Getting God Right

This entry is more technical, more historical, and longer than usual: be warned and be patient, please. I also think it’s important. As my elementary teacher used to say, “Put on your thinking caps!”

After recently stepping away from my years as a theology educator I’m starting to see some academic blind spots we tend to miss from close up. One of these is critical: we don’t get God’s motives right. It’s a problem of the Christian educational community at large. We tend to speak of God as if he is mainly defined by using and defending his power—as if his omnipotence is what drives him. And, biblically, that’s just not right.

I say this even though I know scholars who promote other motives, especially a divine ambition for glory. In some settings his love is also exalted; and sometimes his holiness; and maybe one or two other qualities. But after some time to ponder I’ve concluded that it’s really his power that academics see as God’s main motor.

I should say right away that I don’t doubt God’s omnipotence: all power ultimately resides in him; and all his purposes are being played out in the creation. The Scriptures affirm this. And he would be less than God almighty if it were not the case.

What I deny is that his power tells us anything about his motives. Proclamations of his power only tell us that as God he has no true competitors and that he has every capacity he needs to maintain that status. He is wholly secure.

Here’s why the question of motive matters. If power is what moves God, then he is an unapologetically and appallingly disaffected divinity. Appalling to us relational beings in that it suggests that the creation is actually relationally barren, only set up to display divine might. We would be the participants and the audience for a grand performance of power. God would be a grand utilitarian ruler; with us as his objects to be ruled.

I call this a blind spot because no one sees this summary as applicable to their own theology even when they teach it in some fashion. And in teaching it we are kept from coming to grips with the true God and with his real motives.

Let me offer the English Puritan, William Perkins (1558-1602), as both a source and an example of the problem. In his day he presented a power-concerned God to England, and his portrayal continues to influence theology until today. Yet he is never viewed as promoting a disaffected God. He was, in fact, famous for his piety and spoke often about God’s love—rather ironically, given what he actually believed and taught his students.

Perkins’ key work, the Golden Chaine, was first published in Latin as the Armilla Auria in 1590. It introduced young theology students at Cambridge University and elsewhere to the structure and import of “federal theology” as formulated in Heidelberg, Germany, in the mid-1500’s. This federalism was a mitigated contractual model of salvation—I’ll say more about it below. The scheme drew directly from a version of how salvation works that was first synthesized by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

That may sound innocent enough, but what Thomas offered in his day was what made Luther furious in 1517: it violated the Scriptural portrayal of God, faith, and salvation. Thomas had drawn heavily from axioms he found in Aristotle’s self-concerned, and unmoved-mover version of God. Yet even with this dubious heritage Perkins’ book sold like hotcakes!

Opposition to his view was very firm and sustained by some—including my doctoral subject, the irenic Richard Sibbes—and a group of ministers known as the “dissenting brethren” at the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s, who followed his lead. But the new federal model soon became an assertive and self-proclaimed orthodoxy that most Puritans accepted. All who rejected the contractual nature of the system were castigated as “antinomians” even as they accurately cited Luther again and again in their own favor.

What was Luther’s view? He complained that Thomas made God’s grace into a something: an infused disposition or habit that God gives only to the elect. This habitus gratiae equips them with a supernatural disposition to begin making righteous decisions. Thomas and the later federalists thus saw faith as a human “act of the will”. The mitigation is that God himself makes it happen. How? By the magic of the habitus—or “enabling grace”—that ensures an act of faith. By this newly embedded grace the elect then conceive the adequate act of faith God requires of them, and he then rewards them with salvation. To Luther this was just a bunch of human-centered nonsense. In fact he, Zwingli, and Calvin all dismissed grace portrayed as habitus.

They all held, instead, that grace is relational—the activity of someone—namely God’s love in Christ disclosed by the Spirit. This captures some, but not all, in personal, Heart-to-heart meetings. The apostle Paul’s conversion displayed all of this. Thus for Luther faith is our response to God himself. A new entrustment overcomes a prior willful distrust and the believer becomes united to God by faith. In all of this the heart still has freedom to move, but where it once always moved away from God, once God’s beauty is revealed in Christ, he effectively draws people to himself. Most people, however, remain disaffected and hostile to God, and are finally given over to their stubborn desires despite God’s love for them and his free offer of eternal life.

The Golden Chaine was an effort to stamp out Luther’s version of salvation. In his foreword Perkins said just that: he was offering a supralapsarian version of God’s plan-for-the-ages in place of the “Lutheran” infralapsarian version. If we translate this jargon, what Perkins rejected was Luther’s conviction that the human heart is free either to respond or not to respond to God. Perkins, by contrast, treated the human will as the place where habitus operates and where faith is birthed with this divine assistance.

For Luther, however, the heart has real freedom—but not the will. As Luther had explained in The Bondage of the Will all of humanity is ruled by sin unless and until God’s love captures the heart. The will is simply an instrument of the heart—enslaved by the heart’s desires, either for good or for ill.

Why did Perkins want to dismiss Luther’s version of faith? Because, he believed, it violated God’s rule over the universe—his omnipotence. According to Perkins all that ever occurs—even sin—is under God’s absolute control. And God has just one goal in mind, a goal Perkins posted at the very bottom of a full-page fold-out diagram he included in the Golden Chaine: “Gods Glorie”.

Perkins’ diagram—as inspired by an earlier and less overt diagram by Theodore Beza—set out two tracks in God’s program for creation: a single divine decree of predestination that was subdivided into two subsequent decrees of “Election” and “Reprobation.” And after those decrees God then created the heavens and the earth. The order here explains the title of Perkins’ position—”supra” means God determines all things before the “lapse” or fall of Adam—so that it is only by God’s inexplicable determinations that some go to heaven and others go to hell. The people involved are simply objects to be ruled.

Luther, on the other hand, had insisted that God created Adam even though he knew that Adam’s sin would soon follow. And, given the certainty of the coming fall (hence the term infra or subsequent to the lapse) God created humans and declared that some would be drawn out of death—a death of humanity’s own choosing—by his wonderful mercy. These elect ones would be drawn to God not on the basis of their own goodness, but by his mercy—a mercy most often embraced by the weak, the poor, and the despised. All people, however, are invited to come. Only when the arrogant persist in denying the offer of God’s grace are they finally given over to their sinful disaffection. God knew, of course, beforehand, those he would draw in and those he would finally give over, but he is never the author of their sin.

The differences between Luther and Perkins were not chronological differences over how God works in time, but represented two competing versions of God’s character and his operations as he determined the course of the creation.

For Luther God is understood to love and to be loveable, and allows the human heart a freedom either to love or not to love him, with faith expressing a trust birthed by God’s wonderful benevolence. This version of faith was also embraced by John Calvin.

Perkins, on the other hand, held that God’s sovereign rule is ultimate, even if God implicitly creates sin and sinners: “God created all things for himself, and the wicked man for the evill day. Prov. 16:4. Hath not the potter power over the clay to make of the same lumpe one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour. Rom. 9.21.” [at the head of Perkins’ diagram, emphasis added]

Perkins was so deeply committed to his portrayal of God’s omnipotence and absolute rule that he made two other determinations about God that allowed him to be consistent. First, he located God’s love as a function of his will in the Golden Chaine. This, in effect, allowed him to maintain a Stoic version of divine conduct: that God’s mind and will are absolute; and no divine affections are involved.

But what is love like when it is defined by divine will? Does it involve any affection or compassion? Perkins answered this in the Golden Chaine [Works, 1.25]: God’s underlying essence is “void and free from all passion”.

So, too, in Perkins’ Treatise of God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will, “I answer [whether God has any human-like affectionate love] that affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change. And therefore all affections, and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure [of speech]” [1.723]. In the jargon of high theology this is called an anthropopathism. His axiom about the dangerous instability of the affections could be found in the glossary of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (s.v. affectus) but not in the Bible.

In other words, it was a question about how God is to be viewed that was at stake. Luther would, for instance, pin much significance on the human ability to reject God, even if he also knew that no one would ever choose God because of their sin. He looked to texts that affirmed God’s ambition to save and human heart-based culpability: “But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves . . .” [Luke 7:30, emphasis added].

Let me return now to the blind spot commentary we began with. It was not that I hadn’t seen the differences between Luther and Perkins after my doctoral days. The blind spot was in my failure to see how much the theme of God’s omnipotence still shapes much of our current theological training. The academy, by a wide margin, prefers Perkins’ version of God over Luther’s version. Luther certainly had the Bible and the Augustinian tradition on his side, but the power politics of faith seem to be in the majority.

Or, to be more to the point: the scholastic programs love to portray a God who rules us but doesn’t actually like us. The biblical alternative is a God who loves us with a love that has real passion but who never forces us to love him in return. The choice is one of coercive power versus the power of love. Luther got God right. I pray we all will too.



  1. andrew

    Thank you for an excellent article! I think that our focus on the power of God and subsequent view that God “rules us but doesn’t actually like us” has done a lot of harm to the church. I grew up in a Christian home (in fact, on the mission field) but it has only been recently that I caught onto the fact that God loves me! I had this dread that if I didn’t do exactly as God wanted me to I was condemned and because I didn’t know how to hear the Lord’s voice I couldn’t even tell when I had messed up. God was an all powerful judge and king, but not a loving and merciful Father! The ideas here are so powerful and meaningful and the church needs to be reminded of them. We worship a God who wants to capture out hearts with His love…that is incredible!

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks, Andrew. I think it’s wonderful to take John 3:16 at face value. I praise God for men throughout history like Augustine, Luther, Calvin [but not always his namesake], Sibbes, and more who have kept the church on track here.

  3. Bobby Grow

    Great points, Ron! This is something I’ve been thinking about alot lately, esp. when well meaning Christians try to provide comfort by saying “God is sovereign,” and He is; but as you say not shaped in the way that that “tradition” would emphasize. Here is a post, a quick reflection I recently posted on this very topic:

    Thanks for providing the historical background to this; always important to understand that none of our theological talk today comes out of a vacuum, but there are informing voices who are either good or bad in articulating the way we talk about God today. I’d rather follow the good voices 🙂 . . . and Sibbes is a good voice!

  4. R N Frost

    Thanks for the good words and the link, Bobby. For readers who don’t know about your present treatment for cancer, I hope you don’t mind my noting it here. It gives much more weight to any conversation about God’s power, his love, his providence, and more. My own love and prayers continue to be with you.

  5. Amy Vradenburg

    Enjoyed reading the article above as well as the article from Bobby’s link.

    I thought I was going to get lost when I read words like “supralapsarian” and “infralapsarian,” but you articulated the views so well that my brain didn’t hurt that much, and I am all the more appreciative of God’s consuming love. Thank you!

    Just found this site recently, so I have some catchng up to do. =)

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