Here’s a practical question that quietly divides Christians. Is Christ personally present to believers in faith? Or is he an iconic object of faith who offers us spiritual benefits from afar?
Different answers change the basic shape of applied faith and explain some key distinctions among Christians.
To be clear, this question differs from our asking whether Christians should seek to learn more about Jesus. Growing Christians of any stripe always value learning about him as a biblical and historical figure. And any gains help build our picture of his ministry that, in turn, ground our values and creeds.
Nor are we asking if those who hold Christ to be more detached—rather than immediate and accessible—have dismissed his eternal status as the living Son of God. That’s a separate question that, depending on the given answer, formally divides belief and unbelief. Our concern here is an intramural difference.
To begin, I think it’s fair to say that a more detached faith usually features divine process. That is, the believer looks to Christ’s work in particular as a gracious legal solution to a moral conundrum.
The conundrum of how an absolutely righteous God resolves the unrighteousness of humans is primary. Most often God’s moral demands and his wrath against sin are set out in a courtroom scenario. The Father, as judge, condemns sin. The Son intervenes both as defense attorney on behalf of the elect and as a placating sacrifice—the one who dies for the elect—as demanded by divine justice.
This judicial scenario is set out in the broader process of a basic moral contract or covenant between God and his creation. God, as creator, sets out his proper expectations that are wholly and perfectly aligned with his attributes. Humanity then must fulfill the expectations that come with his being. God, for instance, is glorious so his people are called to glorify him. He is holy so his people must be holy. He is faithful and we are called to be faithful. And so on.
So the divine process consists in a progression that traces God’s plan and our assigned roles. It begins with creation and fall; then moves to incarnation; followed by Christ’s death-burial-and-resurrection; and it wraps up with ascension and a future reunion with God in store for saints; and with eternal judgment of the unredeemed.
To a critical eye there are features of this divine process that must be affirmed. But there’s also a major blind spot that invites us to look for an alternative presentation. On the positive side we find that the biblical features of God’s incarnation in Christ, his vicarious death for his people, and his promise of eternal life for all who believe is properly noticed. Jesus paid the price of sin and provides life to sinners saved by his grace.
But the ‘strictly judicial’ portrayal is too detached—too mechanical: the contract is met in Christ; God’s ambitions are fulfilled in the process; and believers get eternal life. Each believer fulfills a role—offering faith, for instance—in order for the plan to work. And God’s supernatural power is behind it all so that he gains all the glory. God uses the creation to feel good about himself for reasons we, ultimately, are not to question.
The blind spot here is the loss of God’s heart—his being portrayed as an emotionally detached divinity. It’s a portrayal that misses or dismisses a number of emphatic themes in the Bible.
So let me at least launch the inexhaustible relational alternative: a view of God as one intent on fully engaging us by his love, both now and in eternity.
To begin we turn to the question of God’s eternal past. What was God about before the foundation of the world? The Bible answers this: he was enjoying his communion of mutual love and glory as the Father and Son delighted in each other and the Spirit facilitated that love and glory. See John 17 on this along with 1 John 4.
And what is the eternal future God has in mind?
He invites his followers to share in this love-produced-glory (John 17:24) for the ages to come.
We also see the motive of God reiterated throughout the Bible from beginning to end: he is a triune lover whose heart overflows to his creation. The Father sends his Son to die for our sins. Why? Because he loves the world. Yet the Father is just and shows wrath. Why? Because his jealous love for the Son has been violated by the Son’s bride who became a spiritual whore—see Psalm 2 and Ezekiel 16 for glimpses here. But, as seen in Hosea, he calls her back to himself.
And with this we find the role of the Spirit as the intimate—as in marital intimacy—bond of Christ and believers. This is given explicitly in 1 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 5 and implicitly in all the marital language God uses towards his people.
But how, we might ask, does such theological content compare to the sort of relational immediacy we expect in human bonds? The answer, in paraphrase, is blunt: “get over your hardness of heart and blindness in sin and you’ll begin to hear the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures in the ways God always meant for you to hear.” And what he shares is a husband’s love. In other words, sound marriages are workshops for what God is offering us.
Jesus, then, was speaking to more than his first set of apostles when he promised the benefits of the Spirit’s immediacy to his followers in John 14 and 15. So the faith the Bible invites and produces, when the Spirit is working in us, is a dynamic life: we are assured of God’s love for us and we enjoy his communion in each day if we have ears to hear by Spirit-aligned hearts.
So let me suggest to all who are living by a detached faith that you’re missing something. Come to Christ and tell him you’d like something more immediate. Then chase him in the Bible and in giving your heart to others.
When we meet a passionate God we soon respond in kind.