I ran across this quotation on Twitter the other day:
“God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign. Unless we behold God in and through Christ, the only Mediator–the terrors of His Majesty would overwhelm us. Because of our sins–we dare not approach the Father, except in Christ.”
The quote comes from Stephen Charnock, a 17th century English Puritan. As a Wesleyan Christian, this is, in important ways, alien from the theological picture I work from.
Here’s where I can agree with Charnock:
- God is sovereign. God is the sole creator of all that is. God is the ultimate authority not just in theory, but in fact. We ought to submit to God in all areas of our lives. God alone is due (and worthy of) our worship and devotion.
- Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Other so-called gods are no help to us. Our performance, how ever great we or others judge it, gets us nowhere with God. God is never in our debt; we are always in debt to God. Jesus is the only mediator between us and God.
- There is a huge gap between us and God. Morally, we fall short of God’s ideal. From a practical point of view, this is because of our sin. Our sin distorts our perception of God as well as of everything else. We lack accurate understanding of an insight into ourselves because of our sin.
- God is not safe. Not only is God “a consuming fire,” but the consistent biblical picture of people who come face to face with God (whatever that means, given our vast ontological difference), are completely overwhelmed. We are never God’s “buddies.”
My great difference with Charnock comes in the first line: “God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign.”
- Where at least some strands of the Calvinist tradition (as represented in Charnock) view God as primarily “holy wrath,” the Wesleyan tradition views God as primarily “holy love.” Calvinists do not deny God’s love, and Wesleyans (at least when they’re true to Wesley) don’t deny God’s wrath.
- Given my experience of United Methodism, the largest denomination in the Wesleyan tradition, I need to say more about God’s wrath. I’ve noticed that many of my contemporary Methodists (who I assume would count themselves as Wesleyans also), don’t like talking about God’s wrath, deferring to the attribute of love alone. The first step in joining the Methodist movement in the 18th century was evidencing a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” This was not the wrath of the French, the Germans, or the Turks: this was the wrath of God. In my experience we never use this Wesleyan phrase any more.
- The Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – is eternal. We misunderstand the Trinity when we imagine some eternal GOD, who only later, after the fall, “splits up” or “becomes” Trinitarian. There is thus no such thing as “God, apart from Christ.” The Trinity is always, from all eternity and into all eternity, love.
- When we read “God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign,” we get the picture of that “angry, offended Sovereign,” sitting on his throne, just waiting to stamp us puny sinners out of existence. But then Christ shows up and convinces God to go against his prior intent and grant us mercy. God’s prior intent is and always is love.