Sunday, August 30, 2015

Life is serious business

Thinking back on Stăniloae's writings on human freedom and eternal damnation, it occurs to me just what a profound significance and importance human life and agency have. The life we choose to lead here has irreversible consequences which ring throughout eternity: a life lived in fellowship with God in holiness leads to eternal beatitude; but a rejection of the divine communion in slavish pursuit of the passions and pleasures leads to emptiness and everlasting restlessness. 

Human beings, on this view of things, have an enormous responsibility on their shoulders: to make themselves either into something beautiful, something resembling God, or else into something hideous and demonic. So there can be no lax and loose attitude about life. On the contrary, life is serious business, because of the deep mystery of human freedom.  

So much in our day and age runs contrary to this. Many people—myself included, in many ways—try to live their lives in ways that avoid responsibility and consequences. This is especially true as regards sexual ethics. People try to have sex casually, enjoying themselves without committing to a lifelong relationship or to having and raising children. Or if keeping a child is inconvenient or difficult, the child may be aborted so that the consequences of the sexual act can be neutralized. 

But God has not made us to live our lives this way. The natural consequence of sexual intercourse is procreation and the emotional union of the two parties. They care for each other and for the child they bring into the world. They are vulnerable and depend on one another, so they have to commit to being there for one another. But all this means assuming profound responsibility, and taking one's actions with the utmost seriousness. 

A sinful, vicious life is a life that attempts to avoid commitments and responsibility. It's lazy, it's casual, it's unforgiving, it is not sacrificing, it is not deeply loving, it's not concerned to help others. Not all of us live like this in any extreme way. But the seeds of such a vicious life are planted every time we act in a way that avoids responsibility and commitment in pursuit of instant gratification, and if we water these seeds through continued action in the same vein, before long these seeds will grow into a hideous thicket from which the is no easy escape. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Dumitru Stăniloae against annihilationism

Supposing that some persons will never be saved, why shouldn't God simply annihilate the damned, rather than keeping them in existence for eternity? Wouldn't it better of God if he were no longer to conserve the reprobate in existence, so that their sufferings are not unending? Dumitru Stăniloae considers this question in Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă III, and he comes up with the following answers.

To begin, he notes the question has been posed by John of Damascus: why would God not annihilate the damned, rather than keeping them in existence forever? The answer he gives is: To exist, in any case, is better than not to exist all... God manifests His love forever offering existence to those in hell. By this He also shows the indelible value of the human person. If He were only to conserve the existence of those in heaven, He would fail to show that He also respects a man even when he opposes Him; because thus He respects his freedom (p. 279).

The continued existence of the damned is the way that God demonstrates that he respects human freedom: he gives the damned continued life, even if this person should hate God for all of eternity. He goes on to say: Those in hell are, in their own way, also a testimony to the value which God accords them. God keeps them in a certain connection with Him through their existence. He will keep even those who deny Him in existence. Through this He demonstrates a kenosis. On the one hand, God cannot pull them out of their hardened state, out of a freedom which denies Him. To do this He would have to deprive them of liberty. On the other hand, neither does he want to annihilate them; this would be to despise their existence and their freedom. Between these two alternatives, which would demonstrate a diminished goodness of God and a greater disrespect of the human freedom of the damned, God chooses to conserve them in their attitude of refusal of Him (p. 280).

Someone might argue that this would introduce a sadness and a sense of defeat into the life of God: therefore all must be saved in the end. But Stăniloae does not accept this as compatible with human freedom: This [universal salvation] could not be accomplished without disregarding human freedom (ibid.). It is not obvious why Stăniloae infers from the fact of human freedom that certainly some will be damned, rather than merely possibly. Still, he thinks eternal damnation in freedom is preferable to salvation through coercion:

The solution of conserving them in their eternally unfulfilled state would not be worse than a salvation without fellowship in freedom. But it has its own advantage, namely that, in accepting this, God not only accepts the sadness of not seeing all people in the beatitude of fellowship with Him, but He also manifests a magnificent generosity in gifting them with an eternal existence in opposition to Him and a respect for their freedom which makes the human person into the most remarkable creature (p. 280). 

As previously noted, it is this remarkable, mysterious freedom which grounds the absolutely unique dignity of human persons. The human person is a profound and deep mystery, a mystery which totally annulled as soon as her freedom is denied and her fellowship with God is compelled; on the other hand, her mystery is not appropriately respected and upheld if she is annihilated for refusing fellowship with God. As Stăniloae says: If God were to destroy the sinful person, He would forget about him forever in a despising gesture, and the human person would be lose the profundity of his mystery (p. 282).

The possibility of eternal hell is grounded in the profound and deep freedom of the human person: 

Even through the eternity of hell, the value and eternal freedom of the human person is affirmed. If a man were to know that, using his freedom in opposition to the will of God, he would once and for all be destroyed, he would be limited in his freedom. Only if he knows that he can oppose God forever is he truly free. He is free and has full dignity only when he knows that he is forever unconditioned, that is, forever free (p. 282).

We can say that, for Stăniloae, Christianity makes human life out to be a very serious business. The human person has a freedom to make himself into something wonderful and profound, or else into something miserable and despicable. But this freedom has no limits, and out of respect for this freedom, God maintains even the worst of sinners in existence ad infinitum. Every choice matters; every decision is a profound preparation for life in eternity. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Universalism: the killer of Christianity

Check out this blog post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker on the topic of universalism. See if anything he says even remotely resembles the kind of doctrine I've been writing about on this blog for a long while now.

He makes a few claims about universalism, all of which are more or less false.

He says universalism is (1) a sentimental belief held by people who are so cushioned from the realities of life that they don’t know anybody who deserves hell and they think God is just as nice and polite as everybody they know and so wouldn’t have such poor manners as to send anyone to hell.

I don't think this adequately represents universalism as affirmed by ancient luminaries and theologians such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac the Syrian, Evagrius Ponticus, Maximus the Confessor, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, etc.

Far from being motivated by mere sentiment, these fellows thought that universalism was taught by Scripture: for example, they appealed to Paul's words at 1 Cor 15.28 that at the telos, "God will be all in all." If God is all in all, then there cannot be any evil any longer, since evil is the absence of the Good, i.e. God; if God is to fill all things, all evil must disappear and there must only be goodness and God. For this reason, there will be a time when no one will any longer love sin, or be ignorant of God's true goodness, or desire something else apart from fellowship with God. Likewise, the apostle Peter speak of the time of the apokatastasis panton, the restoration of all things back to God (Acts 3.21).

They certainly affirmed that some persons who did not purify themselves of sin in this life through repentance, baptism, and ascetical discipline would suffer punishments and torments in the next world in Gehenna. But they thought that these punishments would be meted out in accordance with desert, which they considered would always be finite. After all (as argued by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus), Christ would not say that one servant who knew less would be beaten with few stripes and another who knew more with many (Luke 12.47-8) if the punishments were not limited in duration and meted out in keeping with desert. Likewise, Christ would not say that there is no getting out of the prison until you pay back the last penny (Mt 5.26) if there weren't an intrinsic limit on one's culpability and punishment. Indeed, for Origen, everyone must meet with the consequences of their actions; there's no escaping divine justice for anyone. But God's justice does not seek punishment for its own sake, but rather, as Clement of Alexandria held, his punishments save and educate. They are aimed at the reformation of the sinner and her restoration to God, even though they are also meted according to merit.

So Fr. Longenecker doesn't characterize things adequately when he attributes the universalist with the notion that (2) Everybody goes straight to heaven when they die. I don't know of a single universalist theologian, whether ancient or contemporary, who actually affirms this. This is a caricature and a straw man.

Fr. Longenecker likewise complains that universalism (3) doesn’t make a lot of sense in marketing terms. He notes that "progressive Catholic priests" (he doesn't name any names) have been teaching universalism of some sort or another for a few decades now, while at the same time wondering why so few men are attending seminaries to become priests or otherwise to take up the religious life.  He thinks the answer is easy: For forty years you’ve told people that everyone is going to heaven no matter what. The people are not stupid. They’ve drawn the obvious conclusion that they therefore don’t need to go to church, or that it doesn’t matter what church they go to. If everybody’s going to heaven there is no such thing as mortal sin and if there’s no such thing as mortal sin why bother with God, religion, Jesus, Mary and Mass?

But again, I don't know of any universalist theologian or pastor who thinks that "everyone is going to heaven no matter what." I've never heard or read any such claim. The classical universalists I enumerated above thought that at the end, all persons would be restored to God, yes, but not before each got what he was due for the life he lived. There is no escaping or setting aside the justice of God in the ancient universalist scheme, and they all affirmed that unrepentant sinners of every kind would meet the consequences of their actions in Gehenna through horrible punishments. So this is a straw man and a caricature, again.

Likewise, I think the claim that "there's no such thing as mortal sin" needs to be qualified a bit. I take it that a Catholic hopeful universalist like Hans Urs von Balthasar would not deny that there are mortal sins; after all, he takes eternal damnation to be a real  possibility for some people who refuse to repent of their sins and to accept the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Likewise, St. Catherine of Siena knew that eternal damnation was a real possibility, and precisely because it was possible, she prayed fervently that God would not allow any to fall into it but instead to save all. So the universalist does not need to hold that eternal damnation is impossible in principle. Indeed, precisely because it is possible, therefore the universalist prays for the salvation of all people far and wide, as the apostle Paul himself required of us (1 Tim 2.1-4).

As an aside: I am not Catholic, but I take it that one reason why so few people are becoming priests and monks, etc., is the requirement of celibacy. In our culture and in our times, where sexuality is so public and so (inordinately) valued, many people feel that voluntary celibacy for life is too great a burden to bear. That is a likelier candidate for explaining why so few people become priests.

So Fr. Longenecker concludes with this: (4) Universalism is a false doctrine that kills Christianity, and those who preach it are false teachers and anti Christs.

I'm not sure that it "kills" Christianity. If anything, universalism is a uniquely Christian doctrine and hope. As Ilaria Ramelli argues in her The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013), there is no evidence of any religious group or movement affirming universal salvation before Christianity, and pagan (neoplatonist) universalists of later centuries were themselves influenced by Christian thought; no Greek pagan thinkers ever affirmed that all persons would eventually be restored to fellowship with God before Christianity arrived on the scene.

Finally, I suppose that Fr. Longenecker would have the Church excommunicate numerous saints and important figures and doctors of the Church with universalist teachings or sentiments or prayers as false teachers and anti-Christs: Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocians; Evagrius Ponticus; Ephrem the Syrian; Isaac the Syrian; Maximus the Confessor; Catherine of Siena; Hans Urs von Balthasar; Pope Benedict; etc.

I think Fr. Longenecker badly misrepresents universalism and his arguments are not particularly good; he demonstrates an unfamiliarity with the doctrine as it has been taught and affirmed by Catholics and others, both in ancient history and in contemporary times.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Walking away from Christ

I read this post Sunday about a fellow who has abandoned Christianity principally for two reasons: first, because God was so intolerably silent during a period of profound suffering and worry; second, because of the disunity of the Christian Church regarding the proper teaching on important matters, which suggests a failure on God's part to communicate clearly and effectively.

Read the post for yourself and see the author's reasoning. It seems to me the problem here -- as in many other cases of persons who have abandoned the Christian religion -- is attempting to think about God and understanding God independently of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ's incarnation, ministry, crucifixion (on our behalf,  for our sins), resurrection, and ascension. All these events communicate something about God himself because, as T.F. Torrance would emphasize, God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son are homoousios, in the words of the Nicene creed: one in being. The life of Christ is the life of God; events in the life of Christ are events in the life of God; the character and concerns of Christ are the character and concerns of God himself. And most of all, we know Christ through his crucifixion on our behalf; thus Paul says: I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor 2.2).

What is so important about this? Knowing God through Christ, we are always aware of God's love for us even in circumstances in which we cannot seem to sense it. There is nothing in the world that can change the fact, forever immutable in the past, with scars that remain on the body of God even unto the present day, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (1 Cor 15.3). As T.F. Torrance says, the Cross on which the crucified God hung for our sins is a window into God's heart: it tells us that he loves us more than he loves himself. Nothing whatsoever can change this, even though we should suffer in a million different ways and ultimately die.

God alone knows why he presents himself to some persons in a more direct and special way while not doing so with others. I don't know, and I am convinced no real reason might be within our grasp of understanding or discerning. I am not convinced that very many of the Christian martyrs felt God's presence particularly strongly when they were eaten by lions, or had their heads removed, or tortured in various ways, yet they kept the faith because they knew that Jesus Christ had died for them, so they can die for him too. Apart any sort of subjective awareness of God's closeness, what we have is the definitive self-revelation of God in Christ, which is an eminently loving and kind one: he is willing to die for our sins in order to restore fellowship between us! And nothing can ever change that!

Here I think is the weakness of iconoclastic traditions of Christianity: the images of Christ crucified, rising from the grave, etc. must be present in our worship because they offer us real, concrete reminders of the self-revelation of God in Christ. Especially the image of the crucified Lord should be present, because in this way we can be reminded of the prime evidence that God loves us. Apart from the self-sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, we cannot be certain that our conviction of God's love is nothing more than the delusion and dream by which certain primates comfort themselves in order to make their terrestrial existence something more than an insufferable hell. So we ought to see it, we ought to see the man hanging on the cross, the blood and water pouring from his side, the eyewitnesses from whom we know the story standing around him so we might never forget. And as I've written elsewhere, this reflection on Christ's crucifixion and resurrection should be a regular part of our worship services, so that we might not forget the most important truth of all.

More than that, Christ's crucifixion and resurrection remind us of something: this world is still under a curse. Evil still happens here; people still suffer; Christians, even though they live their lives with a foot in the eternal life of the next world, are nevertheless subject to death. We undergo these things perhaps inter alia in order not to be too attached to this life and to this world. The world is still under a curse and this will play itself out. The grace of God, however, is shown to us in that those who believe in Christ are promised a better lot in the next world, if they stay faithful. Therefore the scripture tells us: exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3.13).

I think it is the saddest and most tragic day when a person walks away from Christ, who has only ever done us good and at such cost to himself. I am always sorry to hear that other persons have stopped believing in Christ, or doubt him, or have lost their love for him. I love Christ very much and I want others to share this love with me, too. What can I do? I can pray for others without ceasing and I can write what the Lord gives me to share, hoping that it reaches the eyes of the right people.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Dumitru Stăniloae on the possibility of eternal hell

Whereas previously I described very briefly Stăniloae's conception of the world as the medium of dialog between the Logos and rational human persons, now I want to cover his defense of the possibility (and reality) of eternal hell for the damned following upon the judgment of all.

The question is raised: Is there no hope for the return from hell of those who are condemned thereunto after the universal judgment? Shall there be an escape from hell into communion with God or not?

The answer Stăniloae gives is interesting. In the first place, he writes, it is possible for some persons who go to hell after the particular judgment but before the universal judgment to leave there and to be restored to fellowship with God. But after the universal judgment, there is no possibility of leaving hell. Thus he says:

The teaching of the Church about the possibility of the escape of some from hell, in the period between the particular judgment and the universal, permits a response this question. 

In conformity with this teaching, those who go to hell after the particular judgment with a certain faith, that is without an attitude utterly opposed to fellowship with God, will be able to arrive in such circumstances that the potentiality for fellowship present in them may be actualized. So this hell [after the particular judgment, before the universal] implies two possibilities: the possibility of being eternal for some and not eternal for others.

Without being able to say precisely for whom hell will be eternal and for whom it will not be eternal, for some of [those in hell] there exists the possibility that hell will not be eternal. 

But the mystery of freedom does not allow that hell will cease to be eternal for all. Those who will not be able to leave hell until the universal judgment will never be able to leave hell (Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă, III, pp. 272-3; translation mine).

But the question is then raised: why won't these persons leave hell? Why should they remain in hell forever, even when the possibility of escape exists prior to the universal judgment? Stăniloae responds that this is grounded in the foreknowledge of God:

But on what basis does the fact stand that those who will be left in hell through the universal judgment will remain there forever, while at the same time God never ceases to be a loving God, and so long as these will retain forever a certain liberty? It is grounded in the foreknowledge of God, on the basis of which God knows certainly that those will never respond to offer of love, whether because they will not want to, or because they have created for themselves, through their total refusal of communion [with God] throughout the course of their earthly lives and from the time between the particular and universal judgments, such a state that they are no longer capable of accepting fellowship with God (p. 273).

In other words, these persons will either refuse God's offer to no end, or else they will have so distorted and formed their characters that they are incapable ever of being saved. They become incurable, whether through persistent refusal or through a malformation of their nature. Appealing to John of Damascus, Stăniloae calls the damned "immutable."

Above everything, Stăniloae's discussion of hell is centered around the notion of human freedom, which entails the ability to reject God's offer of salvation and fellowship as much as it means the possibility of accepting this. Human persons are endowed with a freedom that has a power to harden itself into a negative liberty impossible to overcome (p. 274).

The theologian considers that God, in his foreknowledge, already knows that some persons will be damned forever and thus has made this known to us in revelation. What remains is just for us to find out who is who, who will be saved and who will be damned,

Against Berdyaev, who thought that the sufferings in hell are merely subjective and so cannot be eternal for this reason, Stăniloae insists that the subjective over time cements itself into the ontological:

. . . after a while the subjective and the ontological can no longer be separated. A narrow way of thinking, of feeling, of understanding things and people, creates in human nature a certain ontological state, disfigures the spirit in a profound way, and not even Christianity says that hell is merely torturous external circumstances, rather than also a world of disfigured spirits, hardened in evil, in a crooked way of perceiving reality (p. 274).

The distortion of the character of the damned through persistently base, sinful behavior transforms itself into a tortured and painful way of perceiving reality, an arduous and hellish conscious existence.

Above everything, the possibility of hell is a result of the profundity of human freedom. He writes: God gave humankind the power for [communion with himself], but its development depends on [humankind's] own contribution (p. 277). As for the question of why God should not reveal himself to those who are in hell, so that they might freely come to communion, Stăniloae insists that their deformed characters would not permit this, because God must be received in a certain way:

The presence of God is not an external reality, so that it may correspondingly impose itself, but rather it offers itself as a loving Thou; and for this reason, it cannot be understood except through an openness that is humbled and full of yearning for love. But sometimes the curious phenomenon takes place in which a person who defends his own autonomy hardens himself especially in refusing to accept another who, through the love with which he offers himself, makes this one to realize that his own existence depends upon this offer. Hardened in his pride, he cannot admit this, because he cannot admit that someone can love him when he cannot. He would be able to admit the reality of one who depends on him, but not someone who reveals himself as him upon whose unending love he is truly dependent (p. 278).

This passage is a bit difficult, but the idea seems to be this: the extreme pride and exaggerated autonomy of the damned person in hell doesn't admit that God should truly reveal himself to such persons, because they will not accept that they depend totally and utterly for their existence on the pure and unconditioned love of God. They reject God as a loving Thou, and so God simply cannot reveal himself to them in this way.

None of this should be too unfamiliar for any visitors to my blog who've read my interactions with Jerry Walls (who draws from Soren Kierkegaard on this very topic); in many ways their positions are quite similar. There is much to be said here, but I will limit myself to a couple observations.

In the first place, Stăniloae oversteps his bounds when he affirms the reality of eternal hell on the basis of human freedom. I may grant that human freedom makes eternal hell a real and genuine possibility for all people. But it is another thing entirely to say that human freedom makes eternal hell a certain reality. After all, if human freedom precludes certainty about the eventual restoration of all God, why shouldn't it just as well preclude certainty about the eventual damnation of some? One result may not be any more certain than the other, if genuine human freedom means that both alternatives are truly possible.

Stăniloae thinks that God has revealed that some persons will be damned forever. But we might contest his interpretation of the relevant biblical texts. In the Bible, even the most certain language about the eventual destruction of some sinners can turn out to have been false as a prediction of the future, though certainly useful and true as threats of genuinely possible outcomes. For example, Jonah preaches to the Ninevites: 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed! The people repent, though this was not an option presented to them in Jonah's preaching (as is made especially clear by the fact that they express uncertainty that repentance will accomplish anything), and the destruction, declared so certainly from Jonah's mouth, did not take place. Likewise, both Jonah and God knew that the Ninevites would repent; the threat turned out to be the means by which their repentance would be effected. Likewise, in Ezekiel 33, God tells the sinful people, Surely you will die! And yet the sinner repents, though the message left no option in this respect, and God says that he will forgive his sins.

The rhetorical function of pronouncements of judgment, even unambiguously worded and straightforwardly affirming a certain unfavorable future for the unrepentant, is that of a threat: it is a way of moving the unrepentant to turn from their sins. No threat, no statement of future destruction, no matter how straightforwardly worded and unambiguously affirmed, necessarily will come true. There is always the option of repentance, accomplished in who-knows-what ways and by God-only-knows miraculous means.

For this reason, I think Stăniloae's interpretation of the statements of scripture about the eventual damnation of some persons is mistaken, or at the very least, not the only possible one. Because of human freedom, utter self-ruin and damnation must be affirmed as possible if people do not repent; but that some people will never repent cannot be a part of what we claim to know, on the basis of this same understanding of human freedom.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The world as means of dialog with the Logos

I have been reading through Dumitru Stăniloae, Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology) vol. II, which addresses matters of the person and work of Jesus Christ as well as ecclesiology. One particularly fascinating aspect of Stăniloae's thought is his conception of the created world as the medium for a dialog between the λόγος, the Word, and human beings created in his image. 

To begin, human beings are themselves images of the Logos through the fact of their living rationality. Because they can understand the world, consequently they share a profound a resemblance with the Logos, whose thoughts and reason brings the world into existence. Indeed, for Stăniloae, the rationality and intelligibility of the world presupposes a supreme and personal Rationality which brings them into existence through its thought. The human person, through the use of her reason to discern the existential-ontological dependence of the rational created order on a supreme rational Person, subsequently enters into a free fellowship and dialog with this Person, who is the Logos. 

Important for Stăniloae is the distinction of human beings as free rational agentts, which is a result of their resemblance to the ultimately free Logos. This Word brings human beings into dialog with him but never as mere objects, which might be understood to mean in a deterministic and guaranteed fashion. On the contrary, human beings are irrevocably subjects, who have the freedom and autonomy to act on their own. Take this freedom away and the dignity and mystery of humans as images of the Logos are undone. 

This dialog between humanity and the Logos is not merely a cerebral or intellectual one. On the contrary, through the material and spiritual goods of the created order, the Logos shows himself loving and kind and desirous of fellowship with his creatures. This dialog also has an ethical aspect, because the understanding of the world is a collaborative project undertaken by multiple free agents who must work together in love. We are all in it together, so to speak, and this is the way the Logos would have it. 

At the bottom of Stăniloae's theological anthropology, therefore, are the following: rationality, subjectivity, freedom. The relationship between humans and the Logos is an I-Thou one, in which two subjects in their impenetrable, mysterious freedom come before one another for dialog. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Between hopeful and dogmatic universalism

I have recently read through Hans Urs von Balthasar's Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? and I quite enjoyed it. I am attracted to his hopeful universalism for a number of reasons: first, it insists on the real possibility of eternal damnation, out of respect for human freedom; second, it grounds its universalist hope inter alia in the New Testament commandment to pray for the salvation of all people (1 Tim 2.1-4); third, through the emphasis on prayer for salvation, it is a kind of universalism that goes beyond mere theologizing and reflection into personal involvement in the hoped for reconciliation of all to God.

At times von Balthasar criticizes Karl Barth's theology for coming too close to a dogmatic position on the apokatastasis panton, which is too far for him. He wants to leave open the possibility of the eternal damnation of some people alongside the possibility of the salvation of all people. Yet the question might rightly be raised: how confident a hope can von Balthasar's position tolerate? How much confidence can the Christian have, who prays for the salvation of all persons and shares the good news of Jesus with others as often as possible, and yet who considers the eternal damnation of some persons a real possibility?

Of course, the New Testament teaching on prayer is that we ought to pray with confidence and insistence. This is something that Jesus teaches on a number of occasions, For example, consider Jesus's words to his disciples in the gospel according to Luke:

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks fora fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11.5-13).

Likewise in Mark's gospel he teaches:

Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mark 11.22-4).

In Matthew's gospel, in the parallel to this Markan passage, Jesus says: Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive (Mt 21.22).

Prayer with a firm conviction that God will provide what has been requested is the hallmark of Christian prayer for Jesus in the New Testament. Prayer must be made with faith, with trust that God will answer as one has asked. Inversely, a person who prays with doubt cannot expect to receive anything from God at all, as James emphasizes:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord (Jas 1.5-8).

Now things do not always turn out as we wanted. Sometimes we pray for something to take place -- say, a healing -- and God does not come through for us in the way we wanted. This happens because we often pray for things that God, in his providence and wisdom, does not want to happen as we would like. Instead, God permits that some persons should suffer and still others should die of illness because it is a part of his plan -- though we cannot claim to understand why this should be so.

But the prayer for the salvation of all is of a different order altogether, because we know that this is what God wants. Indeed, Paul commands us to pray for the salvation of all precisely because this is God's will:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2.1-4).

For this reason, it seems to me we should be especially confident that this sort of prayer will be answered, more so than in more controversial and uncertain matters where we are nevertheless told to pray confidently and expecting a response.

By this point, we are somewhere in the blurred, uncertain boundaries between hopeful and dogmatic universalism. We admit the real possibility of eternal damnation, yet we pray for the salvation of every human person. Moreover, we pray confidently, expecting God to answer our prayer in the way we ask, yet we do not affirm with certainty that all persons will be saved as a part of our official dogma. We urge all men everywhere to repent, because the threat of damnation is a real one; yet we know that God acts for their salvation beyond our powers and beyond our knowledge, and no purpose of [God's] can be thwarted (Job 42.2).

Monday, August 17, 2015

Joy in the salvation of others

John wrote: We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1.4).

It seems to me that the missionary spirit is one which finds its joy only in the salvation of others. It is not happy to see that others are not enjoying, same as oneself, the benefits and pure bliss which a life in fellowship with God in Jesus Christ offers to all. John wrote because the joy of the apostles depended upon the fellowship of his audience with the Holy Trinity; only this would complete their joy, only this would satisfy them, only this would give them perfect happiness.

When you have a good thing, you want to share it with others. This is how I am: when I discover a beautiful piece of music, or an impressive band, or watch a great move that really profoundly impacts me, or read something wonderful, I want to write about it and tell others so that they can enjoy it, too. And this is why I went into seminary in the first place. I began to know Jesus, and to enjoy fellowship with him. I was learning wonderful things from the Bible, things which deeply and profoundly impacted and helped me in my own life, and I wanted others to taste and see for themselves.

For the same reason, it makes me sad when I interact with friends and acquaintances and strangers who don't have the same joy that I have, who don't love Jesus Christ and who seem not to care about the great sacrifice that he made on our behalf, who have no sense of awe and gratitude and joy at the salvation of God provided for us in his Son. What I have, I want them to enjoy as well, but they don't. I love Jesus Christ very deeply for what he did for me, and I want others to love him, too, and to reciprocate the phenomenal and incredible love which he has for us. But still some don't do this. I pray for them, I hope for them, I petition God for them.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Word is Life

During my Introduction to the New Testament course a few summers ago at Fuller, I learned a very interesting and useful method of bible study. As I would read through a book of the New Testament, I was required to make note of a number of different things: things I could discern about the author, about the audience, etc. Among other things, I was told to write down titles and descriptions that the author gives of Jesus. This is especially useful for constructing a "portrait" of Jesus according to some particular biblical author.

John calls Jesus Life at the beginning of his first epistle:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life -- this life was reveled, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us (1 John 1.1-2).

There are a number of fascinating and profound titles for Jesus in John's epistle, and this is one of the best ones. Jesus Christ is called Life and the Eternal Life. In other words, he is the source of life itself, and the gospel, the word about Jesus, is a word about life. This is very profound, because we are often too prone to connect (in our minds) Jesus and death -- but not his death; rather our own. We think of Jesus as condemning us, as giving us a number of rules to follow which we hate, as not understanding us, as being ashamed of us, etc. These are not adequate descriptions of Jesus at all.

On the contrary, Jesus Christ is Life and what he gives us is Life. He says: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they [i.e., his sheep] may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10.10). Jesus comes to give us true life and not to kill us; he says elsewhere: I came not to judge the world, but to save the world (John 12.47).

Hans Urs von Balthasar makes this point as well in his Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?  But what about the reality of judgment? If Jesus is only Life, only gives Life, how is it that some die? Here von Balthasar quotes from Joseph Ratzinger:

In this connection, J. Ratzinger speaks of a "final purification of Christology and the concept of God: Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself" (p. 69).

If there is disaster, it is self-imposed out of a rejection of the salvation offered in Christ. For Ratzinger and von Balthasar, it would seem this is a refinement of Christological doctrine.

What does this mean for us, then? If anything, it means that we should always come to Jesus for Life when we are suffering the symptoms of death. We ought not allow shame and guilt to stand in the way, because he can take care of these things too: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteosness (1 John 1.9). And he gladly receives anyone who comes to him, without ever rejecting, because his desire is always our life and salvation: anyone who comes to me I will never drive away (John 6.37).

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dare we hope "that all men be saved"?

I have recently read Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? With A Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Rev. Lothar Krouth (Ignatius, 2014). I think it is a very fascinating work, and von Balthasar makes a compelling case for the conceptual possibility (indeed, the necessity) of a genuine and sincere and prayerful hope for the salvation of all human persons in Catholic theology. 

In Catholic theology, according to von Balthasar, there has never been an official announcement of the eternal damnation of a single person; the Church has never stated that any person is certainly damned. In spite of this, however, at least since Augustine, many have written as if they knew that hell is populated, perhaps even densely so. This for von Balthasar is claiming too much, and it would seem to introduce unseemly ethical problems: how can such persons exercise true and genuine Christian love for their enemies in keeping with Christ's command? It would seem, further, that this claim to knowledge effectively deflates the numerous texts in the New Testament which speak hopefully of a universal restoration and reconciliation to God of all sinners. It requires the introduction of all sorts of unreasonable and unfounded theological distinctions, e.g. the distinction between God's antecedent will (which desires the salvation of all) and his consequent will (which desires the damnation of some), the horrible notion that God and the elect no longer love nor pity the damned, etc. 

On the contrary, the Christian is commanded to pray for the salvation of all persons (1 Tim 2.1-4). This is grounded in the desire of God for the salvation of every human person, and expressed through the mediation and self-offering of Christ on behalf of all. Moreover, there are prayers of the Church in the liturgy which petition precisely for this universal salvation. This commandment presupposes and entails the reasonable hope that such prayers will be heard and answered. Finally, there is also the testimony of many of the Church's mystics, who have expressed both the hope and the prayer that all will be spared eternal damnation in hell. 

The texts describing the eternal punishments of the damned in scripture should not be approached in a detached, objective way. On the contrary, they ought to be taken as addressed to the individual hearer as warnings about the genuine possibility of damnation. They make no statements of certain fact about an inevitable future; they are warnings and threats about one way in which a person's life may—but need not—end.

In a way, von Balthasar proposes an attitude of utter openness about the future, one with some precedent in Catholic tradition. A person should neither be certain of the damnation of even a single other person, nor of her own salvation. God's justice is not to be over-stressed, and neither can his mercy be presumed upon. It is every individual's responsibility and burden to take responsibility for her own life, and to respond to the salvation which is offered her in Christ, a salvation which demands her free acceptance. 

For von Balthasar, damnation is not something that God or Christ imposes upon any person. Rather, some persons misuse their freedom and utterly shut themselves off from any hope of salvation. Damnation, if it occurs at all, is self-imposed. Yet we must also hold out the hope and always pray that God's grace and omnipotence may save even the dastardliest of sinners.

Christ damns no one himself, but is only ever salvation and grace. Damnation is self-imposed, if it occurs at all, which is not a certainty for any person. Thus, every Christian can and should hope for the salvation of all. The threats of damnation in scripture are only warnings about the possibility of damnation, warnings which every person must take seriously for herself without presuming or expecting the damnation of anyone else. This is an opinion which numerous Catholic thinkers and figures of the 20th century shared, including former pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). 

Von Balthasar is well aware of the philosophical and theological problems which a certain dogmatism about the damnation of some persons raises. At the same time, he doesn't want to theorize or systematize a formal dogmatic universalism. Instead, he takes a non-systematic, non-dogmatic approach to the question of hell: everyone must take seriously the possibility of her own damnation while admitting no dogmatic certainty on the question of the damnation of others; for others, there is hope and fervent prayer for their salvation. 

There is a lot I would want to say in response to von Balthasar's impressive short work, but that will have to wait till another time. The comment box is open for anyone to leave remarks and responses to his thesis and arguments. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Would you do anything for love?

Though often people will reflect upon the story of the Good Samaritan in a manner critical of the priest and the Levite who refused to help the injured man, it may be fruitful if we try to think of things through their point of view. We might find a more profound lesson in the parable than we might initially have thought.

To my mind, there is no reason to suppose that the priest and the Levite were necessarily malicious. They need not have ignored or refused to help the fallen man out of incorrigible ill will or heinous malevolence. On the contrary, perhaps they had perfectly reasonable motives for not helping him -- so reasonable, in fact, that we may have to admit that we would have done the same.

In the first place, this is obviously a dangerous stretch of road. After all, our story begins with a robbery and mugging that nearly results in the death of one of the main characters! The priest and the Levite may have thought to themselves that if they stop here and help, they too might suffer just as bad or an even worse fate. Perhaps the fallen man was merely a trap laid for a greater ambush; perhaps the fallen man was a member of a gang who would just as soon pounce upon the priest or the Levite if they were to try to help.

Perhaps, too, the priest and the Levite had families at home for which they needed to provide, families which utterly depended upon them. To put their own lives at risk meant risking the lives of their children and wives. In such uncertain conditions, could anyone expect you to risk your life and your livelihood and the health of your family?

Yet the ultimate suggestion of the parable is that the priest and the Levite failed to live up to the commandment, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. They may have been perfectly "within their rights" not to stop to help; if they were to speak to us and tell us a bit about their motives, we might be inclined to sympathize with them. How many times do we go out of our way and utterly risk our lives to help a person who is in desperate need, even though such cases are all around us? Still, Jesus insists that these persons did not fulfill the commandment to love their neighbor.

Love has to go beyond the bounds of what is reasonable, of what can be expected a person. Love takes giant risks, risks to self, in order to provide for and help the person in desperate need. Jesus exemplifies this love perfectly when he willingly undertakes death for the salvation of the whole world -- even though it is unreasonable, even though nobody could ask such a thing of him, even though it was utterly reckless and irrational, even though the world did not deserve it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Learning about stereotypes from the Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most endearing, memorable stories Jesus tells in the gospels. There is so much profound material to be drawn from the story; it is worth thinking about in great detail. One particularly helpful method is "imaginative reading," which involves reading or listening to a passage while trying to imagine the scene in your head, and noticing what parts stick out to you.

One thing which is of interest to me is the experience of the injured man on the side of the road. What was going through his mind? His attack was certainly a surprise. Perhaps he had prayed before he set off that God protect him. Why, then, would God have allowed such an evil thing to happen? He's nearing death; he cannot live long in the wilderness outside the city, and his hope of survival seems to be dwindling with every passing hour. Why, God? Why did this happen to me?

Then it would seem his salvation has arrived, because he sees a priest coming down the road. This man offers sacrifices on behalf of people like me all the time! He mediates our relationship with God! He knows the Law and has to keep the commandments! Surely he will help me out of this mess! But as a matter of fact, the priest takes one look at the injured man and passes on the other side of the road. He kept as far away as he could from him.

If this disappointment was grave, it would seem the injured man would find hope yet again as he sees a Levite coming by. More than that, the Levite approaches him and takes a good look at him. Is he going to help me? He sees how badly I'm injured; he sees my grave suffering! Certainly he will help me! But this one, too, turns away and continues on his journey. Once more, hope disappoints and the injured man now may have to come face to face with the harsh reality: this is the way he'll die, alone and battered in the wilderness outside the holy city.

Unexpectedly, a Samaritan comes along. And whereas the injured man might have expected the others to help and they did nothing, this one -- this enemy of God, this damned dirty heretic -- comes and pours oil and wine on my wounds, bandages me, sets me up on his animal, takes me to an inn, pays for my room and my care, and promises to come back for me as well! What is so critical about Jesus' parable is this: the figure least expected to help goes above and beyond the call of duty in assisting the injured man to recover, bringing him back to safety and treating his wounds.

What would this have done for the injured man? How would his view of the world have changed? All the stereotypes he had bought into would have been shattered: the priests and the Levites are not so good and holy as you might think, all their time spent in the Temple and synagogues notwithstanding; on the other hand, those Samaritans are not so bad as you keep hearing. It was a Samaritan that helped me when my life was in danger, not a priest nor a Levi!

The public perception was totally reversed in this story. The injured man's experiences would have utterly changed his perspective entirely. Things are not always the way that people think; we may be more likely to find God's goodness and kindness in one of our worst enemies than in our religious leaders and idols.

How would you tell this story in the present day to wake evangelicals and others in our churches out of their dogmatic slumber? A good Christian man is assaulted on a street and left to die in an alley; a a pastor walks by, as does a police officer, without helping him at all, but a male prostitute -- or a Muslim cleric -- or an atheist -- helps him and cares for him until he recovers.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The use of film in theology

Lately I have come to realize that our experiences play a larger role in our ability to think about the world and to discern truth than many people might realize. Oftentimes we can grasp a certain proposition and understand it, we might even claim to believe it, but we might only be struck by the truth of the proposition -- we might only see that it is true -- subsequent to certain experiences. This has certainly been true numerous times in my own life: for example, I didn't always feel a sympathy for David's prayers for God's wrathful judgment in the psalms until I saw Christians lined up in orange jump suits awaiting their own beheading.

There is therefore a close connection between our recognition of the truth and experience. Some things we might only recognize once we have walked the world in different shoes, when we have seen things from a certain vantage point with certain interests and concerns, so that we might react to external stimuli in different ways. Because people involved in theological or philosophical debate have almost never experienced life in the same way, consequently they might often talk past each other or else the debate terminates in a stalemate: both side has its own position and cannot convince the other in a non-question-begging way.

Now what does this have to do with film? The truth is that films, when ably made by a competent director and actors and so on, have the unique power to bring you into another person's life, to see the world through her eyes, and to experience and feel what she does, and to react in the same way to the things that happen to her. (This is also a power shared by good literature!) In this way, films open us up to see the world in a different way, and this helps to foster thoughtful discussion and reevaluation of our own commitments and preconceptions.

One example that I have often used is Blade Runner. The replicants are created by the Tyrell Corporation to be used as means to ends beyond their own personal fulfillment or happiness; some are made for off-planet labor, others for prostitution, etc. They die after only four years in life, after which nox est perpetua una dormienda in Catullus's words, and they are created with false identities and memories so that they quickly assimilate into their line of work without existential crisis. Some of the replicants learn of their impending doom and rebel against Tyrell, insisting that he work to extend their lifespan before it is too late. But there's nothing he can do, and so the replicants must accept their mortality, never really having lived.

Now we are supposed to sympathize with the replicants' plight, even if they are the villains in the movie, and the reason why is this: the filmmaker and the story suggests that their story is our own. Though they are perfectly capable of desiring and enjoying the good things of life, though they have a sense of their own freedom to explore and find out true happiness for themselves, yet they are made in such a way that they will never be able to accomplish this. As the principal replicant says upon meeting Tyrell: "What seems to be the problem?" "Death."

If we can sympathize with the replicants, and if we have our doubts about the morality and goodness of the Tyrell Corporation for manufacturing them, then it is easy to see how these sentiments might transfer over to the theological domain, where the question of God's providence often comes up. Calvinists and Augustinians affirm that God created some persons for the sake of realizing ends from which they cannot benefit, at their extreme cost: for example, reprobate persons might have been created for the sake of their deservedly eternal damnation, serving to demonstrate God's righteous judgment for the enjoyment of the elect. Here too, rational free agents are brought into life only to be denied by circumstances outside their control from ever enjoying true happiness. If we question Tyrell's goodness in Blade Runner, and if we sympathize with the replicants' cause, then we must likewise question God's goodness on such a picture and sympathize with the reprobate.

So well-made films provide a way for theological disputants better to understand each other. A person who cannot sympathize with the anti-Augustinian argument need only watch Blade Runner with an openness to experience the world of the film as the filmmaker desires, an openness to hear what the filmmaker has to say in his own terms, and perhaps will thereupon find more sympathy with the argument than he might previously have supposed. This is one way in which film serves theology and philosophy: it provides a way of experiencing the world in another's shoes, so that we can better understand her and her claims.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wings of Desire (1987)

Last night I watched Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire (1987) with a friend. It is quite an interesting movie, with a fascinating premise and a unique perspective. The film follows two angels who watch over the people of mid-1980s Berlin, listening to their thoughts and attempting to comfort those whose distress is great. One of the angels is seemingly dissatisfied with the eternal, disembodied existence and yearns to the experience the varieties of transient, physical existence. He falls in love with a trapeze artist who is part of a failing circus, and the decision to become human is ultimately undertaken in order to pursue her.

The film is obviously a celebration of the peculiarities of human life, in a time and place where so many persons seem utterly overwhelmed by life's difficulties. The angels listen to the thoughts of the various persons they guard, and each one seems more troubled than the rest: parents over their children, men and women about their lovers, etc. Interestingly, too, though Berlin is so large a city and its population so great, nevertheless many of its members seem lonely and utter absorbed by their own thoughts, troubles, and pains. The angels are free of all this: they are neither mortal and so do not feel the troubles of a finite, limited existence. Yet strangely enough, one of the angels wants to become a human to see what it is like.

This is an interesting application of the old adage that "the grass is always greener on the other side." Though we may find many things to be troubled about in the world, it would seem Wenders is trying to get us to see beauty and pleasure in the small things of human life, things about which the angel fantasizes: the feeling of curling your toes, being surprised at some new and unexpected thing, the taste of coffee, the physical sensation of grasping a stone, etc. For someone who doesn't have these things, they are the object of fantasy and yearning. The message seems to be: we have plenty to enjoy in this limited life! He especially communicates this through the selective use of color in the film: the angels see the world in a bland black and white, but when the angels aren't looking, or when one of the angels finally assumes humanity, the cold world of post-war Berlin takes on a rich panoply of vibrant, living colors. Wenders, then, teaches us to appreciate what we have by imagining deprivation: the angels, lacking the peculiarities of our life, long for it; colors are newly appreciated once they have been taken away for so long.

What is the best in life? The answer in Wender's film is obvious: love, and specifically romantic love between a man and a woman. The angel becomes a man and eventually comes to meet the trapeze artist he loves. She has been waiting for him, it seems; she had a dream about meeting him and she immediately recognizes him. The closing monologue of the film describes the ecstasy the angel felt when united in such a profound manner with the woman, both spiritual and physical. They became one. He writes: I now know somethings that even the angels don't know.

This film is simultaneously a celebration of human life and a lament over the violence and loneliness which so often characterizes it. In fact the one informs the other: precisely because human life can be something so beautiful, so sublime, it is therefore the greatest tragedy when it is wasted. The way out of war, the way out of the violence and meaningless loss of life which characterized history, is evidently to appreciate the simple beauties of life and to live in love.

The theological vision of the movie is very interesting as well. The angels are only visible to children, who always perceive their presence in a non-threatening way. It is this kind of innocence and trust which characterizes children, and yet it is lost as children develop into adults confronting life's difficulties. Perhaps the implicit message is that this innocence and raw appreciation for life has to be won back for the human situation to change. In Jesus' words, perhaps the only way to receive the Kingdom of Heaven is as a child.

How is it that an angel can fall in love? Presumably the angels do not reproduce, since they are immortal and their race continues indefinitely. They lack bodies and so cannot engage in any kind of reproduction. Yet the angel falls in love with the trapeze artist. It seems to me this is possible because there is a deep recognition that at the very bottom, Love is the truest reality. This is a corollary of the Christian teaching that God is Love: the Creator of the whole world, the rock bottom of reality, the realest and truest thing out there is Love. So too the angels can feel love, can desire the good of another. Correspondingly, life is lived at its fullest and truest in love: a life apart from love is a descent into nonbeing, away from God, away from existence, away from the good. Anything with any resemblance of God subsequently can resemble God as regards Love, since this most accurately and completely describes his being.

The image of the trapeze artist, floating above the earth and moving freely, beautifully, with utter delight and pleasure -- that's the image that Wenders wants to give us about the potentialities of human life. It is possible to rise above it all and to live in sublime freedom in love. And we do this together with other people. If we separate from one another, physically or emotionally, we construct our own private hells: thence spring forth wars and strife.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

God's commandments are not burdensome

At 1 John 5.3, we find the following:

Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome (NLT). 

This is a very impressive sentiment, one that is consistent with the general ethical perspective of John's epistle. It seems to me that John has a robust moralist perspective. It is relatively clear that for John, the ethical life of the Christian has significance for salvation. For example, our fellowship with God and with one another, as well as our benefiting from Christ's death, depends upon our walking in God's light (1.5-7). Likewise, our boldness and confidence before God in prayer depends upon our obeying his commandments (3.21-2). Finally, our boldness on the day of judgment is grounded in our living like Jesus did (4.17). 

All this may be quite foreign to many of us, however, especially if we grew up or were theologically educated to think of the Law as an oppressive force, moralism as anti-gospel, and so on. And certainly it has to be at least a little uncomfortable for the person who is aware of her own sinfulness and propensity to fall short. Yet John doesn't apologize for his relatively strict stance. He says that God's commandments are not burdensome. Why is that?

It seems to me that, for John, the moral life of the Christian with all its difficulties—the sacrifice, the pain, the sufferings—is yet not burdensome because God has provided abundantly for our success. In other words, we are not fighting this battle alone; God is on our side and helping us all along the way. 

God provides for us in these ways: Jesus his Son intercedes for us and forgives us our sins (1.5-10); his sacrifice stones for the sins of the whole world, including our own (2.1-2); we have been adopted into God's family, so we know that he treats us like his children (3.1); the "seed" of God planted in a person's heart grows into a whole new life, and keeps them from being overrun by sin (3.9); and finally, we have reminder after reminder that God loves us, because it is his very nature to love (4.7-10). 

There is no denying, in my mind, that the human person has at least a partial responsibility for her own salvation, but this is always in response to and in cooperation with the gracious initiative of God. And it is always important for us not to be paralyzed by feelings of weakness or guilt or pride. We can do this by constantly reminding ourselves: This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins (1 John 4.10).