It is a fantastic fantasy, I know. Family and friends will confirm that I often entertain fantastic, even ridiculous, fantasies. Yet nonetheless I dream: if every Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant pastor were to read the Unspoken Sermons of George MacDonald, the Church of Jesus Christ would experience an extraordinary revival in the Spirit. My fantasy, of course, extends to every layman; but my experience in parish ministry has taught me that congregational renewal is too often cut short by the spiritual obtuseness of the clergy, and so I focus on them. My fantasy also extends to the theologians … but they are a hard nut to crack, even for the LORD. But it’s my fantasy. Has not the Lord taught us that all things are possible?
But where to begin? I am no where close to having read all, most, or even a goodly number of MacDonald’s sermons; yet so impressed I am by the revelatory power of MacDonald that I will dare to commend my favorite: “The Consuming Fire.” I imagine that any number of the unspoken sermons might ignite the revival for which I pray; but at this moment “Consuming Fire” tops my list. Renewal in the gospel always begins with the preaching of the absolute love of God who is Love. Apart from Love, all talk of morality, good works, ascetical practices, social reform is impotent. Yes, prophetic exhortation can sometimes mobilize human effort (for good or ill), yet the hearers remain as dead in their sins as before. It is Love, always Love, that is the one thing needful. It is this Love that speaks to the depths of the human heart and brings conversion and rebirth in the Spirit. If our congregations are joyless and dull, it is because our pastors do not proclaim to us the divine Love. If we are dead in our spirits, it is because we have never met Love or because we have allowed the love once born by Love to diminish to barely glowing embers. Only Love can raise the dead.
Those of us who have been influenced by Martin Luther’s understanding of justification of the ungodly (and I happily name myself) typically emphasize the divine Love as unconditional acceptance: through the cross of Christ God justifies us as we are, as sinners, and reckons us as righteous. As Paul Tillich famously declared:
You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.
The message is evangelically powerful. At specific moments in our lives, it is precisely this word that we need to hear. Yet the message of unconditional acceptance can also quickly turn into a sappy, even despairing, sentimentalism. God accepts us as sinners. That is good. But I need more than this. I need healing and deliverance. I do not want God just to accept me “just as I am.” My “just as I am” is death. It hangs around my neck as this great weight pulling me into hell. MacDonald understood this. While certainly not denying the unconditionality of the divine Love, he chose to emphasize its teleological omnipotence. The Father desires our salvation, and his will will be done. He will save us, heal us, deliver us, deify us by union with Love. “Nothing but love,” writes MacDonald, “is inexorable.”
“Our God is a consuming fire,” the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews declares (12:29). God intends our good, which is nothing less than eternal union with him, and he will never rest until this good is accomplished in our lives. We are created by the Good for the Good. It is easy enough for me to write this, but it can sound all too abstract. It’s something that a theologian might write. But once we remember that this Good is a consuming fire, we begin to see–if only a little, and a little is all that is needed–the passion and energy that drives the Good:
For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected–not in itself, but in the object. As it was love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring. There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.
Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.
And our God is a consuming fire.
God intends our good. He intends that we become the kind of people who can enjoy his Trinitarian fellowship for all eternity. He intends that we become fit for his kingdom. For this purpose God became Man, died on the cross, and rose into glory. For this purpose the ascended Christ has poured out his Spirit upon all flesh. We will be consumed in the fire of his Love.
On Mount Sinai Moses begged the LORD to reveal his glory, but the LORD only permitted Moses to see his backside, protectively hiding him in the cleft of the rock (and what is this rock but Jesus Christ). The fullness of time, and thus of revelation, had not yet come. By trumpet and lightning, promise and commandment, God reveals himself as the holy and righteous One, a deity both to be trusted and feared, obeyed and placated. A partial revelation only—neither Moses nor Israel could have understood that the LORD‘s hatred of sin is but the obverse of his absolute Love:
But we shall find that this very revelation of fire is itself, in a higher sense, true to the mind of the rejoicing saint as to the mind of the trembling sinner. For the former sees farther into the meaning of the fire, and knows better what it will do to him. It is a symbol which needed not to be superseded, only unfolded. While men take part with their sins, while they feel as if, separated from their sins, they would be no longer themselves, how can they understand that the lightning word is a Saviour—that word which pierces to the dividing between the man and the evil, which will slay the sin and give life to the sinner? Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so that he will burn them clean. Can the cleansing of the fire appear to them anything beyond what it must always, more or less, be—a process of torture? They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear to be tortured. Can they then do other, or can we desire that they should do other, than fear God, even with the fear of the wicked, until they learn to love him with the love of the holy. To them Mount Sinai is crowned with the signs of vengeance. And is not God ready to do unto them even as they fear, though with another feeling and a different end from any which they are capable of supposing? He is against sin: in so far as, and while, they and sin are one, he is against them—against their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes; and thus he is altogether and always for them. That thunder and lightning and tempest, that blackness torn with the sound of a trumpet, that visible horror billowed with the voice of words, was all but a faint image to the senses of the slaves of what God thinks and feels against vileness and selfishness, of the unrest of unassuageable repulsion with which he regards such conditions; that so the stupid people, fearing somewhat to do as they would, might leave a little room for that grace to grow in them, which would at length make them see that evil, and not fire, is the fearful thing; yea, so transform them that they would gladly rush up into the trumpet-blast of Sinai to escape the flutes around the golden calf. Could they have understood this, they would have needed no Mount Sinai. It was a true, and of necessity a partial revelation—partial in order to be true.
Step into the consuming fire. There is no escaping–God will have his way with us, one way or another. He who freely embraces the fire will find illumination, healing, purity, joy; he who flees it will flee into it nonetheless. “The man whose deeds are evil,” warns MacDonald, “fears the burning. But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it. Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable. Our God is a consuming fire. He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.”