Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Are Sinners Really in the Hands of a Loving God?

Brian Zahnd, founding pastor of the Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo., is a man I consider a new friend. I first met Brian on June 25 when I went to St. Joe to hear him preach, and then I drove back to St. Joe to have lunch with him on July 13. I have found him to be a warm and genuine person, an engaging preacher, and an author of engrossing books.
A Bit about BZ
June and I started referring to Brian Zahnd as BZ, partly because we know other Zahnds and other Brians. I could take this whole article just to introduce him, but I will make this part brief.
BZ was born in 1959 in Savannah, Mo., the oldest son of an attorney who later became a county judge. Glen Zahnd was also a leading member of the First Baptist Church in that county seat town.
When BZ was a high school student, he became a “Jesus freak,” and joined other young Christians who practiced their faith in “The Catacombs” in St. Joe. From that group he started the Word of Life Church when he was 22—and he is still the pastor of that congregation, which became and still is a megachurch.
Culminating in 2004, BZ experienced a rather drastic theological change. He turned from what he refers to as “cotton candy Christianity” to what he believes is a more authentic Christian faith based upon a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ.
Because of that change of emphasis, BZ told me that he lost about a thousand members from his church that had had a weekly attendance of about 4,000.
A Bit about BZ’s Books
BZ’s book Water to Wine: Some of My Story (2016) tells about his “conversion” in 2004. It was the first of his books that I read, and I found it fascinating.
Then I read BZ’s 2014 book titled A Farewell to Mars and really enjoyed it also. His views on war and peace are very much in harmony with that of the Mennonites—and he now often speaks at Anabaptist conferences, although his church is not affiliated with any denomination.
BZ’s newest book was released on August 15, and my reading of it prompted this article, for its title is Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.
The Point of BZ’s Newest Book
When he was a young charismatic/evangelical preacher, BZ made regular use of Johnathan Edwards’s (in)famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But his theological change in 2004 led BZ to reject what he came to call the “monster God” and to affirm God as the God of love for all people at all times.  
BZ’s emphasis on the unchangeable love of God led him to reject the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. (You can review here my recent article about PSA, which ended with reference to Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son.)
The cover illustration of BZ’s new book is of the prodigal son being welcomed by his loving father. That depiction of God as always loving, always forgiving, always accepting is the key to an adequate understanding of God.
Further, BZ’s emphasizes that “hell” is the terrible conditions some people experience in this life rather than as some future state of eternal punishment decreed by God. To BZ, no one at any time who wishes to experience the loving acceptance of God is ever rejected or caused to suffer punishment by God for any reason.
BZ’s book may seem odious to some conservative evangelical Christians, but it boldly, and correctly, promulgates the “scandalous truth” that sinners really are in the hands of a loving God.


25 comments:

  1. Thanks, Leroy. I'm pleased to hear of Zahnd's work. What precisely led him to his theological conversion?

    Also what does "conservative evangelical Christian" mean? Is there such a thing as a liberal evangelical Christian? If so, what does that mean?

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    1. Here is a brief email message from a local Thinking Friend:

      "In answer to Anton, I think Jim Wallis is the most public example of a liberal evangelical Christian."

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  2. Thanks, Anton, for reading this new blog article early this morning--and for asking important questions.

    It seems that BZ started reading classical theological literature, especially that of the Church Fathers. In addition, he had what he calls mystical experiences that confirmed the truth of what he was reading and thinking.

    You know what "conservative evangelical Christian" means. They are those of the so-called Christian Right; they are the "Christians" who voted for DJT and who, to a large extent, still support him.

    And, yes, I think there are "liberal evangelical" Christians. BZ is one, although he does not like labels of any kind. The subtitle of his book "A Farewell to Mars" is "An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace." (He may or may not have chosen that subtitle; as you know, sometimes publishers want to use titles that they think will see more books.)

    And as you see, the subtitle of "Sinners . . ." is "The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News." Since an evangelical is one who believes and seeks to proclaim "good news," BZ would be accurately classified as a liberal evangelical. (And I would not reject that designation for myself, although I don't particularly like labels either.)

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    1. If changing spiritually is about American politics, it ain't worth spittin' on. I'm not a Republican, but voted for the Donald as the lesser of 2 EVILS (#17 of 18). I find myself on a similar path to Brian - it has nothing to do with Americanism politics, which is a scandalously appalling across the board. If Christ is prioritized on DC politics, I reject the faith. Politics was never His mission or Kingdom.

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    2. Anonymous, I hope this is the last time I hear you call Hillary Clinton "evil"--even putting it in capitals!. I have followed Hillary her entire public life, and fully appreciate her continuing in spite of the hateful men who have tried to stop her by lying about her since her early public life. She was even criticized for not divorcing Bill during that awful time in her life. There are many words to describe Hillary Clinton, but "EVIL" is not one of them!

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  3. Here are pertinent comments from local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet:

    "BZ's book, 'Beauty Will Save the World,' is another treasure worth mentioning. He and his wife, Peri, are examples of--to use secular language--'life-long learners,' that is, spiritually alive and open for deeper understandings of God's work for them. I especially appreciate the example of commitment to one's own faith with authentic regard for God's revelation within other religions of the world."

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    1. Thanks, Vern, for your comments. I have not yet read, and did not mention, BZ's book "Beauty . . .," so I appreciate you making reference to it.

      I also appreciate the example of Brian and his wife, whom I have not met yet, being lifelong learners. That is something we all should seek to be--and you also have been exemplary in that regard, it seems to me.

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  4. Thanks for sharing, Leroy. I read BZ's book this past month in preparation for a sermon at First Baptist Church here in Cape Girardeau. I found it to be extremely engaging, helpful, convicting, and eye-opening. I would also recommend the new work by Gregory A. Boyd: Crucifixion of the Warrior God. It is a 1500-page, 2 volume work that is mostly geared towards academics. However, he just published a popularized version called Cross Vision.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Tyler.

      I am sorry I did not have space to mention your excellent Aug. 20 sermon in which you refer to BZ.

      To those of you would might like to listen to Tyler's sermon, here is the link where you can find the podcast: https://s3.amazonaws.com/podcasts.fbccape.com/2017/08)+August/DiffQuest02.mp3

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  5. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for introducing us to the ideas of Brian Zahnd.

    "The relationship between God and sinners, as envisioned by BZ, stands in stark contrast to the penal systems of the United States. Every human being, even the worst of the worst, has dignity and no one should be subject to abuse. A person may commit anti-social acts because of mental illness or an organic brain disorder, or he or she may have been abused as a child. Others simply made bad choices.

    "Should we punish and abuse these individuals, or should we treat them with dignity and try to help them? Some prisoners are probably incurable, and require permanent incarceration, but even they have dignity and should not be abused. It is difficult to show respect for the dignity of others when one's own dignity is not respected.

    "There is a movement in the United States toward the use of private prisons, where human dignity takes a back seat to profits. It is difficult to view such penal schemes as anything other than immoral. One would hope that we can do better as a nation."

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric. They are not directly related to the blog article perhaps, but my guess is that people who agree with BZ about sinners being in the hands of a loving God are much more likely to treat people in prison with dignity and compassion than are those who believe that sinners are in the hands of an angry God.

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  6. It is amazing how people change as they go through life. Indeed, I have found life to be a sojourn, but one with a rigid foundation (my initial sojourn looked various religions and the concept of no religion/god). Presuppositions must be understood. I have never found the foundation to be weak, but taking a look at the building with fresh eyes has led to some interesting remodeling. Western Christianity, and especially Americanism has led to some interesting novel doctrines - it is not just the "conservative evangelical Christians".

    Not only has the American Church lost a good understanding of the love of God (actually it has probably just morphed with the culture), it has also lost its "fear of God"; a perspective of the "holiness of God"; and a has redefined "the worship of God". Ian Anderson put it well in his poem "Aqualung", noting that we have created god in our own image, so we have him by the balls.

    Followers of Christ do need to take a serious look at their presuppositonal house (even the foundation), compared to what the Bible and Church tradition say. We need to be challenged. We also need to ask if we really believe what we "believe", and are we willing to do something about it or change.

    But a key question remains, what flexibility is there is in modifying the structure without compromising the foundation and load bearing walls?

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    1. BZ seems to have made a radical change in his theology--and in his understanding of worshipping God--by going back to the foundation: faith in the Christ found in the New Testament and interpreted by the Church Fathers. He seems to have rebuilt his own belief-system on that firm foundation.

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  7. I hope we are "Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God," because my Sunday School class this summer got me to read "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. American Exceptionalism exposed as a settler-colonialism manifestation of blatant imperialism is not light beach reading, although I did read about how August 9 became the annual UN International Day for the World's Indigenous Peoples while I was camping at Westport-Union Landing State Beach in California on that very day (August 9) this year. That park was almost closed in 2010 by the state of California to save money, but the very indigenous people from whom it was once seized saved the park so they could continue to visit their ancient sacred land. As for that seizure, after practicing against the Pomo in California, the United States moved on to bigger and better things at Wounded Knee, in what is now South Dakota. Slavery is not the original sin of America. Genocide is our original sin, although, to be fair, slavery followed hard behind. For more on the history of the Pomo, read here: http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art/basket/pomohist.html

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    1. Thank you, Craig. Annexation and broken treaties go way back, but prominently included Abraham Lincoln, who broke treaties, approved the largest mass execution, and assigned Custer to clear the plains. One of many, but no hero by any stretch.

      And yet as last week, we find that point the finger, we find three of our own pointing at us. Lord have mercy on us.

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    2. Craig, good to hear from you again! (I had missed you over the summer.)

      Being in the hands of a loving God does not mean that God condones whatever we sinful humans do or that there is no judgment for egregious sins toward others. But, thankfully, God's grace is greater than our sin!

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  8. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky writes,

    "I’m happy to hear of evangelical conversions. All too many evangelicals haven’t discovered God as Jesus knew God, or they wouldn’t have voted for Trump."

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  9. This is from Thinking Friend Virginia Belk in New Mexico:

    "Our pastor also preaches about the forever loving, always forgiving God. It does put a whole new slant on traditional theology and fits with what I had come to believe.

    "I have a question for you. Does one have to confess the sin before it is forgiven?"

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Virginia.

      The prodigal son had to come home to experience forgiveness, but it seems that he received forgiveness before he could say a word to his waiting father. Maybe that is the way it is for all of us human sinners before God.

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  10. Dr. Graham Hales, a Thinking Friend in Mississippi whom I first knew as a fellow graduate student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1960s, has sent these comments:

    "I like this blog of yours. But, for all to remain in God's love and to come to accept him, implies a time after earthly death when this can happen. Such is the Mormon view.

    "I like universalism and have no problem with it other than I believe a person has the freedom to reject God's love for ever. I guess that is why conditional immortality appeals to me so much. I do think everyone is judged only by the light they have seen. Thus, perhaps there is a time after earthly death when all hear the Gospel and can make their decision. If yes, to eternal life. If no, into oblivion."

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    1. Thanks, Graham, for your comments.

      To respond to just one of the points you made, you probably remember how Dr. Rust used to say that Hell is "Love's rejection of the rejection of love."

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  11. And here are comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "You got my attention when you mention St. Joseph, MO where your friend BZ lives and ministers. That is where I was born. My dad was District Superintendent of Missions for the Missouri Baptist Convention at that time.

    "I have long had trouble with Edwards's sermon title that you mentioned. I have also struggled with the carnage described in the Old Testament regarding the nature of God. The O.T. God sounds more like the Islam, Allah, than the loving God of the New Testament. As the old saying goes, 'We'll probably be surprised who we will meet in heaven and who we won't meet in heaven.'

    "God's grace is a marvelous thing beyond our deepest understanding, and I'm not going to second guess about who will be there. Billy Graham was once asked if he believed that God would save everyone. Graham's reply was, 'I hope so.' Those are my sentiments exactly."

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    1. Thanks, Truett, for your comments also.

      BZ's new book deals with how the OT must be understood and interpreted in the life of what we know about God through Jesus. (I may be mentioning this in a blog article before long.)

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  12. Here is a brief comment from Thinking Friend Glen Davis, who is a Canadian Presbyterian:

    "​Thanks, Leroy for introducing BZ and his transformative theology. It certainly resonates with my understanding of reformed, biblical theology."

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  13. If sinners WERENT.. in the hands of a Loving God.. then.. I believe there are no one in his hands... I have known sinners were in his his hands.. ever since I believed what he said of who he was ..was true... not to bore you all but today.. walking my dog.. I met a woman who I tried to share my Christianity with... she said.. oh.. Gary.. we believe Jesus was a good man.. but not anything more... I told her ... here is something I know you can believe if you give it some thought.. if he (Jesus) wasn't who he said he was.. he was a fraud.. pulled off the biggest sham of all mankind... take him out of your theology... or put him in... don't just call him a 'good man' ... he's not!!! --Gar

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