Romans 08 – Universal Reconciliation

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Predestination and/or Universal Reconciliation?

Predestination! Volumes can (and have) been written on it.  Does God chose who gets saved, are they “predestined?”  Does God chose who gets saved and who goes to hell – apparently a different viewpoint than “predestination” with its own label of “double predestination.”  Or do we get to chose our own salvation, God just infallibly knowing what we’re going to do from the beginning, but not directing our actions?

I’ve written a whole post about destiny vs. free will already, and while it doesn’t mention “predestination” exactly, I think it gives a pretty good overview of my personal beliefs on the subject. (TLDR: I think we have free will within a set framework ordained by God.)  What I realized, as I prepared to write a whole new post on predestination, is that I’m a proponent of universal reconciliation. As Wikipedia so succinctly states, universal reconciliation “is the doctrine that all sinful and alienated human souls—because of divine love and mercy—will ultimately be reconciled to God.”  I guess in a way this is predestination. As in, I believe we are all predestined to the aforementioned reconciliation.

I believe, and indeed undertook this blog to prove, that God is above all else welcoming, accepting, forgiving, and loving.  If one believes in God as the ultimate form or source of love and forgiveness, Hell as a final destination – or any other eternal separation from the divine – simply doesn’t make sense.  And Paul, in building up his case around the word “predestination,” makes some excellent points to that effect in this chapter.

Paul points us towards universal reconciliation and God’s unending love

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death,” opens this section of Paul’s letter.  Referencing ideas I explained more in depth in a past blog post: I believe that Christ anointed the whole world though his blood, making the whole world holy. Therefore everybody is, as Paul puts it, “in Christ Jesus.”  If you follow that logic – that everyone has been anointed through Jesus regardless of their personal beliefs or actions – then that means there is no condemnation for anyone anymore.  Through the faith of Jesus Christ, we are now saved in Christ Jesus.

A few verses later Paul says, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  It sounds like a separation of “us” from “them,” a traditional “saved” and “not saved” argument. Perhaps it was, at least in part.  I don’t know if even Paul grasped the full magnanimity of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (though he certainly came closest to it in the New Testament writers).  Again, if Christ anointed the entire world through his blood, that means everyone has the Spirit of Christ.  I think that this passage is another one of Paul’s careful comparisons of Jewish law pre- and post- Messiah.  Those who do not have the Spirit of Christ do not belong to Christ, because he had not yet come to fulfill the law.  But Christ is in us now, and we belong to Christ, and our spirit is alive because of it, fully ready for a future reconciliation with God.  As an aside, I don’t think it means God didn’t love the people that came before Jesus.  Perhaps they, too, having remains on Earth, are also anointed posthumously, they just weren’t alive to receive the good news.

Paul continues to talk about the Spirit, “The Spirit himself testifies that we are God’s children. And now, if we are his children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” We are all God’s children.  We have been made in God’s likeness – one of the first things the Bible teaches us.  God loves us as Xyr children, something Jesus made very clear.  I don’t see any stipulations to these two truths.  The Bible does NOT say “God made man in his likeness, except for brown men and gay men, whom he hated.” Jesus does NOT say “suffer the children to come to me, except for the Muslim children or immigrant children, whom I despise.”  No, we are all God’s children.  And as Paul’s statement here illustrates, we will all inherit the kingdom.

Then we get to this:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among man brothers. And those he predestined, he also called, and those he called, he also justified, those he justified, he also glorified.” I agree with (one) scholarly consensus that Paul is most likely talking about collective society, and that followers of Jesus should devote themselves to living like Jesus, in a life of service and bringing people to God.  That, perhaps, is the true calling of Christians: to live an exemplary life of service to God and community that is so appealing it can’t help but attract more followers.  That would truly make Christianity a shining city upon the hill.  Unfortunately, it has been skewed beyond recognition over the centuries, often becoming an exclusionary and oppressive force.  Paul, I think, would be horrified.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul asks.  Indeed, many things can be against us, as Paul acknowledges in the verses following the initial question. But in the long run, none of it matters. He concludes: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let me just repeat that for you: Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.  Nothing.  No sin, no shortcoming of our own or others can keep us from God.  Divine beings such as angels cannot keep us from God.  Death itself cannot keep us from God.  If nothing can keep us from God, what conclusion can we draw but one of universal reconciliation?  God loves us as beloved children, each and every one of us.  Praise God for Xyr mercy, praise God for Xyr love, and praise God for the future we have with Xyr.

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Romans 03 – You Are Holy

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law

I heard an interesting theory yesterday on the podcast Almost Heretical that I want to present to you here.  I’ll paraphrase as best I can: Jesus, as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, was not a penal substitution for our sins.  Or at least, that’s not the whole story.  He did die to atone for us, but it was more of a preparatory rite than a righting of wrongs.  In that way, he became the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law.

You should really listen to Episodes 82 and 84 as Nate and Tim spend almost two hours talking about the details of this, but again, I’ll paraphrase: Blood was viewed as the ultimate spiritual cleanser and buffer agent.  In Levitical law, it wasn’t so much that an animal had to die to appease an angry God, but that the sacrifice of the animal’s life was worth it to obtain the blood necessary for temple rituals.  Without the blood, God was dangerous to his chosen people in a very real and physical way: coming into contact with the divine whilst unprepared could actually kill you.  We see lots of examples of this in the Old Testament: seventy men are struck down for looking at the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 6:19; poor Uzzah is killed for reaching out to steady the Ark in 2 Samuel 6:7, and I wrote a whole blog post about Nadab and Abihu being killed when performing a ceremony with the wrong sort of fire.

Blood, then, was one of the most important chemical compounds, if you will, that allowed humans to safely come into contact with the divine.  By anointing the whole world with his blood, Jesus made the whole world holy. By making the whole world holy, Jesus fulfilled all the preparatory rights of Levitical law, essentially giving us all priestly capabilities. God was not angry with us to the point of needing a human sacrifice, God yearned for us to be with Xyr so strongly that Xe sent Jesus to pave the way for all humanity to reach Xyr without an intercessory protocol.

Faith in Jesus Christ vs. Faith of Jesus Christ

In light of this, I want to point out the phrase in v. 22 “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”  As I learned in Karen Armstrong’s excellent book, St Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ,” was, until the twentieth century, more often translated as the “faith of Jesus Christ.”  This is an important distinction: It transfers the responsibility of our salvation from a personal faith in Jesus to Jesus’ faith in God that God would make his death the start of a new order.  And yet, it does not change Jesus claim in John 14:6 that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For indeed, his blood anointed the world, and made us all holy.

Logically, the next step could be to say that we live in a world where faith isn’t necessary.  Think about it: if the whole world is holy and original sin no longer exists (if it ever existed at all), and our salvation has been achieved through Jesus’ faith rather than our own, then what do we need to being reading the Bible for? Going to church for?  Following the ten commandments for?  Couldn’t we literally do anything and it have no effect on our salvation?

This is the problematic thinking that Paul addresses in the first half of the chapter, particularly in vv. 5-8.  There were those, such as the “spirituals,” pneumatikoi, or Gnostics (depending upon which source you read) around the time of Paul’s teaching that came almost exactly to the conclusion above: that anything goes.  Some would eat food sacrificed at pagan temples.  Many participated in prostitution.  Most distressing to Paul, they lost the spirit of egalitarianism of the early Christian movement: lording spiritual supremacy over other believers and even suing other Christians in Roman court for personal gain.

The problem with this “anything goes” sort of thinking is that it causes us to quickly devolve into greedy, mean, base animals.  That doesn’t mean anyone without faith is automatically a greedy, mean, base animal – many kind, wonderful people are agnostic or atheist.  They may even be more spiritually evolved than me: Perhaps God actually wants a post-faith world for us where we automatically follow the Golden Rule and don’t need Xyr constant supervision, I truly don’t know.  My analogy to justify Christianity, which I go into more fully in this blog post, is that this life is kind of like a semester of a college course. If you do well for the entire semester, you’re more likely to get an A. But if you’re struggling, you still have a chance to redeem yourself on the final exam.  Christianity, for me, is like having a study guide.  You can still pass the class without said study guide, but it may be harder to do so.  Since that study guide is freely available for all of us, why not use it?

You Are Holy

What I want you to remember today is this:  You are holy.  God anointed you through the blood of Jesus.  You literally have a direct connection to God now.  Historically, the church has done a good job of obscuring this.  Purity culture, misogyny, exclusion and suppression have taken the place of recognizing the divine spark in all of us.  So, the next time someone tries to shame you for your weight, sexual orientation, beliefs, appearance, or status, try to remember that you are holy, and now that the faith of Jesus has given that to the world, no one can take it away from you.

Acts 09 – Here comes Paul

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Paul: From Persecutor of Christians to Author of most of the New Testament

I’ve made it over a year in this project and have only mentioned Paul – aka the Saul of this passage – three times in passing.  It’s time to remedy that.  Paul’s importance cannot be overstated.  He has been definitively named as the author of seven out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.  Traditions over the centuries have linked him to thirteen out of the twenty-seven books.  Even in some of the letters where his authorship is highly doubtful, it is often accepted that the actual author was a follower of Paul, influenced by Paul’s teachings.  Like I said, it’s time we gave the guy some attention.

As as alluded to here in the beginning of today’s chapter (and directly described in chapter seven of Acts), Paul actively persecuted early Christians before this divine intervention on the road to Damascus.  Remember, saying that Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah was radical to the point of heretical, a threat to not only Jewish but also Roman authority, and therefore a punishable offense through multiple avenues.  Paul was a man quashing rebellion and upholding the society of which he was a part, yet he became God’s chosen instrument.

God’s Chosen Instruments are often new and strange people.

God’s chosen instruments are some interesting people.  Abraham was a 100 year old man with a ninety year old wife, promised descendants more numerous than the stars after decades of being unable to conceive.  Jacob was a trickster who cheated his brother out of his rightful inheritance.  Jesus chose the socially undesirables of the time – tax collectors and prostitutes – to be among his closest friends and carry on his message. Now here comes Paul, hater of all things Jesus becoming one of the biggest missionaries in Jesus’ name.  Despite their shortcomings, maybe because of their shortcomings, God chose all of them.

I think that’s an important message to remember when we see something going on in Jesus’ name that isn’t appropriately “church-y” enough for us.  I’m not saying throw out all your beliefs and traditions every time something new and strange comes along, but do pay attention to it.  Social changes only come when the status-quo is challenged.  Sometimes that is uncomfortable to the point that we fight against it.  For example, Paul, as a Hellenized Jew, was protecting the societies of which he was a part (Roman and Jewish both) when he persecuted early Christians.

Perhaps we should be actively seeking the “new and strange” messengers.  If God chose David as a favorite son when he was just a young musician, what right do we have to dismiss Autumn Peltier, a fifteen-year-old Indigenous clean-water activist (and others like her)?  Maybe we shouldn’t even write Kanye off, yet, either.  I honestly don’t know what to think about Kanye and am inclined to believe he just needs some help…but there have been crazier people cannonized:  St. Vladimir performed human sacrifice and had so many kids he lost count before converting to Christianity, and everyone’s favorite St. Francis literally tried to get himself martyred by going on a quest to convert an Islamic Sultan.  But they all challenged the societies of their – and in the case of Autumn and Kanye, our – time.

Regardless of our opinion of Paul, he pushes us forward in Spiritual Learning

So really, Paul is just one in a long line of strange converts, strange messengers within Christianity.  It took Jesus literally smiting Paul off his horse, yelling at him, and striking him blind to get it to happen, but it happened.  Jesus shook Paul out of his complacency with the social status quo Paul had been a part of.  I think you would have to be open to new ideas after that experience, right?  Hopefully it won’t take the same amount of intervention for the rest of us.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to discern what is done out of love and compassion and what is done out of greed and fear.  If we approach people with an open but discerning heart, we will be able to make that judgment call when presented with something that isn’t part of our current set of beliefs and values, and possibly presented by someone new and strange to us.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Paul  as we dive into the book of Romans next post.  He was a controversial figure in his own day, and continues to be so today.  Perhaps you don’t like – or even agree with – all of his writings.  In all honesty, I think some of the most abused passages from the Bible come from Paul.  All that shit about women being subservient to men and not being able to lead in the church etc etc?  That’s all Paul. But maybe that makes listening to him extra important.  Even if we don’t agree with everything Paul says, (or everything that has been written about what Paul says), perhaps it has pushed us to examine our beliefs, come to a deeper understanding of them and of Jesus’ message, and taught us to do the same the next time we hear something new and strange.