Sunday, August 12, 2018

Anathema

“If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”

This is Paul’s fourth-last sentence in his first letter to the Corinthians. It’s a pretty decisive concluding statement, and I’ve always wondered about it just a little.

I mean, it’s awfully strong language, making it difficult to argue that the apostle is merely using rhetoric to make his point. It is literally, “Let him be anathema,” meaning “doomed to destruction”.

One might well ask the question, “Is that exactly fair?” For a lack of love?

Opportunity After Opportunity

Isaiah has something to say about God’s remarkable evenhandedness:
“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
  I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
  I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call upon
       my name.
  I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people,
       who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices;
       a people who provoke me to my face continually.”
Here the Lord reveals that he has given opportunity after opportunity to those who did not deserve one, to those who have displayed no interest in his mercy and to those who have compounded their evil by thumbing their noses at Heaven.

Like any others, these words come with a historical context. The prophet Isaiah is contrasting apostate Israel — the “rebellious people”, the “nation that did not call upon my name” — with “my servants”, “offspring from Jacob” and “my chosen”, God’s faithful Israelite remnant. God declares that he has offered the opportunity to enter into a relationship with him to both those who care and those who don’t. He says to all, “Here I am, here I am.”

Beyond the Context

Now, the section of scripture in which Isaiah speaks for God is inarguably prophetic. While it takes into account God’s dealings with Israel to that point, it also stands as an accurate declaration concerning God’s desire to be known and to enter into a relationship with all those throughout history who did not ask for him, did not seek him and did not call on his name. By no means is his grace limited to those of Hebrew stock. Indeed, earlier in the same book, God tells his Messiah:
“I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus in Christ, the same wonderful invitation extended to debased idol-worshipers in Israel is extended today to our entire world, and God’s words through the prophet could as easily apply to our neighbors, family members, friends and co-workers who reject Christ as they applied in their day to the Israelite rebels.

Here I Am

Do you want to know God? He wants to be known by you, even if until this very moment you have displayed no interest in him at all. Do you want to be able to enter into the sort of relationship with him in which you can rely on his help in time of need? It doesn’t matter if up until this very second you have lived your life in independence of him, determined to have your own way, solve your own problems and make your own choices. God is happy to say, “Here I am” to those who have not previously called upon his name whenever they change their minds.

What more could anyone ask from the God of heaven?

When we read that the servants of God are destined to eat while those who continue willfully in rebellion will go hungry, or that the former will drink while the latter will thirst, or that the former will rejoice while the latter can look forward to being the objects of public shame, what can we reasonably conclude? That some people willingly reject food, refreshment and joy. There is no other way we can look at it.

Condemned Already

Thus, when rebels become the object of final judgment — “I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter, because, when I called, you did not answer; when I spoke, you did not listen” — who among us can complain that God is unfair? In the person of his beloved Son, God’s invitation to enter into a relationship with him, to forgiveness of sins, and to ongoing fellowship has been freely offered to all.

There is only one way to enter into a relationship with God, and it is through his Son. When Paul says of the man who refuses to do so, “Let him be accursed,” he is not adding anything new to the teaching of his Lord and Master, which is that:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The statement occurs only two verses after the declaration that “God so loved the world,” in a conversation Jesus had with a religious seeker who, in the eyes of the world was surely among those who could claim to be on the right side of heaven. Yet Jesus plainly stated that no grand accumulation of crimes and misdemeanors is required to condemn a man before God and drive him from his presence for eternity; the simple rejection of his designated means of salvation is sufficient to do the job in and of itself.

Same Truth, Different Words

Paul is merely putting this same truth in different words, in effect adding his own resounding Amen! to the words of Christ. Love for a wife, husband or child may be demonstrated any number of ways, but love for God is demonstrated first and foremost through obeying his instructions. I have been characterizing God’s outreach to fallen man as a sort of invitation, but that is not the only way the Bible portrays it. Repentance is not just something to which the unbeliever is cordially invited if he feels so inclined: it is a direct command. So “love for the Lord” is not some magic ability to generate approved emotions on demand. It is obedience to a clear set of heavenly instructions that have been repeated across our world going on two thousand years.

And for those of us who have truly come to know what we once were in the eyes of God, and what we have been forgiven, believe me, the appropriate emotions are no problem.

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