January 25, 2021


The Mystery of Christ ... and Why We Don\'t Get ItListen. I am not an Arminian. I’m not an opponent of reformed theology. I haven’t taken a notion to “mock” someone’s sermons. My issues with the “L” go back at least 15 years, maybe more, to my first reading of Pink. I’m very well aware of the whole “L” defense. Listen to Piper’s “TULIP” series. I don’t buy it, but I completely respect it and I respect those who believe it.

No, I’m a happy disciple of Robert Capon. No one in the world has brought me a more life-altering, energizing, wonderful and satisfying appreciation of the grace of God than Robert Farrar Capon. This isn’t news to many of you, but I’m trying to asplode a few new heads today.

I know that almost none of you have read an essay I wrote two years ago called “Out of Business With God” in which I took some beginning steps towards abandoning what I see as a theology of transactions and embracing a sacramental view of salvation in the one final Word and mediator, Jesus. Anyone who reads this will begin to understand why I am not participating in debates about “the extent of the atonement.” The entire mathematical model of understanding the work of Christ is no longer a part of my understanding of Jesus.

[A fuller explanation of a sacramental view of salvation in Jesus comes from the works of Robert Capon. Many of my recent readers missed the many excellent discussions on Capon’s work on my previous blogs. His views on salvation in Jesus are in all of his later books, and I would suggest two books: The Mystery of Christ….and Why We Don’t Get It, and The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect Through A History of Images. All of Capon’s books are what Christian books ought to be- fresh, surprising, controversial and worldview changing.]

Let me just suggest a couple of things: The overwhelming, stunning news of the Bible is that “Salvation is of the Lord.” The overwhelming, stunning news of the New Testament is “Christ is our salvation.”

I completely resonate with the folks who don’t want a “salvation is made possible” approach. I’m right there with them. Salvation is perfect in every way because it is the very life of the Trinitarian God given freely to the world. (John 3:16)

At the same time, I do not want a “salvation is a transaction” or “salvation is a mathematical calculation” approach. And this is where Calvinism has ALWAYS left me cold. (Nothing I said about xxxxxxxxxxx’s sermon came from my reaction to the sermon. I have had all of these thoughts for years, from my first encounter with Pink especially.)

I believe that anyone who has clearly seen the glory of the Biblical Gospel has avoided “mathematical” descriptions as insufficient. Discussions of God “choosing a number of the elect” do not interest me because my own encounter with Jesus NEVER EVER leads me in that direction. The “math” of the Gospels is the math of God leaving the 99 and going after the one. It is a hundred fruit from one seed. It is a mass of humanity that no man could count. It is feeding all of the five thousand and all of the four thousand. It is not “the blood of Jesus covers this many” or any other limiting, quantitative description of the grace of God.

Now I am, of course, aware that Jesus and Paul sometimes say “all” and sometimes say “many.” In my view, this is not an attempt to “limit” salvation to “X” number and no more. I also am aware that some will not be saved, but I do not believe this is in any way the result of a divine limitation of salvation.

Imagine with me that missionaries are given a million dollars by my church. They go to an Asian country and purchase the freedom of a thousand prostitutes/sex slaves. They bring them back to my church where each one will be given a new life in America. As they are all gathered in the church, I have a moment to tell them the Gospel. After sharing the “Two Ways To Live” presentation, I would close with the following words:

“Now all of you have been saved by the love of the people in this church. I know you understand that. If we had enough money, we would have saved every prostitute in your country, because we love them all. There is no shortage of love, just a shortage of money.

“But the true saving love that saves you- all of you- and everyone in the world is Jesus. Jesus is the one who saves us from sin and from eternal separation from God. Jesus has no shortage of money. He is infinitely rich. He is infinitely, endlessly able to save. He can save every being in the universe, and in a billion universes.

“Of course, you can reject this salvation. Some refused to leave the life of prostitution and come here. Some do not want to trust Jesus as Lord and King. That is sad, but it is true. What I want all of you to know, is that when you look at the baby in the manger next Christmas, or at the cross on Good Friday, or at the empty tomb on Easter…the message for you is that GOD LOVES YOU and JESUS IS YOUR SALVATION. Nothing you do can change, take away or end that love. You can walk away from it and ignore it, but it is still there on the other side of the closed door.

“All of us here are praying that God will open your heart. God wants all of you to be his daughters. He wants all of you to believe in Jesus and love Jesus who loved you. If you want to talk about that or pray about that, please stay and someone will talk with you.”

I use this little talk to show how I talk about Jesus. I do not offer “transactions.” I offer salvation in a person. The PERSON of Christ is the ALL SUFFICIENCY of God. He is the offer to everyone. He is the “extent” of his person and work. HE is the “atonement” that came into the world to mediate for the world and for every person in the world.

As those girls leave the church, I can look at each one and say “Jesus loves you. Jesus lived and died and lives now so YOU can be saved. Jesus wants you to trust him now.”

My friends who treasure the doctrines of grace will say that Calvinism tells us why some of these girls will believe and gives us assurance that God will save some. Great. I applaud that. I simply see no point in that language at all, ever, in a presentation of the Gospel. I believe the message is the same as it was for feeding of the 5,000: Christ is bread for every person. It is Christ. Christ. Christ. Christ. Not language about what Christ does, but Christ. Period. That is all.

“Anything that one imagines of God apart from Christ is only useless thinking and vain idolatry.”- Martin Luther


  1. Sorry to hijack your thread here. But I think you should be aware of the smear campaign against N. T. Wright going on over at http://timbayly.worldmagblog.com/timbayly/archives/023404.html.


  2. Let me make a prediction:

    Long after the books and blogs of Bishop Wright’s critics have vanished, his contribution to our understanding of Jesus- esp the historicity of his resurrection- will be read by hundreds of thousands.

    I doubt that the sound of Reformed Baptists and anti NPP Presbyterians will have much effect on Wright’s influence.

    Read the books people. Read the books FOR YOURSELF.

  3. pjedmonton says

    I just recently discovered your blog, Michael, and really appreciated your thoughts in the mentioned essay from 2 years ago. I believe you are right on target with your analysis of transactionalism as one of the root problems of evangelicalism and its misdirected emphasis not only in the communication of the Gospel but also in the approach to prayer and our view of God in general. Thanks for bringing it up and expressing it so eloquently!

  4. You were right, I hadn’t read “Out of Business With God” but now I have. Very pertinent stuff, especially with the discussion about atonement going on at Scot McKnight’s blog.

    Haven’t read Capon before. Sounds like good stuff.I’m preparing for my first soteriology class this summer and I need to begin assembling my reading materials. I’m always grateful for suggestions.

    Your “invitation” was a helpful illustration. Thanks, IMonk.

  5. I’m not sure about making my head ‘asplode’ but you’re sure making it explode – or maybe it’s implode as I have to rethink the way I think.

    Reading your blog is like being strapped to The Rack and getting stretched!

    Please sir may I have some more!

  6. Michael,

    I think I agree with Capon’s analysis of the problem. I don’t think I agree with his “cure.” Interestlying enough, I do agree with your practical application of his theory. But I think there is a better way to get there. At least that’s what I think now.


    P.S. Some of the bullies who have been savaging Wright have apparently tagged my blog as spam.

  7. BTW- Capon is not a universalist. Close, but not one. His views on hell are the same as CSLewis in “Great Divorce.”

  8. In case you want to read for yourself what Capon has to say about universalism before you get around to obtaining and reading his books, here is a quote by the man about the subject:


    Sure sounds good to me, but then I never subscribed to the tULIP.

  9. When I first read him I paused thinking, “whoa, that’s suspicious”. But after pondering some of his work on the parables, particularly the Prodigal, it struck me with that fear you and I have been discussing about “how far do you really like grace”. What struck me about it is this, most who hold a residual “legal” feel for God will read Capon and think, “He’s waaaaay over the top…sin all you like.” But it donned on me in that parable what Capon was saying in one fail swoop was 200% unadulterated Law and Gospel. His pure heart of the Law there is so furiously selfless that it is utterly terrorizing, that unforgiveness of the elder son we feel, THAT sin that keeps us from grace. Many would read Capon as loose with grace there, but in fact his Law is so strong it’s missed completely by the ‘legal’ mind, blown right by. Because it never occurs to such a mind IT is the one in danger of eternal wrath it so clings to a legal setting of things right.

    In other words Capon is not loose at all with Law or Grace, but PURE. It’s so pure the legal mind NEVER catches it or is so over taken by it – it must jettison it immediately (because the death of the “doer” must die, especially the religious doer, old Adam), so if it did comprehend it – it would be terrorized to death! Because the level, that sin or level or degree or magnitude of a sin or sins that everyone of us reaches and say to ourselves, “Whoaaa, IF that’s grace, if THAT gets into heaven, I’ll have no part of it” (the older brother). There is some level in all of us that say, “If that gets into heaven, if there’s no improvement…if that’s grace, I’m not taking part of it”. And THAT scares the hell out of me about myself MORE by infinite leaps and bounds than any of the typical “gross or negative sins” that we typically list out. Because there’s the man who locks the gates of hell from the inside (as Lewis says) on himself and actually refuses free grace! That’s the man within me that is the GREATEST sinner, not the “negative one’s” we typically list out or even the omissions of sin. Capon, here, brings forth a 200 proof law that the legal mind simply blows over. And many miss that, for example, those who interpret the Rich Young Ruler as a “Gospel call” are really exercising antinomianism (legalism and antinomianism are actually the same thing).

    Great article Michael, great one!

    Yours truly,


  10. steve yates says

    I’m confused about the quote. Is Capon saying that “those in hell can still be saved” when he says hell is not outside the realm of grace?

  11. Michael, I linked to your article, Out of Business with God. I agree fundamentally with almost everything. However, this quote caused me to pause. “The church is not the custodians of a system of forgiveness. Here is where the confusion comes for me. Jesus seems to say pretty clearly that the church IS the custodian of forgiveness.
    “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19
    “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:23
    Can you reconcile these verses with your aforementioned quote? I absolutely abhor “decisions”, transactions”, “joinin’ up with Jesus” kinds of preaching, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
    I don’t want to misconstrue or decouple your comments from their proper context,….but… help me understand, Michael.

  12. Bruce:

    Let me ask similar questions:

    1) If I don’t have a Roman view of the church as an institution (franchise) founded by Jesus to do business, then I believe the church exists as a community and movement “around” Jesus, the Gospel and the sacraments.

    So I don’t believe the “keys” is a kind of organizational paperwork that says “the church forgives.”

    The church provides witness to forgiveness in its own life, community, water, table and discipline. But God’s forgiveness is a Kingdom work, and therefore is not limited to the church, but occurs routinely outsie of it. The church witnesses to it and points to it and affirms it. It does not dispense it accept when that witness is baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

    I don’t believe in a localized Jesus or a franchised Church.

  13. I have bounced around and through this issue for all of my adult life. It seems to me that what we have is the revelation of two parallel truths. The first is that God is a sovereign chooser, it’s all over the Scriptures, and in my mind indisputable. The other is that there are countless appeals throughout God’s Word to the will and choice of people to repent. This too seems to be indisputable. How the two connect, intersect, or fit together seems to exist in the realm of mystery. With our limited understanding this element of mystery is inevitable. I have finally decided to be OK with that:-)

  14. Michael, I just read your article “Our Problem with Grace” and I loved it; it was just what I needed to hear today. I’ve always struggled with legalism and recently I’ve been thinking about how often it seems that God’s love is almost dismissed, used to guilt people into obedience or made totally useless. Often, when listening to some people talk about it, the Gospel seems to be most comparable to an insurance policy; verses like John 3:16 are the sales pitch, but just like an insurance company, once you try to file a claim, the sales pitch will be forgotten and the fine print will be the deciding factor. The positive verses are just to get us in the door, and then you’re given the “real” thing once inside; sure, the “love” parts are still true, but relatively unimportant compared to the rules, and therefore, to focus much attention on God’s love, without tossing in some works, would be useless, at best, or downright detrimental to everyone.

    I tend to gravitate towards legalism, because “follow the rules and God will accept you, but otherwise you’re toast” just seems so right (which, I guess, is why every other religion seems to go with that idea), but I have never had legalism really prompt me to be a better person. It usually just makes me notice my faults and make the gap between me and God seem even more impassible. On the other hand, God’s grace, when it gets through my thick skull, increases my desire to please God, and makes overcoming my shortcomings seem more possible; because instead of worrying that my connection to God has been severed, I’m able to turn to God for help, when I need it the most. So, I can definitely support anyone teaching grace. I also enjoyed your comment that God seems to enjoy “tweaking our noses when obedience, not grace, starts to become the focus.” I’ve often thought that God seems to like doing things differently than we’d expect; as if He’s really just trying to get us to understand that, unlike what the devil told Adam and Eve, we can’t be like God, because He is so far beyond us and that’s what makes Him God.

    The way I understand things, God wants us to be righteous, not just to do righteous things. The people who support legalism seem to miss the distinction that I see there. They’d say that if you had a vault full of money and gave two friends a key, if neither one stole anything, one on the basis of friendship and the other because he knew he’d be punished, that the one concerned about punishment is as righteous as the other; if not more righteous, some would argue. I don’t see it that way, so much; I’d suspect that they weren’t as much my friend as the one who didn’t steal from me because they loved me.

    Also, when legalists ask: If we’re saved by grace alone, without our actions coming into play, then what’s to keep us from living in sin? I think they have a great question, but they should be asking themselves that question instead. Why shouldn’t they keep sinning? To me, what they are implying is that there is absolutely no good reason to stop sinning, other than the possibility of going to hell. “If given a key to a vault full of cash, NOBODY would pass up the chance to steal some if they knew they wouldn’t get caught! God just wants to spoil our fun, so we’ll stop doing the things we really WANT to do and settle for what God wants us to do instead, so that we can go to heaven.” Is there no good reason to stop sinning? Is virtue not its own reward? Is sin not something that takes away from our lives and hurts others as well? Does God’s love not make them want to please Him by sharing it with others? (Okay, so I can use it to guilt people too)

    Of course, I’m not suggesting that I’m more righteous than they are; because I’m certainly not, I’m sure, not by a long shot. And I’m also not suggesting that these people are bad people either; in fact, I’m counting on their love for God. I’d ask them these questions not because I think they’d answer in the negative, but because I’d expect most to agree that there are plenty of good reasons not to sin. In which case, why do we need to promote works instead of grace?

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