John E. McKenna, God Gives Us Freedom
John 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 freedom we have is because God loves us and is not angry with us.
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JMF: You just came from a very interesting reunion at Princeton University.
JM: I sure had a wonderful experience for the 50th reunion of the Class of 1957 for Princeton University. It wasn’t my first trip back to Princeton. My first trip back was in 1982, for the 25th reunion of this class, at which time I was invited to give a testimony at the Nassau Christian Center, which is a local congregation there at Princeton University.
JMF: They knew that your career was in Christian ministry at that time and…
JM: Yes. They invited me to come and give my testimony, and they wanted to hear how I got from a graduate of Princeton University in 1957 to Haight-Ashbury in 1972 and how I had been delivered from alcohol and drugs and so forth and had become a Christian. And how I had, from that time, one of the most important – I got married – and two, been able to get back into the academic life and at Fuller Theological Seminary receive a Master of Divinity degree and a PhD degree in theology.
JMF: That was 25 years ago, and they invited you to speak.
JM: Yes, and that was my first effort to relate back to my classmates. In those years I was, with the church, into the separation between the believer and the unbeliever. My friends at the university were mostly unbelievers, and I was with the good guys now, and they were the bad guys. The bad guys, when they would see the good guys coming, would scatter and try to avoid them as much as possible, because they don’t want to become what the good guys… They wanted to be the bad guys, and the “bad guys” in a very real world. I wasn’t very effective in terms of witnessing to that reunion. But I was well-accepted by the church, and the church people.
That bothered me because I loved my classmates, especially my roommates, and I wanted to get next to them, the way I’ve once been next to them, however, being a Christian didn’t allow me to do that, I thought.
And then again, it was 2002, I went for the 45th reunion, and this time I was able to give testimony at the same Nassau Christian Center about the glorious freedom we have, and I was working my way through the freedom that we need to talk about, that is, the freedom where the Spirit of God is – could not be neither an abstract idea about freedom nor could it be some kind of atheistic subjectivity about freedom. It couldn’t be subjective autonomy. It couldn’t be an independence that was absolutely free in the sense that independence has autonomy understands its….
I was beginning to wrestle with what is the real freedom that we have as believers in Jesus Christ. This time around, this year, the fifth year after that reunion, I have a whole new paradigm, a whole new way of understanding who I am in the gospel of God in Christ. I have come to an understanding that there was no separation between God and people – whether people were believers or unbelievers, God had done what he had done in Christ for all of us and I could, by his grace, take my humanity both to the believer and to the unbeliever in the same way.
JMF: What you are saying reminds me, right off the bat, of two passages. One in Romans 5: “While we were still enemies, God moved on our behalf.” And the Colossians passage, that
JM: “He has reconciled in all things…”
JMF: Yeah, all things. That turns our common view on its head of how we can look at other people who are not believers. I love this passage, so every opportunity to read, I have to take: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (speaking of Christ) 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.”
Combined with the Romans passage about while you were enemies God does this for us, while we’re still enemies, then how should we look at who we want to perceive as God’s enemies, is very different … like you were describing the very first time you went out there to see these people, now you can look at them very differently.
JM: I don’t really believe that anyway, that they need to be told they’re separated or alienated from God. They know that they are. Some people like to know that they are independent of God. I don’t think God wants to be with them, encroaching upon their freedom at all. That’s not the way he has chosen to be with us. He has chosen to be with us in his freedom in Christ for us, on our behalf. Christ’s atoning for us, Christ working for us, Christ working upon us, and in us, to get us to know him for who he truly is, as the Son of the Father of eternity.
JMF: That very next verse in Colossians says, “For once you were alienated in your minds.”
JM: “In your minds …” Yeah, that’s what we need to talk about. The fact that the fallen mind is hostile and in enmity with God, and will perceive their humanity as separated from God.
JMF: But from God’s side it’s a very different picture. So when you went back recently to the 50th …
JM: Once you learn that, you have a different humanity utterly, in relationship with so-called “unbelievers” and believers. It’s no longer the good guys against the bad guys. It’s all people – some believing better than others, some not believing better than others. By his grace and in his Spirit, you can relate your humanity to them. I think that was the big difference, and I had a wonderful time especially with my five roommates, who were very happy that I was the kind of Christian I was.
One of my roommates is a Freudian psychiatrist. He was always so worried. I’ve met him at the 25th, and he was so worried that I would, as a Christian, become something he wouldn’t like. Well, he liked me. At the 50th he went way out of his way to tell me how happy he was that I hadn’t become the kind of Christian he thought he was going to meet. He didn’t meet the Christian that he thought he met in the 25th reunion. That difference has to do with this difference in the assumption that we are separated from God and those who have chosen to believe, they have become the good guys, and those who have not chosen yet to believe are the bad guys. There was the good guys against the bad guys.
I was delighted with the fact that he could say to me, “I really do like you.” That’s a long way from having a “run away” from you 25 years ago – because you’re going to talk about Christ with me.
JMF: So your impact on him in terms of the gospel itself was different in such a way that you actually made more progress …
JM: These five men ended up, on the third evening, we all had dinner together very pointedly, and in the helter-skelter of the reunion you have to do things like that very pointedly. We had a wonderful dinner, and at that dinner these five men appointed me the one who would pray for them. We would do our best in five years time to report back to one another, and they left knowing that I was their prayer partner for the next five years. For me, that was a wonderful development.
JMF: You have entered back into the friendship akin to what you once had with them, in a way that 25 years ago your perception of Christianity you wouldn’t know how to do.
JM: I couldn’t. I don’t think I had enough healing inside me, either. I could, by this time, have enough inner healing, healing of my memories, that I could go into my past with these fellows without being so guilty and so ashamed, that I had a major in guilt and in shame – no, I didn’t have to do that, because Christ while I was yet his enemy had died for me. He had died for all of this guilt and all of this shame, so I didn’t have to worry about it, I could do this with them. It’s amazing what a good time we had.
JMF: You were also asked to give an address to the group.
JM: Right. Once again, I had to go back on Sunday after spending Thursday, Friday, and Saturday with the university people. Then I had to go to the Nassau Christian Center again and give testimony. They were after me to … “tell us more about how you got healed and how you got delivered …” and I said, No, I don’t want to talk about that. Now, after 25 years, I want to talk about God and his freedom for us.
We are in Princeton. I had read a book by David Hackett Fischer entitled Washington’s Crossing in order to get ready for this reunion. Fischer’s book was handsomely done and it got a Pulitzer Prize. Fischer was willing to give us a tour based on this book of the Princeton battlefield. George Washington crossing the Delaware and on to Trenton and up into the Princeton battlefield. A lot of us, 150 of us had read the book and took this tour along with Fischer and James McCresson, as the historian in residence at Princeton these days.
We had this wonderfully rich day from morning and afternoon and we walked the walk from the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, across the Delaware onto the New Jersey side and then into the woods and through the paths that the armies would have taken to march to Princeton and face King George’s armies in that battlefield at Princeton. Along the way, along one of these wooded paths (Fischer calls them the conservative paths – that is, we were walking the same paths that the ragtag army of George Washington must have walked, because those paths don’t change in those woods)….
There we were walking the conservative paths that the armies had taken, and somehow Fischer and I got alongside with one another, and I was telling him how I loved his book because I hadn’t read a historian who was compelled to understand his subject, George Washington, in the categories of contingency and freedom. He thought he came up with this word contingency, and when I was telling him how much I loved it, he asked me where else contingency works. I said, It’s an old concept, the early fathers of the church invented it, and it’s fundamental to science in our time. You can read the concept of contingency in our scientific culture as well as in our Christian theology.
Fischer took down references to Tom Torrance’s Divine and Contingent Order and had me send him references to contingency from Barth’s work. I was just delighted with all that, because I didn’t dream I would ever get to witness to the leading historians at Princeton University, which I have obviously done. They gave us a marvelous tour to the battlefield and …
At the Princeton battlefield, there was a General Mercer (famous in Princeton, streets are named after him and everything), who came from Scotland an M.D., and he was one of Washington’s generals. He was on that battlefield and he was bayoneted about seventeen times on that battlefield, he died there. When they bayoneted him, they thought they had George Washington, because he was in full uniform. What occurred was that, when they made the bayonet charge, the American ragtags didn’t have bayonets. They were doomed, because there’s nothing they could do about it, and what I believe Mercer did was, in his full uniform, he yelled retreat and he took their attention and while they were busy bayoneting him, his troops got away. When they were killing him, they were saying things like, “Die, you rebel.” He looked up at them and said, “I am no rebel, I am a free man.”
That freedom, again, I’m much moved by it, and I hope I’ll be able to write a poem about that sometime. It was that same sense of freedom – not a monolithic sense, the Virginians didn’t think about freedom the same way as the New Hampshire people, the Massachusetts people, or the Pennsylvania – everybody had some notion of what freedom is and what freedom means, but somehow, contingency and freedom came together to give Washington a victory he should not have had over the professional armies he was up against, on his great horse.
Contingency and freedom are right up my alley. I could, with that same contingency, and with that same freedom, with the same freedom that George Washington won the Revolutionary War, I could go and be among my friends at Princeton University. It was really a wonderful feeling.
I took that sense of freedom to the church that morning when I gave my testimony, and I talked about the freedom from sin, the freedom from alcohol, and drugs and so forth, and the freedom to go back to the academy and achieve this or that in the academy. But the freedom to win, the freedom to live free – my text was the 2 Corinthians 3 passage, where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom.
The Spirit of God is involved on a contingent basis in George Washington’s victory. I linked up the freedom of George Washington to win, with my freedom from sin, with the church’s freedom to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God to all men, all men everywhere… This is the God who will not be who he is without all men, and there is no separation between God and mankind in Jesus Christ. If mankind wants to conceive itself as independent, or alienated from God – that’s their mind. But it is not the mind of God for them, there is no separation, he has reconciled all things to him. The struggle is to get all mankind to understand that it can only understand who it is by saying, “yes” to God’s good “yes” for us in Christ.
JMF: Doesn’t that change the approach we can take in evangelism toward people? Typically we take the approach of “You are separated from God, God is very angry with you, and if you do these steps, if you say the sinner’s prayer, then God will change his mind toward you.” That leaves us with the need to always be … (as Tom Torrance puts it in his book The Mediation of Christ) looking over our shoulder worrying about, “Is my faith strong enough, was my decision strong enough, am I walking the walk carefully enough.” We’re worried that we might somehow mess up this love that we have acquired by changing our attitude, our mind, and our ways.
But if, as Colossians says, and as Romans says, God has already reconciled us through his Son, and the success in that hinges only on Christ’s success in that, which is true success, then in our presentation of the gospel we’re really asking people to, because God is already on their side, has already reconciled them, therefore, they can – in perfect freedom, say “Yes.” They can repent of their sins and turn to him without fear that they’re not doing it right or they are not saying it well enough, or they’re not measuring up in some way. It seems to me it changes the whole perspective both for our own confidence and for how we view the so-called “enemies of God.”
JM: It’s taken me 25, 30 years to learn the meaning of that sentence. When I became a Christian, I was taught that I was separated from God and that God had broken down the barriers of separation with Jesus Christ, and all I had to do was decide to accept Christ and then I could walk through those barriers and no longer be separated but reconciled to him. That’s the gospel I understood.
To understand that there is no barrier, and if there seems to be a barrier there, it’s not one erected by God. God has torn it all down with himself, and he invites people to come to him, and he does that, as we’ve already said, while we’re sinners, while we’re yet his enemies, he justifies us in himself.
The hardest part for me – because you can’t really see this new way of beginning without understanding that when we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe in the Son of God – that there is no Jesus Christ except the Son of the Father. You can’t understand the relationship between the Father and the Son except in the Spirit of God. We have to understand that we have been taken up by Christ, reconciled to the Father, in the Spirit – it’s not just between Jesus Christ and us. It’s between who Christ really is, with the Father, in the Spirit. That’s why this Trinitarian faith, the Trinity … beginning in the light of the Trinity is so important.
Nobody is separated from that light. That light shines whether anybody likes it or not – just like the sun shines by day whether anybody likes it or not. That kind of a thing. What the relationship is between that light and the days and nights of people on earth is our problem, not God’s – because he made it, and he redeemed it in himself. I have taken 35 years to understand that I have been given to know God as God knows himself in such a way. I had to learn that God loves me more than he loved himself, because he went way out of his way – became a “sinner” for me, did everything that needed to be done in my place in order that I could become his child.
That’s the hardest part for people to believe, that they are a child of the Father and the Son, in the Spirit of God’s eternity, and the link between eternity and time and our lives and the life of God has been solidly established to Jesus Christ. That’s hard to believe. People don’t do it easily.
JMF: We look at the Father as being angry and ready to condemn us, I think, and Jesus somehow is standing there in the way trying to keep the Father from losing his temper and moved to help us. He is the nice guy. But Scripture tells us that if we’ve seen Christ, we’ve seen the Father. There’s no difference.
JM: The Father sent the Son. He participated with us through the Son, in the Spirit.
JMF: So if we want to know what the Father is like, we look at Christ.JM: Tom Torrance used to say that he loved his time as a chaplain in the second war. In the foxholes where men were dying, what they really wanted to know most, “Is God really like Jesus?” They learned a lot about Jesus. They know Jesus was kind and went about doing good things and healing people and that kind of thing – a pretty nice man. But was God really that way? Because behind the back of Jesus, they have in mind that God is very, very angry with them. There’s no such God.