Romans (Part 38) – Relationship is Key — Part 2 (12:1–16)
We had begun last time to talk about God’s infinite compassion but became somewhat stuck on the point of the seeming absence of (or rather defeat of) compassion when it came head to head against his justice. God is truth, goodness, and beauty, we argue. And absolute justice is involved in TGB. So, no matter the sin—big or miniscule—the absolute justice of God demands separation and hell for the sinner. But, we reasoned, isn’t there a problem in that thinking? Isn’t infinitecompassion also involved in his TGB? Why does infinitecompassion suddenly become limitedwhen opposed by absolute justice? How does God choose between his infinite and absolute qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty when they oppose each other? Does God look at the situation and try to deduce the lesser of the evils?
To illustrate, we posed the scene of the Great White Throne judgment (Rev 20:11–15) with a genocidal world leader, who, on his deathbed, repented and placed faith in Christ. At the judgment he is welcomed into embrace by his Lord. Next to him is a young boy, intent in life on being good but never having turned his life over to God. Because he was not saved, he is tossed by God into the Lake of Fire for unending punishment.
We argue that this picture is the Bible’s depiction of God’s justice. But how does it seem justfor the relatively few and minor sins of the child to receive eternal punishment in contrast to the eternity of pleasure received by the last-minute-reformed murderer of millions? Well, we understand the redemption of the man. The forgiveness and substitutionary death of Christ made that salvation possible. But what about the boy? Would we not stand there at the scene feeling terrible for him—wondering how our compassion is so great when the infinite compassion of God is held in check as the boy meets his eternal doom? Does his punishment really fit the crime?
To justify it, we may try to hold our compassion in check and argue, in our then pious, unfeeling solemnity, that our great and glorious God suffered indignity and was offended, and the full fury of God’s wrath must be flung out against anything that offends him. But while the Bible does speak of offense against God, that is not the question. The question wonders how God’s infinite compassion can be limited. It seems a contradiction in terms. If God is defined by his infiniteness, how can God remain God by eternally limiting his essence?
The answer to this question is not to become universalists. Doing that would be running from one extreme of the pendulum swing to the other and finding the same problem of a limitation of justice. Where is the balance?
I believe the balance is to understand the scenario rightly. I intentionally designed the Great White Throne judgment scene implying certain presumptions. Let’s take a step back to understand our God in his infiniteness, and once we’re sure of God, we can step forward again into the scene.
We have talked of God’s two Trinitarian covenants: God exists according to his eternal, absolute, and infinite essence of truth, goodness, and beauty and God created image bearers for everlasting love relationship. We talked about how God could not put one aside in favor of the other. To be righteous (faithful to his covenants), he had to fulfill both. Thus, because sin entered humankind, God devised his plan of redemption to ensure faithfulness to both covenants. That should give us a strong clue as to how God acts. In other words, he does not limit or give up on one thing to fulfill another. That is true regarding his absolute and infinite qualities as well. Understanding God’s essence as who he is (his TGB, or as Paul says, divine nature) and his existence as what he does (his activity, or as Paul says, eternal power), we see in the Bible and claim as an eternal truth this first principle of Kinship Theology: God will not deny any part of his essence in order to engage his existence. In other words, God will not deny his infinite compassion (part of who he is) to act according to some other quality like justice. One corollary to this principle is that God does not choose the least of evils in engaging his existence. Another corollary is that God will not engage his existence if the engagement will destroy his essence.
What I mean by that second corollary is this: God is infinite. In fact, God is defined by his infiniteness. If he engages in activity in which he must eternally limit an infinite attribute of his essence, he loses the definition of God. He ceases to be God. But ceasing to be God is a violation of his essence as a whole. In other words, it is incoherent and impossible for the situation to occur. Therefore, God will always eternally act fully according to his absolute and infinite essence.
We have talked before of the necessity of God being one. If God is defined as infinite, two or more Gods would necessarily limit each other. We also have discussed before the necessity of God being plural (giving rise to the philosophical justification for a Trinity). If God is infinite TGB, and infinite TGB includes infinite communication (love), another necessary being must exist with whom to communicate. Therefore, it is the fact that God must be one and God must be multiple that gives philosophical acceptance to the understanding of the Trinity—God is one in essence and three in Persons. But what do we mean by person?
In the late 1700s (to the very early 1800s), a philosopher named Johann Gottlieb Fichte attempted to argue that God could not be a person. A person, Fichte said, was defined in contrast to a counterpart. In other words, one person is such because that person is not the other person. In still other words, one person is therefore defined by the limitation imposed by the existence of a counterpart (another person). Since God is infinite, he could not be a person since a person, by its very definition, is limitedby a counterpart. While logical, the argument rests obviously on the definition of a person. And it was precisely with that definition that Hegel, another philosopher, found fault. Hegel argued that, contrary to Fichte’s claim, a person is notdefined by contrastto a counterpart. Rather a person is defined by nature. The nature of a person is to be relational through self-giving activity. In self-giving, the person finds himself or herself inthe counterpart rather than separated from the counterpart. Through self-giving, the contrast between person and counterpart is overcome. (You philosophy students may recognize this as the thesis—antithesis—synthesis movement for which Hegel is noted [and actually Fichte too].) Therefore, the infinite God, Hegel said, through self-giving, is personin its most perfect form.
Hegel’s idea fits in perfectly with how we structure our idea of God and his interaction with us in Kinship Theology. From a look at his image bearers, we realize of necessity, our one creator God must be person as well. Yet God cannot depend on his creation to be something he wasn’t in his perfection already before. Therefore, if God is person prior to creation, the relational nature of that one God requires multiple persons.
Further, the self-giving nature of a person requires both mind and will in the persons of God rather than in the one essence of God. Those minds and wills can logically never conflict because they are defined by their infinite essence. If infinite TGB motivate the will, two wills of the same infinite motivation and infinite resource could not come to differing conclusions.
Recognizing all of this in the nature of God, I would modify Hegel’s definition of person as follows: A person is defined as one who can comprehend TGB, desire (have will toward) what will satisfy comprehended TGB, and interact according to that comprehended desire.
As Hegel said, the relational, self-giving activity of persons is what puts those persons in each other. Thus, as we examine God’s image bearers, we find Jesus praying for us, saying, “May they all be one, as You, Father, are inMe and I am inYou. May they also be one inUs” (John 17:21). This idea is also why, as we discussed in Romans 1, the marriage-and-sex picture depicts Trinitarian relationship, the relationship between God and humankind, and the relationship among humans. The sex act of being one by being in the other is the picture of love relationship in spirit.
Finally, then, we come to the question of whether sin and death limit God’s compassion. The answer is no. God cannot forgive and let it go—but notfor the simple reason that he is offended. Rather, it is because life and relationship require a non-limiting movement of spirit into the other. God, being infinite, must move in relationship among all his creation. But the relationship, in order to be truly defined as love, must be uncoerced. Thus, if a person limits involvement in the TGB of God by choice, relationship (life) cannot continue. For God to remain the infinite God, death results to those who would seek to limit God’s involvement.
By understanding the personal nature of God in relationship, we recognize why death and separation are necessary.
And therefore, we can see that the Great White Throne scenario of my opening illustration does not present all the facts. Our God of infinite compassion so designed and implements the redemption plan through his infinite knowledge and involvement that every person who would possibly come to him, under the right circumstances for that person, will have opportunity as God coordinates all events to work out for good (Romans 8:28). He is patient with all, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Thus, the scene at the judgment in which I presumed a boy who wanted to do good and just lost his life before he had opportunity to hear about and accept Christ is an impossible scenario. God’s revelation comes to all, and no one who would under certain circumstances come to acceptance will miss that opportunity because God works all things in this life for good.
We, as image bearers, not only image God in relationship as persons with him but in relationship as persons with each other as well. We necessarily are designed to comprehend, embrace, and then communicate that truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s essence as our own spirits flow through each other in relationship. And this is Paul’s position as he begins to discuss relationship among image bearers in Romans 12.
Getting back then to our Romans 12 discussion, we found that the mercy of God that propels us to present our bodies living sacrifices is in perfect alignment with the divine nature—as infinite as his justice is absolute. In verses 3 through 8 (where we left of before we began our discussion of God’s infinite compassion), we found that verse 3 set the tone for Paul’s discussion of Christian relationship. The verse, rather than speaking of arrogant pride, actually could be paraphrased in this way: “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to engage your reasoned service beyond what you should. Instead engage in self-control because God has distributed to each one a calling (or gift) for the mission of our faith.” This reading emphasizes Paul’s encouragement in our service to God to concentrate on using the gifts God has given us individually. At the same time, we should recognize the gifts of our brothers and sisters in Christ so that we can all do what we are called to do so as together to promote the faith. And that is the point in verses 4 and 5 to see ourselves as parts of the body of Christ—each with his or her own function but all working together.
Paul lists some ministry gifts in verses 6 through 8, but this list is not exhaustive. I kind of think that the fact that Paul stopped at seven gifts (although he provides some more in other epistles) was his hint that this list signifies all gifts without mentioning them all (since seven is the number of completion).
In verses 9 through 13, Paul discusses love—our communication with each other. In most of our translations, these verse seem to contain a list of commands. But actually after encouraging us to love genuinely, Paul continues (the same sentence in Greek) to explain what that love looks like. A more exact translation would be something like this: “Love must be genuine: detesting evil, clinging to what is good, showing family affection to one another with brotherly love, outdoing one another in showing honor, not lacking in diligence, being fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, being patient in affliction, being persistent in prayer, sharing with the saints in their needs, pursuing hospitality.”
Paul then goes on to tell the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them. He is still talking to the body of Christ, and there seems to be the intimation that this persecution is not that of non-Christians or state governments but rather persecution in the way of harassment or mistreatment of one to another. Paul is encouraging them not to respond in like manner but rather to continue loving each other even when an offense is initiated. Bless them, Paul says, and then he explains how. Again, verses 14 and 15 are one sentence. Rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep are instructions as to how we should bless those who are mistreating us. Paul tells us to put the offense out of our minds and concern ourselves with the life of the one who is mistreating us. Come along side and care for the things that he or she cares about. In that way, estrangement is turned aside and unity may flourish. And in this way, as verse 16 explains, we may be of the same mind. The same mind does not have reference to all doctrinal interpretation. It is a message about living in harmony with each other. Jesus said that the world would know us by our love (John 13:35). Paul emphasizes this Christian love.