A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (23)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: We are called to love self-sacrificially, as Christ loved. That seems a very high standard indeed which we can only approximate at times. But it does make clear that Christ expects a lot of us. ‘To whom more is given….’. I have grown tired of the mistranslation of the famous verse in Philippians which actually reads ‘I am able…… all things in Him who strengthens me’. It seems clearly, in light of Paul just saying he has learned contentment in good times and bad, with and without material well being that the appropriate way to read that verse is not ‘I can DO all things…’ but rather ‘I am able to endure with contentment all things… etc. Comments??

PATRICK: Yes, in John’s Gospel disciples are commanded to love one another as Jesus has loved them. Indeed loving one another is the only duty that is commanded in the whole Gospel. What that means is spelt out – Jesus lays down his life for his friends. This is love orientated to the good of others at cost to the self. It’s the very heart of Christianity. Of course all of this is much easier to understand in theory than do in practice! In the book I quote Francis Moloney, ‘Words about love can come easily enough; lives that demonstrate love are harder to come by.’ I happen to be married to someone who lives such a life but I agree with you that it’s a tough calling. It’s a long way from the sort of naïve positive thinking that you mention. I fail to be loving every day to the people I like, let alone to the ones I don’t! This is why life in Christian community is where the rubber really hits the road. Love hangs in there. It’s open-eyed about human failure – including our own. It seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s honest. Churches are made up of all sorts of people and love is the only thing that’s going to hold it together if it’s going to flourish and grow. Perhaps it’s only such authentic communities of love that are going to make an impact on a (often rightly) sceptical world.


A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (22)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On pp. 192-95 you broach the issue of philos. It is interesting how seldom the actual Greek language for friendship really comes up in the NT, whereas the familial language of brother and sister is ubiquitous. But we do have it briefly in John 15. You are certainly right that in an age of arranged marriages, friendship was often the most intimate of bonds, like with David and Jonathan. Jesus considers us his friends, but there is a condition— you have to do what he commands. This seems quite different from some modern laissez faire friendships which think it rude to demand something from a friend. How should we view friendship as Christians today do you think?

PATRICK: This links pretty closely to the last question. In our Facebook era the word ‘friend’ doesn’t have much weight, you can have hundreds of ‘friends’ many of whom you may never have met face-to-face. But in the ancient world much attention was given to philos in both Greek thought (Aristotle for example) and Roman culture (hierarchical frameworks of friendship between patrons and clients). Also, in the OT, Abraham and Moses are both called friends of God. It’s impossible to know exactly what lay in the background of John’s use of friendship, but it’s clear that believers’ friendship with Jesus is unparalleled for at least four reasons that should lead Christians today to worship.

1) It was unheard of for ‘God in the flesh’ to give up his own life for his friends. I say in the book at “If depth of love is somehow proportionate to that which is given up for the good of others, then the cross represents the greatest act of love in all of history.”

2) Believers’ status changes from slaves to friends: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.” This is a welcome into a new status and relationship. Again, this is astonishing.

3) Unlike Greek or Roman notions of friendship, such a change of status does not depend on being virtuous enough or worthy enough to qualify, rather it is a gift of grace: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (15:16a). This is very good news.

4) As we said in the last question, there is no contradiction between called Jesus’ friends and faithful obedience. Disciples are chosen so that they might “go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (15:16). Love is transformative.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (21)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Let’s reflect a bit on John 15— vine and branches and remaining/abiding. I heard a good sermon about how branches are not called to be sucking the nutrients out of the vine. Rather the way the viticulture actually works is the vine forces its good sap into the branches. All the branches have to do is hang in there!!! That’s an interesting take on ‘abiding’ The title of the sermon (typically American!) was ‘We Are Not Called to be Sap Suckers!!’ Does this fit with your understanding of ‘abiding’? I note that love is a condition for abiding in Christ.

PATRICK: A memorable title for a sermon for sure. And it’s a good image which captures how the vine is the life force, it’s only by remaining connected to it that the disciples will bear fruit (John 15:2, 4–5, 8).

But I think there is more to it than passive ‘hanging in there’. To remain (abide) includes active obedience. John is crystal clear – “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” (15:10a). And those commands involve loving each other (15:12, 17). The foot-washing story in John 13 leads up to a new command “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (13:34).

That love can be commanded feels odd to us Westerners – doesn’t love have to be freely chosen between equals if it is to be authentic? But John has no problem at all linking love with faithful submission to authoritative commands. There is mystery and wonder here. John’s exalted Christology means that the only appropriate response for disciples to Jesus, the Logos and Son of God, is obedience to his commands. This isn’t obedience out of fear, but out of love for the Messiah who gives his life for his friends.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (20)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: As a Christian pacifist myself, I really resonated with what you say on pp. 172-73, affirming my fellow Methodist Stan Hauerwas’s repeated teachings on such things.

I agree that this is the clear thrust of much of the Sermon on the Mount, and the clear witness of the life of Paul who was converted from violence against the church, to the Gospel of non-violence for the sake of Christ. When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean love them to death by killing them!

Interestingly, Martin Luther King Jr. was finally convinced of this Gospel by reading E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi when he was in seminary. Jones was a Methodist missionary to India, and a graduate of Asbury college. Recently there was an excellent movie entitled Hacksaw Ridge, which told the story of a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist who served as a medic in the Pacific WWII, who was the first soldier to be allowed to serve in the U.S. Army without carrying or firing a gun. And he rescued many people in battle at Hacksaw Ridge, both friend and foe.

I used to think when I was younger that there’s no way I could serve in the military… but perhaps I could do that, and still serve my country without violating my conscience or the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Would you see this as plausible, or as an unhelpful compromise? After all, you could be said to be patching up soldiers so they can go back out and kill some more.

PATRICK: I really wanted to get over how enemy love is not confined to interpreting a line or two from the Sermon on the Mount. What tends to happen then is Jesus’ teaching is reinterpreted as hyperbolic or idealistic. Richard Hays has an excellent discussion in his classic book The Moral Vision of the New Testament of all the attempts made to soften Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. None of them are convincing.

Jesus’ teaching shapes that of the first Christians – Paul, Peter and the early church. The overwhelming historical evidence is how the pre-Constantinian early Christian movement repudiated killing in all forms – abortion, war and capital punishment. The shift after Constantine (Augustine especially) to legitimize ‘just’ violence in order to suppress heresy or expand Christendom was, in my opinion, a disaster to the witness of the church. Similarly in the 20th century for Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of ‘just war’.

It isn’t a question of whether Christians are to be violent in certain situations, Jesus calls disciples to be non-violent full stop. Of course this seems crazy, but that’s the point – enemy love is the good itself. It’s the window to life in the upside-down kingdom. I saw Hacksaw Ridge in Dublin a couple of years ago and read up on the story of Desmond Doss on which it was based. While I don’t think I could sign up for the military, his was an inspiring example of how Christian non-violence requires considerable bravery.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (19)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 163 you say “if marketing is all about identifying and satisfying customer needs, Jesus does a terrible job at ‘selling’ a life of discipleship within the Kingdom of God. He pulls no punches, sweetens no pill. Rather it seems as if he is trying to make it as difficult as possible for the listeners to follow him.” This sounds like the exact opposite of the prosperity Gospel to me. It seems many people don’t want a costly discipleship. They want a gift of salvation, and then freedom to live the life of conspicuous consumption— and God bless our standard of living. John Wesley preached a powerful sermon entitled ‘On the Use of Money’. In the second half of the 18th century Wesleyan Revival it was the second most preached sermon by him, after Justification by Faith’. In that former sermon he said you should make all you can by honorable and ethical means, save all you can, and then give all you can (while living a simple life style). He says if you only do the first do but don’t give all you can, you may be a living person, but you are a dead Christian. One wonders how many Christians today John would see as ‘almost’ rather than ‘altogether’ Christians. What does de-enculturation look like in your setting?

PATRICK: That quote is referring to Luke 6 and particularly Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies in vv27-36. Jesus catalogues what disciples should consider blessings: nice attractive things like poverty, hunger, weeping and being hated. And then goes on say love those who hate you and mistreat you – without expecting to get anything back. A few questions back Ben you said you were amazed that any Gentiles believed Paul’s gospel of a crucified Messiah – it was illogical and counter-cultural. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that we need to feel that same amazement and discomfort today concerning what it is to be a Christian. If absent then it’s a sign that we have probably domesticated the gospel and Jesus’ call to costly discipleship.

We were talking in theology class this week about the weirdness of Christianity. Tidy, conventional, conservative and easy it is not! The more we try to make the gospel undemanding and comfortable in order to attract Western consumers, the less like Jesus we sound. This is where the recent apocalyptic turn in NT studies is on to something important – there is something profoundly disruptive about God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. De-enculturation has to be about recapturing the shocking unreasonableness of the Christian life in a culture that prizes wealth, comfort, pleasure, security and individual autonomy.

BEN: I like the quote from my friend Darrell Bock on p. 165 about how unnatural and abnormal it is to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. As he says, it is the opposite of all natural instincts, and requires divine love to make it happen. Tolerating the enemy is one thing, blessing them and loving them is another. As you point out, such love of enemies makes no rational or financial sense, as there is no guarantee it will be fulfilled. How you treat your enemies will reveal what sort of God you believe in (p. 168). I agree with this. We have a God who not merely loves his enemies, in the person of his Son he died for them! We are to emulate God’s own conduct. Can you unpack this for us a bit.

PATRICK: I like the comparison of a mirror and a window. Are we (the Church) a mirror to this broken and divided world, reflecting back its hatreds and injustices? Or are we windows, through whom the world can catch a glimpse of another reality – a kingdom of love, grace and forgiveness? This is why we are called to enemy love – not to ‘win’ them over or even expect peace to break out (it most likely will not) – but because this is how God loves. Love is itself the goal.

There is no ‘rulebook’ and everyone is different, but in the book I tell the story of a friend (name changed) who was sexually abused by her brother when she was a young girl. She’d grown up and moved on with her life as best she could, despite deep damage done to her inner being. She was in her 30s and had become a believer when the past came to public light. Suddenly she was confronted with the pain she’d long buried, this time as a Christian. What did it mean to love her enemy? To cut a long story short, eventually she began to pray for him and this unlocked compassion for his lostness. It was a long process but she can say today that she loves him and has forgiven him. Forgiveness has released her from decades of bitterness and hurt. Such love has no guarantee of a ‘return’ – her brother remains estranged. He hasn’t faced up to what he did. But she felt her calling was to love her enemy and that’s what she’s done.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (18)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: I completely agree with you that Jesus’ strong advocacy of being single for the sake of the kingdom is a new emphasis in Judaism. One of the side effects of it in that highly patriarchal world was that it allowed women like Mary Magdalene or Joanna to play roles other than that of wife or mother. In some ways it was more freeing for women than for men, which is perhaps why we hear about so many women involved in the early church, even to the point that Celsus was latter to carp and say ‘its a religion of women, children, and slaves’.

Honestly, I think the modern church by and large has done a horrible job of affirming singleness as a potential Christian calling. I was once in a church that had a Sunday School class called Pairs and Spares…. as if single persons were like spare tires. What a horrible theology that is. I also think that precisely because the church has not held out two options, fidelity in marriage as well as celibacy in singleness, and emphasized that both callings require a charisma as Paul puts it, a grace gift, to successfully pursue such a life, we have a lot of people feeling like they need to get married to be happy or to find community day by day…. which leads to all sorts of train wreck marriages and messy divorces. Some Christians just don’t have the gift of being married. When’s the last time you heard a sermon about that? How do we recover a healthy positive affirmation of singleness (like Jesus himself) for the church? How do we get the church to really be family to those single folks so they don’t feel so alone, and don’t run off and marry out of desperation?

PATRICK: I was speaking at a church retreat last weekend and this topic came up in one of the talks. We had a Q&A afterwards and I was asked something along the lines, ‘You are a married man with children teaching about the calling of singleness – it is a case of do as I say not as I do?’

That’s a fair question. There’s a lot of heartbreak among single believers who would like to be married (I don’t have research to hand but my impression is that there’s also a collapse of celibacy as a viable option among Christian young people). I think I replied that it’s a broader challenge of recovering theologies of marriage and singleness in the church and how they both confront Western cultural assumptions. I say ‘both’ because often it’s assumed marriage is the default goal and singleness becomes a ‘problem’ to be managed. Yet the irony is that this is a complete reversal with early Church history where celibacy was the higher calling. It just shows how deeply shaped we are by a culture which now sees any teaching advocating celibacy as bizarre and harmful. So it will take sustained and intentional action within a church community to open up these issues. Of hearing not just married men like me speak, but singles sharing their calling and experience. How often do we hear stories celebrating singleness and being freed to serve Jesus in ways a married person could not (1 Cor 7)?

Certainly I’ve been struck by how every time I speak about this issue people will come up to me afterwards to say thank you for talking about it. And, at a macro level, fostering a vision of the church as an eschatological community living in the ‘now and the not yet’ of the kingdom helps to put marriage and singleness in bigger perspective.

BEN: On p. 156 you stress how the church’s legitimizing of singleness symbolized the need for the church to grow by conversions. Rodney Stark makes the opposite sociological case. He says the church, because of his high life ethic and high valuation of children, basically grew by baby making and extended family growth, AND by avoiding abortions, and rescuing abandoned children , not to mention freeing slaves. None of this necessarily involved evangelism and conversions. So….. is there a balance between these two means of growth in the early church?

PATRICK: Fascinating. Stark’s case makes perfect sense. In a way this was not so much a ‘strategy’ as a by-product of Christian ethics that were revolutionary in the ancient world. So I’m sure it is a case of ‘both and’.

I quote Stanley Hauerwas here that the really radical edge of the church’s teaching about singleness was not the giving up of sex but the giving up of heirs. To make such a move is extraordinary. It speaks of a confidence that one’s identity and future do not rest on family and ‘this life’, but on eschatological life within the kingdom community of the church. That was profoundly counter-cultural then and still is today.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (17)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 153 you say that discipleship is in the end about who or what we love most dearly? I thought it was about taking up our cross and following Jesus, which I don’t imagine most of us think of that as something we love most dearly. Bonhoeffer famously said when Jesus calls us, he calls us to come and die. Again, that doesn’t sound like something we would be enraptured about. Even Jesus said, if it be possible let this cup pass. Perhaps what you meant was that the one we love most dearly is the one we are the disciple or follower of? Explain.

PATRICK: I’m zoning in on Jesus’ words demanding that disciples love him before any other commitment, even family. This echoes God’s command to Israel to love him with heart, soul and strength (which has Christological implications but that’s another story). Love in this sense is wholehearted allegiance. This is costly love – it’s going to mean self-sacrifice, serving others, being willing to endure persecution. No other ‘gods’ are to get in the way. This is why I argue that discipleship is first and foremost a matter of the heart – which is why I’m sometimes dismayed by ‘cookie cutter’ discipleship programs that seem to be mostly about about information and techniques but assume that our hearts are already rightly orientated. That’s a big assumption, especially in a Western consumer culture.

BEN: There seems to be a clear tension in Jesus’ teaching between the physical or birth family and the family of faith, with the latter getting priority in Jesus’ teaching. Honestly, I don’t know of many churches who really teach or practice life that way. Instead, the church is all about nurturing the nuclear family rather than BEING a family. Where have we gone wrong, and what’s the remedy, do you think?

PATRICK: Jesus is deliberately shocking to his listeners:

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).

Contrary to Messianic expectations his ‘sword’ will divide families. Disciples are to love Jesus first, before even our deepest other loves.

This is perhaps one of his hardest sayings, especially in a Western culture that tends to idolize the family as the source of fulfillment and happiness. We invest immense significance in finding the ‘right’ person, and children are a source of ultimate significance to parents. I know I’m generalizing, but I agree with you that the church has bought pretty uncritically into this narrative. The family is seen as the goal, those who don’t fit in are marginalized in a hundred different ways.

A remedy first requires a diagnosis. Once the issue is recognized (and it’s often not) then it’s a question of leadership to teach and model a different narrative within the church family. One that celebrates singleness as much as marriage. One that teaches about marriage NOT as a private relationship between autonomous individuals ‘in love’ who construct their private nuclear family, but a porous relationship that is orientated outwards for the good of others in hospitality, service and friendship.

Love – a personal story

Today is the funeral of my wife’s mother. She was 91 and lived with us in our home for the last 4 ¾ years. My wife is German and her mother had been in a nursing home in Germany. She had Alzheimer’s and was in full-time care there. My wife, who had had training in geriatric care, wanted to look after her mother in her last years and so, with the agreement of family, she was transferred from Germany to our house in Ireland.

While I’ve had a go at writing about love, it has been demonstrated to me daily what it means in practice. I’m not going to go into details of what that looked like daily, save to say it was 24/7 care, 365 days a year, for nearly 5 years.

Love can be hard to define, but one way of looking at it is as both an attitude and as action.

Love as attitude and action

It seems nonsensical to think of ‘dispassionate’ love doesn’t it? Love by definition is relational and empathetic – it cares for the good of the other. But it is more than empathy – it involves a determined commitment to the other that is going to result in practical action.

In The Message of Love I say somewhere that love

‘seeks the best for the other in a relationship that fosters life, growth, respect and human flourishing.’

Thomas Jay Oord, a theologian who has written much on love defines it like this – and note his combination of both attitude and action

‘acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others … to promote overall well-being.’

Love in this sense is going to be costly to the self. It is likely going to be inconvenient – possibly extremely so.

What form such love will take varies in a million ways. It can be an entrepreneur creating jobs for people so they can support their families; it can be a friend leaving soup and homemade bread at a door of a grieving family (to us, yesterday – thanks CB and so many others for your practical kindnesses); it can be giving someone a second chance; it can be working for justice for those who have no voice – sometimes in the face of hostility and even death.

And it can be caring physically for those who cannot care for themselves: the mentally and physically disabled; the disempowered; those imprisoned unjustly by the state; people trafficked for profit; vulnerable children; the sick; and the elderly.

So my wife’s caring for her mother is one expression of love. I don’t think it is a ‘higher’ form of love than others. It is certainly not unique. A dear friend of mine has been very ill for some time and the care his wife has shown him has similarly demonstrated how love is a ‘relentless commitment’ to the good of the other come what may.

But perhaps my wife’s care for her mother, who could do nothing for herself and could not communicate, does highlight how love for the other is utterly unconditioned on what they can ‘give’ back.

It speaks of the unique value of each human life as not dependent on what they can ‘contribute’ to others or to a society that measures worth by productivity.

My wife would be the first to say she gets uncomfortable with people talking about ‘cost’ as if she has been paying a price of some sort. Love is not some sort of mathematical equation that calculates the cost in advance – love ‘just’ gets on with responding to the needs of the other.

And, paradoxically, in that ‘cost’ to the self, there is actually joy, fulfilment and happiness. Certainly, that’s what I’ve witnessed.

I think this is something of what Jesus means when he said it is in losing our lives that we find them.

So as we bury Mama today, we do so with no regrets. The last few years have not been somehow ‘lost’ – without them, and without her presence in our home, our lives would have been much the poorer.

Rest in peace Mama

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (16)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: One of the big ticket issues one confronts in Paul is the notion of the bondage of sin. It leads to questions like— if before Christ everyone was in the bondage of sin, what were all those commandments about in the OT, and why were there actually people called righteous back then and back there? Was God grading on a curve in the OT, but not so much now since we have the renovating presence of the Spirit? I agree with Sanders that there is the grace of God to be found in the OT, but the question is, what effect did it actually have on God’s people. Was the good godly law inherently frustrating– it could tell them what to do, but couldn’t enable them to do it? Why then does Paul say in a remarkable passing remark in Philippians that in regard to a righteousness that came from the Mosaic Law, he was blameless!!!! Really? This sounds like no bondage of sin in Paul’s case. Or is he simply saying, I was not a law breaker, without implying his obedience to the positive requirements of love etc. was perfect? What do you think?

PATRICK: Nice easy question Ben! It zones in the vexed question of continuity and discontinuity within Paul’s theology of righteousness when compared to the OT. Sanders’s understandable reaction to forms of Protestant discontinuity, sometimes verging on anti-Semitism, led to him to so emphasise continuity that he concluded Paul’s only real problem with Judaism was that ‘it was not Christianity’. But this won’t do. While Paul is not setting up ‘failed’ Jewish legalism up against Christian grace, something profoundly discontinuous has happened. His own life is an example of radical change.

I see it as Paul re-reading the Scriptures backwards in light of Christ, telling a restructured historical-redemptive story. ‘Faith’ was always the key to justification / righteousness long before the law existed (the story of Abraham in Romans and Galatians). Nor is the law opposed to the promises of God. Its fundamental problem is that it could never justify or give life (only faith in Christ and the regenerating work of the Spirit does that). So in this sense, yes, the life under the law in the OT is temporary and partial. Those who rely on observing it are under a curse (Gal 3:10). In terms of how were faithful believing Jews in the OT seen by God, I think we need to come back to texts like Deut 6:4-5. Wholehearted love for God leads to faithful lives of justice that please God. People can only live according to the light that they have received.

On Philippians, given Paul’s strong theology of sin as a power, I take his reference to being blameless as referring to his pre-conversion life – he was exemplary in keeping the law.

BEN: You quote our old friend John Stott positively as follows (P. 143): “the love of Christ is broad enough to encompass all mankind…long enough to last for eternity, deep enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and high enough to exalt him to heaven”. I totally agree with this and take very seriously John 3.16— God loves the whole of fallen humanity (the cosmos organized against him). All this being true, it does not make sense to me at all to then also say, God has chosen and pre-determined a select number of human beings to be saved, culled out of a mass of unredeemed humanity. To me this denies the very nature of a statement like John 3.16, not least because love has to be freely given and freely received. It can’t be manipulated, compelled, or predetermined for that matter. Election of a person or a people for certain historical purposes is one thing, salvation is another. Christ, as M. Barth said about Ephesians is the Elect One, and yet Christ didn’t need to be saved— these two things must then be distinguished. Believers are saved by grace and through faith, by responding to the Gospel. They become elect only by being in the Elect One, Christ, and that again transpires by grace and through faith. What is your take on these things?

PATRICK: Yes, the study of biblical love does throw up a lot of big theological questions doesn’t’ it? I think some later systematic categories of thinking about election run the risk of imposing an artificial grid on the Bible and making it say more than it does – with unfortunate results. Like you I find it difficult to square texts like John 3:16 with God’s foreordination of multitudes to eternal judgment.

Ultimately this question comes back to the character of God. As I read the Bible, divine love is the great central thread to the whole story. The OT insists that God abounds in love. Hosea is a particularly moving example. God the betrayed lover woos back his unfaithful bride and refuses to end their marriage although he had every right to. Their love is not compelled or enforced – he is not a bullying husband. So, yes, the OT is a very particular story of God’s unbreakable covenant love for Israel, that but story is not an end in itself. Behind his election of Israel is his reconciling love for all. The big shift in the NT is how that ‘narrow lens’ is then widened to embrace all who respond in faith and repentance to the gospel of the Messiah, the Lord of all. No greater example of divine love is possible imagine than the cross of Christ.


Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (15)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: You give an excellent example on p. 135 of the ‘gospel of self-esteem’.I was blown away that this is actually an articulation of a student’s credo or prayer in your secondary schools. That deserves a wow!! How does a Christian, in love, deconstruct what is wrong with such formulations without sounding like Dr. No, or some sort of cosmic meany that wants to squash our children’s hopes and dreams of self-expression and accomplishment?

PATRICK: I remember listening that creed being read at a school graduation and looking around wondering was anyone else finding it as off-the-wall as I was. It ends with the lines “I now realize my infinite potential, thus, my burden lightens. I smile and laugh. I have become the greatest student in the world.” Yet, you’re right, it’s easy to sound like Scrooge if ‘Bah Humbug’ is all we have to say in response. I actually think many children and students see right through such nonsense – my daughters and their friends certainly did. They know not everyone can be the greatest, and they know it is only setting nearly everyone up for a fail. Children who do believe the hype up are going to end up disillusioned or conceited, with artificially inflated opinions of their own ability. That isn’t a loving thing to do, so maybe that’s the angle to critique it from.

BEN: I see that you also have been influenced by John Barclay’s landmark book, Paul and the Gift, and I like the stress on the notion that God’s love doesn’t have preconditions (see the quote from Furnish in a previous question) but it is not unconditional, or undemanding. In what way is God’s love demanding? In some churches things are so bad that you hear pastor’s cynically say things like ‘Blessed are those who expect nothing of God, for they will not be disappointed’. What’s wrong with the way we look at God’s grace and love???

PATRICK: I remember a wise teacher of mine saying ‘Grace is not opposed to works, it’s opposed to merit’. Barclay’s point is connected – God’s grace is ‘unconditioned’ (not dependent on anything we bring) but non unconditional (it is conditioned on a response of faith and obedience). The whole purpose of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is to bring them to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:4) and his overriding concern in his letters is for the moral transformation of those first churches. Where this emphasis is lost we’re heading towards what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ – ‘grace without price, grace without cost.’

Ephesians beautifully brings out this tension. A key theme of the letter is ‘walking’ (unfortunately obscured in the NIV by the way). They are to ‘walk in good works’ (2:10) not as the world walks (2:2) or as pagan Gentiles walk (4:7). Believers are to ‘walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us’ (5:2). That’s a pretty demanding vision. But its rooted in our identity as ‘dearly loved children’ (5:1). It seems to me that’s the task of pastoring and preaching – not to be afraid to aim high while envisioning people with the good news of God’s grace and love.