Pascal: The gospel humbles & exalts

Pensees[The gospel] teaches the righteous that it raises them even to a participation in divinity itself; that in this lofty state they still carry the source of all corruption, which renders them during all their life subject to error, misery, death, and sin; and it proclaims to the most ungodly that they are capable of the grace of their Redeemer. So making those tremble whom it justifies, and consoling those whom it condemns, religion so justly tempers fear with hope through that double capacity of grace and sin, common to all, that it humbles infinitely more than reason alone can do, but without despair; and it exalts infinitely more than natural pride, but without inflating; thus making it evident that alone being exempt from error and vice, it alone fulfills the duty of instructing and correcting men.

Who then can refuse to believe and adore this heavenly light? For is it not clearer than day that we perceive within ourselves ineffaceable marks of excellence? And is it not equally true that we experience every hour the results of our deplorable condition? What does this chaos and monstrous confusion proclaim to us but the truth of these two states, with a voice so powerful that it is impossible to resist it?

–Pascal, Pensées, 123.

Proclamation in light of the consciousness of our age

We must put the stress where the decadence of the religion of our times has failed to put it, yet always so as to keep from discarding the other side.

A month ago I shared the link to an interesting blog post by Ian Paul (IP)–“Should We Proclaim that ‘God is love’?”. Based on a handful of responses I concluded that (a) most answer this question in the affirmative and (b) most didn’t actually read the post. Now the average person doesn’t care what I think about what other people think, but since my dog grows weary of his master’s whining my only recourse is to alternate between the canine and, well, you. [If you only knew how much droning I’ve endured over the years. Nakod]

First, I should say up front that in this clickbait age it’s not surprising that some would assume the point of a post based on the title. If I were on the other side I would be suspicious, too. It’s also possible that some of the respondents skimmed, checked the TLDR box, and missed IP’s “answer” at the end.

Second, it’s only fair to note that IP was interacting with another pastor-blogger’s writing here. Pastors (smh)–#amIright

Third, and this is the real point, as provocative as the titular question appeared, the ensuing post struck me as an eminently reasonable. In short, IP would have us consider the (biblical-theological) distinction between motivation and message in evangelism:

Jesus’ motivation in his ministry to individuals and crowds was compassion, but his message was of the coming kingdom and the need to respond to it. We find the same dynamic in Paul. In his extended (and most personal) reflection on ministry in 2 Cor 3–5, his motivation is love (‘the love of God compels us’, 2 Cor 5.14) but the message is about the need to respond and turn from sin (‘We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus as Lord’  2 Cor 4.5). We are used to making a different alignment: we often think that loving people will proclaim God’s love, and only grumpy people will talk about judgement and the need to respond! And because we want to be loving, we align our message accordingly.

IP tentatively concludes that the way forward is to give more thought to the gospel’s balance between love and lordship:

One way of beginning to resolve this dilemma of the gap between most preaching today and what we find in the New Testament might be to consider the nature of the lordship of Jesus—that those around us are subject to the ‘lordship’ of powers that are anything but loving, and the invitation is to submit to the lordship of one who loves us.

Not surprisingly, I think he’s right. I’d even go one underwhelming step further in saying that this discussion is essential for Christians living in a culture where love has become formless and void. But just to show that we stand in good company when we wrestle with the implications of proclaiming that “God is love,” consider this passage from Geerhardus Vos published some seventy years ago in his Biblical Theology:

It must be acknowledged that, taking all in all, there is a preponderance in bulk and emphasis on the side of divine love. Nevertheless this phenomenon also should be historically explained and not be abused for reducing everything in Jesus’ message to the one preaching up of love. . . Jesus thus brought forward that side of the divine character which was suffering eclipse in the consciousness of the age to which He was addressing Himself. It would be a poor application of this method were we to condense the entire gospel to love and nothing else. Since at the present time the atmosphere is surcharged with the vague idea of an indiscriminate love, and all punitive retribution held at a discount, it is not following the example of Jesus to speak of nothing but the divine love to the obscuring of all the rest. We must put the stress where the decadence of the religion of our times has failed to put it, yet always so as to keep from discarding the other side. Thus alone can the mind of Jesus be faithfully reproduced.

When slavery is freedom

Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith.”

No one is capable of being captain of his own soul, master of her own fate. Each of us is worked upon by unconscious impulses of which we are not even aware and over which we have little control. Paul, unlike the typical American, does not think in terms of autonomous human beings. Paul proudly identifies himself as a “slave of Christ” (Gal 1:10). If the apocalyptic scenario is a picture of true reality, then no one is “free” in the domain of this world as it is. Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). Paradoxically, the new life in Christ can be called both slavery (the service of God) and freedom. This seeming contradiction of slavery and true freedom, which lies at the heart of the gospel, is beautifully invoked in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in words addressed to Christ, “whose service is perfect freedom”. . .

Being a “slave of righteousness” and a “slave of obedience” will sound intolerable to most modern ears. It takes hard mental work to enter Paul’s thought-world and understand that these phrases do not describe a bondage to a harsh puritanical code imposed upon us by a tyrannical outside force. He means the opposite. The gospel of Christ means precisely deliverance from tyrannical outside forces into a realm of light and life where “the obedience of faith” is the only natural and joyful way to be.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 368-369.

Recommendations for parents who want to disciple their kids

I think one of the reasons “ask Jesus into your heart” remains such a popular staple in home discipleship is that many parents feel ill-equipped in the spiritual arena. After all, if you can’t cogently share “the gospel” with the kids the temptation to fall back on church lingo is immense. We instinctively recognize the benefit of lingo-learning discipleship: (1) it “simplifies” the message by reducing it to a soundbite (2) the lingo is so self-explanatory that even a child can understand it (3) the lingo method is widely accepted by churches in the continental US.

But there is help for parents who desire to do more than just throw around some Christian slang in the hope that it sticks. First let’s affirm that the Scripture–in conjunction with the preaching/teaching ministry of your local church (of which you’re an active member, right?)–is the primary source for equipping you to evangelize & disciple your children. But building on that foundation I would highly recommend two books:

What Is the Gospel? (Greg Gilbert) This read is for any Christian but parents need it because you can’t explain the gospel to your children if you’re not certain of it yourself. I was so appreciative of the book when I read it that I’ve since bought additional copies to give as gifts.

Big Truths for Young Hearts (Bruce Ware) I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s essentially a theology book for kids which is read aloud by the parent with their kids. Each chapter concisely covers a specific topic–God, man, salvation, the church, etc–and includes review questions to reinforce the reading.

Any other helpful resources you’d recommend?

Goliath’s head

The gospel means that you are privileged to carry the weight of your sin around the same way David carried Goliath’s head. The weight of your sin is cut off and the only weight you should feel is the weight of victory.

–Doug Wilson

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