July 9, 2020

iMonk 101: Out of Business With God

snake-oil.jpgEarly on in my blogging career, I encountered some of the ideas of N.T. Wright and a strong dose of the theology of Robert Capon. It’s safe to say that both “saved me” in a way that I need to revisit frequently. Here’s an early essay where I was just getting a feel for what these brothers were saying and the implications of their theology for my own experience of the Gospel. It was, to say the least, a revolution in the way I looked at the Gospel and God. From 2002.

“What this says to you and me who have to live with the business of trying to confess our sins is that confession is not a pre-condition of forgiveness. It’s something that you do after you know you have been forgiven. Confession is not something you do in order to get forgiveness. It’s something you do in order to celebrate the forgiveness you got for nothing. Nobody [nobody] can earn forgiveness.” -Robert Capon, “The Father Who Lost Two Sons”

Exactly what do I mean?

I am setting out to do something that is unlikely to be extremely popular. I am writing a theologically tentative essay about a word most of my readers have never heard and an issue I’ve only heard one other person discuss. Why this word would inspire serious theologizing on my part, and require an essay to explain, will only be evident to those who expend the effort to read and think along with me. (And as I said, this is a very tentative project.) While it isn’t my goal to persuade, I believe that some segment of my readership will find this essay a further step along a road they’ve been traveling for some time.

The word is “transactionalism.” I no longer believe in it, which won’t bother anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about. Fair enough. The dictionary defines a “transaction” as “a communicative action or activity involving two parties or things that reciprocally affect or influence each other.” Transactionalism would be a belief system that involves a transaction- actions on our part and results- between God and a human being. All based on reciprocal actions.

Put that way, I hope you will recognize that the typical evangelical is awash in a sea of transactional language, images, explanations, sermons, and songs. Evangelicalism is often one huge system for “getting God to do stuff.” I’m out of that business with God, because I don’t think God was ever in that business.

In the simplest terms, transactionalism is the belief that in response to some action on my part, God responds to me and something happens that was not the case before my action. Placed in the context of basic Christian belief, I am saying that I no longer believe that God responds, in a transactional fashion, to actions on my part, but relates to me totally according to His own good pleasure in the Lordship and mediation of Jesus.

This does not mean that I do not recognize the place of transactional language. Yes, the Bible frequently uses such language. A certain amount of transactional language is unavoidable, particularly in talking about prayer, covenants, sacrifices or in discussing Biblical narratives. But despite this, I believe that if we were to see all of God’s dealings with human beings from the divine point of view, we would not see transactionalism, but instead see God’s own gracious outworkings of unprompted, sovereign salvation in Jesus.

What must I do to be saved?

The New Testament uses three commands to describe what seems to be “our side” of the transaction: repent, believe, and confess. The many variations and synonyms don’t need to be listed. Even if we include the diversity of Christian beliefs about the necessity of baptism, the majority of Christians would agree that repentance, faith and some form of confession are repeatedly urged and illustrated by the New Testament writers.

Most evangelical Christians would agree that these are “our part” in a transaction with God called “being saved.” We repent from sin, we believe in Jesus and the Gospel message, then we demonstrate the reality of that faith through some form of confession. That confession is usually understood by evangelicals to be a public invitation or altar call, baptism and/or the public confession that precedes church membership. In response, God gives us salvation by removing our sin and crediting us with the righteousness of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the blessings of salvation become ours. Our entire existence is then infused with the “new creation” that is “in Christ.”

But is this the best way to think of the Christian message? I have serious questions about whether transactionalism confuses the language of scripture with the realities of God, and in the process, leads to a religion of “doing business” with a God who is manipulated. Is transactionalism the source of the trivialization of God and the elevation of man that plagues evangelicalism? I believe so.

Transactional approaches are common in many areas of the Christian life. If we confess our sins, God forgives them. If we have faith when praying, our prayers will be answered. If we pray in large numbers, God will send revival or perform miracles. If we fully surrender, greater power will come into our lives. Of course, we confess, believe and repent….and God responds. Right? Transactionalism tells Christians that they are constantly in a situation where what they do will determine what God does, and what God does is his side of a transaction that starts with- and depends upon- us.

It’s not hard to think in these terms, especially if you are an American. Transactionalism is deeply ingrained in us from virtually all of our human relationships and experiences. I probably sound well off the farm to say I question whether this is really the way God operates. Some may say I am advocating a kind of hyper-Calvinistic fatalism where our choices are so predetermined they are meaningless. I can assure you that is far from my position. I believe our choices are real and meaningful. In fact, I tend to believe our freedom is far more dynamic than most of my reformed friends. But I do not believe the Gospel is a set of directions for transactions between God and people. I believe the Gospel is revelation of who God is, and the announcement of the acceptance that comes from God in His Son, Jesus.

An illustration

One of the most frequent transactional promises heard in Christianity is the invitation to make Jesus your personal savior. Christ stands and knocks. We open the door, let him in, and allow him to change us.

I believe this misrepresents the New Testament message. N.T. Wright uses an illustration that I have found helpful, though I will use my own version.

It is the time of the Roman empire, and a small village on the outskirts of an outlying Asian province has received a messenger from the capital. The village elders have gathered the whole city to hear the message from the outside world. After the formal greetings, the messenger stands and speaks.

“The new emperor, Tiberius Caesar, sends you greetings. Our divine emperor extends his benevolent rule to this village, and proclaims his power and wisdom to all your citizens. In the future, taxes and tribute from you will be brought to Tiberius. Those who submit to his rule can expect peace and justice. Those who rebel against him will find justice and punishment. Tiberias Caesar is Lord!”

Is this a description of a transaction between the citizens of the city and the new emperor? The language of the messenger at first appears to be transactional, as much of the language of the New Testament appears to describe a “give and get” arrangement between God and the Christian. But is that really what’s going on?

What we actually have here is an announcement of a new order. The villagers are being informed of the new order and realities of that order. Their acceptance or rejection of the announcement is secondary to the reality of whether their behavior now conforms to the new order. Tiberias isn’t opening a business and looking for customers. He’s informing his subjects of what the future will be like.

Tiberias is Lord. “Accepting” him as Lord isn’t a transaction; it’s an embracing of reality. Sending taxes to Tiberias may bring Roman protection, but no one is “buying” the friendship of the emperor. They are wisely sending on to Tiberias what already belongs to him. If a new road appears in the city, it is not a transaction with Tiberias that brought the road; it is the “will” of Tiberias that brings roads and blessings; war and peace.

Is “transaction” the word that best applies here? Or is it recognition? The messenger is proclaiming the advent of a new order and the wise benefits of recognizing that order. While his language may sound transactional, the realities of the situation make it obvious that something entirely different has arrived.

Various persons in the city may “repent,” “confess” and “believe” in the new order, but does anything new happen at those points? Or do these responses simply indicate a rearranging and recalibrating of the person’s life in line with the new order and reality of Tiberias?

This illustration may seen silly, but I believe it holds much of the truth that the New Testament is proclaiming, particularly in the fully matured theology of the later epistles and the Gospel of John. In the Gospels, the kingdom of God isn’t coming. It is here, now, being revealed. It is present, but we have not come to terms with it. Jesus’ incarnation plants a sign of the kingdom’s presence in the midst of human history. His journey to earth doesn’t begin the kingdom, or invite us to a transactional relationship with God. Jesus demonstrates that God’s reality, compassion and Lordship are always present.

Repentance, faith and confession are ways we recognize and embrace this kingdom and this king. We do not “bring” the kingdom; we surrender to it and embrace its ever present power.

I also believe it the illustration points out the relationship between the Christian and the kingdom of God. Are verses like Colossians 1:13-14 describing the results of a transaction, or do they describe the free and gracious action of God, to which we respond?

While I like Wright’s illustration very much, I feel it’s important to add a particularly Christian nuance. If the New Testament proclamation is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then we must talk about “What kind of King is Jesus? How does he differ from other kings and Lords?” The answer to that question is something like this- and it is very important: Jesus is a King who pardons rebels, by taking the rebellion and its consequences upon himself.

In other words, the relationship of rebellious subjects to a sovereign does add the potential of a needed transaction of forgiveness. In the Gospel, we are presented with the clear truth that Jesus preemptively forgives rebels through his own reconciliation and mediation. The “acceptance” of that forgiveness is the closest we come to a transaction in the Gospel.

The Meaning of a “Sacrament” according to Robert Capon

Debates about “transactionalism” have often been debates about the atonement. The Bible places the death of Jesus as the apex of a scriptural thread of sacrificial theology. Sacrifice is plainly transactional. No one can deny that, and I wouldn’t try. But is the death of Jesus a transaction, or is it a sacrament that allows us to think about the unthinkable and unknowable in a way that can be understood humanly and temporally?

Classical theologians argued about who received the “payoff” from Christ’s death on our behalf. Satan? The Father? When did the payment go into effect? Was the transaction between members of the Godhead, or does human faith and/or obedience effect the transaction? Did the atonement’s benefits extend to those who lived before it happened? Transactional questions are endless, leaving some persons weary and wondering, “Is this what the death of Jesus is all about? How many sins can be forgiven by how much blood? The calculation of worth?”

Such debates assume a temporal and transactional understanding of the atonement. They are built on the idea that, at some point in time, our reconciliation in Christ did not exist, but was in the future. Some Christians writers in the early history of the church, giving up the temporal aspect of the atonement, wondered if the “transactional” language of sacrifice was obscuring eternal truths about God. Was the death of Jesus a temporal sacrifice, and therefore a transaction, or was it something else? If God were dealing with another race in another galaxy, would the death of Jesus be the same, for the same reasons? Or could it be different because, in actuality, that death is a sacrament, and not a transaction at all.

Theologian Robert Capon has put forward an alternative to traditional ways of looking at the atonement, one that moves beyond the transactional language by introducing another familiar concept from Christian theology: The death of Jesus as a sacrament of God and the Gospel. This controversial proposal will upset some readers, but it has persuaded me to rethink not only the death of Jesus, but the reality of God as presented in Christ

By sacrament, Capon means a sign of reality. A sign that points to, and allows understanding of reality. The sacrament is not the totality of the reality, but participates in the reality. When a person interacts with a sacrament, he or she participates in the reality on the “other side” of the sacramental window.

Most Christians associate Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with sacraments. Capon says these are true sacraments of Christ. Christ is really present in these signs, but those participating in the sacrament are not “transacting business” with God, but are experiencing the grace of God that is always present for everyone. Those with faith perceive the meaning of a sacrament, and see the reality it presents, but the power of a sacrament is always true, no matter what the circumstance.

The “always present” aspect of the sacrament is the most controversial. Capon is saying that God’s forgiving grace is always present in Christ, always and for everyone who recognizes and believes it. Grace does not “appear” in the sacraments or in preaching and then vanish until the next transaction.

This sacramental understanding goes beyond just those signs mentioned in traditional theology. For Capon, all of reality, all of life is sacramental. The grace of God is part and parcel of creation, according to Capon, because Christ is always mediating the grace of God to His creation. We cannot escape the mediating love of God in Jesus unless we simply ignore it. Even then, Capon muses controversially, our escape from grace may prove to be futile.

Capon suggests that the cross, in fact the incarnation itself, are sacraments through which we see and experience the ever-present grace of God. Creation is a sacrament. All human life and experience is a sacrament. Jesus is the apex of sacramentalism. Once a Christian begins to think sacramentally, there is, in reality, no separation between existence and the love of God.

In this rejection of transactional language, Capon is not belittling the cross, but magnifying it as the epitome of the incarnational sacrament. While Capon does not believe a “transaction” occurred, he does believe the sacrificial- and transactional- imagery of the cross powerfully presents the grace of God in Christ, though it does not exhaust or limit that grace simply to the death of Jesus. Christ himself- God the Son- is the eternal sacrament and the very substance of the grace God extends to us in the Gospel.

I’m quite drawn to this as one who has grown weary of the debate between “limited” and “universal” atonement. Was the atonement effectual for a predetermned number? Or potentially for all, actually for none? Capon says the death of Jesus shows that God, in Christ, reconciles the world, i.e. creation, to himself. At his cost; in Chirst, effectually and graciously. Lift that up and believe it.

By suggesting that the atonement is not a temporal transaction, and that we do not conduct transactions with God as much as we come to realize what God gives us in the Gospel, Capon has helped me greatly. In the “altar call” of my evangelical Baptist tradition, transactions with God were proclaimed right and left, and sincere seekers believed that participation in the “sacrament” of coming to the front of church to pray would move God to do what we would not do otherwise. I now believe this is a profound misunderstanding of the God of the Bible, dishonoring the greatness of the Gospel of Jesus victorious, ever-present love for me.

I now believe the “Gospel” has been there since before the foundation of the world. It is the “eternal Gospel.” It is the Gospel of the Son who eternally offers himself up to God as our mediator. The cross of Jesus is the great “window” through which we see this reality, but all of Christ’s incarnation, and all of the church’s sacraments that point to him are also “windows” through which we see the eternal, unchanging kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The difference it makes

Let’s summarize what I’ve covered so far.

1) I’m questioning whether Christianity is a religion of transactions with God, particularly transactions where our actions are the primary reason God acts or responds.

2) I believe the Gospel doesn’t proclaim a transactional “contract,” but a new order where the sovereignty of God expressed through the Lordship of Christ is the ultimate reality of the universe.

3) The incarnation and death of Jesus are sacraments in which we see and experience the reconciling forgiveness and mercy of God for a fallen creation, and particularly for sinners. Reality itself is sacramental, as is the focused life and worship of the church. These sacraments proclaim to us the eternal, gracious mediation of Jesus.

Before I talk about some of the helpful applications of this theology, I want to acknowledge the obvious: the Bible is written in covenantal language which is generously transactional. Because the Bible is a historic, temporal narrative written in a mixture of points of view- some divine, some human- transactional language is not surprising.

What I want to suggest is that the nature of the story in scripture should not cause us to think of God in temporally bounded ways. It is this approach that results in an Openness theology with a limited God. Scripture tells its story in order to bring us to the Final Word spoken in Jesus Christ. The historical narratives and theological constructs leading up to Jesus must be submitted to the Lordship and mediation of Jesus. Covenantal language, particularly, needs to be seen as a way of understanding God and the Gospel, but should not be pressed beyond that use.

For example, in Hebrews 9, Jesus is pictured as bringing a sacrifice into a heavenly holy place. Is this a literal, temporal, transaction in heaven? Or is it using the Biblical story to tell us that Christ, in his person and work as mediator, eternally offers himself as our redemption? Is it an illustration of a transaction, or is it a story communicating the nature of God and the Gospel?

Applying a tentative theological proposition is risky business, but I want to to take note of some important ways this changes Christianity for me. In the context of a personal faith crisis, these applications were very helpful to me.

(The original post has an application section which I have chosen to omit.)

Comments

  1. jmanning says

    Lifeway devotionals are thickly marianated in transactional language. Our SBC witnessing material is also. This leads to stress disorders/ or going through the motions. I tend towards the former rather than the latter.
    I do think transactional language obviously has a place in the Bible. Not in the consumer-driven American model where God offers you various things if you can jump his “holy hurdles”.
    Bibically, the covenant model of God’s relationship to His people contains a transaction-oriented focus. God enters into a lord-vassal transaction (much like Caesar in your post). The vassal has obligations to perform as the Sovereign has duties He performs. If the vassal does not “pay”, the Sovereign will hold the vassal responsible until repentence or destruction occurs.
    This would look like a bad transaction model for us if it wasn’t attached more closely to the biblical model. God’s commands are not burdensome, we merely become weak before Him and ask Him to show Himself strong. God acts on behalf of us to magnify Himself. It is transaction-oriented, but it is not manipulation oriented.
    I think our transaction language breaks down when we think we are offering something of value to God, the covanental language in Scripture never errs in that direction. Therefore I think it is safe. It’s always a good deal for humanity and a good deal for God. “You sit there and mess up, but mess up in ways that show God is sufficient.”
    NT Wright has some neat stuff, except his NPP angle. I’ve never heard of the other guy. But I’ll have to go pilfer your archives if there’s more stuff like this.

  2. WOW! Great post!!

    I think that the key to understanding our relation with God is to understand the nature of “covenant,” which is often confused with a “contract.” The word “sacrament” is taken from the Latin term “sacramentum,” which literally means “oath.”

    In the ancient (and Biblical) worldview, one entered into and then subsequently renewed the covenant by swearing an oath. Sacraments are the sine qua non of covenants.

    I cover a lot of this in a podcast episode at http://catholicboard.com/2006/09/08/chapter-2-of-understanding-the-scriptures

    I go into the difference between covenants and contracts and what made covenants distinctive, which informs our understanding of the New Covenant and our relation with our Covenant God.

  3. The illustration of Caesar’s messenger is THE best illustration I have ever heard on this topic. I feel like I constantly go back and forth between “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and “for God is working in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure”. When I take a step back, it becomes clear that God’s part is more important (and more primary) than mine. The illustration of the messenger captures that very well.

  4. Amen.

    Even though I’m an Arminian. Many of us insist that salvation is a transactional deal — we reach for God, and He responds by coming to us — but that’s Pelagianism, not Arminianism. It’s the other way around: Jesus calls to us, and we respond by following Him. We were predestined before time began; we were saved by Jesus’s work before we ever knew Jesus was Lord; coming to faith is really when we recognize His saving work. I particularly like the messenger-of-Tiberius illustration.

    I say the transactional language scripture uses is basically God’s condescension to existing human frameworks. The suzerain-vassal treaty that the Law resembles is an incarnational way of structuring the Law in a manner the Hebrews could understand. The redemption language of Jesus’s death is likewise a manner we Christians (or at least Christians in the Roman Empire) could understand. Parables do the same thing. The reality is deeper and more complex than any of this, but the more we follow and get to know God, the more we “get” it.

    I don’t know that applying tentative theology is all that risky. Really, we’ve been doing that ever since we first came to Christ, and hopefully our theology has been developing into orthodoxy ever since. The only risky bit is if we embrace it so thoroughly that we’re no longer open to the Spirit’s correction.

  5. Brian Pendell says

    But there are a number of scenes in the Bible where God takes a transactional approach … Hezekiah’s prayer, for example (2 Kings 20:1-11).

    Jeremiah 18:7-10 is another example.

    ” If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. ”

    ====
    Sounds transactional to me as well. And there are plenty of times when the apostles exhort their listeners to repent and believe and be saved in response to that. Acts 2:38 is an example.

    If Baptist devotionals are steeped in transactionalism, it seems to me that the Bible is also. If you disagree, how do you account for those verses?

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  6. Terrific thoughts — I think I am going to read some Capon. Thanks for posting this.

  7. I think it is vital to make a distinction between ‘corporate’ and ‘individual’ atonement.

    In my view, an overarching motif of scripture is that God is seen as regarding all the “children of Israel,” both living and dead, as a single, immortal individual.

    The New Testament, especially Matthew, presents Jesus as this ‘corporate’ Israelite. Whereas under the Old Covenant, the High Priest once a year atoned for the sins of all Israel by offering the blood of animals in the Holy Place, under the New Covenant, the new High Priest atoned once only for the sins of all Israel by the offering of his own blood.

    Atonement was acceptable to God only in this ‘corporate’ sense as the concept of one individual atoning for the sin of another is foreign to the Old Testament:

    “But everyone will die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:30).

    “No man can by any means redeem his brother, or give to God a ransom for him” (Psalms 49:7).

    “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

    “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16, II Kings 14:6).

    “And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto YHVH; peradventure I shall make atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto YHVH, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin, and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And YHVH said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.” (Exodus 32:30-33) On this occasion, Moses’ request to make a corporate atonement was denied.

    Besides the concept being foreign to the Old scriptures, which Jesus said could not be broken, making atonement for individuals does not apply under the New Covenant either for two reasons:

    (1) Those who choose to follow the righteousness of Jesus have become children of the Most High, ‘begotten’ of God and cannot sin, hence no atonement necessary;

    (2) Jesus warned that an individual is responsible for his own sin and has no excuse for that sin. Therefore Jesus had no thought of atoning for any individual’s sin.

    “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15:22)

  8. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, we got lots stuff thrown our way, including a book entitled, “Make God’s Miracles Work For You.” and “Is there a sin you need to confess?” among others.

    I suppose those would be transactional illustrations? I’ve never really heard the word used in this context, but it sure works for me.

    I think that’s why it bothered me then and why the transactional definition resonates. I have never believed that, and yet sometimes you can be made to feel like you’re wrong or crazy or want to be sinful or don’t have ‘enough’ faith.

    thanks.

  9. Excellent post, IM. I, too, liked the Lord-vassal analogy.

    It does all come down to Reality/Truth/Fact. Our response may be secondary to that reality–but our response, rejection or acceptance, is also a part of that reality. Our conformance to the reality is determined by our acceptance or rejection of the reality. It is a complex relationship.

    I think the transactional language of the Bible (and its use in the church)serves the important function of communicating this complex reality in very simple terms to new believers. After a while, it becomes clear to growing Christians that, apart from Christ, we can do nothing–including believing, confessing, etc…But this is an understanding that comes more from experience than from teaching. So I don’t know exactly how or to what degree the Church can teach this to its members. However, I know there should be some effort made in the direction of discussing this ‘meat’ as opposed to always serving ‘milk’ (i.e. putting things in the simplest terms for beginners). And there definitely needs to be an end to the idea and teaching that we can initiate any kind of ‘deals’ with God.

    The Reality is far too complex for us to ever fully comprehend in this life–and definitely too complex for most to even begin to grasp, in the beginning. Wright’s analogy is limited (as are all our analogies) in that even the ability to lay down our arms, recognize the Lord’s sovereignty and submit to Him, comes from the Lord.

  10. I can just say Amen, Michael.

  11. Michael, I’ve enjoyed reading this and have found it very thought provoking. I’m not sure I understand it all, however. So, do you believe that our desire to enter into a relationship with God does or does not have anything to do with our salvation? Are we saved before coming to faith? To what degree do you believe we have free will? I’m just trying to get my mind around this.

  12. Amen and Amen. This is definitely one of your “classic” posts, and one I very much needed to read at this point in my life. I think it was the novelist Walker Percy who said good fiction reveals to you a truth you already knew, but didn’t know you knew. In other words a light is directed to that knowledge that was there hidden away in your heart that you could never put words to. Maybe Capon’s and Wright’s work provided that kind of light for you. I can say that much of what you write is that light for me. Thank you.

  13. I just discovered this post and haven’t read it completely, but this line is beautiful:

    “Accepting” him as Lord isn’t a transaction; it’s an embracing of reality.

    I agree that sacraments indicate ever-present and available reality, but I would say that the sacraments are the most complete (Johnny Cash said that flesh and blood needs flesh and blood) and thus most accessible form of embracing reality.

    And wow!
    2) I believe the Gospel doesn’t proclaim a transactional “contract,” but a new order where the sovereignty of God expressed through the Lordship of Christ is the ultimate reality of the universe.

  14. For some reason I was drawn here this evening after not having read your blog in over a year. Awesome post… obviously a labor of love. I will be mulling this for weeks. Thank you.

    If God is outside of time (John 8:58Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”), then He already knows all of the choices we will make in the “future” (as we, locked in time, perceive it to flow). Like a mural, God can simply look at the whole completed ‘thing’ of creation (including the future) and smile, even as we perceive ourselves to still be painting it with our actions.

    That takes nothing away from the reality of our free will in making choices, or our responsibility for making them wisely, recognizing their consequences. But it does put the our relationship with God in a different light, very much in line with what you are saying here.

    I.e., what *transaction* can there possibly be with a God who made you, knows all the hairs on your head, knows everything you have done (and will do) and whose amazing gesture of love on the cross is timeless–both “forward” and “backward” and oh by the way, owns the entire universe?

    Your messenger analogy is tremendous. There is no “transaction” any more than there can be in any totally selfless act of charity from one of utter abundance to one utterly destitute and hopeless. The recipient doesn’t “transact”. The recipient only chooses to accept, recognize and reflect given love–or not.

    “Transaction” just doesn’t make any sense when all there is is our awakening to the eternal reality of a love that always was there–only we were too dense (many of us) to figure it out as quickly as we should have until God made it plain to us on the cross what the highest form of love really looks like.

  15. From the applications: “Abandoning transactional Christianity eliminates all forms of religious manipulation”

    I’m currently wrestling with this in regards to prayer. Not the worship God kind of prayer. Not the pray without ceasing, direct and submit my thoughts and feelings to God all day long (not that I actually do it without ceasing, just that it’s not hard to understand how to do it). But the kind of prayer where I’m supposed to ask in faith, believing.

    Because rarely do I know what to ask, since God is God and even (or especially) in the depths of my despair, it feels presumptuous and even scary to ask God to do what I want or think best. And asking for spiritual things, the “easy” things that I can pretty much know are God’s will, well that feels like a cop out. And adding, “If it’s your will” feels manipulative like I’m trying to convince God that I’m really submitting to Him even though I’m giving Him this great suggestion in the form of a prayer.

    So even though I don’t understand everything you wrote, my heart resonates with the questions and challenges you are raising. I tried to hash out my uncertainties about prayer on my own blog today. In a much less profound way, I am struggling with this issue of transactionalism and how/if my words or prayers are supposed to be important in the big scheme of God’s work on this earth.

    Thanks for asking good questions and sharing good thoughts on your understanding of the answers.

  16. Matt Wedel says

    This is probably the single the best thing that I’ve ever read about Christianity. Seriously. I never understood what Jesus or anyone else was talking about when they said that the Kingdom of God is here, now. But now I get it. It is not something that we are going to bring on ourselves or bring into being. We can recognize it, accept it, and live it, or not.

    Amazing. It’s ten minutes later, and I have no idea what more to say. I’ve just been sitting here with a blown mind. This must be what baby birds feel like when they realize that they can fly.

    Thank you.

  17. Hi Michael,

    This post is speaking to my heart. I’ve been reading this post and the application section for hours, and still don’t understand it all. So I think I have to meditate on this a little longer.

    Coming from a charismatic evangelic background, this is one of the most gracefull things I have ever written. Thanks!!!

    But at this moment I’m thinking about a few things, which I hope you can clarify:
    – Do you mean that everyone is saved, but has to say “Yes”? Or is not acknowledging God or specifically denying Him, the reason for going to hell?
    – I still don’t understand what you’re saying means for the people that lived before Jesus actually went to the cross. Can you explain that?
    – If one prayer doesn’t cause your name to be written in the Book of Life, what does?

    Thanks,

    David

  18. Hi Michael,

    Wow, from 2002! I wonder if you have expanded this further.

    This to me is like going back to first principles, back to who God is rather than looking at our present reality as we see it.

    Yes, God does not need anything. Yes, God carries out his will regardless because He is Lord Almighty. Who are we to think we can twist His arm?

    And yet I wonder if God allows it.

    What do I mean? Would God modify what He would rather do to cater for a request for someone (transactional) whom He loves if it was still within the overall plan and still bring Him glory. Because of love, would God change His plan?

    This blows my mind even more. That a God who is NOT transactional would allow it if it helped a person to the end that it brings Him glory.

    Great thoughts, I wonder if I had read it in 2002, would I have understood it. But in 2008, it makes a lot of sense to me.