Monday 9 February 2015

God does not treat us like that

In the last post I was recommending F.F. Bruce’s book on the relationship between Paul and Jesus. In it he helpfully distinguishes the ways in which Paul’s gospel is traditional and yet also involved fresh revelation from Jesus concerning the significance of his death, resurrection and ascension.

Having teased out those distinctions Bruce then shows that Paul and Jesus have a common theology of what he calls ‘the way of salvation.’ Interestingly, one of his main arguments is their agreement on justification by faith.

Nowhere has Paul more fully entered into the heart of Jesus’ teaching about God and man than in his insistence on justification by faith.” (Bruce, Paul and Jesus, 52)

The language of justification is there in Luke 18 of course: the tax collector and not the Pharisee goes home justified. But Bruce argues that the content of justification is taught far more frequently by Jesus than we might think simply by counting the number of times the language appears. Consider, for example, of the parable of the prodigal son:

When the black sheep of the family came home in disgrace and started off with the fine speech he had so carefully rehearsed, his father might easily have said "That's all very well, young man we have heard fine speeches before.   Now you buckle to and work as you have never worked in your life, and if we see that you really mean what you say we may let you work your passage.  But first you must prove yourself; we can't let bygones be bygones as though nothing had happened."  Even that would have done the young man a world of good, and even the elder brother might have consented to let him be placed on probation.  And that is very much like some people's idea of God. But it was not Jesus' way of presenting God - nor was it Paul's.

For - and here is where the Pauline doctrine of justification comes in - God does not treat us like that.  He does not put us on probation to see how we shall turn out - although, if he did so, that in itself would be an act of grace. But then we should never be really satisfied that we had made the grade, that our performance was sufficiently creditable to win the divine approval at the last. Even if we did the best we could - and somehow we do not always manage to do that - how could we be sure that our best came within measurable distance of God's requirement? We might hope, but we could never be certain.  But if God in sheer grace assures us of our acceptance in advance, and we gladly embrace that assurance, then we can go on to do his will from the heart as our response of love, without constantly worrying whether we are doing it adequately or not" (F.F. Bruce, Paul and Jesus, 54)

Although he doesn’t have the parable of the Prodigal Son in mind John Barclay develops this a bit further. He argues that the similarity between Jesus and Paul extends beyond an emphasis on grace to the sense in which their view of grace is offensive as well as inclusive. They both “enact and express a paradigm of God’s grace that is simultaneously welcoming to the lost outsider and deeply challenging to the insider – challenging to the point of scorching away the secure marks of a bounded system” (John M.G. Barclay, “‘Offensive and Uncanny’: Jesus and Paul on the Caustic Grace of God,” in Jesus and Paul Reconnected: Fresh Pathways into an Old Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 17).

That, of course, is exactly what we see in the parable – the prodigal son, the lost outsider, and the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus kept company, they are welcomed by God’s lavish grace. And yet the same grace deeply challenges the self-righteousness of the elder brother and the Pharisees who lamented the breadth of Jesus’ social circle.

So, what unites Paul and Jesus? Among other things, the message of the offensively inclusive grace of God.