Preaching Gospel as Gospel: How Unconditional is Unconditional?

images_zps818f7403.jpeg~original.jpegThe gospel is the story of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the performative mode of unconditional promise. What this means practically for the preacher is this: each week, through prayer, study, and meditation on the appointed biblical text, he must find a way to proclaim the text as good news, as glad tidings that liberates his hearers for the kingdom rather than as law that accuses, enslaves, and destroys. The preacher is charged not just to inform his hearers about God and instruct them in the moral and ascetical life. First and foremost he is charged to change their lives by gathering their fears, tragedies, failures, sins, and hopes into the ultimate triumph of Jesus Christ. The preacher enacts the final future. The gospel is simultaneously eschatological and existential address—a living word that liberates from guilt, evokes hope, and opens fresh possibilities for love and life. A proper homily, in other words, bestows the Holy Spirit.

I have insisted in this series that the gospel is unconditional promise. So far my readers have not pushed me too hard on this, yet I detect a measure of anxiety. Exactly how unconditional is unconditional? Surely we must respond to God’s love, must we not? Love must be freely accepted if a free and mutual relationship is to be established, right? For Orthodox, Catholics, and Arminian Protestants, the freedom of the human person to accept or reject God is decisive and ultimate. In the words of Paul Evdokimov: “God can do everything, except constrain us to love him.” It would appear, then, that here we have finally reached a limit. How can the risen Jesus promise us that we are destined for his kingdom, when we are free to reject him? Given human freedom, the “gospel” can only, therefore, be a qualified promise:  “… if you believe, repent, and persevere.” Hence not really really good news at all. God has done his part; now it’s up to us to do ours. The burden of our salvation rests upon our shoulders: if we want to be saved, we must repent of our sins, ask God to forgive us, love him in return, commit ourselves to ascetical discipline, follow the moral precepts, and not be caught dead in mortal sin.

It is descriptively true that together faith, repentance, love, sanctity form the one essential condition for salvific communion with the Holy Trinity. We must be made fit for heaven.  But consider how this will inevitably be heard by our congregations if we preach this condition as the evangel of the resurrection—gospel becomes law! As we have seen, nomistic preaching of this kind only reinforces the power of “the law of sin and death” over our people and ourselves. Yet preachers do it all the time, and then they wonder why their sermons bear so little spiritual fruit.

At some point in the future I hope to write a couple of articles addressing the question of human freedom. I am not satisfied with the way the God-human relationship is commonly formulated. There is more to be said. Synergism is far more mysterious than popularly conceived. But for the moment I simply register my disagreement with conditionalist construals of the Christian message. The gospel is good news—good, wonderful, exhilarating, transformative, deifying news. It is good news because it is unconditional promise declaimed by the One who is risen from the dead. As Robert Jenson writes:

The final promise is and has to be … absolute, unconditional, entirely and utterly free of “if’s” or “maybe’s” of any sort. The point is again tautologous: an Eschaton can be promised only unconditionally—whatever problems that may raise about the hearer’s acceptance, etc. I have not got things going until I [the preacher] hear from the text and can say to my hearers, “You will be …, in spite of all considerations to the contrary.” This is the distinction of gospel from law; for the law is any address with an “if.” (“The Preacher, the Text, and Certain Dogmas,” dialog (Spring 1982): 112)

If the Church never speaks unconditional promise in the name of Christ, then the gospel is simply never spoken. Some other language game is being played.

The gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers, made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe …” It does not even say, “If you want to do good/repent/believe …,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe …” The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.” The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all conditions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrelevant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive. (Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism, p. 42)

But didn’t the Reformers tell us that we are justified by faith? In the history of Protestantism, faith has often been presented as the one condition that needs to be fulfilled for salvation. This conviction lies behind revivalist decisionism, for example. Yet when faith is given its full biblical significance as trust and dependence, it can only be construed but disastrously as a condition for salvation. “If I really think I can win ultimate fulfillment by chastity, or civil honesty, or even monastic asceticism,” observes Jenson, “there is no insuperable problem in performing such things, given so overwhelming a motivation. But how do I set out to believe? And how would I ever know I had achieved it?” (p. 37).

What then does “faith” mean? Try thinking about it this way: if I speak to you a conditional promise, what is your response going to be? Quite likely you will either ignore it, or you will start fulfilling the stated conditions. Conditional promises, in other words, educe and demand what the Reformers called “works.” It doesn’t matter whether the works are moral or ascetical. The only response to the law is “doing” or “not doing.”

But if I speak to you an unconditional promise, what might your response be? Does it even make sense to speak of a “response”? Thus Jenson: “‘Faith’ is not the label of an ideological or attitudinal state. Like ‘justification,’ the word evokes a communication-situation: the situation of finding oneself addressed with an unconditional affirmation, and having now to deal with life in these terms. Faith is a mode of life” (p. 41). Because the gospel is performative declaration—i.e., it changes the linguistic world its hearers inhabit and thus changes the hearer himself—it generates the kind of response we cannot easily describe: faith is just breathing and thinking and sensing and feeling and trusting and doing—all on the basis of the gospel. Faith is living in the liturgy of the kingdom. “The faith by which one is justified,” explains Gerhard Forde, “is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection” (Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life, p. 22).

There is nothing to do with the word of grace but to either believe it or disbelieve it. There is also another possible response, which I suppose is but a form of disbelief—namely, offense and outrage. How dare you infringe on my freedom to reject you eternally!  How dare you invade my personal space! (Recall Jenson’s formulation of the metalinguistic rule.)  An unconditional promise intrudes into my life in a way that a mere truth claim or nomistic demand does not.  An unconditional promise brings with it the presence of the promisor.

“But what if,” the preacher asks, “I proclaim the gospel as unconditional promise, and no one is converted or liberated from bondage or filled with the Spirit?” That is not your concern, dear friend. Your job is to preach the gospel and leave the results to God. Remember: the only hope for the salvation and renewal of your congregation is proclamation of the kergyma, not the legalistic exhortation to “try harder.” Your people have heard that message all their lives! But the law never converts; it only generates grudging obedience, self-righteousness, rebellion, and despair.

“But what if my congregation exploits the promise to live a life of sin?” This is a danger, of course; but remember that St Paul had to face the same problem. “Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?” The Apostle doesn’t backtrack or qualify himself: “Absolutely not!” he answers. “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:1-3). Translation: the baptized are no longer the kind of people who seek to gratify the desires of the flesh. Through the gospel we have been crucified with Christ and are now a new creation.  This is eschatological speech. This is the way we must think and talk if we really believe that the kingdom has been inaugurated in the Church.  The only cure for sin is more gospel-preaching!  Just know that if no one ever accuses you of promoting antinomianism, then you probably aren’t preaching the gospel.

As long as we preachers understand our task as talking about Jesus or about doctrine or about morality or about anything else, it will always seem to be a secondary, perhaps even minor, part of our ministry.  But once we see that the proclamation of the gospel is an eschatological-sacramental event, that it is the risen Christ himself who is the herald and that through our words he slays our parishioners in their sin and rebirths them into the new life of the kingdom, then preaching takes on fresh and compelling urgency. It is the very unconditionality of the gospel, Forde explains, “that puts to death and raises up—at one and the same time” (p. 93).

“But surely you are not telling us never to summon our congregation to repentance?” Of course not. But there is a proper order to the gospel message. James B. Torrance makes a helpful distinction between legal repentance and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance follows upon the conditionalist promise: Repent, and if you do, you will be forgiven. The forgiveness of God is made contingent upon our repentance and conversion. Evangelical repentance, on the other hand, flows from the unconditional proclamation of the love and mercy of Christ: Because Christ has died for your sins, you are forgiven and reconciled; therefore, repent and walk in the way of Christ. “Forgiveness is logically prior to repentance …,” explains Torrance. “Repentance is the work of the Spirit in bringing home to us the meaning of Calvary—a response to grace, not a condition of grace.”

How unconditional is the gospel? Utterly! So preach it!

(edited on 10 April 2018)

(Go to “When Law Becomes Torah”)

This entry was posted in Grace, Justification & Theosis, Preaching, Robert Jenson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Preaching Gospel as Gospel: How Unconditional is Unconditional?

  1. Oak Hill Studio says:

    Oh to breathe the fresh air of the truly Good News of the gospel! This is so invigorating–thank you so much! If I could only find a place where this good news is preached.


  2. Marc says:

    Wow Father, that is a lot to consider. Perhaps one of the keys to understanding this better is the spiritual reality of the First Resurrection of being born again. Can this really be experienced before we enter into the spiritual realm after our spirit and soul departs from our dead body? Baptism into the Church and struggling to overcome sin is an effort to die early so as to experience the joy of rebirth in the First Resurrection. However, we still must make the transition out of this life and into the next. When we encounter the Lord in the spiritual realm, the true nature of His unconditional love will be so clearly manifested that perhaps everyone will desire the healing necessary for eternal life. The early Church’s teaching on the Harrowing of Hades seems to support this.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Marc, just think of all the biblical passages that support the view that the kingdom is now present, that we now live in its power and grace. I bet you can list them as well as I! Romans 5-8 would be a good place to begin, though. The fulfillment of the kingdom is future, of course, and so we live in this awkward in-between stage–the kingdom is here but not yet. But the NT simply does not make sense, at least not to me, if we do not understand baptismal life as “life in the Spirit.” The task of the preacher is to communicate this life by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

      This is what the Holy Eucharist is—the descent of the kingdom into our midst. This is particularly clear in the Eastern Orthodox expression of the Eucharist.

      Please understand that I am the worst possible example of “eschatological existence,” as my wife, family, friends, as well as the congregations I once pastored, can testify. Yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were all true?

      Nothing I have written undermines either the ascetical or the moral life; but it does reground both in the life of the coming kingdom.


  3. Marc says:

    Thanks Fr. Aidan. It is the joy of living in the kingdom now, combined with the expectation of the new heaven and earth that are truly good news.


  4. Fr. Richard says:

    Reminds of a theologian paraphrasing Alexander Schmemann, “The homily should not be a sermon about the Gospel, but preaching of the Gospel. In other words, it should not be an explanation of what was read, nor a class in theology, nor a meditation on the Gospel theme, because all these depend on the preacher’s own gifts and talents. What feeds the congregation is not the preacher’s rhetorical or theological or devotional skills, but the Gospel itself” (Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology).


  5. Steve Allen says:

    The kerygma, as best I understand it, is the proclamation, not only of an Unconditional Promise, but of that Promise _fulfilled_. The Promise was made first to Abraham, and passed down as an Inheritance from generation to generation. But it was not _fulfilled_ to each generation; it remained a Promise only. It was finally _fulfilled_ to Jesus.

    The Proclamation now is that the Promise _has been fulfilled_, and that Jesus is making the _participation_ in that fulfillment available to all who are in Him.

    Once that is believed, the question becomes, “What then shall we do?” At which point the conversation turns to belief, repentance, and baptism, and all the other things that come with the Christian life.

    So the Gospel is only _good_ news insofar as it is believed, and the believer is baptized into Christ. That is, it is only _good_ news to those who are in Christ already, as Paul says, “To us who are being saved, it is the power of God”.

    It is actually _bad_ news for those who choose to reject it’s Truth and live a lie instead. This is why Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.” In this case, I’m not sure there is much of a distinction, if any, between what you are calling “law” and grace. Grace comes with it’s own law. As you’ve said on this very blog, Paul’s whole point in proclaiming that we are not under the Law was not that there is no more law at all, but rather that we are no longer under the Law of Moses.

    We are now under the Law of Christ, which is the Law of Love — that is, the call to be united with Christ in and by the Spirit. If someone rejects that call, they will not be saved, because the fulfillment of that call IS salvation. That is the one condition that cannot be explained or reformulated away. The unconditional part, as it relates to us, is that _no matter what_ your previous life looked like, or even what you wander back to after having initially heard and believed, salvation and forgiveness and love are yours in Christ.

    There is, therefore, some law in the proclamation of the Gospel. However, the law involved is not The Law (that is, Torah-keeping). Either way, though, the function of the law (whether strictly the Law of Moses, or the implicit condition in the Gospel as preached by the Apostles) is to bring us to Christ. It is impossible to proclaim the Gospel without the hearers being convinced of their sin — that is, without them feeling the effect of the law. Granted, unless the Spirit tells us to, we do not need to explicitly point out sins or even the law. Just the fact that we have said, “God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ” — by that very Word the Spirit will convince them of these things, as He did the Jews who heard Peter. But I digress…

    The condition of the Gospel is simply this: “in Christ”, and this one condition cannot be danced around or explained away or otherwise made NOT a condition by any amount of theological gymnastics.

    Now, in Christ, “the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.” The Unconditionality of the Promise was to Christ and was fulfilled to Christ. It was not to us, except insofar as we are in Christ. And that “except” makes the proclamation of the Gospel to us _conditional_. I don’t see how you can say otherwise. Granted, it’s only ONE condition. But it’s still conditional.

    (Note that this all ties quite nicely back into the discussion on the New Perspective on Paul as well…)

    What am I missing?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great comment, Steve! I appreciate you taking this series seriously and critically thinking through the argument of the unconditionality of the gospel.

      I agree with your fundamental point: it is in Christ that we enjoy the redemption Christ has accomplished for us. This is how I actually talk and preach. For me the phrase “in Christ” functions quite decisively and is the presupposition for all preaching to the baptized, for to be in Christ is to be share and participate in the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that takes us quite directly to the Divine Liturgy.

      In a real sense, I think that the catholic—and biblical—”in Christ” functions very similar to the Reformation (or at least the Lutheran Reformation) understanding of faith. Just as the Reformers insisted that we are justified by faith, we can say also say we are justified by being in Christ, or we are justified by being incorporated into the Church, etc. The point is simple: salvation is nothing less than our participation in the trinitarian life of God.

      Part of our problem is that we think of the salvific work as a finished work in the past, or as you write: “The Proclamation now is that the Promise as been fulfilled, and that Jesus is making the participation in that fulfillment available to all who are in Him.” This way of formulating the matter, which I think is the standard way—and is, as I have noted in my articles is descriptively true, is structurally conditionalist and legalistic: if you are wish to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s finished work, then you must do _____. The various Christian traditions will fill in the blank in their own characteristic ways.

      The only way forward, in my judgment, is to attack this nomistic structure by insisting on the presence of the living Christ in the midst of the Church is now speaks, in the present tense, his unconditional word of promise of the eschatological fulfillment of those to whom he is addressing himself.

      Please note that my articles so far have presupposed preaching to the baptized, i.e., to those who are already in Christ. If we are preaching to unbaptized pagans, then our preaching will also direct the hearers to baptism into the eucharistic life of the Church: “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Similarly, if we are preaching to baptized Christians who have alienated themselves from the faith and life of the Church, i.e., who are “outside” of Christ, our preaching will direct them to the sacrament of confession. But I do not think that these sacramental conditions subvert the unconditionality of gospel-preaching, for in both cases the hearers are being directed into the community in which the unconditional gospel is spoken, celebrated, enacted, and experienced.

      The gospel is always good news. If I reject it, it will turn back upon me in judgment and thus become law and condemnation, and there may well be times when the preacher will need to speak this judgment to those who have rejected the gospel, either overtly through disbelief or less overtly by grievous sin. I’ll talk a little bit more about this in a few days (probably not the next article but perhaps the article after). Yet even sin and disbelief are but opportunities to speak the unconditional word of promise. “So you reject Christ? I have good news for you: Christ has borne the sin of rejection on his saving cross.”

      You write: “The Unconditionality of the Promise was to Christ and was fulfilled to Christ. It was not to us, except insofar as we are in Christ.” I disagree most emphatically with it. Christ died for all sinners. Christ died for the ungodly, both those inside the covenant of Abraham and outside. At this point the inside/outside language betrays us. In the Incarnation the eternal Word of God, through and by whom the world was made and in whom the world is sustained in being, takes upon himself human nature and therefore the work of salvation intends every human being, past, present and future. This is the decisive argument against all forms of Reformed limited atonement, and I respectfully suggest that it also applies to the argument you have advanced. Christ is the Creator and Lord of the cosmos. Who really is outside of him?

      What do you think?


      • Steve Allen says:

        Hm….thanks for the clarifications. It sounds like we mostly agree. However, I would like to clarify what I mean by the part you “disagree most emphatically with”.

        I am not a “limited atonement” kind of guy. I, with you, proclaim that Christ died for all, including the ungodly. That is not what I was referring to. To understand what I was getting at, we should examine the _content_ of the Promise. What was that?

        Nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit — that is, the possibility of life in Christ.

        Let’s examine the Scriptures. It is expressed in many places, but the Prophet Joel reiterates the Promise in quite clear terms. “And ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God, and none else [this is the Incarnation, which was unconditionally promised and fulfilled]: and my people shall never be ashamed. And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh [this is the unconditional promise to us of the Holy Spirit, which was fulfilled on Pentecost]….and it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered [this is the unconditional promise to us, showing what _condition_ is required to be delivered/receive the Spirit]…”

        The “promise of the Holy Spirit” was given to and fulfilled in Jesus, whom “God hath made both Lord and Christ”, and HE then distributes the Holy Spirit to all who are in Him, so that we discover the extension of the Promise, so that it “is [now] to you and to your children, and to all….”. But the one condition in all of this, as far as WE are concerned, is that we be baptized into Christ.

        So, yes, Christ died for all, and He did so prior to any conditions on our part (“while we were yet sinners”). That is why the invitation is unconditional and the procamation universal.

        You write, “‘if you are wish to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s finished work, then you must do _____.’ The various Christian traditions will fill in the blank in their own characteristic ways. The only way forward, in my judgment, is to attack this nomistic structure…”

        I don’t see that there is a need to attack this “nomistic” structure at all! It is the structure given to us by Christ Himself, and confirmed by the preaching of His Apostles! “Repent, and be baptized, _and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit_”.

        And if you’ve already done that, and wandered, then there is this promise: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” As Paul exclaims, “For who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” But “your sins have separated between you and your God.”

        So the promise to those outside the Church is: Believe, repent, and be baptized to get rid of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.

        And the promise to those already baptized who have wandered is: “repent again, and confess your sins, and He will cleanse you of them, and restore you to koinonia in the Spirit.”

        There are no other conditions. It matters not what race or gender you are, or what sins you have committed, including (up to the moment of repentance) unbelief. But to say that there are NO conditions is going too far. These are the conditions Christ Himself has set. Granted, these are easy conditions, requiring only a “be it unto me according to Thy word.” His yoke is easy, and His burden light. But to say there is no yoke at all, and there is no burden — that there is no cross to be borne, no death to suffer with Him — I cannot!

        IF you are saying that we should stop making up rules we didn’t receive from Christ and His Apostles, and that we should live according to the Spirit in love, proclaiming God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ, then I strongly agree with you.

        However, if, as it seems you’re hinting at, and which would make sense that you would say given that we just came off of a long series on apocatastasis, you’re saying that all _will_ be saved, and that we are to declare this as the Unconditional Gospel because God has raised up Christ — then I think we are never going to find agreement. I hope, because of that, that I’m misreading you. (NOTE: It is my hope that all will be saved, even those who, in this lifetime, rejected Christ. However, to proclaim as the Gospel message that this _is_ actually the case is to pervert the actual message and call of the Gospel.)


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Steve, for the purpose of clarity I think you should probably avoid speaking of unconditional promise, as it is clear that in your interpretation of Scripture, God’s promise of salvation is in fact conditional. What I think you want to say is that God’s invitation to receive the gift of salvation is issued universally but the appropriation and enjoyment of the gift is contingent upon the fulfillment of specific conditions.

        Needless to say, I have been arguing against this view, at least when it comes to to the preaching of the gospel to the baptized. Conditionalist construals of the gospel are unhelpful, and sometimes destructive, for the same reason that conditionalist expressions of love are unhelpful and sometimes destructive.

        It is descriptively quite true to say “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Do you interpret this to mean that God only begins to be forgiving if we confess our sins? That is not how I would preach this text. God’s forgiveness and grace precedes our repentance, and it is only because we have previously heard this good news spoken to us that we dare to confess our sins. This is analogous to saying to someone, “If you drink from the fountain you will quench your thirst.” Needless to say, if I don’t drink I will not quench my thirst; but the fountain is always available to me to be drunk from. The analogy breaks down, of course, because we are not talking here of an interpersonal relationship, but I think it’s illuminating despite its limitations. The Church is necessary to salvation not because God withholds his love and grace from all who are outside her canonical bounds nor because God has decided to establish arbitrary conditions that he requires us to meet before he will pour out his grace upon us. The Church is necessary in the same way that the fountain is necessary: here is the bread of life, here is the sacramental presence of the kingdom, here is the Word of God and Holy Spirit. Why does holy baptism bestow the Spirit? Because it initiates one into the body of Christ in whom and in which the Spirit dwells and enlivens. The same can be said of all of baptism’s benefits.


        • Steve Allen says:

          Fr. Aidan,

          Your latest reply is exactly everything I have been trying to say (and apparently failing). So perhaps your own admonition to me would be applicable? Perhaps “for the purpose of clarity I think you should probably avoid speaking of unconditional promise, as it is clear that in your interpretation of Scripture, God’s promise of salvation is in fact conditional.”

          You say precisely what I mean to say (good summary!), then you say you’ve been arguing against it, then you turn around and say — again! — exactly what I’ve been meaning to say, but this time claiming it’s what you’re saying. It’s very confusing.

          The water fountain analogy is quite accurate. (I would hope so, considering that our Savior used it Himself, as did the Prophet Isaiah, and as do the Spirit and the Bride!) You say, “The analogy breaks down, of course, because we are not talking here of an interpersonal relationship, but I think it’s illuminating despite its limitations. ” I’m not sure what “breaking down” you’re referring to, but with regard to this topic, it’s perfect.

          With regard to the Church, you say, “The Church is necessary to salvation not because God withholds his love and grace from all who are outside her canonical bounds…” With this I agree — they withhold these from themselves, or have them withheld by the god of this world, who has blinded their minds.

          You continue, “nor because God has decided to establish arbitrary conditions that he requires us to meet before he will pour out his grace upon us.” On this, I think we get to the nub of the matter. There is a distinction that we have not been making, which I think needs to be made.

          You readily agree that baptism IS a condition for being “in Christ”. And you and I both agree that the Word preached is a pouring out of grace on the hearers, and is done unconditionally (or is supposed to be, anyway — that’s our job: to preach the Gospel to all creation). I believe the Arminians refer to this as “prevenient grace”, and it is indeed unconditional.

          So God does His part, and He does it unconditionally. Even when preaching to the baptized, we say this. God’s mercy never fails, and it is new every morning. The Fountain is always flowing, and is free to all to drink from without money and without price. On this we agree, and we agree that God’s part is unconditional.

          Where it’s getting confusing is that you seem to be forgetting or trying to eliminate _our_ part. For our part, there _must_ be, as with our Lady, a “be it unto me according to Thy word.” This is true to receive baptism (even for infants — but that’s another topic), and it is true to bring oneself to confession and receive forgiveness. The forgiveness is always there, always offered. But even that is conditional: “IF you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” Whether or not those who do not forgive will be forgiven in spite of this word, I do not know. But if God had wanted us to know (more than simple hope), He would have told us. Regardless, the Word as we have it from the Word Himself is, at least descriptively, conditional. On this we agree, I think, based on your previous replies.

          However, my main beef is that your Reformed theologians, in an attempt to revitalize their anemic “faith alone” so-called gospel, and make it into the powerhouse that the real Gospel is, have invented a new term, and set it in contradiction against itself, and you are following in their footsteps.

          It seems we agree on the _descriptive_ mode being conditional. They (and you) say, “Yes, but the _declarative_ mode is unconditional! But you cannot declare something without describing it, unless you’re referring to some kind of creative act, e.g. “fiat lux!”. But even if you are referring to this, the declaration of the Gospel is not a coercive act. It describes what is. And what _is_ is all God’s part. The Gospel cannot be proclaimed in “declarative” mode with respect to the individual (“You are forgiven” vs. “You will be forgiven if…”) _until_ what would be declared actually _is_.

          If you mean that the declaration that Christ reigns and forgiveness and remission of sins and salvation and the Holy Spirit, etc. are available in Christ, — that this declaration is to be declared to all people unconditionally, baptized or not, then we agree. If, again, you mean the declaration of forgiveness following repentance and confession, then again, we agree. (And yes, I know that is conditional.)

          However, they and you do not seem to mean that. They and you seem to mean (correct me if I’m misreading you) that in preaching (to the baptized at least) we are to unconditionally declare that they _are_ forgiven, prior to any repentance or confession or whatever.

          Therefore, it seems that you’re saying that we ought to declare what is not (yet anyway) as if it already is (which is how your article reads). If so, then you ask that we declare falsehood. God can declare what is not yet as if it already is, and it will be. However, He has not commanded us to do so, as evidenced by the preaching of the Apostles and every bishop and saint since then, and the Spirit and the Bride, who say, “Come!”. In saying, “Come!” they do not say, “You are already drinking, so why do you thirst?”. No rather they say, “Come! You are not drinking, so come drink!”

          To return to the fountain analogy, it seems to me that you are saying that our preaching should not be “If you drink from the fountain, you will no longer thirst”, but rather, “God made the fountain, so you no longer thirst.” But they do thirst, because they haven’t drunk, or having drunk, they somewhere along the line stopped drinking, and so they thirst again. In this latter case, our preaching can be, “The fountain is _still_ there, and still free; drink from it without money and without price!”

          I am not a priest, but I do study the Scripture and the Fathers, and I dare say (forgive my boldness!) that you’re going in a direction that is not within the Tradition. I don’t say you’re there yet, since you’ve not stated anything dogmatically, but are rather, it seems, are playing around with the ideas you’re reading. But I would encourage you, by brother, to be wary of inventing or absorbing, even by accident, “another gospel”.

          Everything explanatory that you’ve written in your replies has been pretty much spot on, and I rejoice in that! I think that investigating these other ideas, trying to go beyond what we have received from the Fathers, and speculate on what we have not received, can be useful, I suppose, in its way. But please be careful, my brother! Especially when you are drinking, for the source of your speculation, from another fountain….

          I will say no more on this topic, I think. I love you, brother, even though I’ve never met you (how’s that for unconditional! haha), so even though my words are direct, please understand that I speak them out of that love.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “Where it’s getting confusing is that you seem to be forgetting or trying to eliminate _our_ part.”

        One day in the future, Steve, I hope to address your concern more fully, but I’ve come to the end of this series and am returning to St Gregory the Theologian in my reading.

        Your overarching concern, if I am reading your rightly, is that if the gospel is not preached in a conditional mode, then “our part,” our necessary contribution to the work of salvation, effectively disappears. My concern is that when the gospel is preached in a conditional mode, “our part” effectively becomes the only real consideration. How can it not? Once the preacher has completed his sermon with all the conditions I must fulfill in order to appropriate God’s free work of salvation and thus avoid eternal perdition–and clearly we cannot just stop with the stipulation of the sacramental conditions but must include the full range of subjective conditions (repentance, self-denial, mutual forgiveness, love, sanctity)—my contribution must now become my primary and decisive existential concern. This is the necessary consequence of conditionalist preaching: God has done his part and made eternal life universally but conditionally available, now it’s up to me to save myself.

        If you were to ask me to justify the metalinguistic rule by appeal to the text of Scripture, I would have to concede that I probably cannot invoke a text that will persuade you (but I probably would attempt to do so by having us look together at Romans 5-8). But that, in itself, cannot be decisive. The metalinguistic rule is akin to a rule of grammar. One can speak a language well without ever having formulated the grammatical rules of that language. I would go on to suggest that the gospel is the new wine that bursts the old conditionalist wineskins. What we find in Scripture are believers proclaiming the good news of the risen Christ in all sorts of different ways. Even when the inherited conditionalist rhetorical structures are maintained in the preaching of the Church, the true gospel breaks through. A good example of this is the Apostle Paul’s insistence that we are righteoused through the faithfulness of Christ—the incarnate Christ himself offers to God the faith and obedience that we sinners were existentially incapable of offering (see “Faithing in the Faith of Christ“). Even the faith of the Church is comprehended in the faith of the Savior. Law is trumped by the gift of eschatological life celebrated and experienced in the Eucharist of the Church.

        To begin thinking rightly about all of this, we must begin with Pascha. We must begin with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. To think of salvation as fulfillment of conditions ultimately misrepresents what in fact God has done and is doing in Christ.

        Thanks for this conversation!


  6. Matthew Petersen says:

    The point that always confuses me regarding this is: How did Jesus act? Was He given unconditional promise? If so, then how do His human actions contribute to salvation? (Since it is a matter of faith that they do.) If not, then why do we think it was necessary?


  7. Ben Barkley says:

    May sound like a silly question, I don’t know, but is there a place for church discipline when one radically realizes this radical ‘unconditional’0 gospel? I guess my question is, if this is our starting point and understanding of the gospel, what does pastoral discipline look like when we sin, generally speaking? Or am I simply lapsing into nominalism? Then the discipline would simply be to remember my baptism and that I have died and it is not I but Christ who is alive in me.

    Recently found this blog and I have appreciated your spirit and feel a common kinship here. To be briefly personal, I am a catechumen it is funny that I recently asked my priest if it were ok that I were to be an eclectic Orthodox Christian. He asked what I meant and I said that I really like Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics…He seemed to be worried!! At any rate, I just want to encourage you and let you know that I appreciate your thoughts here in Indiana.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “May sound like a silly question, I don’t know, but is there a place for church discipline when one radically realizes this radical ‘unconditional’ gospel?”

      Yes, absolutely. When individuals commit grievous sin and bring scandal upon the mission of the Church, they should be severed from the eucharistic fellowship. They then have the opportunity, if they so desire, to then be reconciled to the community and restored to the Eucharist through penance and the sacrament of confession.


  8. Nathan says:

    Father Kimel,

    I guess you just haven’t been keeping up with the news : ) :

    Seriously, a very interesting article – much of it resonates with me of course. That said, as you know, the Lutheran Reformers – even though they could say “Amen” to much of what you say here – were not universalists! Nor, to my knowledge are, Forde (was Forde) and Jenson, and yet *these men speak of the unconditional promise*! In other words, they may say that we are not able to accept Him, but we are able to reject Him – with all the consequences that entails. It is important to “keep the faith” – i.e. remain in this Promise which transforms. This means nothing other than to keep the “in Christ” part.

    But other than that – this is the kind of thing people in good, confessional Lutheran churches hear all the time.

    Now when you say:

    “if you are wish to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s finished work, then you must do _____. The various Christian traditions will fill in the blank in their own characteristic ways”, I suppose you would say we have just done that (correct me if I am wrong father). But the whole point is this – we don’t warn Christians this way – i.e. those struggling to fight against their sin because of the love of Christ they know in their hearts. We simply urge them to remain in Christ, which means continuing to hear the Word and partake of the sacraments in repentant faith. Even those who have been gone a long time from worship and come back we welcome back with joy and not scolding, for God is doing a work in them!

    “Just know that if no one ever accuses you of promoting antinomianism, then you probably aren’t preaching the gospel.”

    That is true.


    As for discipline for the Christian, Luther preached the unconditional Gospel, but he also noted that we were somehow, mysteriously, sinners and saints at the same time. Like Christ has two natures, the Christian also has two natures of a sort…. In his second Galatians commentary Luther says that “there is great comfort for the faithful in this teaching of Paul’s [about the dual nature of the Christian] … if we sometimes become aware of the evil of our nature and our flesh…we are aroused and stirred up to have faith and to call upon Christ…” “Mindful of our illness”, the Christian constantly and consciously hears and meditates on the word of God, prays, and uses the sacraments to be “purged” and “cleansed of the poison of sin” – until our deaths when we are entirely purged. We also use rituals and works “like an orderly of sorts” so that our sinful nature can be restrained while we “endur[e] the cure of a living physician, that is Christ.”

    No more from me today. Will check again come Monday morn.



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha! Funny article on hell! I love the Onion.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You make an important point, Nathan, about contemporary Lutherans like Jenson and Forde (and Reformed types like Barth and Torrance) who promote the metalinguistic rule. They fully affirm the unconditionality of the preached gospel, but they do not draw the universalist conclusion. On the other hand, the fact that they acknowledge the possibility of eternal damnation does not prevent them from preaching the gospel as unconditional promise.


  9. trellis smith says:

    I enjoy you blog Fr Kimel,
    Your thought in many ways reminds me of the theology of Fr Robert Capon who has recently died. I respond very positively to his view that he prefers to view “universalism” as a modern reworking of catholicity as found in the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
    I also appreciate that you preach the gospel and the work of the spirit as both existential and eschatological.
    The one thing ( well the one thing that presently stands out) is the apparent dualistic way that is seemingly used when talking about the sinful pleasures of the flesh vs the life in the Spirit.
    I think along with the conditional preaching a platonic understanding of the flesh also undermines the gospel. It just makes sense to me that the Spirit does not exist somewhere separate from the material and actionable world but that the seed of the Spirit is always planted in the soil of the flesh. As Capon says don’t knock the material world as that is what God made and that the road to Heaven does not run from the world, but through it. While I think this is true I could conclude from such a rather messy process perhaps a confusion or inability to know what is the real motivations or movements of one’s heart. An example of this is often one may think he is working from a sense of justice but may later come to realize he was working out of self interest. alas nothing is pure.
    Also most of us hear the sins of the flesh as sex, pure and simple and the vast majority of us would be confined to the first rung of Dante’s hell but how do the Orthodox interpret “the world. the flesh”


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Trellis, thank you for your comment. I read most of Capon’s books many years ago. I think his books on the parables are stuck away in a box in the storage facility. Perhaps I need to pull them out and take a look at them again. He remember him as being always entertaining.

      When I speak of “desires of the flesh,” I only mean what the New Testament means, whatever that is. 🙂 I certainly do not identify these desires with our sexual and sensual desires, as I tend to think of the entire human being as being disordered.

      As far as how the Orthodox interpret these desires, I’m afraid I’m going to have defer to those who know a lot more about the ascetical tradition. If Dino is still around, I’m sure he could offer us some helpful guidance.

      I’m glad to hear that you will only be stuck in the first circle of Dante’s hell. I’m told that I have a reserved place much lower. Perhaps that’s why I’m banking on St Isaac being right about Gehenna. 🙂


  10. Pingback: Orthodox Ruminations

  11. Pingback: Preaching Gospel as Gospel: How Unconditional Is Unconditional? | Orthodox Ruminations

Comments are closed.