demands that we follow him? What ever happened to obedience and fear of God? Or, to speak with the apostle, either we are slaves under sin or we are slaves under the Lord's righteousness. But it's your choice. God doesn't rape us, he loves us.

Lord's Peace,

Pieter Pronk said...

Faith is obedience. But Faith is at the same time what we receive from God through his Spirit.

I find it hard to answer your question without staring at "God doesn't rape us, he loves us." Did you really just compare the way I believe with God raping me?

I will try to ignore that, then, in order to give you my answer. And from my perspective, the question is really: Who should be praised for redeeming me? Who should be giving credit for overcoming the death I used to be stuck in? Who was responsible for paying the price to free me from slavery?

If you allow me to ask the question this way, you have to admit that it's hard to say "me" or "my choice".

Now if I'm freed from slavery in this manner by my Redeemer, Jesus, what happens then?

Now, we have to work for it ourselves? Now we have to accept it, by showing our obedience to God. Now we're on our own? Now it's our own choice, right?

Or maybe, and this is what I prefer, we actually just give ourself over to our Redeemer. This is still the Redeeming work of Jesus. It's HIS choice for me, that makes me safe in his grace.

I think there are actually stronger passages in the Bible to place forward against this "unbalanced" view on the relation between God and us. Because those passages that speak of us having to lose our own life, are what I mean. We don't have to actively work and toil for our salvation. We actually just have to lose ourselves in Gods grace, lean back as it were, letting our wordly lives and ambitions drop from our far too eager hands, and just let Jesus work in us instead, and fill us with his life.
Which brings me to the grace that is free. I only have to lose my worthless life, and accept His Grace as it is. Free, because He paid for it.

Sometimes, when I happen to show in real life that my life belongs to Jesus instead of it belonging to me, who do I praise? When I do a tiny good work (however hard to see), is that my own doing? or is that the Holy Spirit working through the Faith He gave me?

Nothing from me, but all from Him. In the redeeming work. In the work of justification, as well as the work of sanctification.
And since it's nothing from me, it's "free".

Ah well, I'm guessing we're straying from the topic of the sermon. :) I'm just thankfull God knows me for the sinner that I am, but still calls me to get in line with all the other sinners,the other scum, that are saved by his free grace.

Anonymous said...

Pieter: I can't possibly know how you believe, so that last sentence is not primarily directed at you personally, but rather at liberal theology (monergism) which denies human free will.

We never have to work for anything, grace is free, but still we have to do good work, because of grace. As the apostle said, do good works because it is God who does them in you. They are not your works, but God's. This mystical paradox of synergism is ultimately abolished in the monergism of liberal theology (and some variants of "radical" theology, such as Calvin). This will either lead to denial of God's Righteousness (liberalism/universalism) or denial of God's Mercy (predestinationism/secterism).

It is precisely because of your human free will that you can say yes or no to God's free grace. If Holy Mary hadn't said "Amen" to the Angel, God would not have become man through her. This is the point I tried to show in somewhat obscene language. He asked her, he did not just do.

May the Lord be with you,

Pieter Pronk said...

I guess "liberal" comes from certain perspective of theology. A case can be made to point that this "liberal theology (monergism) which denies human free will" has quite orthodox roots. Not that this fact in itself should either strengthen or weaken the case for it.

The funny part, and I see that as a compliment, is that you seem to be unsure whether my views on this point are liberal or orthodox (radical is in the eye of the beholder) calvinism (and augustinism?). I'd rather you just respond to my views in themselves though, instead of first trying to establish a connection with a certain theology and then commenting on that.
I like to think me viewpoints have value in their own right. :)

Btw, I do not deny free will. But I do put more faith in Gods grace than in man's free will. A "mystical paradox of synergism" indeed sounds like something that I would not mind to abolish if that synergism is supposed to mean that free will is a co-worker of the free grace with which God saves sinners. or even that Gods Grace would be powerless without free will.

Btw even from a viewpoint of synergism, can't a sermon just give praise to God's Grace? It's still amazingly free Grace even if it synergises with free will?

Anonymous said...

Hilaron: If Holy Mary hadn't said "Amen" to the Angel, God would not have become man through her. This is the point I tried to show in somewhat obscene language. He asked her, he did not just do.

By every account in scripture, the appearance of an angel is terrifying. They always say, "Be not afraid" before conducting their business. Suppose Tony Soprano showed up in at a lady's house with all his capos and soldiers in tow, and said what a nice house she had there, it would be a shame if anything happened to it. And he offered to protect her house from any harm, if only she would let Tony use the tool shed in her back yard to conduct business. Well, she's probably going to say yes, just like Mary did.

Anonymous said...

Pieter: Yes, I too put more faith in God's grace than human free will. But denial of the human ability to say yes or no to this grace diminishes God and his creation. Even Christ points out that there is one sin that will never be forgiven: sin against the Holy Spirit. God's grace is not God, and is often made into an idol.

The paradox of synergism is just like the paradox of predestination and free will. God sees eternity, yet we are free to choose. He sees all our choices, yet they are our choices. He sees that the holy are going to accept Him from eternity, but still he does not force it on the holy. He lets us choose freely.

The acceptance of God is mystical, because it's God's work, yet it's our choice. Any attempt to rationalise God by resorting to monergism and the denial of the human free will and person diminishes the mystery which is God and His saving work. As Augustine would have said: If you understand it (by say the philosophical notion of monergism), it's not God.

I do not think that we are getting much further than this, so let's agree to disagree. :)

Lord's peace,

Pieter Pronk said...

Well, we already agreed to disagree.

But, let me just point out that your last post was a big disagreement with what you call monergism. I'm happy for you that you feel so comfortable disagreeing with that, but those aren't my views or words you're disagreeing with.
It would be the same if I suddenly started assuming your views to be Arminiast views and then happily say: "ah, see! An Arminian..." and then point the flaws (or heresies?) of that theology.

If we make such connections too easily, every discussion in theology, quickly and automatically turns into an old discussion. I would have prefered this disussion about this sermon to stay a discussion between pieter and david. You made it into monergism vs synergism.

I never said I deny that people can't say no. You just assumed that because I'm fond of praising God for his yes on Golgota. I even said in my last point I do not deny it. But you just think "he's a monergist" (which again I never said about myself), so he must deny it.

I'm happy to disagree with you, but I have to wonder if you really want to disagree with me, or with the "monergism, calvinism, liberalism, radicalism, universalism, predeterminism, secterism, and a rationalistic denial of human free will" that you put into my mouth.

Let me just say that I'm glad you also see Gods Grace to be more faith-worthy than free will. I would encourage you to go further with that and lose even more of your dependence on your "mighty free will" in favor of Gods wonderfull will. Just lose your free will, like Jesus asks you to lose your life for him, so he can fill you with his will and life.

Anonymous said...

Pieter: Mea culpa. I certainly have a tendency to read too much into what you (and others) say and in some glimpses of clarity I realise that.

If there is an explanation of why I connected you with monergism, it is that I am extremely "allergic" when it comes to overemphasizing certain characteristics of God. For me God must always be paradox and mystery. When something seems convenient and straight-forward, I can't really believe it to be the unknown God.

What the Church has proclaimed as heresies has always been the exaggeration of one characteristic of God or a certain doctrine. Like the Pelagians (righteousness), the Arians (materiality), Gnostics (spirituality) and also Calvin and Jansen (predestinationism). When God is reduced implicitly or explicitly to certain aspects of God, it is no longer the personal God, but a philosophical system.

That's at least an attempted explanation to my behaviour.

Lord's peace,

Pieter Pronk said...

Thanks for the discussion by the way. :)

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