Daniel Thimell received his doctorate from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He is associate professor of theological-historical studies at Oral Roberts University. He is the author of God, Grace, and the Gospel, and co-editor of Christ in Our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World. For an edited transcript of all four of his interviews with us, click here.
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In his first interview, Dr. Thimell noted that a Scottish pastor named John McLeod Campbell found that members of the church had no joy in their Christianity. Why? Because they had not understood how effective the work of Christ was.
J. Michael Feazell: You’re particularly interested in the theology of John Calvin as well as the theology of Karl Barth. Could you, in a nutshell (even though that’s quite a tall order), give us a little comparison between the two?
DT: Barth, when he saw the bankruptcy of liberal theology, realized that it had nothing to give to the people. When he saw Kaiser Wilhelm’s aggressive war policies in World War I, he returned to “the strange new world of the Bible,” and he began to discover a transcendent God, not a domesticated little house pet that liberal theology had made him to be. He began to rediscover in the writings of Calvin and those in the Reformed tradition a tremendous emphasis on grace and a much higher view of Scripture.
Calvin has a great deal to offer the Christian church because of his strong emphasis on grace. He has a wonderful discussion in chapter 3 of The Institutes when he talks about the difference between legal and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance says that if you turn from your sins and if you’re sorry enough, if you turn over a new leaf, then God will reward you with salvation. This is the kind of teaching that was being presented in the church before the Reformation. It’s our performance, our obedience, our self-reformation that merits us or makes us eligible for God’s grace.
Calvin said no, that’s legal repentance, that’s a denial of grace, that’s a denial of what God has done in Christ. He said that a proper answer is “evangelical repentance,” or gospel-based repentance: a lifelong turning from sin and growing in Christ through grace. Repentance is a gift of God. It’s not something that we bring in order to earn or win God’s favor. This is a wonderful emphasis on grace.
Calvin, through much of his theology, is Christ-centered. He says the only way of restoring pure doctrine is to hold up Christ and all that he is. However, when Calvin comes to the question of why all don’t respond favorably to the gospel, why when the gospel is preached some say yes and others say no, and having already emphasized that it’s all about grace, he said “the answer must be that some were never intended to receive grace.”
Although I take issue with him there, in Calvin’s defense, it was the way he was reading Scripture. He thought that Romans 9 to 11, where God says, “Shall the potter say to the clay, why hast thou made me thus… I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” he thought that it was scriptural, that God for some mysterious reason decided from all eternity that he would save A and B and C, but he would not save X, Y, and Z. This was not based on anything that God would see in their life, any goodness or performance or anything. It was his mere will.
When Barth read this part of Calvin, he said, “He has departed from Christ here! He’s not reading the gospel through the lens of Christ anymore. He’s departed from his professed Christ-centered aim.” Barth said a proper doctrine of God’s call and God’s predestination is given us in Ephesians, where Ephesians says we’re predestined in Christ.
If we have a Christ-centered doctrine of predestination, we don’t have a God of a double decree, a God who arbitrarily decides to save some and damn others for all eternity, but a God who loves everyone and sends Christ to die for everyone, and who underwrites everyone’s responsibilities in the life and cross of his Son. Barth represents a significant Christological correction, if you will, of John Calvin. There’s much to appreciate about Calvin; I have to disagree with his understanding of election.
Calvin did teach that Christ died for the world. If you read his commentary on John 3:16, he says world means world, the world of all lost sinners. Christ died for all sinners. He taught two incompatible doctrines: 1) That Christ died for the world and 2) that God never planned to save the non-elect, that he only planned to save a few certain ones by name.
Later, the high-Calvinists (as they are sometimes called) tried to resolve that conflict in Calvin’s teaching by making him consistent. They revised his theology to say that God only planned to save certain ones and they’re the ones Jesus died for and none other. They were the least happy with Barth, with his Christological correction of Calvin. They wanted to retain the God of will, the God who was pure will and who can do whatever he wants, and if he only wants to save some, they should consider themselves lucky and the rest of them can go to hell because they deserve it anyway.
JMF: That doesn’t reflect the will of God as he’s presented in Christ. Christ presents a completely different picture of who the Father is and what the Father’s will is.
DT: Yes. He says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. There isn’t any other god lurking behind the back of Jesus. The Bible says in Hebrews, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our ancestors by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed heir of all things.” [Hebrews 1:1-2]
Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. He is the full revelation of God. We don’t need to fear that there’s some bad news somewhere else. Jesus Christ and his unconditional love for the woman caught in adultery, his forgiveness of her in telling her to sin no more, and acceptance of a greedy tax collector, showed that God is a God of unconditional love and mercy who welcomes every sinner into his embrace to receive his salvation already won for them. Barth represents a significant advance on the thinking of Calvin (even though there’s much in Calvin that is rich, and I still appreciate and learn from).
JMF: Barth is sometimes called a universalist. Where does that come from, and what is it based on?
DT: A person could go on the internet or could read some theological dictionaries and learn there that Barth is a universalist. I can say to you with full confidence that that is simply not the case.
When I was a student at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, I was privileged to take a Barth seminar taught by Geoffrey Bromiley, the co-editor of the Church Dogmatics, who translated most of its volumes. He knew a little bit about Barth. I chose, for my paper in his class, the topic “Is Barth a Universalist?” I went chapter and verse. I looked through all the passages I could find in the Dogmatics where he speaks to the subject.
Barth was convinced of a universal atonement. Barth believed that Jesus Christ assumed the humanity of every single human being and that when he died, they died, and when he rose, they rose. He paid the price and won a completed salvation for them. There is something in the human heart that is used to thinking, “There’s something I need to do. There’s a five percent or a ten percent I need to contribute. Yes, Jesus did this wonderful work on the cross and he died for my sins, but that’s not quite enough.”
Often, the gospel will be preached by a well-meaning evangelist in this way. They’ll describe in moving terms about all that God has done in Jesus, about how Christ lived an absolutely faithful and upright life, he endured the contradiction of sinners, was always upright, how he died a brutal death and how that is a substitute for our sins and he has paid it all. But having said this is what Jesus has done, then they will say, “now this is what you must do.”
JMF: In order to “get in on it.”
DT: You need to turn from sin, read your Bible, go to church. All these things are enjoined upon Christians, but they’re not conditions of salvation. It’s not as if I have to do certain things in order to be worthy of it. I’m included in Christ because 2000 years before I was born, he lived my life and died my death and rose in triumph. When he rose, I rose.
People who are used to thinking in those conditional terms don’t understand it when Barth says that it’s complete. People think, “If he says it’s complete and that there’s nothing that I have to do in order to earn salvation, then he’s a universalist.” But that’s not what he’s saying. He’s simply saying that we can’t earn the salvation. It’s a completed gift in Christ.
But he also says, in many places in his Church Dogmatics, that if we deny the Lord who bought us, that if we refuse to acknowledge that in Christ God has done it all, then we can be nailed to that denial for eternity. For Barth, the sinner in hell is the ultimate insane person. He’s denying reality. He’s denying that Christ died for him. It isn’t that the price hasn’t been paid—it’s that he’s unwilling to accept it.
An illustration has sometimes been used that helps clarify what Barth is saying here. There’s a story (that I’ve been told is true) of a man who is convicted of murder, sentenced to life in prison. Some years later, the governor decided to commute his sentence, and so the governor issued a pardon. It said so-and-so is hereby pardoned for his crimes and may be set free from prison. This pardon was brought to this prisoner. It was already completed. There was nothing he could do to earn it, or win it—his name was already on it.
But that prisoner refused. He said, “No, I’ve done the crime and I’ll do the time. I will not accept this pardon.” Legally, he could not be forced to leave that prison even though the pardon was there for him. Hell is a monument to the person who says, “My will be done, not thine, O Lord.” This is what Barth is saying.
After I finished that paper and turned it into Professor Bromiley, he wrote a note on it, that it indicated a careful research of Barth typically lacking in studies on the subject. Many people have not given Barth a fair hearing because they’ve heard some scare story, “Oh, he’s a universalist.”
JMF: Cornelius Van Til comes up, a quote from him or Francis Schaeffer, when you do a Google search.
DT: Yes. Van Til was very warm toward Barth, or maybe you could say hot behind the collar. He wrote a book titled Christianity and Barthianism, which gives us some idea of how he saw the two standing, even though Barth believed in the Trinity, the incarnation, the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the inspiration of Scriptures, and yet he’s described as being someone who has departed completely from Christianity.
Van Til was so unhappy with Barth’s rejection of double predestination and his emphasis on a universal atonement that he approached Barth, I would have to say, with a closed mind. Even though he had a fine mind, it was closed when it came to Barth.
JMF: Most of us suffer from that one way or another from time to time. (laughing)
DT: I know. I’m very open to my own ideas. (laughing)
JMF: Scripturally speaking, 1 John 2:1-2 talks about how Christ’s atonement reaches not just our sins, but the sins of the whole world. Colossians 1:20 talks about how God is in Christ reconciling all things.
DT: Yes. And 2 Corinthians 5:19, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
JMF: These words are not particular. World actually means world. All things means all things.
DT: That’s right. Whenever you have to add italicized words to a verse in order to make it square with your theology, you’re in trouble. Whenever you have to say, “God so loved the world of the elect that he gave his only Son.” (laughing)
JMF: Even there, the definition of elect is rooted in Paul in Ephesians 1. Christ is the elect, and we all are elect in him.
DT: Right. God loves all of us equally. He cherishes each one of us equally. He, as it were, carries a picture of each of us in his wallet. Each one of us is dear to God. When he went to the cross, all our faces were on his heart. He is overwhelmed with joy so that the heavens rejoice when one sinner returns to him and receives the salvation already won for him.
JMF: Yeah. And [on the other hand] there’s a refusal that we’re free to make [DT: Yes.], like the fellow in prison—he refuses the pardon. Who can explain that? He likes it better in prison, it works better to the way he is, or something. But for whatever reason, he refused it. Maybe his sense of justice. Who knows?
DT: Sometimes it’s that, but often it’s a sense of pride. “I’m not going to kneel before this man [Jesus] and confess that he did what I could not do. He died my death and he paid the price. I’m a dignified person. I don’t need to humble myself and accept Christ as Savior.”
But the Bible talks about someone trampling underfoot the covenant. It says how should we escape if we neglect so great salvation [Hebrews 10:29]. Paul, having given this wonderful statement of the universally completed atonement, says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and then he says, “We beseech you on behalf of God, be reconciled” [2 Corinthians 5:20]. In other words, you’re already reconciled, the war is over, but you need to be reconciled in your own heart. You need to receive that which is already completed for you. So to declare a completed atonement, to say yes, when Jesus hanging from the cross said, “It is finished,” does not mean universalism. It does not mean that we can say, “That’s fine, then, we can just go our merry way.” No. It means that we’re encouraged to believe, to receive, to accept.
JMF: The passage, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation,” I grew up hearing preached the opposite of its actual meaning. The idea was, How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation in the sense of neglecting to obey the rules and keep the rules that are going to give you this salvation, as opposed to how can we be saved if we neglect the very thing that has already saved us.
DT: Right. That would be, as you implied, turning that verse on its head, because it’s talking about this wonderful salvation where God in Christ has done it all. A true salvation, one of grace. Jesus hanging from the cross said, “It is finished.” He didn’t say, “We’re almost there, and if they just do their part, if they just keep enough of the laws…” He said, “It is finished.” It’s completed. It’s far beyond our poor power to add or detract. All we can do is humbly accept it and live a life, as John McLeod Campbell says, of joyful repentance.
JMF: A lot of times we’re given the impression that you are saved by grace and that’s the starting point, but then if you want to maintain that position, you need to obey well enough or it will be taken away from you, you’ll lose it.
DT: It’s as if God pulls the old switcheroo on us.
JMF: Yeah—bait and switch.
DT: At first it’s all grace. That’s the good news, but now here comes the bad news. Now you’re on probation for the rest of your life. Now you better do this and you better not do that, or else.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is consistent. He is always a God of mercy and always a God of grace. Grace is not just the beginning point of the Christian life. It’s the continuing basis and foundation for our life in Christ. The Christian life is not based in my attitudes or my actions. It’s based in the life of Christ.
The Bible describes a Christian as one who is “in Christ.” Paul says if someone is in Christ, he’s a new creation. He says, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ.” I’m hidden with Jesus. Paul says, “I’m seated in the heavenlies with Jesus” in Ephesians 2:6. He’s given us every blessing in Christ.
My life in God is grounded in Christ. He’s the basis for my acceptance before the Father, not my performance. This was the Galatian heresy, that you begin in grace and then you maintain it by works. This is not to say that works don’t matter, or that obedience doesn’t matter, that living a godly life and doing the will of God is irrelevant. It’s to say that it’s not a basis for keeping your salvation.
JMF: So how does that work together?
DT: The answer to that lies in Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:30 says he is our sanctification. That’s an interesting statement, because the other point of view that you mentioned would have to deny that, and would have to say “No, I’m my sanctification. Jesus does justification. He’s the one who gets me right with God, and then I do the sanctification. I make myself holy. I make myself good enough. I keep myself in salvation.”
JMF: We even use the Holy Spirit in that mix by saying the Holy Spirit leads us, but if we don’t follow, then we don’t have sanctification.
DT: If we understand that Christ is our righteousness and he’s our sanctification, I think this helps us. When I come to God in Christ, I’m accepted for who I am in Christ, not for who I am in Dan Thimell. Not because I’ve been so good or worthy or earnest or consistent, but what I had to offer him, as Bill Gaither said, was brokenness and strife, and he accepted that. I’m accepted for who I am in Christ. In Christ, I’m accepted by the Father. In Christ, I stand holy before the Father. I stand pure before the Father in his humanity.
Justification, we’re sometimes told, it’s “just as if” I had never sinned. A better definition is: to be justified is to be accepted for who I am in Christ. Because I was there in him. My humanity was carried by him throughout his life and in his death on the cross. I got this from James Torrance, and I’m unashamedly using that as a central point in my own belief. To be justified is to be accepted for who I am in Christ—and then to be sanctified is what? It’s to become who I am in Christ.
The amazing good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is your future because he’s your past. My whole life is enclosed in Christ. I’m hidden with Christ in God. I’m not tremblingly tiptoeing on the precipice every day of my Christian life. Rather, I’m living joyfully in Christ, realizing that sometimes I let him down, sometimes I struggle with the same old sins, sometimes I look inside me and see ugly attitudes, sometimes I say hurtful things, sometimes I’m not as faithful as I ought to be to my calling.
But when we are faithless, he is faithful, Paul says, for he cannot deny himself. I’m included in him, and he’s faithful. One day I will stand before the Father and he will throw his arms around me and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” because my life was included in Jesus.
JMF: When Paul says that this new life is hidden in Christ, he means what he says. It’s hidden even from us. Most of the time, we don’t see it. It reminds me of a passage Paul mentions: we look in the mirror, though we see a poor reflection. We don’t see who we really are in Christ—we see what you were just describing: a person who falls short, a person who is weak, the person who doesn’t measure up. But Scripture assures us that Christ has already made us new. He has hidden that new person in Christ, waiting to be revealed at the time when we see him face to face and we see ourselves, really, as he’s made us to be in him, face to face for the first time.
DT: Right. If we want to see who we are in Christ, we need to look at Christ. The mistake is, we look at ourselves, and then we get discouraged. This is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. We’re always tempted to walk by sight, and we look in that mirror, and we look a little too closely in that mirror. We get depressed and discouraged, and Satan whispers in our ear, “You’re not worthy of the gospel. You’re not worthy of being a minister, you’re not worthy of being a Christian.” And we’re not worthy.
DT: When the prodigal son comes home to the father and says, “I’m no more worthy to be called your son,” the father is saying, in effect, “Whoever said this was about worthiness? You never were worthy, but you’re my boy, and I love you. I’ve always loved you, and my forgiveness is here for you.” We don’t walk by sight, but by faith in Christ. The secret for living the Christian life is to abide in Christ. To look in Christ, to gaze on Christ, to live our lives out of the resources we have in Christ. Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ. It may not look like it, but I am. I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, I do live. It’s a vital, vibrant life, but the life I live, I live by the faith of the Son of God. I live by his faith, and he loved me and he gave himself for me. I’m his.” [Galatians 2:20, expansive paraphrase]
JMF: We’re out of time. Goes fast, doesn’t it?
DT: It sure does.
JMF: Thanks very much for being with us again. I appreciate that.
DT: Oh, I’ve enjoyed it.
JMF: We’ve been talking with Dr. Daniel Thimell, Associate Professor of Theological and Historical Studies at Oral Roberts University. I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.