September 23, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: August 22, 2016

Summer Kite

Religion #1:
God is mean, angry and easily provoked. From day 1, we’ve all been a disappointment, and God is–justly–planning to punish us forever. At the last minute, thanks to Jesus stepping in to calm him down, he decides to be gracious.

But don’t do anything to mess that up. Peace is fragile around here.

Religion #2:
God is gracious, loving, kind, generous and open-hearted. He rejoices in us as his creations, and is grieved that our sins have made us his enemies and caused so much brokenness and pain. In Jesus, he shows us what kind of God he is and restores the joy that should belong to the children of such a Father. True to his promises, he will bless all people in Jesus, and restore the world by his resurrection victory.

You can’t do anything to mess this up. God’s got his heart set on a universe wide celebration.

The New Testament puts it this way:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.…For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:1-11 )

The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God. It tells us again the story of the God who loves us, the God we have grieved and abandoned and the God who has taken our judgment and suffered it himself.

We have far too many people selling religion #1. Like the Pharisees, they are the authorized representatives of the grumpy, ticked off, hacked off, very, very angry God who MIGHT….maybe, MIGHT let you off the hook….MAYBE…..IF–and it’s a very big IF–you manage to believe enough, obey enough, get the theology questions right enough, find your way to the right church, follow the right script and get the details right, down to the last “amen.”

We have too many people who have heard that there is good news about God, and then discovered that the good news was covered in 25 pages of fine print explaining why God is actually quite miserable and its your fault. If you fulfill the conditions of the contract–See “Faith is obedience, perfect surrender and a good witness,” pages 203-298–then you have a reasonable hope of avoiding God’s end-of-the-word temper tantrum.

We have far too few Christians who are overwhelmed at the news that God has fired the bookkeepers, sent home the bean counters, dismissed the religion cops and bought party hats for the grumpy old people. The big announcement is this: In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love. Just to enhance his reputation as the God who know how to throw a party, he’s inviting all of us back home, no tickets necessary, no dress code, for a party that will last, literally, forever. With open bar, and all on him. (Oh calm down Baptists. You can go to another room.)

In the story of the man who gave cash to his servants and said, “Invest it,” the loser had this speech to justify his failure to risk a cent: “I know what you’re like. You’re a power-hungry bully with no respect for people. You’re mean and I wasn’t going to have you blaming me that you lost a dollar. Here’s your cash.”

This wasn’t the right answer. The master had been generous. Gracious. But this fellow–trained in all the right seminaries and thoroughly read up in all the right books–blew it.

In the story of the prodigal son, neither son really knows what a soft-hearted, gracious, forgiving man they have for a dad. The younger boy treats dad like he’s already dead and doesn’t matter while he’s alive. The older son has dad signed on to a system where he logs in the required amount of being a good son and he gets a pay off.

Delightful kids. I wonder where Jesus came up with those characters? Hmmm?

Then the younger son tries his version of “get a deal with dad.” Thankfully, the Father decides to ignore the religion of these two boneheads, and throws the Gospel party, courtesy of the calf that made up the meal.

The Father will have his party. Even for the undeserving kid who doesn’t quite get it. Even for the Pharisee-wannabe who is horrified that dad’s not cooperating with the system.

God will be gracious. God will be good. God will be overflowing in love. God will be good to the world. God will bless the nations. God will put his lamb and his Spirit and his loving face at the center of a universe made over in the image of the greatest wedding bash/banquet you could ever imagine.

God will not be pointing at you and saying, “He wins!” or “They were right! Sorry!” Start dealing with the shock now folks. It’s not going to happen.


  1. Christiane says

    “The big announcement is this:
    In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love. Just to enhance his reputation as the God who know how to throw a party, he’s inviting all of us back home, no tickets necessary, no dress code, for a party that will last, literally, forever. With open bar, and all on him. (Oh calm down Baptists. You can go to another room.) ”

    Classic Michael Spencer!

    • ARE we touting UNIVERSALISM? [ all people are saved regardless ]

      • That’s up for God to decide. If He wants to let everyone in, that’s really good news for me.

        • Me too. Who wouldn’t want all to be saved? How is this not the hope of every believer??

          • “I have two sons. One, I’m throwing into the lake of fire. The other, he can live with me forever.”

            Nay…doesn’t make sense.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > That’s up for God to decide.


          My “theology” on this is Christ’s words spoken to Peter: “”…what is that to you? You follow Me.””

          • Or how about this little interchange:

            His disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?”
            Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Yep. He consistently refuses to make qualifications. I am struck with how often he responds to a question with question, or as above, with a statement of a very different scope. He is either (A) prevaricating like some cheap hippie shaman, or (B) rejecting/redirecting the question from a mind trying to establish rank/borders [and missing the much larger point … or perhaps a mind aiming for a point that does not require sacrifice – which IMO is the point of a lot of Theology (no, lets talk about *that* instead!)].

          • –> “I am struck with how often he responds to a question with question, or as above, with a statement of a very different scope.”

            Adam, I’m currently leading our Saturday men’s fellowship through “All the questions Jesus was asked and how he answered them.” Truly fascinating! Two things leap out, and they’re exactly what you said. He tends to respond either with another question or with some seemingly bizarre, unrelated idea that clearly has a deep truth embedded in it.

            Case in point, last week we looked at this question from John 11:8…
            “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” (This is because Jesus wanted to go back to where he’d just had run-in with the Pharisees in order to heal Lazarus.)

            And what was Jesus’ reply?
            v9-10…Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

            Um…great, but how does that answer that THEY WANT TO KILL YOU. AND PROBABLY US, TOO???!!!

            Actually, this gave me the idea to craft a series of short videos of Jesus hanging out with some guys (like in a shared apartment) and one of the guys (for instance) going to the refrigerator and asking, “Hey, Jesus, can I get you a Coke?” and Jesus replying cryptically, like “There are some thirsts that can’t be satisfied with soda,” then the guy saying, “I’ll take that as a No.”

        • No it isn’t. And quit accepting the premise, lol.

      • No idea if Michael was a universalist. Perhaps Michael has his own “fine print” that he doesn’t mention here. But perhaps not.

        Either way though, I think the “regardless” in your comment (perhaps a “so Jesus doesn’t even matter then!?”) seems a mischaracterization of what Michael is getting at. It’s the “because of” or the “in light of Christ” that frames the “regardless of _____”.

        It’s those who try to bar the gates to the “wedding feast” in defense of God’s holiness, in their own moral outrage, and/or out of a retributive sense of “justice” (which is probably all of us some of the time) who are typically the chastised ones in these parables. But there is grace for them too.

    • Through out my lifetime, a lot of people seem to picture Jesus/God as a laid-back, Southern California surfer dude who say, “as long as you’re sincere it’s all good with me.”
      As an Evangelical I don’t hold to that because the Words of Scripture certainly do not portray Yahweh as a laid-back god who’s cool with whatever you want him to be.
      But having said that, I do think His mercy and love for His spiritual children is simply beyond human calculation. But there’s always that tension; does He love me less if I sin? No; absolutely no. Does He love me more if I’m righteous? No, absolutely no. But does He call me to be righteous? Absolutely! So there’s always that tension. I am a deeply flawed individual, it would be better for all concerned if I was less flawed. But for reasons known only to Him, thru the physical sacrifice of Jesus He finds me acceptable despite my flaws. But He calls me to righteousness.

      • I do agree, the tension seems to be there.

      • What is that tension though, really? What do we sense underneath it

        For me, mercy and love vs. “call to righteousness” just doesn’t create that sort of tension unless that “call to righteousness” is actually just some side of God that is grounded in something other than (and likely the complete opposite) of divine mercy and love.

        However this tension is constructed and understood, I think we have big problems if we conceive of a god whose love/mercy and justice/righteousness battle one another for dominance. Justice and mercy aren’t diametrically opposed.

  2. Funny – the rector at the church we attended yesterday gave almost this exact message for the homily…

  3. This forum has done me the great honor of including me so I will show my appreciation by being perfectly honest. I will admit that at my current level of awareness (or confusion) Religion #2 doesn’t make any more sense to me than Religion #1.

    I want to say more but I’m not sure what that more can be. A paragraph seems too much and a hundred pages not enough. But here’s a clumsy start, with the proviso that in such a post as this questions are frequently mistaken for answers.

    It seems to me that the vast bulk of our religious tradition (including the New Testament!) falls squarely into Religion #1. Religion #2 was created by believers horrified by their own traditions and yet loath to abandon them. We can go back and pretend that Religion #2 is what it “really meant” all along and everybody (except us!) just didn’t get it, or, we can consider the possibility that we have simply progressed beyond the level of attainment (socially, morally, politically) envisioned by the writers of the Bible.

    Out of astrology came astronomy; out of alchemy came chemistry; out of our religious tradition will come…what?

    I don’t know. But I do not believe that it is a sign of weakness to admit that.

    • –> “But I do not believe that it is a sign of weakness to admit that.”

      Not at all. In fact, it’d probably be a sign of weakness to NOT admit that.

      You might pick up Peter Enns’ fine book, “The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our ‘Correct’ Beliefs”. It might help you navigate the issue of not knowing and being okay with that.

    • But in response to the rest of what you say, I think I shared in an earlier comment of yours (different day) that, after a few years of fearing it was heretical, my last five or so years have brought me around to religion #2. If the Good News of the Gospels is truly GOOD NEWS, then it darn well better be consistent in that. It would behoove everyone to read the four gospel accounts at least once every two years. The consistency of Jesus is evident: He is HARSH with only one community: religious folks who’ve made God a religion that’s all about rules and outward appearances and fails to celebrate when the lost are found. It’s a focus on God #1 and a total miss on God #2.

      • A little clunky phrasing there.

        “It’s a focus on God #1 and a total miss on God #2” was supposed to be follow-on to previous sentence. It’d be better written as…

        “He is HARSH with only one community: religious folks who’ve made God a religion that’s all about rules and outward appearances and fails to celebrate when the lost are found, and people who focus on God #1 and totally miss on God #2.”

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          Since we are quibbling I would rephrase it as: “He is HARSH with only one community: religious folks who’ve made God a religion that **is about hierarchy and rank**”. I cannot find any note of anarchism in Christ’s teachings, nor in the epistles. He seems very comfortable with “rules” and customs, he uses them rhetorically without no appearance of hesitation. He even praises the Law.

          His rule-busting seems very focused on granting dignity to those to whom it had been denied. That is something other than anarchism.

          • Good “quibble”, Adam. Thanks for that. Indeed, he didn’t do away with the Law, he fulfilled it. Psalm 119 still exists and we can read it as praise for God’s Law.

            I’d just add, anyone who wonders about whether we should view God as God #1 and God #2 should read Matthew 23 a few times. Tell me how you avoid becoming what Jesus rails against in the chunk of scripture if you view God as God #1.

          • Adam, He seems very comfortable with rules and customs, yes; but he does not invest them with the kind of authority the Pharisees in the Gospels do. For instance, he does not heed the rule requiring no work of any kind, including healing, on the Sabbath; he does not hesitate to touch a hemorrhaging women in order to heal her, even though this makes him ritually unclean according to rules and customs; he says that, contrary to the law, eating forbidden foods does not make one impure, and that impurity does not enter through one’s mouth but comes out of one’s heart; he associates with ritually unclean people outside the camp of Israel, even though such association makes him unclean according to the law. His relationship to laws and customs is not merely one of obedience; he regularly overrides laws and customs when it seems right to him, and on the authority he claims comes directly from his Father.

    • I often feel the same way you do, Stephen. The things people say about the Bible often seem, to me, more kind and loving than the Bible itself. I’m not sure how to deal with this, but at this point in my walk, I’m more comitted to believing in the goodness of God than I am in affirming the validity of Christianity itself. Perhaps that might one day lead me to leave the faith itself, not into atheism, but into some more generic theism. Who knows. For the time being, I simply defer my interpretation to those whose perspective is different than my own, knowing that my own experience has left me a bit cynical and jaded, and so not able to see as clearly as I ought, perhaps.

      • Matt, and Stephen,

        There was a point on my journey where I realized in a much deeper way than I had previously that Scripture has to be interpreted, just like any other text. And among those who don’t want to write the Bible off altogether, there are different interpretations. The vast majority of western post-Enlightenment Christians hold the Religion A interpretation; some try to soften it by saying “…but look how much God LOVES us, to make a way so that he doesn’t have to punish us…” That quit holding water for me, and I got tired of constantly feeling I had to apologize for such a god.

        There is an ancient Christian stream that holds the Bible very close, and at its core has always interpreted Scripture as Religion B (even though some people have gotten in the way of that sometimes. Michael was right – no contract is involved. And besides that, there’s nothing anywhere in it that even remotely approaches “worm theology”.

        Yup, hermeneutics is everything.


        • “but look how much God LOVES us, to make a way so that he doesn’t have to punish us….”

          Reminds me of that satirical cartoon of Jesus “knocking at the door”….

          Jesus: Let me in!
          Person inside: Why?
          Jesus: So I can save you!
          Person inside: From what?
          Jesus: From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in!

          Michael Hardin refers to this sort of thing as the “Janus faced” God. It’s a pillar of “Religion #1”.

  4. I’m reminded of what our bishop, Kevin Farrell, said during the Ebola crisis when the family of one victim was tossed from their apartment and he provided a home owned by the diocese. There was talk about the fact that the family wasn’t Catholic and his response was, “We help people because we’re Catholic, not because they’re Catholic”.

    • An even better response might’ve been ““We help people because we’re HUMAN, not because they’re Catholic”.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > “We help people because we’re HUMAN,

        I don’t know… kindness is not a universal hallmark of human kind. I find the kindness occasionally witnessed in dogs, monkeys, and rats to be a touch transcendent; kindness is not unique to us, and we often walk past the opportunity for kindness.

        maybe it’s just Monday.

        • I hear ya. I was just trying to point out that you needn’t even make it about being Catholic, or Christian, or whatever. Then again, I hope that my good deeds are a reflection of Him, not myself, so people are drawn to HIM, not me.

          Like you said, maybe it’s just Monday…

          • Christiane says

            Hi RICK,
            Catholics celebrate kindness in themselves, in others, in animals, in God Himself (the Chesed of God).

            It has been said that the lack of kindness is the only real sin, and if you look at the Big Picture or our ‘human-kind’, we see some truth in that. The Incarnation brought humanity together in Christ in a way that cannot be undone. In Christ, ‘humankind’ is best represented in His kindness towards people, and His anger towards those who would take advantage of poor people in the House of God (the temple). I think, among Jewish people, the ‘Chesed’ of God (His loving-kindness) is seen as His greatest attribute, and I would say that Our Lord’s example while He was among us, witnesses to that belief, yes.

      • Yes but in the context of someone questioning the family’s religious persuasion I think it was necessary for it to stated as such. In other words, this is not about denominational loyalties. If your particular brand means anything at all it will be expressed with grace in a dire situation like this. It’s the same grace, expressed in this post, that God showers upon us because He is God, not because we are owed it due to our special standing. Indiscriminate kindness. Where there is a need, act with grace. They don’t need to know Catholic doctrine before we can find a place for them to live. In essence he was doing what you are saying. He was saying that catholicity has nothing to do with this unless you want to say it’s a motivation for doing right.

    • That Other Jean says

      A good man, your bishop.

  5. I really look forward to Mondays with Michael. Reminds me how exciting it was to find this blog way back then. And how much it has helped me to change my views over the years. Thank you to all who work so hard to keep this thing going.

  6. I posted this thought in a comment up above, but I thought I’d share it here…

    Anyone who wonders about whether we should view God as God #1 and God #2 should read Matthew 23 a few times. I’m not sure how you avoid becoming what Jesus rails against in this chunk of scripture if you view God as God #1.

  7. There is a tension between the description of God 1 and the description of God 2 in the Bible. To me it seems obvious from his actions and words, and from the witness given to him by the whole New Testament, that the description of Jesus’ Father is harmonious with God 2, not God 1. Even the harsh sayings of Jesus, the ones carrying the whiff of Old Testament fire and judgment a la description God 1, are set in paradoxical and enigmatic tropes that cannot rightly be approached or understood with a fundamentalist mindset. God 1 induces the kind of fear that looks for systematic theologies, theologies the knowledge of which will secure us from God 1’s judgment and vengeance. But Jesus was no systematic theologian, and his Father is not a God of systematic theologies.

    • I’m wondering if it’s not like this:

      Man wanted God to tell them how wide the rift was between Him and them (us), so He laid out how wide that rift was (“the rift is so wide it requires the Law and blood sacrifices to satisfy”), then man interpreted that as “God must be God #1.”

      God saw who He’d been made out to be and decided, “No, that view of Me isn’t right. The rift is huge, yes, and requires blood, yes, but I’m not God #1. I’m actually God #2 and I’ll send Jesus to show them that that’s who I REALLY am.”

      I think the book of Hebrews might support this. Why would you go back to thinking God is God #1 when He sent Jesus to show He’s God #2?

      • I don’t know, Rick. Personally, I’m not invested in the idea that every time the OT/Bible says, “Thus saith the Lord”, the Lord actually said what is recorded; neither am I invested in the idea that all the laws recorded in the Pentateuch were dictated by God, with no part contributed by men. At one time I had to grapple with these issues, but not anymore. I’m convinced that God communicates himself now, as he did then, largely in silence; and when he’s not doing that, he’s inspiring imperfect human beings to give poetic expression of him, in their imperfect way.

        Laws? I believe these are made by humans; some express the divine will better than others, some don’t at all. Every community will have its laws; they can be changed, and will be changed, as we grow in knowledge, wisdom and humility. The ones that express the divine will best are: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and body, and love your neighbor as yourself. To the best of my knowledge, when the man Jesus uttered these, he was speaking as and for God, in a divine poetry meant to reorder reality. In the beginning was the word…

        • Though I didn’t right out and say it in the previous post, I tend to agree with you on much of what you say here.

      • Christiane says

        Mayber this will help some people to reconcile what seems to be impossible about the God of the OT and Our Lord:

        • Christiane,
          I don’t see how it’s possible to interpret the laws promulgated in the Pentateuch, including the harsh and morally objectionable ones, allegorically. And I don’t see that allegorical interpretation of other texts eliminates the dissonance between the description of God as A and the description of God as B; though it may seem to reduce dissonance to some degree by interpreting A in literary rather than historical terms, it doesn’t actually neutralize differences in the character of God of the two different descriptions.

          • Christiane says

            well, Our Lord didn’t condemn the men who wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery, as was permitted by law;

            instead He said something important to them

            and then He wrote something on the sand, and when they read it, they put their stones down and walked away sadly

            I think Our Lord’s coming changes EVERYTHING and brings us to an increased awareness of ‘who we are’ in relationship with ‘the other’

          • I have to agree with you there, although I don’t see how allegorical interpretation of the OT leads us to here.

  8. >> I think, among Jewish people, the ‘Chesed’ of God (His loving-kindness) is seen as His greatest attribute . . . .

    Christiane, I think you have solved the problem of what grace means for me. It has been one of those vexing religious words that Christians use without having any idea of what they actually mean, even if they can give you a ten word or paragraph long abstraction as their definition. Michael hasn’t been much better than anyone else when it comes to saying what grace means in plain English. And even tho the English word “grace” seems like a New Testament concept as used by Christians, it is quite Hebrew. I wish I had the time and available resources to follow this out in the Septuagint Greek translation.

    In any case, along with words like gospel and salvation and Christ, which I have to translate in my mind in order for them not to set my teeth on edge, I now will be hearing “loving kindness” when I get gobsmacked with “grace” and we’ll see how that goes. Don’t give me this “shorthand” baloney. Say what you mean in plain English. Please. Thanks, Christiane.