As a pastor, some of the most powerful moments in my ministry come in the most interesting places. Early in my ministry, I was at a street fair that happened to be going on a few blocks from my church. Being a downtown pastor, many people knew who I was and, like here, would often come up and ask me questions about their faith journey. In the middle of all the festivities, carnival rides, and laughter, a man with a sour look asked me if God loved him. His sadness in the midst of such joy was jarring.
“Of course, God loves you!” I responded. Without another word, the man walked away, I am sure mumbling things under his breath. About an hour later, I made my way back to the church and sitting on the front steps was this man.
“How can you be so sure? You don’t even know who I am and what I have done,” he said. Meanwhile, in my mind I was fighting my own humanity of being tired and annoyed that this man was bothering me when all I wanted to do was go home. I also knew that questions like this were often loaded and could be a sign of psychological or other issues, so I took a breath and sat next to him. I told him, “I know that God loves you because you are concerned about God’s love. That means that God is in your heart, and as Paul said, if God is with you, who can be against you?” The man started to cry and walked off.
Over the next few weeks, I learned more about the story of this man as he would come in to visit and talk. He was in a bad place, and I guess I said what he needed to hear, because he began to become very active in the church and the sourness of his look began to fade.
I am a strong believer in the power of God’s love and that our salvation is assured in God. To me, this comes from an understanding of predestination. A lot is made of Calvin’s discussion of predestination, and for some, that is an essential part of Calvinism. It’s not. It is a doctrine that Calvin himself changed and struggled with throughout the various writings of his institute. This theological understanding tries to convey a truth that the God that created us will never abandon us, and therefore we are elected into the body of salvation.
Of course, nothing can be that simple. When making an argument for a theology of predestination, often people venture into the land of fatalism, which is an understanding that everything in life has been predetermined. This is not the same as predestination, because within predestination, there is free will and choice. You can be blessed, yet still reject the faith. You can also be blessed and never know Christ fully, or at least not know Christ in a way that is familiar.
This is the difficult part, because as we really dive into the Gospels, there is a trend that happens within the teachings of Christ. Christ is always pointing to God—a God that we know to be both mysterious and compassionate, angry yet patient, judgmental yet grace-filled. The other truth about God is that we only have a glimpse of God’s fullness. We do not always know what God is doing within the hearts of others. This puts us in a precarious position, for if we choose to judge others on their faithfulness, we could very easily be judging God and the way that God is working within the heart of that person.
This is why it is so wrong for Christians to judge others. Many would call this a sin, but I don’t know if that fully encompasses what is going on, because judging others is not just a separation from God, it is both an active rejection of God and an attempt to become a god, asserting control and dominion over others. Biblically, we see this most in Jesus’ teachings about Caesar and the illegitimacy Jesus claims (Matthew 22:16-22).
For me, knowing that God loves me and has already reached out to save me gives me the freedom to truly live. Thus, I live my life in thankfulness for what God has done for me, and I don’t desire to do wrong. And when I do, I know that God will give me the grace and welcome home that I don’t deserve but is there because of his promise that he instilled at my birth.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen