John McKennaJohn E. McKenna was adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific Seminary. He studied under Thomas F. Torrance at the University of Edinburgh and received his PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He died in 2018. 

The difference our view of non-Christians makes in our relationship with them.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Dr. McKenna, years ago, at least 15 years ago as I think back, I came across a passage that had a profound effect on me, in Romans chapter 5, something you’re quite familiar with, where Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” A couple of verses further down, he says, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

The idea that God did what he did for us while we still his enemies was profound enough, but it made me realize that there is no such thing as a “them” and “us” in God’s eyes, because God has done what he has done for his enemies, which includes everyone. I’d always read where Jesus told us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you” and so on, in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, and yet the idea that we tend in America, at least what we grow up with regarding God, is that he’s very unforgiving to his enemies and punishes them forever.

It seems a dichotomy that I could never reconcile: “love your enemies,” and yet God doesn’t seem to love his enemies until they change and become his friends, and yet this passage in Romans says, he loved them and did what he did while they’re still his enemies.

JM: I think what you were wrestling with was the logic of grace, the logic of God’s great gift of peace for us, even while we’re his enemies. That logic is not common sense. You cannot turn the logic of grace into what we consider sensible on a common basis. To wrestle through that kind of problem is to wrestle into a whole new kind of logic that we have to learn from listening to the Word of God and the way he has taken to make us his friends.

JMF: Loving your enemies isn’t common logic, is it? Typically, the way you have to get along in the world is not by loving your enemies, but trying to outwit them, outsmart them, get them out of the way somehow. And yet the gospel seems to be telling us something quite different from that.

JM: It certainly is. We have talked in the past about the assumption that sinners are separated and alienated from God and they need to do something in order to become reconciled to God. I think you referred to it as a very common way of introducing people to the gospel of God in Christ, and we ask people to make decisions that the separation …

JMF: You mean the idea that there is a giant gulf, there is no bridging that gulf, and so on, and then we draw a picture of Christ being the bridge our faith …

JM: And you have to decide to walk across that bridge, or something like that, if you’re going to be reconciled to God.

The passage you read is dealing with something that God has done in reality with himself for our sakes, on our behalf and in our places. He has demonstrated his love for us even when we don’t love him, even when we don’t know who he is. He’s always working with his love to get us to know him for who he truly is.

JMF: So there is something that God has done for us already before we ever even think about becoming believers, there is a reconciliation from his side that already has taken place.

JM: Get rid of this assumption that there is a separation between God and man. There is no separation. If there seems to be a separation between God and man, it belongs to the side of man, who perceives the separation because of his sin.

JMF: So the alienation is from our human standpoint, we sense ourselves, we see ourselves alienated from God – or we simply don’t care. But from God’s side, he’s done something that … well, what is it? Colossians chapter 1 speaks to that, where it shows what the actual relationship and standing of all things is to God from his side. Colossians 1:17-21:

“He is before all things [speaking of Christ] and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him, to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds…” he says, which is the opposite of what he just said, yes.

JM: I like the emphasis.

JMF: “Alienated… and enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you…” So our perception of what God thinks of us and what he’s done for us and how he has set thing up changes when we come to faith, but it [reality] is no different from the way it has been from God’s side in his love for us through Christ, Colossians seems to be saying.

JM: What has to change is your perception. What has to change is your mind about the relationship between God, the world, and man as Jesus Christ. People call him in Colossians “the cosmic Christ” – this is not just an individual particular man. This individual particular man is the creator of all things, and as the creator, he has the authority and the power and the holy love to reconcile all things to himself without asking anybody about it, let alone nail you.

JMF: You just had a big reunion at Princeton University.

JM: I loved it, yeah. This idea of separation between the believing church and the unbelieving world came across to me in some kind of glaring proportions during my time. I had agreed to give a testimony in a church in the Sunday of the last of the four days which were part of the reunion at Princeton. I was asked by the church people to participate in much, much more. They have a whole organized effort to bring about revival and reconciliation for the university to Christ. Getting the university back to Christ like it was in the beginning, that kind of thing.

JMF: This is the core of Christian believers at Princeton.

JM: I kept refusing, resisting joining them, because I wanted to spend time with these university people that I knew, who are the unbelievers, and that’s what I did and I had a wonderful time. The grace of God was with me. I saw some blessing of the grace of God, because I went to these people in the peace of God for them, that God wasn’t separated from them, that God was there for them, that God was concerned for them. That’s the way we spent for three days and three nights. When I got back to the church, it was very glaring to me the way that the separation between the church and the world – the believer and the unbeliever.

JMF: The sense that believers tend to have, that there’s a “them” and “us.”

JM: The believers are the “good guys” and the unbelievers are the “bad guys,” and there is this war going on between the good guys and the bad guys. For me that’s not the logic of grace, that we’ve mentioned. The logic of grace is that Christ sends, he sends his Son, he sends his Spirit to be with us even while we are his enemies. He does this for good reason, with a wonderful purpose of getting us to know him for who he truly is, and the Colossians passage that you read we have to face the fact that who he is, is the Creator of the world as the Son of the Father. The eternal God has not separated himself from his enemies, but he has come to us to be with us and to seek to convert us to who he truly is.

JMF: That plays itself out then, or can, if we embrace that truth from the Scriptures, it allows us to understand what we perceive as enemies of God now differently and interact with them a bit differently.

JM: The way it works for me is that I’m sitting there with a guy who’s obviously the enemy of God more obviously than I am the enemy of God, but I don’t pretend that I am such a friend of God that there is no enemy of God in me. It’s just that the enemy of God that I am is a lot different than enemy of God that he is. So here we are, two enemies together of God, see what can happen by the grace in his peace, in the reality that he has done this for us in his beloved Son and by his Spirit.

JMF: You’ve had reunions before, ten years ago or fifteen years ago. And you approached the same people differently.

JM: From the separation assumption. I assumed that now that I had believed in Christ, I was the “good guy” and they were the “bad guys” and I could approach them as the bad guys and tell them that they needed to become the good guys. I did that, and these people would see me coming and get as far away from me as they could. That kind of hurt me, because I really loved these people that I knew, and I didn’t want to see them running from me, and yet the only gospel I knew to present to them was this, “you’re separated from God, you’re alienated from God because of your sin, and you need to do this or to do that in order to be reconciled to the God that I’ve believed in.”

JMF: There is a sense in which there is an alienation, and yet as we just read in Colossians, it’s from our own, it’s from their perspective.

JM: From our own hostile minds against them.

JMF: Now, this time, you were able to show them a different John McKenna, as it were …

JM: Yeah, a humanity … They liked me and they liked when I showed up. Even as a believer, they liked a humanity that could be with them, is the best way I can put it. I associate my conversion to this “no separation in the beginning” with the vicarious humanity of Christ. That Christ has been working in me to make me more human than I was. That humanity is something they could feel. So ten years ago they’re running from me. This time with them, they actually appointed me their prayer warrior. They know that I’m going to be praying for them for the next five years until we meet again. That’s a delight for me to experience. I associate that with the logic of the grace of God for us. I don’t know what’s going to happen to these people because I pray for them, but I thank God that they have appointed me their prayer partner.

JMF: You had a speaking part in the reunion on the agenda.

JM: Yes. It can’t be at the Princeton University and the Princeton Battlefield, and the history of Princeton, without talking about freedom. Nassau Hall of Princeton University is the birth of the freedom of our nation. So you’re talking about the whole atmosphere of what freedom means – what freedom means to the church, what freedom means to the university, and what freedom means to their relationship. That kind of days I spent in a freedom, that I could go to a church and say “thank you very much, I felt your prayers and I felt that your prayers were helping me spend my time in the way I spent my time with the university. I didn’t spend my time the way you wanted me to spend my time, but thank you for your prayers because they really did help me.”

I could say that to the church and then I could report about the meaning of freedom, not only in my own life, not only in the life of the church as I know it, but in the life of our nation. Why did George Washington cross the Delaware and win over against the most professional armies in all the world at that time? What kind of freedom allowed him to win? I could associate, relate that freedom to the freedom that is the Spirit of God – where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom.

The church loved the testimony. I know the Lord was blessing it because when you talk to a church congregation and they like what you’ve said, then they ask you questions like you know the answers to everything, so I got all those questions that I don’t know how to answer very quickly, because they liked what I had to say about freedom.

I ended that testimony with my wife’s Mickey’s wonderful story about Gen. McArthur and the Emperor Hirohito and the Imperial Hotel in Japan – when McArthur went to see the Emperor after the occupation, and the surrender and the occupation, the conversation finally got around to the Emperor saying to McArthur, that he would be willing to give his death for his part in the responsibility for the war and McArthur looked at the Emperor and said, “There is no need to do that, there is one who has already done that for you.”

There is a moment of the grace of God in action with the enemy of the United States, and General McArthur carrying the grace of God to our enemy. Those are moments in history that speak of what freedom means in the context of the grace and peace which we read in this text.

JMF: In his book The Mediation of Christ, Thomas Torrance … you studied under Thomas Torrance at Fuller Theological Seminary.

JM: Yes, I did. He became not only a mentor but a good friend.

JMF: He says on page 94, “Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell, his love will never cease.”

He says that in the context of presenting the gospel from a Scriptural standpoint that recognizes who God is and what God has done – as opposed to one of the prevailing approaches, which is based on the idea of separation, as you mentioned earlier. He wants to say that this is more effective because it presents God as he really is. What is at the root of the idea of separation? Where does it come from, why did it become so common among us as Christians?

JM: Sinners like to perceive of themselves first as alone, and then in some kind of an aggravated relationship with somebody else, once they get over their aggravated relationship with themselves. It’s a perception that belongs to a sinful view of God, the world and mankind. The other way of looking at things has to do with being taken up through Christ and given access to the Father who is the Father, Son, and Spirit of eternity.

The most difficult part of understanding the gospel for me was to understand that when he lived and died and lives again for me, he takes me up to know him for who he is in his own eternity – Father and Son, and the Spirit. Knowing God in this way is to know yourself as a child of God. And to know yourself as a child of God is… there’s no separation between you and God, anymore that there is a separation between you [Mike] as a father and Chris. When is Chris no longer your son? It’s not going to happen, is it? – because of who you are. You’re his father and that’s it.

To be adopted up into God in that way is hard to believe. He has to work on us to get us to believe that we really are his children and we really do belong to him, and he has gone way out of his way. Tom likes to say, “If you really understand the gospel you have to understand that God loved you more than he loved himself.” He was willing, as the Son, to come and die and live for us. That’s not the logic of common sense. That’s not the logic of the kind of love that we define. This is a love that is strange and alien to us, and we have to learn it as his children.

JMF: The basis of this relationship we have with God, with the Father, is because Christ, in Christ we’ve been made one with Christ and as one with him, we share in his actual relationship with the Father.

JMF: I like to put it, because of the problems we have with… he gives us, by his Spirit, the freedom to choose God, the freedom to obey God, our wonderful freedom that is not like any other kind of freedom. When a man or a woman knows that they have been made free to choose God, to obey God, there is nothing in this world that can stop them from their destiny with God. That is by the grace that moves the world. If you want a revival in the world, then be moved by the freedom of grace and the freedom of God to speak his word with us.

JMF: Usually we see ourselves as in a great struggle to keep God on our side – to keep God liking us or loving us by trying to behave better, as though we are carrying the burden of our relationship with God on our shoulders – as though it depends on how well we keep up our end as to whether God will stay benevolently disposed toward us, let’s say. In effect, it’s not only how we see and feel about ourselves in relationship to God, but also how we see others and train others. And again you experienced some of that with people you were re-acquainted with at Princeton.

JM: I like to turn that right on its head again, turn it up-side-down. God will not be who he truly is, without us. There is no God who will be without us. There is only the God who wills to be with us with himself. If you have an idea of God, that’s not bad – your idea of God is not the God in the Bible. It needs to spend another year of reading the Bible or something, however that goes. The God of the Bible struggles…. you think with his people. We think we struggle. The God of the Bible struggles with his people, among the nations of the world and his Creation, to make himself known to people who prefer not to, thank you. It’s his struggle, it’s not ours.

JMF: What you said reminds me of the all-night struggle between Jacob and the Angel of the Lord, or the Lord, as the story presents it. It’s not just a matter that Jacob was just trying, from his side, to get a blessing from this stranger. But this stranger, who is the Lord in the story, stays with Jacob in this struggle, and of course wins (and could have won at the very beginning, because he simply touches Jacob in a way that disables him).

JM: He is very merciful.

JMF: So he actually lets this continue on, and the end result is that Jacob finds out who it is that he is struggling with.

JM: He makes an altar, names the place, where he says the face of God.

JMF: You’ve written how this portends or is a… I could call it a metaphor, even though it’s an actual story, but of the struggle that I just alluded to, of God and his people, for God’s own purpose.

JM: That same kind of struggle we read throughout the Bible, Old and New Testaments – and the struggle is going on beyond the canon of the biblical world, it goes on in the church of the world today.

JMF: But it goes on in our individual lives as well, doesn’t it?

JM: If we are in the world, it does. I don’t know where you are, but that’s where I am. That is, we’re nowhere else except in the world.

JMF: We’re often afraid to admit to that. We go to church, there’s usually a sense of trying to put on a façade that we’re doing fine, and that we’re godly, wonderful people, and we put on the airs of that to each other, and yet, honestly speaking, each of us has our own personal individual struggle…

JM: I keep telling my classes, if they knew me the way I know me, they would not pay one dime to hear me teach. We don’t like to know ourselves in the depths of our evil, the way God loves to know us. The way God is willing to go there in the depths of our evil and take us up and heal us and convert us to a “yes” that resonates with his “yes” for us.

JMF: Let’s hold that thought, and maybe we can come back to that next time we get together.

GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 5:02 PM