A study of George MacDonald’s perspectives on universal Fatherhood, salvation, atonement, and sanctification, by Michael Phillips, with quotes from MacDonald’s works, from Leben 10, 2006
The question most frequently posed to me about George MacDonald is to clarify his position on universal reconciliation, or as it is more commonly termed, “universalism.” It is not a question I am usually eager to address because of its potential divisiveness, and the enormity of misunderstanding (and fear) prevalent within evangelicalism over this issue.
Indeed, for many years it was a question I was more than a little afraid of. I was familiar with more than one case in which a belief in universal salva-tion, often called the larger hope, had apparently—no doubt in conjunction with other ideas—led certain individuals off various spiritual deep ends into what I can only describe as some very weird ideas.
Was universal reconciliation a “dangerous doctrine,” with power to lead people away from truth?
I now see the short-sightedness of that anxiety—that it was in fact other factors, not universal reconciliation at all, that was responsible for the peculiarities I had observed. Yet for several years this was a major concern in my life.
At one of the first (and few) instances in which I was asked to speak about George MacDonald and my own work, it was with fear and trembling that I opened the meeting for questions. For weeks I had dreaded this moment, hoping no one would ask “the big question” I was unprepared to answer. No sooner had I invited responses from the floor, however, than came the question point blank: “Was George MacDonald a universalist?”
That was some twenty years ago. At last I am prepared to give an answer.
In these next two issues of Leben, it is my hope to present a brief interpretive analysis of George MacDonald’s perspective on salvation and the afterlife as I have come to view them after 35 years of reading and studying his work. I do not presume to speak for George MacDonald—his own words will have to speak for themselves. To assist us, therefore, we will also reprint selections from his writings to illuminate his thoughts in certain areas in which his work was at once so groundbreaking and controversial.
It has been the single highest goal of my professional life to correctly and accurately understand George MacDonald’s perspectives and then represent them faithfully to our generation. It has been the highest aim of my spiritual life to correctly and accurately understand the nature and character of the God MacDonald served, and likewise to serve and obey him myself.
I am, however, no detail and factual MacDonald “expert.” My prayerful objective has been, and is, to lay hold of MacDonald’s heart, and thus draw near to the heart of God himself.
I have come under much criticism for the methods (redacting and “editing” his work; writing an interpretive rather than a purely “factual” biography) by which I have represented MacDonald to our time. Whether the work in which I have engaged, and its impact upon MacDonald’s posterity, will withstand the scrutiny of the future and continue to be helpful to those interested in MacDonald, I am probably the least of those capable of knowing.
I recognize that my work has been far from perfect, that I have occasionally taken liberties for the sake of clarifying MacDonald’s ideas, and that my work is not to the liking of the MacDonald intelligentsia and purist community. I have made mistakes along the way, and will no doubt do so again. I do not present either my work or my interpretations as flawless. My own growth and development in these high spiritual regions must also be factored into the equation. I am growing as I go, asking questions as I go…as must all seekers after spiritual truth. Never-theless, I will be bold to share my thoughts about Mac-Donald’s life and writings, even though they will be incomplete and no doubt in error at times.
If MacDonald’s words speak for themselves, why is such an interpretive analysis of his view of universal reconciliation necessary?
For the simple reason that MacDonald never divulged in so many words exactly what he believed. To my knowledge (here may be one of those details about which I am mistaken) the words “universalism” or “universal reconciliation” never once appear in MacDonald’s writings. If they do, I do not recall them, and if I am mistaken, we can certainly say without fear of rebuke that his use of such terms is rare in the extreme.
MacDonald’s curious obscurity about this single doctrine that so interested him and has intrigued his readers for a century and a half, makes it the single most enduring puzzle about MacDonald, insuring that enigma and controversy will continue to follow him as long as his books are read.
Illumination is needed beyond MacDonald’s words themselves for the simple reason that people want to know what MacDonald thought. They are hungry to understand where he stood and why. I hope, therefore, to help a few readers understand a little more clearly the ideas presented (cryptically it may occasionally be) in MacDonald’s books.
Our starting point in this inquiry must surely be the perplexing question, Why did George MacDonald never address universalism directly?
Was the term unfamiliar to him? Was the idea unimportant to him? Were Christians of his day uninterested in universalism? We know just the opposite to be the case. The debate over “universalism” in MacDonald’s day was vigorous and heated.
Late nineteenth century Great Britain was a positive intellectual greenhouse for new concepts, in every field, from politics to science to theology. Liberal trends were pushing beyond boundaries inconceivable a hundred years earlier. Scientific advances were changing the way people viewed the natural world. Darwin had already proposed an evolutionary foundation for the animal kingdom. Within the first decade of the twentieth century Einstein would propose his theory of special relativity.
This surge of new ideas brought with it rapid and enormous change. Some of it was for the better, some was not. It could be argued that most of the social change proved generally beneficial to people and culture, while many of the new philosophical ideas of the times produced a deviation from traditional and biblical truth.
This environment of change and new ideas caused a reevaluation of traditional norms in every discipline and walk of life—science, society, business, politics, industry, art, music, and religion. The debate between God and science, evolution and creation, was at the forefront of everyone’s thinking.
This reevaluating, questioning, and debating outlook was evident in the church of the nineteenth century as well as throughout society in general. Whereas the debate over evolution took place for the most part between the conservative church and the scientific community, no more divisive point of contention existed within the church of Great Britain itself than the theological controversy over the potentiality of universal reconciliation. It was a conflict that raged furiously in all denominations and seminaries, split churches, and resulted in many books and pamphlets, and thousands of parlor debates throughout England and Scotland. As today, a belief in universal reconciliation was considered heresy in some circles, enlightened thinking in others.
MacDonald’s chosen silence
In this wide open climate of debate and discussion, MacDonald’s silence on universal reconciliation is all the more curious. I am convinced it has its roots in a principle of paramount importance for all who would follow, not merely his ideas but the example of his life. It is my firm conviction that he did not address the doctrine specifically as a conscious and purposeful choice. He so valued unity and so recognized the divisiveness of this issue that he did not want to add more fuel for division to the body of Christ by “taking sides.” He would write about God. But he would not write about his personal doctrinal position.
“The one main fault in the Christian Church,” he said from the pulpit in 1879, “is separation, repulsion, recoil between the component particles of the Lord’s body…Who said you were to be of one opinion? It is the Lord who asks you to be of one heart….If there is one role I hate, it is that of the proselytizer…Not for a moment would I endeavor by argument to convince another of…my opinion. If it be true, it is God’s work to show it, for logic cannot.” (Your Life in Christ, “Opinion and Truth, edited)
Also: “I write with no desire to provoke controversy, which I loathe, but with some hope of presenting to the minds of those capable of seeing it the glory of the truth of the Father and the Son…I am as indifferent to a reputation for orthodoxy as I despise the championship of novelty.” (Your Life in Christ, “The Creation in Christ,” edited)
And finally (in speaking of the atonement): “I have passed through no change of opinion concerning it since first I began to write or speak; but I have written little and spoken less about it, because I would preach no mere negation. My work was not to destroy the false, except as it came in the way of building the true. Therefore I sought to speak but what I believed, saying little concerning what I did not believe…and shunning dispute. Neither will I now enter any theological lists to be the champion for or against mere doctrine. I have no desire to change the opinion of man or woman.” (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “Justice”)
I paraphrase all these (perhaps taking liberty) as MacDonald’s way of saying, “I will not be a spokesman for any doctrinal view. I write solely to illuminate the character of the Father and the Son.”
My public neutrality
His example is one I personally try to follow. I have steadfastly refused to doctrinalize my own view into a yes-or-no, black-and-white position. I identify my outlook as an intrigued and open-minded neutrality.
When people ask me, “Do you believe that all will ultimately be reconciled to God in heaven?” in all sincerity I answer, “I honestly do not know. There is much scriptural evidence to support such a view. I am intrigued by the possibility. But I feel it would be wrong to doctrinalize my thoughts into a position. I have studied enough to see that many passages in the Bible would seem to say so. But when it comes to a categoric answer, Scripture is unclear. There are many passages that others interpret as saying precisely the opposite—that hell is punitive and eternal. Therefore I remain open to whatever God will do, and however he will do it. I believe that he will conquer and eliminate sin. How he will do so lays beyond the finite purview of man’s mind to comprehend. I simply trust that God’s infinite love will be victorious in the end, and will swallow up all our questions, all our doctrines, and all our uncertainties. In that I rest.”
This position of what I call a public “neutrality” stems from my conviction that I am not sure God intends us to know everything about what he will ultimately accomplish and how he will accomplish it. My own views on the matter are still fluid. My scriptural research is ongoing. I consider an open attitude of prayer and inquiry to be the most truly scriptural position for me in good conscience to hold. I think honesty requires the admission that scriptural evidence points in many directions.
This neutrality stems from no lack of conviction on my part, but from years of deep and prayerful study. God has shown us many possibilities. But he has not revealed full truth to us on this and many difficult topics. My views may change as God continues to carry out his work in my heart and mind. That is where I presently stand. Honesty requires me also to say that I am probably growing less neutral as the years go by, and—though I cannot state it as a firm conviction—leaning gradually more and more toward what I feel was MacDonald’s stance.
Finally, I will add this: Whatever may be God’s ultimate purpose to accomplish in eternity, I find that the scriptural and prayerful inquiry into such matters has immeasurably deepened and enriched my faith, my walk, and my knowledge of the heart of God. I believe it healthy to consider such things. Prayerful study of scriptural unknowns keeps one’s faith from becoming stagnant and drifting into a dependence on proof-texts, dogma, formula, and pious clichés.
Whether this represents George MacDonald’s position, I do not know. His reasons for taking no public stand may differ from my own. I have arrived at this, my position, by following what I perceive as George MacDonald’s example, even if not every specific of his point of view.
We who study and seek to uncover George MacDonald’s ideas and understand them more plainly must do so with sober-mindedness, realizing that we are in a sense going against MacDonald’s own wishes. If he had wanted his position unambiguously spelled out, certainly he would have done so himself. But he did not. And for good reason. He would not add fuel to a doctrinal debate.
Therefore, whatever we discover here is between ourselves and God, even between ourselves and George MacDonald. To use it to debate or attempt to persuade would be untrue to MacDonald’s own priorities. (“I do not attempt to change your opinions. If they are wrong, the obedience alone on which I insist can enable you to set them right. I only urge you to obey…I will not therefore proceed to defend my beliefs and these principles on which I try to live. How much less will I defend my opinions!” (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited) Even in the quest to understand him, we must be faithful to what MacDonald stood for.
With this introductory discussion and these principles in mind, let us move ahead to isolate several key areas in MacDonald’s writings that, taken together, give us a picture of his perspective of God’s eternal purposes.
Having not only been reading MacDonald, but also studying and praying regarding these matters for thirty-five years, my own ideas and MacDonald’s have become an enormous intertwined tapestry within my consciousness. It is one which gives a generally uniform picture of God and his work, but whose individual threads have become impossible to isolate apart from the whole.
In what follows, then, it cannot be helped that my own ideas and perspectives (so dependent on MacDonald) are melded with his as one. In most cases, I can no longer distinguish them. Though the intent here is to represent MacDonald’s perspectives, I know of no other way to thoroughly explain those perspective than through the lens of my own spiritual outlook—in other words, to try, being faithful to MacDonald, to explain what the whole tapestry looks like. Some of these ideas come directly from MacDonald’s books, others from my own writings which, though not directly traceable to MacDonald, yet help illuminate his thought.
Most explorations of scriptural truth that involve reassessing long held and traditional perspectives usually take the form of a personal quest. George MacDonald’s was no exception. His journey of faith out of the Calvinism of his youth was a progressive one. Our discussion of his ideas must likewise progress through his ideas “precept upon precept.”
Analysis of the letter seems generally to be the method employed for religious study on most topics. It is a constant surprise to me to what an extent George MacDonald’s ideas are subject to such analysis (the very opposite of his way.) But George MacDonald’s approach was different. His final perspectives are not ones that can be got at by the letter of doctrine.
An analytical scriptural study of immense proportions could be brought to bear on this subject (and many on both sides of the question engage in the debate with complex arguments of human reasoning). And while it is true that analysis has its place, and I have done such analysis myself, MacDonald’s progression toward truth was rooted instead in the character of God. Raw analysis always fades in the overpowering light of the two questions that were always at the forefront for him: “What is God like…what do our hearts tell us?”
Therefore, in penetrating the depths of meaning in what follows, we have to break through to a different level than that of the intellect alone. I can only pray that those who read will under-stand, and will use neither my words nor MacDonald’s for mere analysis. Please, in faithfulness to MacDonald, let us allow our hearts to speak deep truth to us about who God is.
Some of what follows may be expressed in the negative, or in point-counterpoint terms as an inevitable consequence of MacDonald’s reaction against the Calvinist views of his upbringing. The traditional views of Calvinist theology remain so deeply ingrained today, even in the non-Christian world, that there is often no clearer way to get at what MacDonald believed than to say what it is not.
Universitality of Fatherhood
In MacDonald’s own words, we know that from an early age he began to recoil with disgust from the Calvinist view of election and predestination in which he was steeped as a boy. The strict delineation of humanity into two camps—the saved and the unsaved, God’s elect and the lost, those on their way to heaven and those doomed to hell—became repugnant to him.
Though subtleties have softened the odious nature of the Calvinist doctrine of “election”—that certain individuals are destined ahead of time for salvation and others to perdition, and that eternal torment in hell is inevitable for the latter—its ghastly influence remains darkly pervasive throughout much of Christian theology, both Catholic and Protestant, and must surely account for much of the world’s rejection of Christianity through the centuries.
The Shorter Catechism, that staple of instruction for all Scottish boys and girls of MacDonald’s time, in Questions and Answers 19-21, outlines the doctrine that God’s redemption is not for everyone. The italics are mine, added to highlight the contemptible and unscriptural doctrine that Jesus is not the Savior of all men.
“All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever. God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer. The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ.”
To the boy George MacDonald, the implication was a simple one: God loved some people, and chose to withhold his love from others. The Shorter Catechism does not mention God’s “love” anywhere in its definition of God. Man is commanded to love God, but toward man God displays not love but his “wrath and curse.”
The gloomy perspective of The Shorter Catechism can be seen in that in its entire contents, the word love is found a total of four times, only once in relation to God. The word sin is used more than twenty times, culminating in the question—“What doth every sin deserve?” The answer is vividly portrayed in Alec Forbes of Howglen: “Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.”
Obviously, then, if God intends to send certain people to hell, there to torment them forever without hope of reprieve, what conclusion can be drawn but that God never loved them at all. How can the inconsistency of the entire doctrinal system be other than confusing?
The boy George MacDonald reached a point early in his life, however, of feeling that he did not want God to love him if he did not love everyone. George MacDonald’s grandmother, who half-raised him after the death of his mother at the age of eight, was a stern Calvinist woman of the old school. To what extent she actually resembled the fictional Grandmother Falconer we cannot know. But even though the details of the story itself no doubt differ much from actual occurrences in MacDonald’s own life, I take the portraiture as a substantially true one. This being so, I read the passage (quoted later) from Robert Falconer as spiritually autobiographical. In it we find succinctly stated, the basic elements of that Calvinist creed MacDonald so abhorred. The passage is followed by the heretical question from the boy Robert’s mouth which I believe gives us a window into at what early age young George MacDonald himself began to wonder about universal reconciliation: “Shargar, what think ye…Gin a de’il war to repent, wad God forgie him?”
Out of MacDonald’s gradual rejection of these pillars of Calvinist theology eventually emerged an alternate perspective of God’s nature that would become the undergirding foundation for his future work—that God was the universal Father of all mankind. In MacDonald’s new outlook, God’s love rises triumphantly above his wrath. God’s Fatherhood is universal, not partial. His love is complete not subjective and arbitrary.
All men and women are his children.
Upon this new (and to Calvinist theology revolutionary) image of God as the universal Father of mankind, an entirely alternate perspective of God’s purpose and plan in the universe could be built. God’s character was not defined by an almighty “holiness” which must, by virtue of that holiness, punish all sin—indeed, punish it forever. God’s true character, rather, could now be defined by tender Fatherhood. God’s purpose in the universe is to bring his children home, back to the home of their origins, the home of his heart.
MacDonald’s new perspective did not ignore sin, but placed it in its proper perspective, as a curse from which we must be delivered not for which we must be eternally punished. Neither did MacDonald’s new perspective ignore that differences exist within humanity, that there are people who are Christians and others who are not, and that God has different things to accomplish within the hearts of each.
The nature of the Christian message was changed from one of vengeance and doom—God will punish sin forever—to one of love and hope—God is our Father who will help us put sin to death so that we can become his children.
From such a foundation, salvation is seen in a wonderful new light—not based on a man-made line of division through the middle of humanity separating the saved and the lost, but rather as the glorious means by which a loving Father will reconcile his universal family back into oneness with himself and with one another.
God’s eternal work is not to divide the righteous from the unrighteous by artificial salvationary formulas, but to save his children from every influence within them that prevents them being his perfect sons and daughters.
There are two ways to view salvation. One is negative and is by far the more prevalent view held by most Christians. In this view, salvation is a mechanism, an escape hatch, to “save” us from death and hell and the consequences of sin at the hands of a holy and jealous God who must punish sin. It is “negative” because it builds upon a foundation of man’s sin, saying that man deserves nothing but eternal damnation because of that sin. Every human being is on death row. But there is a legal loophole that can save us. Salvation of this kind can be accom-plished in a moment. If one knows the right belief-combination to unlock the escape hatch, the proper mechanics of the legal loophole, one can slip through quickly and easily. One must simply know the formula, and pardon from death row is instantly granted.
The positive view builds rather upon a foundation of childship. It is “positive” because it says that, as God’s children we deserve life—indeed, perfect life. We are not on death row, we are children who, in our selfishness, have wandered away from our Father. Salvation is the roadmap home. Once begun on that journey home, the salvationary roadmap guides us in learning how to put to death the impulses within us that keep us from the life we were created to enjoy, the impulses which caused us to stray and that prevent us from being like Christ, God’s victorious and blessed sons and daughters. Salvation has less to do with getting us off death row as it does freeing us from the selfish independence that prevents us being true children of God. It is not defined by a legal mechanism of belief (of which there have been hundreds of definitions through the centuries), but by a practical lifestyle of childlike obedient faith (which lifestyle was defined and exampled by Jesus Christ.) The salvation God offers is a salvation from ourselves and our sin, not from his wrath.
Obviously it is this latter view of salvation that George MacDonald developed in his writings. mAccording to MacDonald, salvation is not being saved from the penalty or consequences of sin, still less from the punishment God is bound by his holiness to impose because of sin. Salvation is rather to be saved from the capacity to sin, from that within ourselves which causes us to sin. Again, salvation is childness of obedient faith, not mechanism of belief.
“God is determined…” MacDonald writes, “to have his children clean, clear, pure as very snow…that not only shall they with his help make up for whatever wrong they have done, but at length be incapable, by eternal choice of good, under any temptation, of doing…the thing God would not do.”
Sin is whatever prevents us being fully God’s children. Sin is selfishness of motive, attitude, and action. Sin is disobeying and disregarding God as the Father of life. Sin is living unto ourselves without regard for our Father-God who created us.
Paul truly says that the wages of sin are death. But this death is not eternal damnation (though hell may play a role in the process). It is the death within each of us of a child’s heart. The wages of sin is the death of childship. We must be saved from this death and made alive to childship.
Jesus came as the perfect and obedient Son, to save us from this death, to show us childship, to example childship, and to help us be born again into childship. The new birth, therefore, saves us to become children again! It births the potentiality of putting to death within ourselves everything that prevents us being pure and obedient sons and daughters of God, as Jesus himself was the pure and perfect Son of God.
Being saved from the capacity and desire to sin takes a lifetime of growth, self-denial, and relinquishment of self-motive. Being made alive to the imperative of childness as the highest apex of being takes a lifetime of reorientation toward God’s ways and away from the values of the world (which may include many doctrines of the Christian “world” steeped for almost two millennia in “belief” legalisms rather than the self-denying faith of childness.)
Because Christians are not taught the true nature of salvation (being saved from their own sinful selves, not from hell), very few begin such growth in this life. Therefore the process of salvation will in most cases take more than a lifetime. Wrongly taught that salvation is an “event” rather than a lifetime process of self-denial, according to MacDonald many Christians are no more “saved” (living in the childship of Christlikeness) than most non-Christians. They may “believe” many truths about the Christian faith, but the sin-deathing process of self-denying salvation is scarcely begun in them.
For all these reasons, MacDonald loathed so-called “plans of salvation,” which were just as prevalent in his day as they are in ours. He loathed them because, purporting to tell people how to be saved, they actually teach people falsely about salvation, and thus eternally do as much harm (or more) than good toward spreading the kingdom of God.
One of the common arguments against universal reconciliation is that it removes fear from the equation. Fear is the world’s greatest accountability factor. Human beings are motivated by fear. Fear of getting in trouble makes us mind our parents. Fear of failure makes us study. Fear of getting fired makes us work hard. And of course, fear of hell lurking in the background makes us obey the Bible and go to church and live upright lives.
It would be an interesting study to know, in the history of Christianity, what percentage of “sinner’s prayers” and “altar confessions” have been prompted in some measure by fear of hell. Most of the great evangelists have made frequent use of God’s wrath in their message. And not just “hellfire and brimstone” preachers. In how many subtle ways is most so-called “salvation” based on being saved from God’s punishment of sin, rather being saved to become his children.
Remove fear, say opponents of universal reconciliation, and the basis for evangelism is gone. No salvation message is left. No one is motivated by wanting to be good.
Though completely inaccurate, such objections highlight the truth that universal reconciliation certainly does change the salvation message. But do we hang on to fear of hell, even if it is wrong, just to have something to hold over people’s heads? George MacDonald would say, Never! Truth is higher than fear. What we lose of fear, we gain of truth and will be a far higher thing in the end. We must preach true salvation. People must respond to truth not fear. If there are fewer responses to impassioned altar calls, at least those who do respond to the gospel message will be responding to truth, not the fear of a falsehood that can never result in true salvation anyway.
But all this begs a deeper point: Universal reconciliation does not remove the basis for fear of hell at all.
This objection is raised only by those who have no understanding what is really involved in this profound and scriptural teaching—a deeper and more stringent personal accountability for sin than the “cheap grace” of the traditional orthodoxy. Accountability is not lessened, it is heightened. The afterlife as George MacDonald wrote of it gives more urgency to our need of salvation (properly understood) not less. The “cheap grace” of Calvinistic theology is, in fact, the easy way out. Those who object to universal reconciliation on the basis of a too-easy salvation have their argument exactly upside down. Is one of the reasons such falsehoods persist is that they absolve Christians, rather than non-Christians, from (post-belief) accountability?
MacDonald clarifies this precisely in “The Consuming Fire,” where he says, “When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of him is groundless? No. For as much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more…Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so that he will burn them clean? Can the cleansing of the fire appear to them anything beyond what it must always, more or less, be—a process of torture?”
The message, therefore, is not that, because of universal reconciliation, everyone will be redeemed eventually so there is nothing to fear. Such a truth must always be linked with the equally important message of how that redemption is going to come about—through the consuming fire (hell) that will reveal who and what we truly are. The full message of this wonderful truth must be taught. It is no easy, automatic, peaches-and-cream salvation. God is going to make us into sons and daughters. The longer we delay allowing him to begin, the longer and more painful will be the process.
Any half truth will lead to error in the end. The truth that God may redeem the whole universe is but half the truth, and alone will lead to error as readily as will the error of eternal damnation. All mankind will also be held accountable. That message must be made an equal point of the gospel of Christianity. But it is an accountability based on God’s loving Fatherhood, not fear of his wrath.
Contrary to common evangelical teaching and practice, in MacDonald’s view salvation does not occur at one juncture of time (making a public profession of faith, repentance, joining a church, being baptized, praying a sinner’s prayer, being confirmed, etc.) nor is it the assent to a particular belief or set of ideas or doctrines, nor even the faithful adherence to those beliefs and ideas (whether Catholic ideas or Protestant ideas or any other set of doctrinal formulas that define various salvationary legalisms.)
Salvation is not experiential, intellectual, doctrinal, or theological. All these, MacDonald says, may make one a good “churchman,” but they will not make one a Christian. Salvation, rather, is a living lifestyle of faith characterized by obedience to the commands, instructions, and example of Jesus Christ as they come to us in the four gospels of the New Testament.
Though they may (or may not) begin at an instant of time, all the complex components of what the Bible means by “salvation” are progressive. Such beginnings do not constitute “salvation.” They constitute the beginnings of a lifelong process of salvation.
The very question, “When were you saved?”—indeed, the entire concept of being saved (a past-tense construction indicating a single spiritual “event”)— indicates a false perspective. Salvation has no past tense, only an ongoing, moment-by-moment eternal Now.
Atonement and sanctification
It is very difficult to pin down George MacDonald’s exact view of what the atonement means and how it functions. He was in hot water over his views on this issue from an early age, and controversy about it followed him the rest of his life. Though what follows may provoke yet more controversy, let me attempt in my own halting speech to give a representation of what I read in MacDonald’s words. Knowing that this may be one of the areas where I am wide of the mark, I will nevertheless venture the following thoughts.
Simply put, the atonement of traditional Protestant theology represents the pardoning legal loophole, supposedly devised by God so that he could at least let some small number of men and women out from under the eternal curse of sin. This theology maintains that, as sacrifice was from the beginning God’s provision for sin, Jesus is the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice, and we are thus set free. Christ “atones” for our sin. He suffers the penalty that should, by the demand of the law of sin (eternal death), fall on us. His blood “purchases” our freedom.
The common Calvinist view of the atonement is as a sort of “divine pixie dust” (the blood of Christ) that is sprinkled on the believer to absolve him of the consequences of sin. He is “washed clean” because of the death of Christ and his own “acceptance” (by belief) of that work of the cross. The sinner’s sinful nature remains, but grace covers the sin. His faith is imputed to him as righteousness. Man does nothing to deserve it—he must merely believe in and trust Christ’s “finished work.” As the contemporary song has it—it is only Jesus…the cheap grace of non-accountability again.
For man, the atonement is entirely passive. The atoning work is all Christ’s. Man must merely accept that work “by faith.” If we repent, believe, trust, and accept…the blood does the rest. Atonement is made by the shedding of blood, just as in the Old Testament.
The whole thing is accomplished by a divine sleight of hand. The sinner remains a sinner whom God treats as if he is clean. It is a pretend sanctification. Christ is pure, therefore God will pretend that we are too. In the Old Testament, the blood causes God to “pass over” the sin. Sin is not eliminated, it is passed over. As for those who do not trust in that finished work (who do not apply the blood over the doorposts of their hearts by “faith in Christ”), God’s “holiness” and “justice” demand that they be punished forever for their sin.
In these commonly held images of God and his work, MacDonald saw more superstition and outright paganism than scriptural reality. He believed that the Old Testament sacrifice had been invented by men, not originally ordained by God at all. A substitutionary blood-sacrifice was never God’s intended remedy for sin. The atonement, therefore, must be more than a mere fulfillment of it. MacDonald hated the image of a capricious magician-God and vengeful tyrant who would accomplish his purposes by mechanical legalisms rather than practical living reality. The most passionate outcries in his writings are not against the unbelief of the non-Christian world but against Christians who are satisfied to believe such Molech-monstrosities of the Father of Jesus Christ, and makes of the atonement but a continuation (on a loftier scale) of a pagan sacrifice.
Christians have been so indoctrinated (MacDonald uses the word saturated) in this view that they scarcely pause to consider what an ineffective solution it is to the problem of sin.
MacDonald expresses his disbelief: “This is the best device, according to the prevailing theology, that the God of truth—the God of mercy, whose glory is that he is just to men by forgiving their sins—could devise to save his creatures!” (From “Justice.”) “The device is an absurdity—a grotesquely deformed absurdity. To represent the living God as a party to such a style of action, is to veil with a mask of cruelty…the face whose glory can be seen only in the face of Jesus.”
These twisted scriptural mechanisms are not worthy of God, says MacDonald. Men made them up—led by unbelief not faith—to account for high truths they could not understand. They are not doctrines that proceed out of God’s heart at all. MacDonald did not believe that it was “only” Jesus. He believed that the atonement was entirely active from man’s side, that man must take his own willing, choosing, ongoing share in making “atonement” for sin, by killing the possibility of sin within ourselves. Without Christ we cannot do it. But with Christ, we—not Christ alone— must do it. We are not passively made into God’s children, we must become the sons and daughters of God through obedience.
I have elsewhere explained the commonly held “passive” view of God’s work: “The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) terms sanctification ‘the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.’ “Every verb construction is passive. We don’t have to do any renewing, we don’t have to die to sin, we are renewed and are enabled. It’s all done for us…
“J.I. Packer adds: ‘The concept is…of a divinely wrought character change freeing us from sinful habits and forming in us Christlike affections, dispositions, and virtues. Sanctification …engenders real righteousness within the frame of relational holiness. Relational sanctification, the state of being permanently set apart for God, flows from the cross, where God through Christ purchased and claimed us for himself.’ (Concise Theology, J.I. Packer, Tyndale House, 1993, p. 169)
“It’s all God’s doing. We just stand back passively…and let the Holy Spirit change us. It happens automatically. Discipleship on the easy-does-it-plan…
“When Peter blew it, Jesus didn’t put his arm on his shoulder and say, ‘Hey, no problem, Pete. The Holy Spirit will engender real righteousness with a frame of relational holiness within you after a while. Just wait a few years and you will experience a divinely wrought character change that will free you from your sinful habits.’ No. He spun around and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’…
“The obedience Jesus commanded was no passive obedience… When he finished the parable of the good Samaritan, he didn’t look at his listeners and say, ‘Okay now, study this principle and memorize this story, and over time a divinely wrought character change will engender righteousness within you.’ He said, ‘Go and do the same.’ (Is Jesus Coming Back As Soon As We Think, p. 165)
The doctrine of imputed righteousness is central to this passive Calvinist sanctification, in which man is made righteous in God’s eyes by legal mechanisms rather than becoming truly righteous. From this doctrine MacDonald positively recoiled in disgust. (He called it “the most contemptible of false doctrines…that poorest of legal cobwebs spun by spiritual spiders.”)
Instead, MacDonald saw the atonement as a miraculous partnership between Christ and man. Jesus shows us how atonement is to be made (by putting motives of self-will to death—Not my will but your will be done), and then, with his help, we must do likewise. We put self motive to death in the same way he did—by dying into the will of the Father through the exercise of free will, choosing obedience.
Such atonement, like salvation, is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing lifetime process. The atonement and sanctification are two sides of the same coin. “Our Satan must go,” MacDonald wrote, “every hair and feather! Neither shalt thou think to be delivered from the necessity of being good by being made good.”
MacDonald places the responbility for the development of childness on our shoulders. Jesus cannot do it for us. We must put to death our own sin. We must choose to do so. Jesus originates the possibility of our choosing in his choosing.
To put it plainly and let come of it what may—George MacDonald did not believe in what is called the doctrine of “vicarious sacrifice.” In his own words, from the sermon Justice: “Better the reformers had kept their belief in a purgatory, and parted with what is called vicarious sacrifice…To believe in a vicarious sacrifice, is to think to take refuge with the Son from the righteousness of the Father…to shelter behind a false quirk of law instead of nestling in the eternal heart of the unchangeable and righteous Father.”
Risking great objection I will add the word example to the discussion as an alternative to “substitution,” and suggest that in MacDonald’s view, atonement is accomplished with an interfusing of miracle and example— that Christ’s work must be fully appropriated as (with his help) we put sin to death on our own daily cross of free will choice.
True atonement for sin must exist on an altogether higher and another plane entirely than the Old Testament sacrifice, even than the fulfillment of the sacrifice. Though God made use of the substitutionary blood sacrifice for a season, such was never his intended remedy for sin. The sacrifice Christ made to atone for sin was the self-denying relinquishment of his own will into the Father’s will. He prayed, “Not my will,” and consented to go to the cross so that we would see what the atoning sacrifice truly was—not his blood but our self-will—and then would do likewise, putting our own sin to death on our own daily crosses of self-denying relinquishment.
“The only vengeance worth having on sin,” MacDonald writes, “is to make the sinner himself its executioner.” The Old Testament sacrifice was “substitutionary” only as a type of what was to come. It showed that something must be killed on the altar to make atonement for sin. But that “something” is self-will, not a human sacrifice. Christ sacrificed his life to show us what the true sacrifice was.
Again in Justice, MacDonald writes: “If it be asked how, if it be false, the doctrine of substitution can have been permitted to remain so long an article of faith to so many, I answer, on the same principle on which God took up and made use of the sacrifices men had, in their lack of faith, invented as a way of pleasing him.”
The simplicity of MacDonald’s outlook can be seen in his dividing the word as at-one-ment. It is a “making one” between man and God, bringing the Father and his children together again. Jesus made this possible, not by a legal loophole (“a false quirk in the law”), not by taking God’s wrath upon himself, but by showing us the road back to his Father, then leading us by the hand and taking us to him. This “leading back,” this “making one” requires our own willing and choosing share in the one-making.
MacDonald writes: “A man had better make up his mind to be righteous, to be fair, to do what he can to pay what he owes, in any and all the relations of life.”
Christ did not “take our place.” His sacrifice of self-will cannot substitute for our making the same sacrifice. He made the sacrifice so that we too would know how to make it. He sacrificed his self-will that we might be empowered to sacrifice our self will. Then his Spirit helps us to do it. That is the road back. That is the road to oneness, the means by which at-one-ment is accomplished.
There are many mysteries that will always separate us as men from our Creator. The interworking of miracle and pattern in Christ’s death is a great spiritual wonder whose power to change human life and draw humanity up into God’s heart, and make of weak mortals his sons and daughters, is a mystery we cannot entirely penetrate.
By calling it our pattern, it is yet something we can not achieve alone. It is not mere example. It is God-infused miraculous example. Christ made the sacrifice so that we would likewise be enabled (miracle) to make it. But it is a sacrifice we too must make (example). Miracle does not substitute for example. He opens the door (which we could not open alone). Now that it has been opened, we must go through it, just as he went through it. The door is self-relinquishment into the Father’s will. He laid self-will on the altar. Now we must lay it on the altar.
In the fusing of miracle and example, we find just the same necessary harmony as the salvationary balance between universality and accountability. Similarly, both elements of the atonement—miracle and example—are necessary to understand the cross.
By explaining it in this way I am attempting to shed light on a path we must each walk out in our own hearts. The terminology of “miracle and example” is my own, not Mac-Donald’s. I am attempting no system-atizing of the atonement or the posing of a new doctrine to explain every mystery of God’s unknowable nature. Some will call what I have outlined “works.” MacDonald called it obedience, and the only road that leads to knowing God aright.
Before he is dismissed as a heretic, however, the possibility must be considered that he is a prophet. I will certainly cast my lot with George MacDonald’s portrayal of the character of God over the stern, unforgiving imagery of John Knox. And if MacDonald should be a prophet, why should his fate be other than that by which most prophets are honored, to bring tidings of truth that 95% of institutional religiosity is unable to accept.
Whether I accurately or inaccurately represent MacDonald here—and may both he and God forgive me where I err—my motive is only to stimulate prayerful thought that leads all who read to seek the Father’s heart.
When MacDonald’s perspectives of salvation, atonement, and sanctification are brought into harmony, a picture begins to emerge of a salvationary atoning work far larger and more encompassing than that represented by the traditional view.
Man is more personally accountable for his own fate and eternal destiny. Some may say this diminishes Christ’s role. I think it represents MacDonald accurately to say that just the opposite is the case—that by strengthening man’s role, Christ’s role is enlarged and practicalized and yet the more glorified.
It is true that this expanded perspective takes some getting used to. But once the larger picture begins to unfold, the clouds of many troublesome remnants of a Calvinist doctrine begin to break apart, (doctrines that may never have represented the Father of Jesus Christ accurately at all, and that have been teaching Christians falsely through perpetuating the tradition of the elders for four hundred years), and the sun of God’s true nature begins to shine in.
Much begins to come clear! Of course…deep inside we knew that God could never really be like that. How much sense the Bible now makes! We begin to realize that MacDonald truly may have tapped into the pulse of God’s heart, seeing depths into the nature of God that most of Christendom has been unable to perceive in nearly 1900 years.
George MacDonald speaks on…
The homily…that evening, bore upon the same subject nominally as the chapter that preceded it—that of election; a doctrine which in the Bible asserts the fact of God’s choosing certain persons for the specific purpose of receiving first, and so communicating the gifts of his grace to the whole world; but which, in the homily referred to, was taken to mean the choice of certain persons for ultimate salvation, to the exclusion of the rest. They were sitting in silence after the close, when Harry started up suddenly, saying: “I don’t want God to love me, if he does not love everybody;” and, bursting into tears, hurried out of the room…Euphra, hastened after him; but he would not return, and went supperless to bed. Euphra, however, carried him some supper. He sat up in bed and ate it with the tears in his eyes. She kissed him, and bade him good night; when, just as she was leaving the room, he broke out with:
“But only think, Euphra, if it should be true! I would rather not have been made.”
“It is not true,” said Euphra, in whom a faint glimmer of faith in God awoke for the sake of the boy whom she loved—awoke to comfort him, when it would not open its eyes for herself. “No, Harry dear, if there is a God at all, he is not like that.”
“No, he can’t be,” said Harry, vehemently, and with the brightness of a sudden thought; “for if he were like that, he wouldn’t be a God worth being; and that couldn’t be, you know.” (David Elginbrod, “Questions and Dreams”)
There is another kind of forsaking that may fall to the lot of some, and which they may find very difficult—the forsaking of such notions of God and his Christ as they were taught in their youth. These are ideas they held, and could hardly help holding, during the years when they first began to believe, but concerning which they now have begun to doubt the truth. And yet to cast them away seems like parting with every assurance of safety.
There are so-called doctrines long accepted of good people, which how any man can love God and hold, except indeed by tightly shutting his spiritual eyes, I find it hard to understand…
But for him who is in earnest about the will of God, it is of endless consequence that he should think rightly of God. He cannot come close to him, cannot truly know his will, while his notion of him is in any point that of a false god. The thing shows itself absurd…
Many good souls will one day be horrified at the things they now believe of God. If they have not thought about them, but given themselves to obedience, they may not have done themselves much harm as yet. But they can make little progress in the knowledge of God, while, even if but passively, holding evil things true of him. If, on the other hand, they do think about them, and find in them no obstruction, they must indeed be far from anything to be called a true knowledge of God. (Your Life In Christ, “Self Denial,” edited)
I have been led to what I am about to say, by a certain statement made by one who is in the front rank of those who assert that man can know and ascertain nothing about the existence of an infinite higher Power from whom all things proceed. His statement is this:—
“The visiting on Adam’s descendants through hundreds of generations dreadful penalties for a small transgression which they did not commit; the damning of all men who do not avail themselves of an alleged mode of obtaining forgiveness, which most men have never heard of; and the effecting a reconciliation by sacrificing a son who was perfectly innocent, to satisfy the assumed necessity for a propitiatory victim; are modes of action which, ascribed to a human ruler, would call forth expressions of abhorrence; and the ascription of them to the Ultimate Cause of things, even now felt to be full of difficulties, must become impossible.”
I do not quote the passage with the design of opposing it for I entirely agree with it…One of my earliest recollections is of beginning to be at strife with the false system here assailed. Such paganism I scorn as heartily in the name of Christ, as I scorn it in the name of righteousness. Rather than believe a single point involving its spirit, even with the assurance thereby of such salvation as the system offers, I would join the ranks of those who “know nothing,” and set myself with hopeless heart…comforted only by the chance that death would either leave me with no more thought, or else might reveal something of the Ultimate Cause which it would not be an insult to him. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)
God is one; and the depth of foolishness is reached by that theology which talks of God as if he held different offices, and differed in each. It sets a contradiction in the very nature of God himself. It represents him, for instance, as having to do that as a magistrate which as a father he would not do…Oh the folly of any mind that would explain God before obeying him! that would map out the character of God, instead of crying, Lord, what wouldst thou have me to do? God is no magistrate; but, if he were, it would be a position to which his fatherhood alone gave him the right; his rights as a father cover every right he can be analytically supposed to possess. (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “Justice”)
To myself, in the morning of my childhood, the evil doctrine was a mist through which the light came struggling, a cloud-phantom of repellent appearance— requiring the maturer thought and truer knowledge of later years to dissipate it. But in truth it requires neither much knowledge nor much insight to stand up against its hideousness. It needs but love that will not be denied, and courage to question the phantom. (Your Life In Christ, “Abba, Father,” edited)
No more than an earthly parent, God cannot be content to have only children. He must have sons and daughters—children of his soul, of his spirit, of his love…His children are not his real, true sons and daughters until they think like him, feel with him, judge as he judges, until they are at home with him, and without fear before him because he and they mean the same thing, love the same things, seek the same ends.
For this are we created. It is the one end of our being, and includes all other ends whatever…He is our father all the time, for he is true. But until we respond with the truth of children, he cannot let all the father out to us. There is no place for the dove of his tenderness to alight. He is our father, but we are not his children. Because we are his children, we must become his sons and daughters. Nothing will satisfy him, or do for us, but that we be one with our father! What else could serve! How else should life ever be a good! Because we are the sons of God, we must become the sons of God. (Your Life In Christ, “Abba, Father,” edited)
God is represented in Jesus, for God is like Jesus. In the same way, Jesus is represented in the child, for Jesus is like the child. Therefore, God is represented in the child, for he too is like the child.
God is child-like…he was, is, and ever shall be divinely childlike. Childhood belongs to the divine nature…
We are careful, in our unbelief, over the divine dignity, of which he is too grand to think. Better pleasing to God, it needs little daring to say, is the audacity of Job, who, rushing into his presence, and flinging the door of his presence-chamber to the wall, like a troubled, it may be angry, but yet faithful child, calls aloud in the ear of him whose perfect Fatherhood he has yet to learn: “Am I a sea or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?”…
For when is the child the ideal child in our eyes and to our hearts? Is it not when with gentle hand he takes his father by the beard, and turns that father’s face up to his brothers and sisters to kiss?…In this, then, is God like the child: He is simply and altogether our friend, our father—our more than friend, father, and mother—our infinite love-perfect God.
Grand and strong beyond all that human imagination can conceive of poet-thinking and kingly action, he is delicate beyond all that human tenderness can conceive of husband or wife, homely beyond all that human heart can conceive of father or mother. He does not have two opposing thoughts about us. With him all is simplicity of purpose and meaning and effort and end—namely, that we should be as he is, think the same thoughts, mean the same things, possess the same blessedness.
It is so plain that anyone may see it, every one ought to see it, everyone shall see it. It must be so. He is utterly true and good to us, not shall anything withstand his will. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Child in the Midst,” edited)
How terribly, then, have the theologians misrepresented God in the measure of the low and showy, not the lofty and simple humanities! Nearly all of them represent him as a great King on a grand throne, thinking how grand he is, and making it the business of his being and the end of his universe to keep up his glory, wielding the bolts of a Jupiter against them that take his name in vain. They would not admit such a statement, but follow out what they say, and it amounts to this. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Child in the Midst,” edited)
Truth is indeed too good for men to believe; they must dilute it before they can take it…. Unable to believe in the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, they invented…a satisfaction for sin which was an insult to God…They thought him bound to punish for the sake of punishing….They could not believe in clear forgiveness; that did not seem divine; it needed itself to be justified….He sought no satisfaction, but an obedient return to the Father….The thing was too simple for complicated unbelief and the arguing spirit…While they are capable of being satisfied with them, there would be no advantage in their becoming intellectually convinced that such thoughts were wrong. I would not speak a word to persuade them of it. Success would be worthless. They would but remain what they were—children capable of thinking meanly of their father…It is for those thus moved that I write, not at all for the sake of disputing with those who love the lie…who would cast out the man who doubts their travesty of the grandest truth in the universe, the atonement of Jesus Christ. Of such a man they will unhesitatingly report that he does not believe in the atonement. But a lie for God is against God, and carries the sentence of death in itself.
Instead of giving their energy to do the will of God, men of power have given it to the construction of a system by which to explain why Christ must die…and…have clung to the morally and spiritually vulgar idea of justice and satisfaction held by pagan Rome, buttressed by the Jewish notion of sacrifice….To represent the living God as a party to such style of action, is to veil with a mask of cruelty and hypocrisy the face whose glory can be seen only in the face of Jesus; to put a tirade of vulgar Roman legality into the mouth of the Lord God merciful and gracious…. Rather than believe such ugly folly of him … I would say, “There is no God; let us neither eat nor drink, that we may die! For lo, this is not our God!” (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “Justice”)
The root of every heresy popular in the church draws its nourishment merely and only from the soil of unbelief. The idea that God would be God all the same, as glorious as he needed to be, had he not taken upon himself the divine toil of bringing home his wandered children, had he done nothing to seek and save the lost, is false as hell…As if the idea of God admitted of his being less than he is, less than perfect, less than all-in-all, less than Jesus Christ! less than Love absolute, less than entire unselfishness…So it might be, if he were not our father. But to think of the living God not as our father, but as one who has condescended greatly, being nowise, in his own willed grandeur of righteous nature, bound to do as he has done, is killing to all but a slavish devotion. It is to think of him as nothing like the God we see in Jesus Christ. (Unspoken Sermons Second Series, “The Voice of Job”)
“Have you really been reading my books, and at this time ask me what have I lost of the old faith? Much have I rejected of the new, but I have never rejected anything I could keep…. With the faith itself to be found in the old Scottish manse I trust I have a true sympathy. With many of the forms gathered around that faith, I have none. At a very early age I had begun to cast them from me; but all the time my faith in Jesus as the Son of the Father of men and the Savior of us all, has been growing. If it were not for the fear of its sounding unkind, I would say that if you had been a disciple of his instead of mine, you would not have mistaken me so much. Do not suppose that I believe in Jesus because it is said so-and-so in a book. I believe in him because he is himself. The vision of him in that book, and, I trust, his own living power in me, have enabled me to understand him, to look him in the face, as it were, and accept him as my Master and Savior, in following whom I shall come to the rest of the Father’s peace. The Bible is to me the most precious thing in the world, because it tells me his story; and what good men thought about him who know him and accepted him.
“But those who hold to the common theory of the inspiration of the words, instead of the breathing of God’s truth into the hearts and souls of those who wrote it…are in danger of worshipping the letter instead of living in the Spirit, of being idolators of the Bible instead of disciples of Jesus…It is Jesus who is the Revelation of God…. Jesus alone is The Word of God.
“With all sorts of doubt I am familiar, and the result of them is, has been, and will be, a widening of my heart and soul and mind to greater glories of the truth—the truth that is in Jesus—and not in Calvin or Luther or St. Paul or St. John, save as they got it from Him, from whom every simple heart may have it, and can alone get it. You cannot have such proof of the existence of God or the truth of the Gospel story as you can have of a…chemical experiment. But the man who will order his way by the word of the Master shall partake of his peace, and shall have in himself a growing conviction that in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…
“From your letter it seems that to be assured of my faith would be a help to you. I cannot say I never doubt, nor until I hold the very heart of good as my very own in Him, can I wish not to doubt. For doubt is the hammer that breaks the windows clouded with human fancies, and lets in the pure light. But I do say that all my hope, all my joy, all my strength are in the Lord Christ and his Father; that all my theories of life and growth are rooted in him; that his truth is gradually clearing up the mysteries of this world….To Him I belong heart and soul and body, and he may do with me as he will—nay, nay—I pray him to do with me as he wills: for that is my only well-being and freedom.” (Letter from MacDonald to a concerned reader, George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller, pp. 310-11)
He came to deliver us from the evil in our being—no essential part of it, thank God! He came to free us from the miserable fact that as children of God we do not care for our father and will not obey him, causing us to desire wrongly, act wrongly, or, even when we try not to act wrongly, yet still feeling wrongly. He came to deliver us, not from the things we have done, but the possibility of doing such things anymore.
With the departure of this possibility, and with the hope of confession hereafter to those we have wronged, will depart also the power over us of the evil things we have done. And so we shall be saved from them also.
The bad that lives in us, our evil judgments, our unjust desires, our hate and pride and envy and greed and self-satisfaction—these are the souls of our sins. These live sins are more terrible than the bodies of our sins, namely the deeds we do. For our live sin not only produces these loathsome things, but makes us as loathsome as they. Our wrong deeds are but dead works. Our evil thoughts are live sins. These sins that dwell and work in us are the essential opposites of faith and love and are the sins from which Jesus came to deliver us. When we turn against them and refuse to obey them, they rise in fierce insistence. But the same moment they begin to die. We are then on the Lord’s side, as he has always been on ours, and he begins to deliver us from them…
Jesus was born to deliver us from all such and other sin—not, primarily from the punishment of any of them. When all are gone, the holy punishment will have departed also. He came to make us good, and therein blessed children. (The Hope of the Gospel, “Salvation From Sin”, edited)
Oh fools and slow of heart…You but build your houses on the sand. What will the religious teachers have to answer for who have turned your regard away from the direct words of the Lord himself, which are spirit and life, to contemplate instead various plans of salvation tortured out of the words of his apostles, even if those plans were as true as they are actually false! There is but one plan of salvation, and that is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ—that is, to take him for what he is, our master, and his words as if he meant them, which assuredly he did.
To do his words is to enter into vital relation with him. To obey him is the only way to be one with him. The relation between him and us is an absolute one. It can begin to live no way but in obedience. It is obedience. There can be no truth, no reality, in any initiation of at-one-ment with him, that is not obedience. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)
If we asked this or that theologian, in so far as he was a true man and answered from his own heart and not from the tradition of the elders, we should understand what he saw in [the gospel] that made it good news to him, though it might involve what would be anything but good news to some of us.
The so-called “deliverance” some think it brings might be founded on such notions of God as to not a few of us contain as little of good as of news. To share in the deliverance which some men find in what they call the gospel—for all do not apply the word to the tale itself, but to certain deductions made from the epistles and their own consciousness of evil—we should have to believe such things of God as would be the opposite of an evangel to us. Indeed, it would be a message from hell itself.
To believe such things, we should have to imagine possibilities worse than any evil from which their “good news” might offer us deliverance. We would first have to believe in an unjust God from whom we have to seek refuge. True, he is called “just” by those holding to such theologies. But at the same time they say he does that which seems to the best in me the essence of injustice…
They make it a consequence of the purity and justice of God that he will judge us—born in evil, and for which birth we were not accountable—by our sinfulness instead of by our guilt… It may be “good news” to such as are content to have a God capable of unrighteousness, if only he be on their side!…
Away with your doctrines! Away with your salvation from the “justice” of a God whom it is a horror to imagine! Away with your iron cages of false metaphysics! I am saved—for God is light! (Your Life In Christ, “Light,” edited)
I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this necessity—this obedience. It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something else than obedience as faith in Christ. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)
A faith, for instance, that God does not forgive me because he loves me, but because he loves Jesus Christ, cannot save me. It is a falsehood against God. If the thing were true, such a gospel would be the preaching of a God that was not love, therefore in whom was no salvation, a God to know whom could not be eternal life. Such a faith would damn, not save a man, for it would bind him to a God who was anything but perfect.
Such assertions going by the name of Christianity, are nothing but the poor remnants of paganism. It is only with that part of our nature not yet Christian that we are able to believe them, so far indeed as it is possible a lie should be believed at all. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)
We must believe in him practically— altogether practically, as he believed in his Father…To follow him is not to take him in any way theoretically, to hold this or that theory about why he died, or wherein lay his atonement. Such things can be revealed only to those who follow him in his active being and the principle of his life—who do as he did and live as he lived…
To follow him is to be learning of him, to think his thoughts, to use his judgments, to see things as he saw them, to feel things as he felt them, to be hearted, souled, minded, as he was—that so also we may be of the same mind with his Father. (Your Life In Christ, “Self Denial,” edited)
One master-sin is at the root of all the rest. It is no individual action…It is the non-recognition by man…of the highest of all relations, that relation which is the root and first essential condition of every other true relation in the human soul….For the highest creation of God in man is his will. And until the highest in man meets the highest in God, their true relation is not yet a spiritual fact…
It may cost God a suffering man can never know to bring individual men and women to the point at which they will His will. But when we are brought to that point, and commit ourselves to the doing of the will of God, we become one with God, and the end of God in man, and the end for which Jesus was born and died, is gained. The man is saved from his sins, and the universe flowers yet again in his redemption. (The Hope of the Gospel, “Salvation From Sin”, edited)
Very different are the good news Jesus brings us from certain prevalent representations of the gospel, founded on the pagan notion that suffering is an offset for sin, and culminating in the vile assertion that the suffering of an innocent man, just because he is innocent, yea perfect, is a satisfaction to the holy Father for the evil deeds of his children. As a theory concerning the atonement nothing could be worse, either intellectually, morally, or spiritually; announced as the gospel itself, as the good news of the kingdom of heaven, the idea is monstrous as any Chinese dragon. Such a so-called gospel is no gospel, however accepted as God sent by good men of a certain development…Doubtless some elements of the gospel are mixed up with it on most occasions of its announcement; none the more is it the message received from him. It can be good news only to such as are prudently willing to be delivered from a God they fear, but unable to accept the gospel of a perfect God, in whom to trust perfectly. (The Hope of the Gospel, “The Heirs of Heaven and Earth”)
“God’s not like a proud man to take offense, Grannie. There’s nothing that pleases him like the truth, and there’s nothing that displeases him like lying, particularly when it’s pretended praise. He wants no false praising. Now, you say things about him sometimes that sound fearsome to me.”
“What kind o’ things, laddie?” asked the old lady, with offense glooming in the background.
“Like when you speak of him as if he was a poor, proud man, full of his own importance and ready to be down on anybody that didn’t call him by the name of his office–always thinking about his own glory, instead of the quiet, mighty, grand, self-forgetting, all-creating, loving being that he is. Eh, Grannie! Think of the face of that man of sorrows, that never said a hard word to a sinful woman or a despised publican. Was he thinking about his own glory, do you think? And whatever isn’t like Christ isn’t like God.”
“But laddie, he came t’ satisfy God’s justice by sufferin’ the punishment due t’ oor sins, t’ turn aside his wrath an’ curse. So Jesus couldn’t be altogether God.”
“Oh, but he is, Grannie. He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children, by making them see that God was just, by sending them back home to fall at his feet. He came to lift the weight of the sins off the shoulders of them that did them by making them turn against the sin and before God. And there isn’t a word of reconciling God to us in the Testament, for there was no need of that; it was us that needed to be reconciled to him. And so he bore our sins and carried our sorrows, for those sins caused him no end of grief of mind and pain in his body. It wasn’t his own sins or God’s wrath that caused him suffering, but our own sins. And he took them away. He took our sins upon him, for he came into the middle of them and took them up—by no sleight of hand, by no quibbling of the preachers about imputing his righteousness to us and such like. But he took them and took them away, and here am I, Grannie, growing out of my sins in consequence, and there are you, growing out of yours in consequences, too.” (The Musician’s Quest, “A Talk With Grannie”)
Atonement and Sanctification
When you say that, to be saved, a man must hold this or that, then you are forsaking the living God and his will, and putting trust in some notion about him or his will. To make my meaning clearer: Some of you say that we must trust in the finished work of Christ. Or you say that our faith must be in the merits of Christ—in the atonement he has made—in the blood he has shed.
All these statements are a simple repudiation of the living Lord, in whom we are told to believe…No manner or amount of belief about him is the faith of the New Testament.
With such teaching I have had a lifelong acquaintance, and I declare it most miserably false. But I do not now mean to dispute against it. Except the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus make a man sick of his opinions, he may hold them to doomsday for me.
No opinion, I repeat, is Christianity, and no preaching of any plan of salvation is the preaching of the glorious gospel of the living God. Even if your plan, your theories, were absolutely true, the holding of them with sincerity, the trusting in this or that about Christ, or in anything he did or could do—the trusting in anything but himself, his own living self—is still a delusion.
Many will grant this heartily. And yet the moment you come to talk with them, you find they insist that to believe in Christ is to believe in the atonement, meaning by that only and altogether their special theory about the atonement. And when you say we must believe in the atoning Christ, and cannot possibly believe in any theory concerning the atonement, they go away and denounce you, saying, “He does not believe in the atonement!”
If I explain the atonement otherwise than they explain it, they assert that I deny the atonement…Because I refuse an explanation which is not in the New Testament, though they believe it is because they can think of no other—an explanation which seems to me as false in logic as detestable in morals, not to say that there is no spirituality in it whatever—therefore they say I am not a Christian! (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)
He made himself what he is by deathing himself into the will of the eternal Father, through which will he was the eternal Son—thus plunging into the fountain of his own life, the everlasting Fatherhood, and taking the Godhead of the Son. This is the life that was made in Jesus: “That which was made in him was life.”
This life, self-willed in Jesus, is the one thing that makes such life—the eternal life, the true life—possible, imperative, essential, to every man, woman, and child. The Father has sent us all into this outer world that we may go back into the inner world of his own heart. As the self-existent life of the Father has given us being, so the willed devotion of Jesus is his power to give us eternal life like his own—to enable us to do the same…
Because we are come out of the divine nature, which chooses to be divine, we also must choose to be divine. We must choose to be of God, to be one with God. We must choose to love and live as he loves and lives. We must choose to be partakers of the divine nature or we perish.
Man cannot originate this life. It must be shown him, and he must choose it. God is the father of Jesus and of us—of every possibility of our being. But while God is the father of his children, Jesus is the father of their childship. For in him is made the life which is sonship to the Father—namely the recognition, in fact and life, that the Father has his claim upon his sons and daughters.
We are not and cannot become true sons without our will willing his will. Our doing follows his making. It was the will of Jesus to be the thing God willed and meant him, that made him the true son of God. He was not the son of God because he could not help it, but because he willed to be in himself the son that he was in the divine idea.
So with us: We must be the sons and daughters we are. We are not made to be what we cannot help being. True sons and daughters do not exist after such fashion! We are sons and daughters in God’s claim. Then we must be sons and daughters in our will. (Your Life In Christ, “The Creation in Christ,” edited)
God has made us, but we have to be. All things were made through the Word, but that which was made in the Word was life, and that life is the light of men. They who live by this light, that is, live as Jesus lived—namely, by obedience to the Father—have a share in their own making. The light becomes life in them. They are, in their lower way, alive with the life that was first born in Jesus and has now, through him, also been born in them. By obedience they become one with the godhead. (Your Life In Christ, “Abba, Father,” edited)
We can live in no way but that in which Jesus lived, in which life was made in him. That way is to give up our life. This is the one supreme action of life possible to us for the making of life in ourselves. Christ did it of himself, and so became light to us that we might be able to do it in ourselves, after him, and through his originating act.
I repeat: We must do it ourselves. The help that he has given and gives, the light and the spirit-working of the Lord, the spirit, in our hearts, is all in order that we may, as we must, do it ourselves. Till then we are not alive. Life is not made in us. (Your Life In Christ, “The Creation in Christ,” edited)
Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because he would give the best, and man will not take it. What Jesus did, was what the Father is always doing; the suffering he endured was that of the Father from the foundation of the world, reaching its climax in the person of his Son. God provides the sacrifice; the sacrifice is himself. He is always, and has ever been, sacrificing himself to and for his creatures…The worst heresy, next to that of dividing religion and righteousness, is to divide the Father from the Son…to represent the Son as doing that which the Father does not himself do. Jesus did nothing but what the Father did and does. If Jesus suffered for men, it was because his Father suffers for men…He is God our Saviour: it is because God is our Saviour that Jesus is our Saviour. (Unspoken Sermons Second Series, “Life”)
God does destroy sin; he is always destroying sin. In him I trust that he is destroying sin in me. He is always saving the sinner from his sins, and that is destroying sin. But vengeance on the sinner, the law of a tooth for a tooth, is not in the heart of God…If the sinner and the sin in him, are the concrete object of the divine wrath, then indeed there can be no mercy. Then indeed there will be an end put to sin by the destruction of the sin and the sinner together. But thus would no atonement be wrought—nothing be done to make up for the wrong God has allowed to come into being by creating man. There must be an atonement, a making-up, a bringing together—an atonement which, I say, cannot be made except by the man who has sinned. (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “Justice”)
In his second epistle to the Corinthians Paul says, “He hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (verse 5:21) This is read by some as: “He gave him to be treated like a sinner…that we might in him be made righteous like God…that Jesus was treated by God as if he were a sinner, our sins being imputed to him, in order that we might be treated as if we were righteous, his righteousness being imputed to us.”
In other words, by a sort of legal fiction, Jesus was treated as what he was not, in order that we might be treated as what we are not. This is the best device, according to the prevailing theology, that the God of truth—the God of mercy, whose glory is that he is just to men by forgiving their sins—could devise to save his creatures!
I had thought that this most contemptible of false doctrines would have by now ceased to be presented, though I knew it would be long before it ceased to exercise its baneful influence. But to my astonishment I came upon it recently in quite a modern commentary which I happened to look into in a friend’s house…
It seems to me, seeing how much duplicity exists in the body of Christ, that every honest member of it should protest against any word tending to imply the existence of falsehood in the indwelling spirit of that body. Therefore, I now offer my protest against this so-called doctrine. I count it the rightful prey of the foolishest wind in the limbo of vanities, whither I would gladly do my best to send it. It is a mean, nauseous invention, false, and productive of falsehood.
If you say it is only a “picture” of truth, I will answer that it is not only a false one but an embodiment of untruth. If you say that it expresses a reality, I say it teaches the worst of lies. If you say that there is a shadow of truth in it, I answer it may be so, but there is no truth touched in it that could not be taught infinitely better without it. It is the meagre misshapen offspring of the legalism of a poverty-stricken mechanical fancy, unlighted by a gleam of divine imagination. No one who knows his New Testament will dare to say that the figure is once used in it.
I have dealt already with the source from which the doctrine comes. They say first that God must punish the sinner, for justice requires it. Then they say that he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead—attributing that man’s righteousness to the sinner—and by such a means God’s justice is not compromised. Was there ever such a confusion, such an inversion of right and wrong!
Justice could not treat a righteous man as an unrighteous. Neither, if justice required the punishment of sin, could justice let the sinner go unpunished. Justice is plainly compromised—and on both sides of the argument. To lay the pain upon the righteous in the name of justice is simply monstrous. No wonder unbelief is rampant. Believe in Moloch if you will, but call him Moloch, not Justice.
Be sure that the thing that God gives—the righteousness that is of God—is a real thing, and not a contemptible legalism. Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me. Let me be regarded as the sinner I am, for nothing will serve my need but to be made a truly righteous man, one that will sin no more. (The Truth in Jesus, “Righteousness, edited)
This then, or something like this, for words are poor to tell the best things, is the righteousness which is of God by faith. It is so far from being a thing built of the rubbish heap of legal fiction called vicarious sacrifice, or its shadow called imputed righteousness, that only the child with a child-heart, so far ahead of and so different from those who think themselves wise and prudent, can understand it. (The Truth in Jesus, “Righteousness,” edited)
“Well, then, if you thus unceremoniously cast to the winds the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice, what theory do you propose to substitute in its stead?”
“In the name of the truth,” I answer, None. I will send out no theory of mine to rouse afresh little whirlwinds of dialogistic dust mixed with dirt and straw and holy words, hiding the Master in talk about him….Trust in God. Obey the word–every word of the Master. That is faith…To put off obeying him till we find a credible theory concerning him, is to set aside the potion we know it our duty to drink, for the study of the various schools of therapy…. Obey the truth, I say, and let theory wait. Theory may spring from life, but never life from theory.
I will not then tell you what I think, but I will tell any man who cares to hear it what I believe…
I believe in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God…I believe that he has a right to my absolute obedience…that to obey him is to ascend the pinnacle of my being… I believe that he died that I might die like him–die to any ruling power in me but the will of God…I believe that he is my Saviour from myself…I believe and pray that he will give me what punishment I need to set me right, or keep me from going wrong. I believe that he died to deliver me from all meanness, all pretence, all falseness, all unfairness, all poverty of spirit, all cowardice, all fear, all anxiety, all forms of self-love, all trust or hope in possession…I believe that God is just like Jesus, only greater yet, for Jesus said so…I believe that God has always done, is always doing his best for every man… (Unspoken Sermons, vol. 3, “Justice”)
“The sum of all this is that you do not believe in the atonement?”
I believe in Jesus Christ. Nowhere am I requested to believe in any thing, or in any statement, but everywhere to believe in God and in Jesus Christ. In what you call the atonement, in what you mean by the word, what I have already written must make it plain enough I do not believe. God forbid I should, for it would be to believe a lie…. But, as the word was used by the best English writers at the time when the translation of the Bible was made—with all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, I believe in the atonement…I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God…I am not writing, neither desire to write, a treatise on the atonement, my business being to persuade men to be atoned to God; but I will go so far…as to say…that, even in the sense of the atonement being a making-up for the evil done by men toward God, I believe in the atonement. Did not the Lord cast himself into the eternal gulf of evil yawning between the children and the Father?… Did he not thus lay down his life persuading us to lay down ours at the feet of the Father? Has not his very life by which he died passed into those who have received him, and re-created theirs, so that now they live with the life which alone is life? Did he not foil and slay evil by letting all the waves and billows of its horrid sea break upon him, go over him, and die without rebound–spend their rage, fall defeated, and cease? Verily, he made atonement!…It is God who has sacrificed his own son to us; there was no way else of getting the gift of himself into our hearts. Jesus sacrificed himself to his father and the children to bring them together….how can I but believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ? I believe it heartily, as God means it….
“Who is the mover, the causer, the persuader, the creator of…repentance?… Jesus, our propitiation, our atonement… Shall I not now love him with an infinitely better love than was possible to me before? That I will and can make atonement, thanks be to him who is my atonement, making me at one with God and my fellows! He is my life, my joy, my lord, my owner, the perfecter of my being by the perfection of his own. I dare not say with Paul that I am the slave of Christ; but my highest aspiration and desire is to be the slave of Christ. (Unspoken Sermons, vol. 3, “Justice”)
“I believe in the Father of Jesus Christ, and do not tremble.”
“You ought to tremble before an unreconciled God!”…
“Mother, I would gladly perish forever to save God from being the kind of God you would have me believe him…”
“We will not dispute about words! The question is, do you place your faith for salvation in the sufferings of Christ for you?”
“I do not, Mother. My faith is in Jesus himself, not in his sufferings.”
“Then the anger of God is not turned away from you.”…
“Mother, to say that the justice of God is satisfied with suffering is a piece of the darkness of hell. God is willing to suffer, and ready to inflict suffering to save from sin, but no suffering is satisfaction to him or his justice.”
“What do you mean by his justice, then?”
“That he gives you and me and everybody fair play.”
The ordinary sound of the phrase offended the moral ear of the mother…
“Then you do not believe that the justice of God demands the satisfaction of the sinner’s endless punishment?”
“I do not…The justice of God is the love of what is right, and the doing of what is right. Eternal misery in the name of justice could satisfy none but a demon whose bad laws had been broken.”
“But it is the Holy One who suffers for our sins.”
“Oh, Mother! Can justice do wrong to satisfy itself? Did Jesus deserve punishment? If not, then to punish him was to wrong him.”
“But he was willing; he consented.”
“He yielded to injustice—but the injustice was man’s, not God’s. If justice insisted on punishment, it would at least insist on the guilty being punished, not the innocent…It satisfied love to suffer for another, but it does not satisfy justice that the innocent should be punished for the guilty. The whole idea of the atonement in that light is the merest figment of the paltry human intellect to reconcile difficulties of its own invention…”
“But why, then, should Christ have suffered?”
“It is the one fact that explains everything else,” said Ian. “But I see no reason to talk about that now. So long as your theory satisfies you, Mother, why should I show you mine? When it no longer satisfies you, when it troubles you as it has troubled me, and as I pray God it may trouble you, then I will share my very soul with you.”
“I do not see what other meaning you can put upon the statement that he was a sacrifice for our sins.”
“Had we not sinned he would never have died; and he died to deliver us from our sins. He against whom was the sin became the sacrifice for it; the Father suffered in the Son, for they are one…”
“How can you say you believe in Christ when you do not believe in the atonement!”
“It is not so, Mother. I do not believe what you mean by the atonement. What God means by it, I do believe…”
“What do you call believing in him, then?”
“Obeying him, Mother—to say it as briefly as I can. I try to obey him in the smallest things he says…I strive to be what he would have me. A man may trust in Christ’s atonement to his absolute assurance, but if he does not do the things he tells him—he does not yet believe in him. He may be a good man, but if he does not obey—well, you know what Jesus said would become of those who called him, Lord, Lord, but did not do what he said.” (The Highlander’s Last Song, “Who is God?”)
“And is not God kinder than your father?”
“He canna weel be that, sir. And there’s the Scripter!”
“But he sent his only Son to die for us.”
“Ay—for the eleck, sir,” returned the little theologian.
Now this was more than Mr. Cowie was well prepared to meet, for certainly this terrible doctrine was perfectly developed in the creed of the Scotch Church; the assembly of divines having sat upon the Scripture egg till they had hatched it in their own likeness. (Alec Forbes of Howglen, ch. 28)