John E. McKenna, God Chooses to Be With Us
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 in God, and God will not be who he is without us.
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JMF: In many of your classes, you focus on the concept of freedom and in particular, our freedom to obey God. Could you talk about that?
JM: I’ve given lectures and preaching on what we call the glorious freedom – a freedom that we do not naturally possess. Natural freedom is a freedom that maybe conceived as autonomy, autonomous freedom.
JMF: We usually think of freedom in theological terms, or Bible terms, or preachy terms, we think freedom is …
JM: Independence away from God.
JMF: … to do whatever we want, think whatever we want.
JM: Yeah. When you give it a second thought, created freedom – which must be freedom we possess naturally because we’re creatures, created freedom has certain limits to it. For instance, you and I were made to breathe air. If you try to breathe something else besides air, you’ll find yourself quickly in trouble.
JMF: There are boundaries to our freedom.
JM: Yeah, there are certain limits, so that without these boundaries, without these limits, there’s no freedom to talk about. Who sets these boundaries? Who sets these limits? How is our freedom dependent at the boundaries upon whatever else there is? My courses are designed to say that whatever else, is not nothing, and it’s someone, and it happens to be what I call the great I AM, the Lord God IS, as the blessed Trinity revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
My job in my courses is to show students how the great I AM of the burning bush speaking out of the flames to Moses is the same great I AM who speaks with us through his incarnate Word, is the same great I AM who through his incarnate Word he has revealed himself as the Father, Son, and Spirit of the blessed Trinity.
JMF: By “incarnate Word,” you’re talking about …
JM: The Word of God become flesh according to St. John’s Gospel.
JMF: So, Jesus Christ – the Incarnate Word.
JM: Jesus Christ, yeah.
JMF: And only in him do we see God as God really is.
JM: Without him, we don’t really know who he is in himself. In the Exodus tradition, Moses has to understand that the one who is sending him is the Great I AM who I AM. “You tell ’em I AM has sent you.” This I AM has named himself with Moses as the Lord God, the Redeemer, Creator. The I AM of Moses is the Redeemer Creator of the world, of his people – among the nations, in his creation. That was something new in the way of God naming himself and giving himself in his name in the history of the world.
JMF: What’s the significance of that to us?
JM: That I AM speaking with Moses is not another I AM than the one who speaks with us as the Holy Trinity which we worship today.
JMF: In other words, the God of the Old Testament, who we often look at as being the angry judge of Israel, and we think of as being the angry God whom we must be protected from by the kindness and sacrifice of Jesus. That’s not an accurate picture of God, then.
JM: Not at all, it’s not an accurate picture of the way he is, in himself, it’s not an accurate picture of the way he is in his acts in history with himself, and we have to learn this. The significance of this kind of continuity that I’m after, the I AM of the burning bush, the I AM of the Incarnation, the I AM of the Holy Trinity, is that there’s no separation, but deep and profound integration of the dogma of the church, with the biblical speaking of God, with the biblical theologies. You can’t have a separation – biblical theology over here, and church theology over there – which has occurred in our time, and because of it a lot of people ask this kind of question, “What’s the relationship between the God of the Old Testament, the God of the New Testament, and the God of the church?”
JMF: And by “God of the church,” it seems there are two kinds … when we talk about the church and God, there’s one approach we take as preachers when we’re preaching to a congregation, or when we’re pastors – we talk about God as being graceful or full of grace, and forgiving, and patient, and loving and helping people through crises and so on, encouraging them to know that God is with them. And yet when we go to find a definition for God and we look in the creed or we look in classical theology, to some degree, we find words like omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-powerful, and all-knowing – and we lay out this list as if that’s what God is. But when we are experiencing God in day-to-day life, we want to preach about a God who’s more like Christ, and so it’s like there are two ideas of God going on … Am I making sense?
JM: All those “omni” words I associate with the God of the Enlightenment, an abstract God, a God whose essence was so abstracted from the realities of history, that it was the biblical theologians who said, “Enough of that God. The God of the Bible is not an abstract God,” and they begin to say, “All we’re interested in is the God who acts in history.” There was this biblical theological movement, where people read the Bible to understand God in his acts. Never mind God in his being. All that’s essentialism – Greek philosophy, that kind of thing.
So the biblical theologians, with this reaction against the God of the Enlightenment, lost a real ontology with the being of God.
JMF: What’s “ontology”?
JM: Ontology has to do with the logic of being. There is a logic of God’s being in his names, and in his self- revelation with his names, that we mustn’t lose touch with. We mustn’t let go of. We mustn’t think that God is going to allow us to do that to him.
JMF: Kind of the idea of how we experience God being on one hand, as opposed to how God actually is, as he actually is – in preaching or counseling, we might say, “God is best revealed in Christ,” and we understand what God is like in Christ. But we put on the shelf, what is God like in his actual being, as something we don’t want to have to deal with.
JM: Christian orthodoxy forbids us from doing that. There’s a lot of problems here. Let me try and get the idea that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament, is not the same as the God of the church dogma.
Many people think the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and judgment. God of the New Testament – he’s the loving Jesus – sweet Jesus, going around, perfect man, healing, doing nothing but good to all mankind, and he gets killed for it. That’s what we think of a truly perfect man. He takes it all, while turning the other cheek. “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” He dies for us and is resurrected, and we have this message of his resurrected life that leads to the dogma of the church under the compelling reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, one God – there’s not two Gods.
The New Testament’s God of grace is the same as the Old Testament’s God of judgment. How can we think these together? I usually, easily show that the God of Moses and the God of the Exodus, and the God who reveals himself as the “I AM who I AM, you tell them I AM has sent you,” the Lord God is disliked right from the beginning. The people of God so dislike him that they make a golden calf for themselves, right on the heels of all that he’s given them in order to take them out of their slavery in Egypt and begin to take them across the wilderness into a Promised Land where they can enjoy life as life ought to be enjoyed.
To that golden calf, Moses is angry, God is angry, because he doesn’t want his people worshiping something that he’s not, and he is willing to kill them for worshiping their idol. Moses earns his stripes as an intercessor, intercedes for this people, and God agrees with Moses that he will go ahead and work with them in spite of their animosity towards him – I should say hostility, enmity – as it’s taken up in the New Testament words.
He says to Moses, “I’ll work with this people, but here is who I am going to be in this enterprise.” And he defines himself. In Exodus 34:6 – I call it the little credo of the great I AM. And those five terms of the little creed, the little credo of the Exodus tradition, I like to say them in Hebrew, because I don’t like to translate it in English, because if I translated it into English, everybody thinks they know what these words mean, and they don’t. The words are: rachum, hannun, ’erek ‘appayim, hesed ve ’emeth.
Let me just quickly go over: rachum, cognate with rechem: womb, compassion, hannun: favor, that which allows subsistence, sustaining. I’m the God of compassion, I’m the God of favor. ’Erek ‘appayim, is slow to anger – very vivid in the Hebrew idiom. I am slow to, my nostrils to reach, to get it as wide apart as they’re gonna get before I strike with my wrath. And then hesed ve ’emeth – very, very great words: grace and faithfulness. That’s who I AM in the Old Testament with this stiff-necked people of God.
This God who’s willing to define himself in this way with his stiff-necked people struggles across the whole history of Israel until he sends his Son. His Son – the Incarnate Word – is an embodiment of this little credo. Jesus Christ is rachum, Jesus Christ is hannun, Jesus Christ is ’erek ‘appayim, Jesus Christ is hesed; Jesus Christ is faithful, ’emeth. In the New Testament, hesed ve ’emeth – I like to think of it as the God of the future, we call Jesus Christ, “God’s grace and truth.” So it’s charis kai aletheia in the New Testament – grace and truth. This is the affirmation God has for the future of his people even though they’re gonna put him on the cross. He is willing to do it for them even though they are unwilling to receive him.
That’s how dogma gets to be what it is, because he is willing and he lives, we can have a church with a dogma. This dogma of the Holy Trinity is the same I AM that Christ claimed to be, and that he was in the Old Testament. It’s onto him that we have to learn who we are in his world. It’s a very big continuity there that people have a difficult time laying hold of. I call that the recovery of ontology in the biblical covenanted relationship that God has established between himself and his people, among the nations, in his creation.
JMF: So where does that leave the common person?
JM: The common person, whether he or she knows it or not, belongs to the great I AM of the Trinity of the Redeemer/Creator. That’s who we belong to.
JMF: And belonging means what?
JM: He made us, he made us for himself, he not only made us to breathe air, but he made us to worship him. We are worshiping not him, we’re having trouble. It’s like not breathing air. Everybody was made to worship the one who truly is transcendent over us.
JMF: And freedom works into that.
JM: Yes, it does. How do we come by the freedom to worship him, the freedom to obey him? How do we come by that? It’s a wonderful work of God in Jesus Christ. God sent his Son to die for us and to live for us. He did this once and for all forever, for as long as forever is. His kingdom is without end, the creed says. So once you believe in Christ in God, and God in Christ by the Spirit, you have believed in something that will never end.
JMF: Where does that leave the person, though, who’s struggling? In other words, you come to faith, you make a profession of faith, you do your best to walk in the ways of God, you read the Bible and you try to obey God as you understand you should, and you find yourself failing, and you hate to talk about it at church or to church people because they might be judgmental …
JM: Because they’re not teaching the one who is, who he truly is.
JMF: Where does that leave you? What do you do with that frustration, that guilt, the anxiety of your failure?
JM: A couple of things that we should learn from this kind of continuity and this kind of ontological relationship between God and ourselves, is that God will not be who he is without us. There is no such God who will be who he is without us. If you think there is a God that’s willing to be who he is without us, then you’re worshiping an idol, there is no such God.
JMF: Unpack that a little bit. What do you mean “he will not be…”
JM: He will not be the Lord God that he is, without his people.
JMF: Let me see if I am re-phrasing that in a way that works. Are you saying that he has chosen to embrace us and never let us go, and that’s how he’s chosen to be?
JM: That’s the God who is who he is. Yeah. His freedom to do this cannot be questioned. That would be like, “Who are you to create the universe? Who are you to send your Son to die for me?” Once you ask that question, you better be willing to hear an answer, because he will not be who he is without you. That’s the struggle you see right across the whole of the Bible.
JMF: So we get back to our own personal struggle, then, you see yourself falling short, you’re saying that …
JM: See him struggling with you struggling, and in order to give you a “yes” to say to him. Because he’s already said “yes” to you in this way with his Son. He’s already struggling with us. And he struggles with us in such a way that he’s going to be known for who he is, and we’re going to be the child of God that he’s made us to be.
JMF: Where does that leave me on a day-to-day basis? Let’s say I pick up the Bible, but oftentimes in the struggle of our own weaknesses, we don’t pick up the Bible, but let’s say I do. I read a passage about how God punishes his people for disobedience. I see myself struggling with disobedience, and I conclude, “I’m just going to have to sit here and wait till the punishment comes.”
JM: Or, wait until he gives you the freedom to obey. The freedom to disobey has to do with some kind of “no” down deep inside of you – that says “No” to him. I’m not going to obey you, who do you think you are with me? He’s has to take that “No” up in himself, in his love, and in his willingness to sacrifice himself to serve you – to be your atonement.
JMF: The person is saying, “No.” He said, “Yes.” And you’re saying he won’t stop saying, “Yes,” the Scripture tells us.
JM: There’s not any “Yes and No” in God. There’s only “Yes and No” in man, in sinners.
JMF: There’s only God’s “Yes” to you.
JM: Yes, that’s all there is.
JMF: So what do you want the person who – any person – a person who’s struggling, a person who’s not struggling, a person who thinks he’s not struggling – a person …
JM: I want them to know that God will not be who he is without you.
JMF: So he will love you in spite of yourself.
JM: Yes. He will not be who he is, a God of love, a God of light and life, he will not be who he is without you.
JMF: There’s a passage about how he won’t reject himself, and that’s in the context of he won’t reject his Son and if he won’t reject his Son, and of all creation, as we read in Ephesians and Colossians, and so on…
JM: He’s certainly not going to reject the creation, is he?
JMF: …it’s all taken up in Christ, who has redeemed it – so he will not reject you, then. That’s a comforting thought in the middle of this depression, I would think, if in the midst of our struggle, if we can remember …
JM: When you’re mad, when you’re raging against him, all kinds of aberrations and phantoms appear in this kind of mind. He’s going to struggle through it all for you so that you can see him for who he truly is with you. That’s what he does. How that happens to everybody, each particular person, it happens each particular person particularly. I don’t know how to generalize that, I don’t know how to formalize that.
JMF: Even with belief, there’s a story in the New Testament where an individual seeking healing for a child says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
JM: That’s been a regular prayer of mine.
JMF: The belief, the faith that we wish we had…
JM: He has for us.
JMF: …he already has for us. All the responses that we are supposed to have to God, Christ has already, on our behalf, made those responses.
JM: He’s taken up all those broken responses in himself.
JMF: And yet we still find ourselves in this anxiety and fear and frustration and sense of being alienated from God.
JM: That’s what unbelief is like. It’s a fierce rage that we have against him. There’s no way to explain it... If God is the God of love that we say he is, he’s sent his Son and his Son died and rose from the dead for us, ascended to the right hand of the Father, sent his Spirit so that his Spirit in the world is where freedom is, you’re free to be free with him, or free to be free without him. It’s just two different places.
Why is it that some people can say to this loving God, “No”? It’s not rational to refuse the love that God is. But more people do it than you want to count, as far as I can see. And even as good as he’s been to me – delivered me from drugs and alcohol, and so forth – I’ve taken 35 years to learn how to love him. It’s been a struggle, yeah. But it’s a struggle that he wins, and I know that he will not be who he is without me. Go ahead and struggle away, because he’s gonna struggle harder.
JMF: When does the struggle end?
JM: When we die.
JMF: If the struggle ends at death, then what about people who die and they haven’t consciously …
JM: He will not be, even beyond death, before and after death, he will not be the God he is without us. Before you and after you, he’s got you covered. He’s got all of you covered – he’s got your whole time past, your present, your whole future…
JMF: And yet you’re never going to enjoy this relationship, be it good or bad,…
JM: Not while you’re saying “No.” That’s the problem, somehow people want to reject him.
JMF: Is that hell?
JM: That would be hell, in my mind.
JMF: Hell; just remaining in this “No.”
JM: Yeah. People are living, do live in hell who have in them only a “No.” People struggle to say “Yes” to something or other, just so that they don’t have to look at this big “No” that they have down there in them, in themselves. They become optimists, they form clubs, they do everything to get a little positive view of things.
JMF: And yet we remain in miserable hellish condition until such time as we do receive his “Yes” for us.
JM: In John somewhere, what is the work of God that he would have me do? It’s just believe, believe in me. That’s all. There’s a great cause, it’s the real cause of freedom, and that’s why I like to talk about freedom, because freedom is not “from this” or “for that.” Freedom is to know who God is and obey him.
JMF: C.S. Lewis in one of his books, The Great Divorce – kind of an allegory, opens the concept that even after death God continues to persist as always in his love toward those in hell, and in the story there’s a bus that goes back and forth regularly between heaven and hell and anyone who wants to get on the bus can go up to heaven for a visit. They can stay if they want, and in the story there are those who do, but strangely, most get back on the bus and are more comfortable heading on back down to hell. But they’re still free to go up again if they want. I think in another place he likened hell as having the doors or gates or whatever locked from the inside, as a picture.
JM: I like that part of it. There might be some pipe-smoking theology in Lewis’ literary talent. But I like “the doors locked from inside.” You know that he’s there, but you will not allow him to come in.
JMF: And he respects that?
JM: Freedom … is precious.
JMF: But he keeps standing and knocking.
JM: Yeah. He will not be your head, without your freedom. He will not encroach upon your freedom to choose to say “yes” to him. We’ve talked about this little conversion from your last “No” converted into a “yes” to his big “Yes.” The big “Yes” is him in Christ for us. There is no other fellowship with God that there is to be had. There’s no other atonement, there’s no other forgiveness, there’s no other reconciliation, but this one. If you’re saying “no” to that, you need that “no” converted to your little “yes,” and that little “yes” is the wonderful participation in the glorious freedom of God to be God with us. It’s a mystery how that conversion takes place, when it takes place.
JMF: God is at work in many, many ways that we aren’t aware of.
JM: Yes. Fundamental to the ontology of the great I AM is, the incomprehensibility of God’s mystery with us has nothing whatsoever to do with human ignorance of him. It has everything to do with what he’s given humanity to know of him. So only in apprehending him can you understand his incomprehensibility. Most people think incomprehensibility through some kind of humility that confesses ignorance of him is what we need to talk about. That’s not God’s incomprehensibility, that’s just incomprehensibility of some unknown thing. But when you know God for who he truly is – because he’s given you to apprehend him for who he truly is, you know the incomprehensible one. That’s gotta go straight through from Moses to church dogma.
JMF: So is there a sense in which God is continually revealing himself to every person even though they are continually saying “no” and to some degree, even those of us who have given our little “yes” – as you said – we still in many ways continue to say “no” ….
JM: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.
JMF: There are lots of rooms in our life in which we still keep the door locked.
JMF: We just keep him in the parlor.
JM: Keep him talking out there in the parlor while...
JMF: Have at it. But he’s going to find his way there, because he does love you and he is concerned to be your Father, and our Father.
JM: There are people who can’t love the Father just because of their experience with their families. I couldn’t love the Father very easily, he had to teach me how to love him. Because my father; I didn’t love so much, to put it modestly. But he does, and he’s a master. I can say to you today that I have a Father. It’s not like the one on earth. So I’m very grateful.
JMF: To me that speaks to evangelism a lot. I think we often get the idea that evangelism abides with us; it depends on us. It seems like the gospel motivates us to evangelize with all the vigor we can muster and yet at the same time to rest in our vigorous evangelism with the confidence that it really doesn’t depend on us. God will be who he will be, and he loves people more than we can, and he will reach them…
JM: Much more so.
JMF: …and in spite of our successes or failures or wisdom or lack of wisdom that we bring to the project.
JM: Yeah, we can depend upon him for his love. That’s what shalom means, his peace. You do whatever vigor you do things, you have to be able to do it in a peace that passes understanding in God.
JMF: And when we see people as being loved by God rather than as enemies,
JM: We see the truth.
JMF: …we see that he does what he does while we were still enemies, while they’re still enemies, we can approach people as one of them, as opposed to…
JM: That’s the truth of his love for all of us, enemies or not.
JMF: We’ve come to a conclusion.
JM: Don’t say “no” - say “yes.”
JMF: What passage, or what chapter would you encourage people to read after they’re done listening to us ranting back and forth today?JM: My favorite book is the Gospel of St. John. I started reading that in 1972. Chapters 15, 16, 17. I read them because they’re all in red letter. “Oh boy, that’s Jesus talking, I’m going to read those words first.” Those words today are just as truthful with me as they were in 1972. Read them and listen.