Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 7:13-14.
Early on in my undergraduate studies my professors taught me that every one is a theologian; each individual person is engaged in the work and study of God. Theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich were known to recommend doing the work of theology with a Bible before you, a pint in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. With this recommendation came the understanding that theology was – and is – meant to be lived. We do not practice theology or grow in our study and understanding of God in isolated laboratories. We enter a certain space week after week for concentrated exposure to theology and as we leave, it is not as if we place our work on hold to be picked up again the next week. We are meant to carry what we have learned, what we have seen, what we have felt in worship into the world with us to see how it carries, how it sustains, to determine whether or not what we have ahold of is the wheat or the chaff.
A question of theology that comes up with regularity is the question of pre-destination – does God predestine some people for exaltation and others for condemnation? A person could read any number of texts from Scripture – including our passage for this week – and answer the question of pre-destination in the affirmative. But does God really?
“Pastor Sarah, what do you think?”
The doctrine of pre-destination states that God has selected some for exaltation in glory and others for condemnation in eternity. The doctrine states that God has this decision made from the outset of time, that our works can neither argue our case for the better or deteriorate our position for the worst. If this doctrine holds, it smacks up against the understanding that we (humanity) have free will; are our choices really our own – really free – if God has pre-destined everything?
United Methodist Theology – based upon the sermons, journals, and speeches of John Wesley – does not ascribe to the belief of pre-destination. Now, John Wesley was a theologian and a cracking preacher, but he was not a systemitician – a person that constructs a rational or coherent system of thought. While some theologians spent a bulk of their work articulating their understandings of the foundations of the earth, which then connected to their understandings of the foundation of faith, Wesley accepted work from fellow theologians as his starting place and continued the dialogue in agreement with or resistance to that theological thought.
Wesley strongly believed that humanity has free will – that we are free to choose or refuse the gift of God’s grace – and that God’s grace would not be forced upon us because then it would not be a gift. Wesley also strongly believed in the benevolence of God; therefore, in his thought, there was no way that God would choose some for exaltation and others for condemnation. Wesley believed all humanity would be held accountable for our actions before God and that because of God’s grace we would be able – and strengthened – to stand on the day of judgment.
Theologians after Wesley’s day continued the quest to offer a response (resistance) to the doctrine of pre-destination. The response that settled in my heart is this one – that God chooses all people for exaltation and chooses sin of condemnation. “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). The Ecumenical Apostles’ Creed includes that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” When Jesus descended to the dead, he descended to conquer sin, and to conquer the consequence of sin, which is death. His rising on the third day shows his triumph over what humanity thought was our ultimate defeat, and in rising, Jesus secures hope of resurrection for all that died before and will die after him.
I believe we have free will. I believe it is our choice to follow Jesus through the narrow gate and up the path that is beyond it. I believe God holds us accountable for our words, signs, and deeds. I believe God’s grace emboldens and redeems. I have seen and continue to see evidence of this in my life – my Bible before me, a news source in one hand, and a pint of coffee in the other.
How have you experienced your faith intersecting with your daily life? How do you consider yourself a theologian and apply yourself to the work and study of God?
Prayer: “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s redeeming love.”* Amen.
*”Come, Thou Fount,” The United Methodist Hymnal 400.