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.

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