I recently sat down with myself to discuss my new book What’s So Confusing About Grace? Here is the interview unedited.
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Me: Randal, thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
Myself: Did I have any choice?
Me: Hmm, good question! Anyway, I’m really looking forward to this conversation about your new book. So let’s begin with the big question: what is so confusing about grace?
Myself: No beating around the bush with you, eh? Fair enough. The book is borne out of my own personal experience as a confessing Christian for the last forty years. Throughout much of my life, I assumed that the Christian Gospel is simple, so simple that it can be understood by a little child.
Me: And it isn’t?
Myself: In one sense the Gospel certainly is simple. John 3:16 provides as succinct and beautiful a statement of the Good News as you’ll find: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Me: Apart from the King James English that is simple! So why are you trying to make things … confusing?
Myself: Look at it this way: as with so many things in life, there is a shallow end of the pool and there’s a deep end. Most of us begin our Christian journey at that shallow end. We learn that God loves us and Jesus saves us. Amen! But it turns out this pool is a lot deeper than we ever imagined.
Me: Nice! That’s definitely a “deep” metaphor.
Myself: Well, at least it’s better than your pun.
Me: Ouch! But I’m still not clear where the confusion enters in.
Myself: Right, so as we said, God loves the world. Great! But what does that mean, exactly? Christians disagree. When I grew up I assumed it meant that God loves all people, period. But then I learned that there are some people who insist that God has a special love only for some people, his “elect”. So does John 3:16 describe God’s love for all people or only a subgroup? It turns out that Christians have been debating this topic for centuries.
And that’s not the only point of controversy. When I grew up I assumed that God’s redemptive love is limited to human creatures. But then I learned that other people believe that God so loved the world really means the whole world: in short, God’s redemptive purpose in Christ extends to the entire creation in which we live, move and have our being.
Me: I see.
Myself: And then there’s that bit about believing in God’s Son. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Does that involve believing a particular set of doctrines about Jesus?
Me: Could be. In Romans 10:9 Paul writes, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” So maybe you just have to believe those two things.
Myself: Okay, but is that all one needs to believe? After all, Mormons confess these two beliefs. So does it follow that they are saved? The evangelical churches I grew up in would say “No”. But if that is true — if Mormons aren’t saved — then it follows that one has to believe more than what Paul says here. So that’s the big question: what “more” do we need to believe?
Me: Huh, good question.
Myself: Now imagine that we could all agree on a precise set of doctrines that one must believe in order to be saved. That brings us to the next question: if these beliefs really are necessary to be saved, does it follow that they are necessary for absolutely everybody? Even infants? Toddlers? The severely mentally handicapped?
Me: I’m guessing that God would exempt them from the requirements of belief. I can’t imagine God damning babies for failing to know what they couldn’t possibly know.
Myself: I know where you’re coming from. But if God does grant those exceptions then what about other people who fail to know what they couldn’t possibly know?
Me: Such as…?
Myself: Such as an Australian aboriginal named Akama who lived in the thirteenth century. Akama never heard of Jesus, so how could he possibly have believed Jesus is Lord? And if he couldn’t believe, does that mean that Akama could never possibly be saved?
Me: Whoa, this is getting confusing. I think I’m starting to get your point.
Myself: Bro, I’m still just getting warmed up. Let’s turn back to John 3:16. Next, the verse states that God sent Jesus so we would not perish. But what does “perish” mean?
Myself: Exactly. But what is “hell”? Growing up, I assumed it meant suffering forever in a lake of fire. But not all Christians agree with that view. It turns out that there are a number of views about the nature of hell and what it takes to end up there.
And that’s not all. According to the verse, God sent Jesus not only to keep us from perishing but to give us eternal life. And here too it turns out that there is a lot of disagreement.
Me: Why am I not surprised?
Myself: Now I need to let you in on a secret: when I was a kid I was not excited about going to heaven.
Me: What?! Say it ain’t so!
Myself: It’s true. I was worried that heaven would be boring, a matter of singing praise and worship songs forever in a never-ending church service in the sky.
Me: Yeah, I can see how that might wear thin after a few million years.
Myself: Well it turns out this view of heaven which I dreaded is not really a proper picture at all. I now believe that eternal life is not simply about singing songs in the sky. Rather, it is about God redeeming the totality of his creation, of saving all that is best about this world and liberating it for eternity.
Me: Ahh, so you take the view that “For God so loved the world,” really is the whole world!
Myself: Yes, I do.
So now let’s take stock of things. In one sense, the Gospel is simple, a glorious message that can be stated succinctly in a sentence and shared with a child.
But for those keen to understand, the Gospel is also complicated … and those who press into it soon discover a range of fascinating and difficult questions.
Me: I see, so what do we do then? Sink into despair, hopeless that we should ever understand the Gospel?
Myself: Some humility is always a good thing, but I see no need to despair. After all, the person who is in the shallow end of the pool is still in the pool. But it is definitely worthwhile to wade out into deeper waters. That’s why I wrote What’s So Confusing About Grace? It’s an invitation to wade out into deeper waters. And by the end you just may discover that the pool is, in fact, an ocean.
Me: The pool becomes an ocean … I like that.
“I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.”
With those famous words, Aquinas capped off his stellar academic career. Grace is confusing, and for finite human minds it always will be: we see now darkly as through a glass.
But while grace may be confusing, it is after all, still grace, God’s unmerited favor captured in the beauty of those simple words, For God so loved the world…