God Stands by in Divine Wonder

God is very fascinated and curious about us humans. How startling is that passage in Genesis 2:19 when He made the animals, “and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.” Here is the sovereign God of the universe, who is enthroned above space and time, knowing the beginning from the end. And yet, He stands by with fascination and curiosity to see Adam, His own little miniature, in the acts of decision and creativity. We can only conclude that Adam, made in the image of God, has integrity before God. This means that he possesses real determining power, and has a free, creative hand in shaping his environment and his future. God stands by in divine wonder!

We see something similar with Cain, but under very different, somber circumstances. God sees murder in his heart, and gives him an ultimatum; “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. Its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Here, even after the fall, Cain possesses real determining power; he can do well, and he can rule the beast. What is true for Cain is true for us all. Everyone stands responsible before God and humanity for one’s actions, and has been endowed with real power to do both good and ill. On this fact the concept of divine judgment is base as St. Paul writes: “… ‘who will render to each one according to his deeds’: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking …” (Romans 2:6-16). God has very high expectations of us all, Jew or Greek, Christian or non-Christian. Why? Because we are image bearers empowered with real choice. God stands by in divine wonder!

Cain’s line progresses with evil to the extent that it is corrupt beyond repair (Genesis 6). In contrast, Noah “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). This is a Hebrew idiom that means that God was “delighted” with Noah (made God smile). Why? Because he was a “just man, perfect (There is that Hebrew word tāmîm again) in his generations” (v. 9). We are not yet ready to define “perfection,” but we will here say that it definitely does not mean sinless perfection. We know this because the Bible everywhere assumes that fallen humanity is in a state of sin and has lost original glory; we cannot stand before a Holy God apart from mercy and grace. However, a metaphor works here to help us understand “perfection” ─ Noah “walked with God” (v. 9). This places him in the good company of Enoch (5:24), who “was not for God took him.” How magnificent it is to imagine a mortal struggling in his sinfulness taking strides alongside of God. God glances by his side in admiration.

The real truth about fallen humanity is that we are a mystery. We are far more wonderful (actually and potentially) than we can ever know, and we are far worse (actually and potentially) than we could ever know. The truth does not lie in the middle between good and bad, but in the extremes of good and bad. To find the truth about ourselves we need to push out the ends of this paradox to the max. On one hand we are divine image bearers and are endowed with power to become and do well far beyond our imagination. We can reach for perfection! On the other hand, if we could see the actual and potential evil in ourselves as it is, we would pass away in fright. We are in dire need of grace and God’s help. Theological maturity demands that we embrace paradox.

The doctrine of total depravity does away with the human mystery and with it our humanity, making us one-dimensional. It is the child of a warped rationalism that cannot endure paradox, and can only exist in a world that is clamped down in absolute determinism. God can only be great to the extent that man is made small. This is absurd. The foundational fact about us human beings is not that we are sinners in need redemption (as true as this is) but that we are divine image bearers. We all know this on an intuitive level. When we go down the street and look at people, we do not say to ourselves, “look at all these nasty sinners.” Rather, we look upon them with respect if we see them rightly. When we look into another face, whether it is Christian or not, we are looking into the face of God.

But all this is theological background to our main topic, and that is perfection. If we embrace total depravity, there is no room in our world view for perfection, and therefore no real incentive for spiritual growth. There is nothing in us that God can work with. This leads us to the next doctrine which blinds many from spiritual growth; that is the doctrine of “alien” righteousness.

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