Is ‘impartiality’ the heart of the gospel?

When I first started studying theology, our set text for our New Testament Greek class was 1 Peter, the same text which is the focus of study of the Lambeth Conference meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world planned for this summer. It was a slightly odd text to choose for those starting out in their Greek learning, since its grammar is more challenging and vocabulary more unusual than other NT texts like the gospels of Mark and John or the letter of James. But it meant engaging with some important theological ideas—and learning from my American tutor phrases like ‘the whole ball wax’ and ‘a rock-ribbed Calvinist’!

But I was particularly struck by one unusual word, which I have continued to think about ever since. It comes in 1 Peter 1.17:

And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile…

The word translated ‘impartially’ is the adverb ἀπροσωπολήμπτως, aprosopolemptos, derived from the negative prefix a-, the noun prosopon meaning ‘face’, and the verb lambano meaning ‘to take’ or ‘to lift’. God is not a ‘taker [or lifter] of the face’. There is an obvious and slightly naive inference to be made from this: God is not one who judges according to appearances, as narrated in the story of David’s anointing as king by Samuel. Samuel is tempted to anoint Eliab, Jesse’s oldest and most impressive son, but God has a different perspective:

Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Sam 16.7)

(This is a sufficiently important theological idea to have been made into a snappy chorus ‘Man looks on the outside, but God looks [clap, clap] on the heart’.)

Given that we live in a world which is more than happy to make judgements on the basis of the colour of someone’s skin, and where tall people exercise more influence and are paid more, this is a powerful idea. (Have you ever noticed how easy it is to spot whether a TV programme is a drama or a documentary? In a drama, all the characters are good looking; in a real-life documentary, well, people just look a little bit more odd! In our screen viewing, we seem to think that faces matter rather a lot.)


But the idea behind the word is actually much more specific, and specific to the Bible. The standard lexicon of the Greek NT, BDAG, includes this entry for the opposite verb ‘to show partiality or favouritism’:

προσωπολημπτέω (edd. also -ληπτέω; this word and the two words following, which are closely related, have so far been found only in Christian writers. They are based on the πρόσωπον λαμβάνειν of the LXX, which in turn is modeled on the Hebr. [s. πρόσωπον 1bα, end]. On the spelling with or without μ s. λαμβάνω, beg.) show partiality Js 2:9.—DELG s.v. πρόσωπον. M-M. TW.

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the idea of ‘lifting the face’ can simply mean ‘to look upon’ someone. But to have one’s face lifted meant to be favoured. The root of the metaphor is the situation of subjects who bow before their king, faces looking to the ground in humility and servitude; as the king comes to his favourite, his lifts the subject’s face so that he or she can look at the king and sense his pleasure and approval. (The idea of looking on the face as a sign of blessing and favour is found in the ‘high priestly’ prayer of blessing in Numbers 6.24–26; we pray that the king of creation will look on us with his favour.) We find the phrase in this sense in the description of Naaman the Syrian:

Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded [lit: he was great before the face of his lord, and his face was lifted], because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. (2 Kings 5.1)

This idea finds two important expressions in the OT, and particularly in the Torah and Wisdom literature. The first is that God does not do this: God is impartial, and does not show favouritism, and this is a key aspect of his character.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. (Deut 10.17)

Is he not the One who says to kings, ‘You are worthless,’ and to nobles, ‘You are wicked,’ who shows no partiality to princes and does not favour the rich over the poor, for they are all the work of his hands? (Job 34.18–19)

It is worth noting where this idea comes from, and where it is going. It originates in the creation narratives, where God makes humanity, male and female, in his image and likeness (Gen 1.27). If all humanity, male and female, kings and commoners, slave and free, are alike made in the image of God and the work of his hands, then God cannot treat different people or different classes of people in different ways—and in fact the defining of these different classes is the result of human sinful differentiation, and not God’s creation intention. And we find one working out of this principle in the words of the Magnificat, on Mary’s lips, where it echoes the words of Job, as God ‘sets down the mighty in the imagination of their hearts’. The Magnificat is not so much celebrating the inversion of the hierarchy of humanity, as its abolition. Since God is impartial, then when his justice comes it is the great leveller.


The connection between lack of partiality, having no favourites, and the exercise of justice is made clear by a dictionary of antonyms: fairness, justice, equity, objectivity and even-handedness are qualities that are repeatedly associated with God throughout the OT. And as a result, these qualities are to mark Israel in all her dealings.

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to the poor in a lawsuit. (Ex 23.2)

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Lev 19.15)

Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God. (Deut 1.17)

Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. (Deut 16.19)

It sounds rather odd to us, but this is often behind the practice of ‘casting lots’ when making decisions in the Old Testament, and into the New; it bypasses human partiality, and hands the decision over to the will of God in his impartiality (see 1 Chron 24.5, Jonah 1.7 and Acts 1.26).

But this idea does not just have an impact on Israel’s ethic and moral life; it is also to be the basis of their theological understanding. God has not chosen Israel because the nation has somehow merited God’s favour, but has simply happened out of God’s sovereign choice.

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut 7.7–8)

Despite some apparently ethno-centric aspects of the OT narrative, it is the impartiality of God which leads to the surprising welcome that is given at key points in the narrative to outsiders and foreigners, but also to the judgement of Israel when they defy God’s call and command. Their ethnic status is no protection to them from God’s judgement—since God is one who ‘judges impartially’! As the Authorised Version renders 1 Peter 1.17, ‘God is no respecter of persons’!


God’s quality of impartiality becomes a theological turning point in the proclamation of the gospel in the New Testament. Luke sows the seeds of this idea in his portrayal of Jesus, albeit in the words of his adversaries:

‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth’ (Luke 20.21)

Curiously, in seeking to communicate to an audience including Gentiles, Luke goes back to the root of the metaphor and notes that Jesus ‘does not lift the face’ but teaches truth. Then, in Acts when Peter sees that God has blessed Cornelius and the other Gentiles with him, this idea comes home to roost:

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Acts 10.34–35). 

For Luke, the ‘every nation’ Jews who have witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost now open out to become the ‘every nation’ Jew and Gentile, who will receive the good news of the message of Jesus. The same principle is at work for Paul, where the carefully structured binary focus of the opening chapters of his Letter to the Romans, balancing the reality before God for both Jew and Gentile, hinge on this idea of impartiality.

There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism. (Rom 2.9–11).

Again, this theological principle works itself out in practical ethics, from the earliest to the latest of the NT letters. James is emphatic that the early community of followers of Jesus cannot treat different people in different ways according to outward appearance (James 2.1, 9). Paul treats both allies and enemies in the same way in his disputes (Gal 2.6), and he is clear that the human distinction between slave and master cannot stand up to scrutiny under the searching spotlight of God’s lack of favouritism (Eph 6.9). And Paul’s protege Timothy is to both guard gospel teaching and appoint gospel ministers without a hint of partiality (1 Tim 5.21).

One implication of all this relates to judgement. The place where all this started, in 1 Peter 1.17–18, explicitly links judgement with the impartiality of God, and connects this quite explicitly with judgement ‘according to deeds’. I think it is sometimes easy to get the idea, listening to some Christian talk about salvation, that final judgment will run according to the T-shirt slogan: ‘God loves you, but I am his favourite’. God loves all people, but Christians are his favourite! That kind of exceptionalism is the opposite to every way in which the NT describes judgement. This is particularly clear in the Book of Revelation (you knew, dear reader, that I would come to this text eventually!) where the growing focus on judgement in the later chapters is framed by a repeated emphasis on the justice of God. Even in the final visions of the New Jerusalem there is a (to us) awkward tension between the severe language of judgement and exclusion from the Holy City, and words of radical welcome and invitation—all held together by the theological idea of God’s impartiality. God’s free offer of life is open to all who will accept it.


God’s impartiality is rooted in the theology of creation, with all made in his image. It is expressed in the conviction of the nature of the fall and redemption: all have sinned, and all are invited to accept the offer of reconciliation and life in Jesus. It underpins the ‘election’ of Israel, and because of that also underpins the overflow of grace to the Gentiles. It shapes the practice and composition of the community of the redeemed, which must be ethnically and social diverse. And it is reflected in the final judgement of God. It is therefore at the heart of the gospel in ways that we do not always recognise.

(The picture at the top is from a meme about favouritism, and perhaps only really makes sense with the accompanying text.)


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28 thoughts on “Is ‘impartiality’ the heart of the gospel?”

  1. This has made me think. My sense of mission has been deeply affected by liberation theology and ideas like “God’s heart for the poor”, the “preferential option for the poor” and a hermeneutic that places the poor as central readers. Luke’s Gospel being key in this with the rich being assumed to be corrupt whilst the poor are blessed. I lived in Bangladesh and came to the same conclusions.

    So I’m now uncomfortable with impartiality. I think the church (body of Christ and institution) should be extremely partial, to the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, the ones without privilege. But, I get the point of this article too. Dammit.

    I think I’ll think about it, and go back to wanting God to be partial to the poor.

    Reply
    • ‘This has made me think.’ uh-oh.

      I think the texts from Torah create a real challenge here: ‘do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great’.

      And I really think that the Magnificat is *not* an inversion of the hierarchy, but the elimination of it. Think away…

      Reply
    • I would suggest that it is precisely because mankind tends to favour those with money or influence, that God is balancing the scales which have been and continue to be weighed against the poor and oppressed.

      ‘God loves you, but I am his favourite’ – God forbid that anyone actually wears a T-shirt with such a slogan, but it reminds me of an Anglican clergyman who said to me that God loves everyone but only likes some, clearly including himself in the latter category. Such arrogance. The same individual believed the so-called Toronto blessing (if it was real) was for people like him, not lay people.

      Peter

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    • Hiya Colin, I think partiality refers to when rendering justice. As opposed to “They asked only that we remember the poor, the very thing I was also eager to do.” Gal 2:10. I lived and worked in run down inner city areas in the UK and France for over 20 years on the conviction that it is a very neglected bible obligation and very close to God’s heart.

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  2. 1 “and if you call on him as Father
    2 who judges impartially
    3 according to deeds
    4(therefore) conduct yourself
    5 with fear (of the Father)
    6 throughout your time of exile..”
    There is an alluding to
    a) conduct of Israel in times of exile, Egypt, desert wanderings and more, in relation to the belief and unbelief in the goodness and Fatherhood of God and how that panned out in relation to their “deeds”. All Christians today are exiles from our home in God.
    b fear – wisdom literature is replete with the ways this relates to sin, or rather the universal lack of fear. And replete with the universality of sin, poor and rich, wise and foolish, strong and weak all have a need for redemption (even if is is unacknowledged.) There is no hierarchy of sin.
    As it happens, this was part of today’s contemplation from Psalm 36:1-4
    v 1 “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked:There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
    “Anatomy of Sin. Fearing God is not mere belief in him. It is to be so filled with joyful awe before the magnificence of God that we tremble at the privilege of knowing, serving and pleasing God. Sin shrugs at God. It’s essence is failing to believe not that he exists but that he matters. This attitude is deadly. Fear of God and self-understanding grow or diminish together.” My Rock My Refuge: Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller.
    I recall door -knocking in Tunbridge Wells, a large detached house with expensive car on the graveled drive. The owner was pleased to chat briefly on the doorstep. “There’s got to be more than this” he said. My companion from the local Anglican church recognised the man as a director/chief exec of a large local public limited company.
    There is pride in riches and pride in poverty, the pride of life everywhere.

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  3. I used to put “impartially ” in place of “indifferently ” in the Book of Common Prayer when it was used in the Lord’s Supper.

    “And grant unto her whole Council…. that they may truly and indifferently minister justice.
    I guess that” indifference” can sound as if God is at arms length emotionally… But isn’t this actually true in the administration of justice and maybe I was wrong?

    In Corinthians Paul seems at pains to exalt the poor (powereless?) over the rich and powerful in the purposes of God for his church. Presumably this is levelling up via the abolition of “class as important” or class having any actual Godly value?

    As a consequence (as was said to me last week) “How do ordinary people get a look in, when it comes to leadership, if the powerful of this world simply assume or are given the authority positions in the local church ?

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  4. Moses was the friend of God. There must be a sense in which God does favour some. You just have to find out what God favours.

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  5. If impartial is about not favouring one above another how to we equate Gal 1:15 where Paul says he was chosen and set apart before his birth. Does this not indicate that God favoured him, lifted his face? The idea of predestination indicates that God has chosen or favoured some, not on merit but by divine choice – they are favoured.

    Reply
    • I still cant get my head around predestination, the idea that God chooses a few out of the many, despite presumably being able to choose all if He so wished.

      Peter

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  6. And how can Romans 9:18-21 be explained in the light of God’s impartiality ? Hardening some and being merciful to others… the potter making some for noble purposes and some for common use. This seems like partiality to me.

    Reply
    • I guess you might also make a similar point with reference to the parable of the talents?

      But with impartiality is God not looking past all those things which we earthly creatures take as defining a person’s worth? While, in his eyes, everyone starts equally on square one – the same offer of salvation and exactly the same justice is applied to all – yet every human soul is unique. We are not clones. The treatment of all is impartial but the outcome is variable because we are variable. During each step of our lives we make our own good or bad decisions. But outside of time, God sees people’s beginning and end at one and the same time. So right from the beginning, although he starts with no favourites, he knows what he’s dealing with (good or bad). Perhaps Paul’s point is not so much about unequal treatment as the fact that we are in no position to query God’s choices and actions – the clay is totally dependent on the will of the potter.

      Apologies if I’ve been waffling; it’s a quick attempt to make sense of something which, at this point, we can only see through a glass darkly!

      Reply
  7. I don’t think that predestination can be looked at in isolation, without fully exploring the systematic theology of the so called five points of Arminianism compared and contrasted with Calvin and the TULIP acronym. They hold together in my view, like the digits of a hand – beyond the scope of one blog post.

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  8. I have just returned from a visit to my old “parish” of Oman to my village near Tunbridge Wells (and my Nissan Micra, “X” reg – OK, my wife has a Toyota Corolla, that’s “T” reg, normally we only have one on the road). Oman is a great place for ‘scripture reasoning’ between good friends. The God who judges impartially, will surely judge Christians in the West far more severely than many Omanis – apart from the cross.

    Some Christian Arabic scholars wonder if the Qur’an is properly interpreted as denying that Jesus died on the cross. Ibadis have such a high concept of the holiness of God, that they doubt that we will see the face of God, even in paradise. Please pray….

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  9. Peter, (PC1)
    Something like Grudem’s Systematic Theology, might be a place to start. He touches on for and against arguments and scriptures.
    Also. Sam Storms has a number of articles on his site which are more expansive, in places, in argumentation on both sides, than Grudem and Piper.
    To my mind, Piper’s re-arrangement of TULIP, into a salvation sequence of TILUP is the correct order for study.
    All three read together would be a helpful place to start: certainly a sometimes uncomfortable challenge to thinking it through. It was too me, as I’d wrestled for a number of years with the topics, with noone of personal acquaintance in church, willing to touch the topics with a barge pole.
    It goes without saying, none of the above is Anglican.

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    • Thanks Geoff, Ill have a look. But I suspect Ill never come to a conclusion on the matter even if it appears election etc is taught in the Bible. it seems illogical and unmerciful to me. I just dont understand how God can hold anyone accountable if He chooses not to show them mercy and save them, based on the standard calvinist view. I therefore tend to believe that grace/mercy is offered to all but only some choose it, and it is their very real choice. If they dont choose Jesus it is not because they are unable.

      Peter

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    • ‘…..It goes without saying, none of the above is Anglican….’

      Geoff – actually it is very Anglican – the longest of the 39 articles, no 17 – just that most ‘Anglicans’ aint very Anglican in doctrine

      XVII — OF PREDESTINATION AND ELECTION
      Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity

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  10. Not sure Peter, what the standard Calvinist view is. There is what I’d describe as cartoon Calvinism and my preference would be not to refer to Calvin at all, but to scripture on both sides of the equation. There is someone I know who thinks it is satanic, but I’d conclude, holds to four points.
    Could be wrong about this but I think Dr R T Kendall after his PhD, or in line with it, would adhere to 4 points.
    Looking at his 3 volume series on Theology (for the lay, I believe) which I have, that would seem to be the case.
    I’d agree with your last sentence. Free will is a big subject.
    For what it’s worth, while this doesn’t dovetail with the sum total of the topic, it is in retrospect, that I accept that I didn’t do the choosing, but was placed in a position that I didn’t want, desire anything, anyone else: in effect wooed, Hobson choice. It certainly isn’t a matter of pride, but deeply humbling.
    Why me? I wouldn’t have chosen me, what is more,even before the foundation of the world. Incomprehensible, both subjectively and objectively to me, continuously.
    Maybe, the answer is somewhat nebulous, but mentioned in Ian’s article. “I love you because I love you.”
    Almost paradoxically, a child by adoption, chosen before birth, before the world was founded.
    That is who all believers are in Union with Christ, loved as the Father loves the Son.

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  11. Not really.
    (You are mangling scripture. And it is the opposite of the character of our Triune God. And that was there in the beginning.)
    They don’t hear God saying anything to them. They don’t want Christ, how can they complain that God gives them the desires of their hearts. They generally don’t complain. More usually it is theologians who do.
    You really need to look at it all in the round as I suggest, otherwise it can become reduced to latching onto one point and while discounting the remainder.
    Obviously you’re not obliged to follow through with the suggested resources, and your resistance is clear, but I run this risk of not doing credit to swathes of systematic theology in seeking to summarise something in a comments section, which is far from being to hand as a lay person.
    While I’m not looking to start a new tributary, the parable of the sower is realistic.
    Offer Christ himself to everyone.
    He is great Good News for all who will believe.
    We need to rest in him, theologically, intellectually and spiritually, in whole of life. (Easier said than done, I know)

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    • Geoff – was this response to me?

      My main point is – those who believe in predestination ignore the fate of those not predestined, including members of their own family. If you and I are chosen, if indeed we were, then the ONLY reason we believe is because God chose us (and enabled us to believe), and the only reason others dont believe is because God did not choose them. Paul’s seemingly only defence for such a view of reality is ‘who are you to argue with God?’ Fair enough, but the whole idea seems very odd to me, and unreasonable to emphasize the benefits of being chosen and ignoring the ‘hell’ that awaits those not so fortunate.

      If predestination is true with all its associated effects for those chosen and those not chosen, then it is the ultimate act of partiality.

      Peter

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      • Peter
        A few observations on your post and on predestination, repeating myself to some extent:
        Those like me who ‘believe in predestination’ do not ‘ignore the fate of those not predestined, including members of their own family’. Speaking for myself, but I don’t think I am alone, and quoting Warfield, ‘The dreadful fact stares us full in the face that God has thought well to leave some men eternally without the Spirit of holiness’. We believe that this dreadful fact is a fact because we are constrained, not without agony, to do so because God has revealed it in the Bible to be true.

        God has also revealed the dreadful fact that because of Original Sin we all face God’s wrath and condemnation from birth onwards and are born with a nature inclined to evil.

        On impartiality, Carson’s ‘The difficult doctrine of the Love of God’ points out that God’s providential love is impartial, his elective love is not. Both are true.

        Confronted with these agonising mysteries we have to humble ourselves in the words of Job: ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’. Or, as Calvin put it in his commentary on Ezekiel 18:23, ‘Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded with intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction and wishes them to perish. While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure of our intelligence’.

        God and Christ sincerely invite all to come to Christ and be saved.

        Phil Almond

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        • Phil

          ‘God and Christ sincerely invite all to come to Christ and be saved.’

          But that’s the point. If predestination is true (God chooses who to save and who not to save) then there is no sincerity in that invitation.

          You cant have it both ways.

          Peter

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          • Peter
            I refer you to Calvin’s remark in my post. Whatever else he wrote I believe he spoke the truth in this quote from his Commentary on Ezekiel. Predestination and the sincere offer of the gospel to all are both true. As Calvin remarked we don’t see how both can be true because our eyes are blinded with intense light. This is a similar mystery to the mystery of how God can foreordain all things but is not responsible for the sinful acts of men. Our part in this mystery is to repent and submit to Christ.

            Phil Almond

  12. Simon,
    Many thanks for that. I was vaguely aware though I’m now part of an Anglican Church that believes and accepts 39 Articles. I need to familiarise myself more with them.
    Just saying, it goes without saying that the people I mentioned are are not Anglican!
    Think Spurgeon said something like; Lord give me the elect and elect some more.
    Sometimes I think hyper- Calvinism has replaced Biblical thinking on election in some people’s minds.

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  13. I had the privilege of being curate to Peter Cook in Elswick, Newcastle (1970-75). He described himself as, “not a Calvinist, but recognising Calvin’s Biblical orthodoxy.” TULIP was part of my theological ‘formation’, but I looked for a way of interpreting Biblical truth to the unchurched youngsters of our parish. Putting together the insights of others…
    I came to teach that God’s world is much bigger than ours: that in the same way that a two-dimensional picture can capture a moment of time, but can take an artist living in a 3-dimensional world as much time as he likes to create it, so God living in a 4 (or 5, or 6) dimensional world, can spend as much of his (Kairos?) time focusing on a single moment and person in our 3 – dimensional world. So, all that happens in our world is predestined, but we are allowed the freedom that love demands to choose who we make our God – and to live with the consequences.
    It was the same thought that I tried to get across to an Omani Muslim leader 30 years ago, and again earlier this month; we then moved on to the question: does the Qur’an deny the cross? Again, please pray.
    The cross brings relief from the terrible dilemma, am I worthy of God? Sadly, many people die with a longing for, but not knowing God. Because of Jesus’ death n the cross, I can know God, and – like one beggar to another, I must share that Good News with as many people as I can.

    Reply

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