This uniquely accessible volume on systematic theology is written for the average Christian and traces the theme of God’s love through all the major doctrines of the Bible.
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About the Author
Gerald Bray(DLitt, University of Paris-Sorbonne) is research professor at Beeson Divinity School and director of research for the Latimer Trust. He is a prolific writer and has authored or edited numerous books, including The Doctrine of God,Biblical Interpretation, God Is Love, and God Has Spoken.
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THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE OF GOD
God is love. Everything we know about him teaches us that, and every encounter we have with him expresses it. God's love for us is deep and all-embracing, but it is not the warmhearted sentimentality that often goes by the name of love today. The love God has for us is like the love of a shepherd for his sheep, as the Bible often reminds us. Sometimes the shepherd can guide his sheep simply by speaking to them and, ideally, that is all that should be needed. But sheep are often slow to respond, and then the shepherd has to nudge them along with his staff. Sometimes he has to grapple with them forcibly and insist that they follow him when they would rather go their own erratic way. But however hard it is for the shepherd to keep his flocks in order, he never abandons them. As the psalmist put it, "You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." The rod and the staff are the shepherd's instruments of discipline. The sheep may resent them and try to resist their force, but they know that in the end they must go where their shepherd is leading them. As Jesus said, "The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." He is the Good Shepherd, who loved his sheep so much that he gave his life for them. However many have gone astray, we have his assurance that not one of them will be lost.
We know God because we are the sheep who have responded to our Shepherd's voice and have experienced his love at work in us. He has rescued us from our folly and reintegrated us into the world that he made for our enjoyment. People who are not Christians also benefit from God's great love for the human race, but they are not his sheep, and so they do not understand God's love or appreciate it as they should. Even if they have a belief in God, they do not know him as a loving Father who has made them, preserved them, saved them from the consequences of their rebellion against him, and given them a new and eternal life. They may follow a religious tradition out of habit or a sense of duty, or because it is part of their cultural inheritance, but they have never met the God they claim to worship. This phenomenon is very common in most parts of the world, where other religions vie with Christianity as an explanation of life's meaning. But it can also be found in and on the fringes of the church, where there are people who think of themselves as Christians but who lack any clear form of belief that would give that claim some meaning. These are the goats, whom we must distinguish from the sheep, however similar they may appear on the surface.
Among the goats, there are many who attend church at certain times in their lives (for baptisms, weddings, and funerals) or for important festivals (such as Christmas or Easter) but that is as far as it goes. Some of them may pray or read the Bible occasionally, especially when they have a particular need, but they treat these spiritual resources like medicines in the cabinet — something to be used when required but otherwise kept safely tucked away in storage. A few actually become members of a church and may get quite involved in it, even to the point of becoming ordained pastors and teachers. They may be idealistic and well-meaning, and believe that the church is an important vehicle for doing good in the world. Some of them may be quite spiritual in their own way, and use prayer as a means of expanding their horizons or getting in touch with their inner selves. They may accept Christian teaching as a help to them in this, but they do not submit to it as their supreme and unquestioned authority. They often welcome insights from other religions or belief systems, and if there are elements of traditional Christianity that they find inconvenient, they either jettison them or reinterpret them to the point where they are no longer offensive — or even recognizable. These people embrace the traditions of the church but their beliefs and behavior are a simulation of true Christian faith and not the real thing. This becomes clear when they come up against the sheep. When that happens, the goats often react by mocking the sheep and deriding what they see as the sheep's naivete. In extreme cases the goats may even try to drive the sheep out of the church because the presence of people who listen to the voice of the Shepherd and follow his teaching is a standing rebuke to their inadequate and superficial piety.
There are other goats who have no faith at all and seldom give the subject much thought, but when the question comes up, they are reluctant to admit their unbelief. Instead, they claim that it is impossible to know whether any religion is true and so they refuse to commit themselves to a decision one way or the other. This is a popular option nowadays, and is the stance most commonly taken by people in the media and public life of what were once (and sometimes still are) officially "Christian" countries. As they see it, getting along with others is possible only if we put religious convictions to one side, which can be done only if those convictions are not essential to the way we think and live. A few people go further than this and openly deny the existence of God. Some of them even attack Christians for what they see as their ignorance, their bigotry, and their immorality. This may seem like an odd accusation, but to them it is justified because Christians believe in a gospel which teaches that those who do not believe in Jesus Christ are eternally damned. To atheists like these, the notion that a good God could tolerate evil and condemn people to suffer is so outrageous that the existence of suffering and evil in the world is accepted as proof that such a being cannot exist. The strange thing is that, although they have no alternative explanation for suffering and evil, they do not hesitate to attack those who do and sometimes even blame them for causing the problem in the first place.
As Christians, we do not invite this kind of opposition, but when we are dealing with people who think differently from us we cannot put the gospel of Christ to one side. Our faith in God is not just a philosophical belief in a supreme being; it is a life-changing experience of the one who has made us what we are. Everything we think, say, and do bears witness to this, and there is no aspect of our lives that is not affected by it. Other people need to understand the all-embracing depth of our convictions, even if they do not share them. Because we love them as we believe God loves them, we have a duty to tell them that what has happened to us can and ought to happen to them too. The treasure we have received is not for hoarding but for sharing, and it is our duty to go out and find those whom God has called to be his sheep.
Having said that, we cannot force our knowledge of God onto others, however much we want them to share it. No one has ever been argued into faith in Christ. Some people have been scared into a kind of belief, perhaps by unexpectedly escaping death in an accident, but such "conversions" usually turn out to be temporary. On a more intellectual plane, Christian faith cannot be found by scientific exploration or discovered by scholarly inquiry. There have been philosophers who have tried to demonstrate the existence of a supreme being, but even if they conclude that God's existence is probable and easier to accept than any alternative, such an intellectual deduction is not enough to make them Christians. Humbler men and women have joined the church in the hope of finding God, but that is not enough to make them Christians either. Both types of people are wide of the mark because a true Christian is not a sheep who has gone looking for the Good Shepherd and found a man who seems to fit the bill, but someone who has been looked for and found by God.
This is made clear in the earliest records of the Christian church. There was no one in the ancient world more dedicated to the service of God or more eager to do his will than the young Saul of Tarsus. He had gone from his home in what is now Turkey to Jerusalem in order to study the wisdom of his ancestors, and by his own account he swallowed every word of it, hook, line, and sinker. His determination to put it into practice was unparalleled. In all probability he was prepared to die for his beliefs, and he was certainly willing to travel far and wide in order to propagate and defend them. But although he believed in God, he had never met him, and did not know who he really was. There were people who told him the truth about Christ, including Stephen, a deacon in the newly emerging Christian church, but Saul refused to listen. Instead, his zeal for what he already believed was inflamed by such provocation, and he was determined to stamp out the Christian church if he could. It was while he was on his way to Damascus to do just that, that Jesus came to him and revealed himself. Saul fell down like a dead man, blinded by the light that shone from heaven. He had no idea what had hit him until a voice came from that light and told him that he was Jesus, the God whom Saul was persecuting. Saul got up from the ground — the word in the original text is the same as the one that means "resurrection from the dead" — and his life would never be the same again.
What had happened to Saul? He did not know what Jesus had taught his disciples because he had not been with them, and there was no way he could have found out otherwise. Whatever he thought about the man who spoke to him from heaven, Saul did not believe that he was a gifted rabbi or religious teacher who had a new or deeper understanding of Judaism than the one he had learned in Jerusalem. The modern notion of "Jesus the great religious teacher" meant nothing to Saul. In no sense could he be described as a "seeker after truth" who had finally found what he was looking for; he was fully convinced that he knew the truth already, and he did not want any further enlightenment. Even the force of his vision was not enough to give him the understanding he needed. Saul got up from the ground shaken and confused, and it was only when he was taken to Ananias, a Christian elder in Damascus, who explained what had happened to him, that he understood the meaning of his experience and believed. Saul had not found God; God had found him. Ananias did not persuade Saul to believe, nor did he argue about whether God exists. What he did was to clarify for Saul something that he already knew to be true from his experience but was unable to articulate.
The conversion of Saul of Tarsus remains a model for Christians, because although most of us have not had an experience of God as dramatic as his, we can see in it a pattern of knowing God that is as true for us as it was for him. It does not matter what we were in the past — whether we were looking for truth, indifferent to it, or confident that we knew it already. What matters is that now we have found the truth, not because we have stumbled across it or worked our way into it, but because the Truth has found us and made us over into new men and women. As Saul (also known as Paul) was to say in his letter to the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. "The words in italics say it all. The man who told his disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me," had met Saul on the road to Damascus, because he loved him. Jesus had given himself up to death so that Saul could live a new life in union with him. When he fell to the ground, Saul died to his old self, and when he got up again it was as if he had been raised from the dead. Everything that followed was an explanation of that experience, a working out of what it meant for his life and for the life of the world.
COMMUNICATING THIS KNOWLEDGE TO OTHERS
Dying to self and rising again with Christ is the heart of the Christian faith, and the new life we receive is common to all who believe in him. We work out this new life in different ways, but the heart of the matter remains the same, and when we talk about it, what we say resonates with what Paul wrote to the Christians of Galatia. The words we use may be simple and they are often inadequate to express the true dimensions of the reality we have experienced. Our message may be abbreviated, either because we cannot say everything at once or because those listening to our account cannot take it all in, or because we do not fully understand it ourselves. We may not know how to express it properly and trip over ourselves when we try to explain it. How many of us can put into words the feelings we have for those who are closest to us? But if human love is a powerful force that cannot be pinned down like that, how much more will this be true of the love of God? It takes careful reflection in order to speak comprehensively, accurately, and convincingly about an experience of something that goes beyond what is merely rational. To guide us in understanding and expressing such deep things, God has raised up teachers and guides, so that we may learn, as Saul learned from Ananias, how to communicate what we have experienced.
To do this effectively, we have to find the right terms — words that will not be misunderstood by those who hear them. Our minds have to be given the right conceptual framework, so that we will not get confused or talk at cross-purposes. We cannot argue other people into believing in God, but we can always say what he means to us and how he should be understood, so that those who do not believe in him know whom they are rejecting. We must be able to tell the world how we understand the universe, our place in it, and the purpose of our existence. Others may disagree with us and offer alternative proposals, but we must put our case as clearly and as coherently as possible, so that they know what they are disagreeing with. Christians who are vague about these things or who cannot articulate their beliefs in a comprehensible manner will never communicate their faith to anyone. God has called us to give a reason for the hope that is within us and to proclaim the message of salvation to all mankind, whether or not they listen to what we are saying. We may not always get through to unbelievers, but we should at least do our best to make sure that, if our message is rejected, the fault for that will lie with them and not with us.
Christian teachers and guides come in different shapes and sizes. Some are "evangelists" or proclaimers of the gospel, whose primary task is to explain our faith to outsiders and urge them to consider Christ's claim on their lives. Others are preachers whose main role is the building up of God's people, so that they will be more settled in their beliefs and better witnesses to the wider world. Then there are teachers, whose duty it is to develop the deeper implications of our faith and provide resources to preachers and evangelists so that they can fulfill their own callings more effectively. Admittedly, this analysis is an abstraction, and each person who is called to bear witness to Christ will to some extent be all three of these things. But just as some will be called to devote their lives to itinerant evangelism and others will be called to minister to settled congregations, so there will be those who are set apart for the study of the faith itself. These are the theologians, teachers whose primary responsibility is to examine our experience of God and express it in a coherent way. The result of their labors is the body of knowledge that we call theology.
THE SCOPE AND LIMITATIONS OF THEOLOGY
Some people think of theology in terms of a "system" while others shy away from that word because it seems to reduce the complexities of a living relationship to an abstract formula that can be logically dissected and pieced together in the classroom. The systematizer is often tempted to provide solutions to questions that demand an answer if the system is to be complete, but that are unanswerable in the current state of our knowledge. There is no doubt that attempts to claim more than the evidence warrants have brought the discipline of theology into disrepute. To give only a couple of examples, we do not know what God was doing before he created the world, nor can we say why he chose Israel to be his special people. We do not know when the world will end and cannot say why there are so many people who have not had the message of salvation preached to them, through no fault of their own.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "God Is Love"
Copyright © 2012 Gerald Bray.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE,
1 The Christian Experience of God,
2 God Has Spoken to Us,
3 The Christian Worldview,
4 Speaking about God,
5 The Practice of Theology,
6 Theology and Faith,
PART TWO GOD'S LOVE IN HIMSELF,
7 The Mystery of the Trinity,
8 The Being of God,
9 The God of the Old Testament and the Father of Jesus Christ,
10 The Divine Son of God,
11 The Holy Spirit,
PART THREE GOD'S LOVE FOR HIS CREATION,
12 What God Has Made,
13 The Spiritual Creatures,
14 The Material Creation,
15 The Human Race,
16 Human Relationships,
PART FOUR THE REJECTION OF GOD'S LOVE,
17 The Rejection of God's Love by Angels,
18 The Rejection of God's Love by Human Beings,
19 The Origin of Religion and Ethics,
20 The Religions of the World,
21 Christianity and Religious Syncretism,
22 Deviations from Christianity,
23 Christianity and Atheism,
PART FIVE GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD,
24 God's Love for the Material World,
25 God's Covenant People,
26 The Sending of the Son,
PART SIX THE CONSUMMATION OF GOD'S LOVE,
27 The Sending of the Holy Spirit,
28 The Christian Life,
29 The Fellowship of Believers,
30 Belonging to the Fellowship of Believers,
31 From Time to Eternity,
What People are Saying About This
“Gerald Bray is one of our leading evangelical scholars and teachers and he has given us here a magisterial overview of Christian belief and doctrine. A great example of theology in the service of the church.”
Timothy George, Founding Dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture
“Soaked in the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition, Gerald Bray brings a rich wisdom to his exceedingly accessible systematic theology. Freshly organizing his approach around love, Bray does not fall into cheap sentimentality, but instead carefully teases out the drama and story of divine love and how it should inform our understanding of countless areas of theology and life. Students and laity in particular will find this volume immensely helpful, and I heartily recommend it to all!”
Kelly M. Kapic, author, Embodied Hope; Professor of Theological Studies, Covenant College
“Intimidated by theology books? This is the book for you. Here you’ll find a firm place to stand to take in the full panorama of Christian beliefcentered around the wonderful and worship-inspiring truth of the love of God, and firmly anchored in the sure and certain word of God. If you’ve read Lewis’s Mere Christianity or Stott’s Basic Christianity and you long to know more, then you’re ready to move on to Gerald Bray’s God Is Love.”
Stephen J. Nichols, President, Reformation Bible College; Chief Academic Officer, Ligonier Ministries; author, Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought and The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World
“God Is Love is a warm, conversational, and contemporary systematic theology written by one of evangelicalism’s leading thinkers. But it is much more. It is biblically saturated, historically rooted theological wisdom for the people of God.”
Christopher W. Morgan, Dean and Professor of Theology, California Baptist University; editor, The Kingdom of God and The Glory of God; contributor, ESVSystematic Theology Study Bible
“Gerald Bray delivers on his promisehe teaches Christians about the God who is love and about the love that this triune God shows to others. He keeps this promise by pointing insistently to God’s gracious speech in the Bible, and by showing consistently how it all hangs together in the story of this God and his gospel. This book is a gripping lesson from a master teacher. For introduction to biblical doctrineits sources and its implicationsChristians will find no better aid than this new treasure.”
Michael Allen, Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando