What difference does apokatastasis make to the churchly preaching of the gospel? All the difference in the world—and therefore all the difference to the world. How we understand the conclusion of the gospel story informs how we tell the story and how the story is heard and received. Novel and movie lovers know that a wretched ending can ruin a very fine tale, while a brilliant and satisfying ending can redeem even a deeply flawed one. It’s as if the conclusion seeps back into the narrative and rewrites the whole, for good or ill.
About fifteen years ago I decided I could no longer remain in the Episcopal Church. Suddenly I found that instead of having to deliver Sunday sermons, I was “privileged” to listen to them. Over the course of these years I have heard dozens of homilies—Roman Catholic homilies, Maronite homilies, Eastern Orthodox homilies). With a few exceptions, they have shared one dominant feature, exhortation—specifically, exhortation embedded within a conditionalist linguistic structure. Orthodox and Catholic preachers alike appear to believe that their principal homiletical task is to urge their hearers to behave and live differently. No matter what gospel reading is assigned for the particular Sunday, the lesson drawn from the text is always “try harder.” Orthodox preachers tend to emphasize ascetical behavior, Catholic preachers moral behavior; but the message is the same—believe harder, work harder, obey harder, pray harder. The joyous proclaiming of Jesus Christ is reduced to exhortation and admonishment, adjuring and imploring. To put the matter in the language of the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformers, Orthodox and Catholic priests preach law, not gospel. And we wonder why our congregations are so moribund and lifeless.
The discourse of law shares a common transactional structure: if … then … It can be presented in positive terms (the language of reward and merit) or negative terms (the language of penalty and punishment):
If you truly and fully repent,
you will be reborn in the Spirit.
If you confess your sins,
God will forgive you.
If you feed the poor and house the homeless,
you will experience God’s blessings and merit eternal life.
If you devote yourself to prayer and struggle against the passions,
you will experience theosis.
If you you do not not spend sufficient time in worship, prayer, and the ascetical disciplines,
the Spirit will depart from you.
If you partake of the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily,
you will fall under divine judgment.
If you do not serve the poor,
God will not indwell your heart.
If you do not go out into the world and proclaim the gospel,
well, you don’t want to know the consequences.
These and all similar pledges make the outcome contingent upon the performance of the promisee. They pose to us a future for which we ourselves are responsible to actualize. If we fulfill the specified conditions, we will bring about the promised result, either as reward or punishment. Conditionalist preaching also entails a destructive pastoral corollary: if a person does not experience a promised blessing (e.g., healing, consolation, emotional or material flourishing, a happy marital life), then the fault must lie with him or her. “Your faith is not strong enough,” as too many are told. “You haven’t really repented,” our confessor “helpfully” suggests. Even if the “It’s your fault” remains unspoken, we already know this must be the case—God ain’t responsible. We are thus left with three options:
- frantically strive to strengthen our faith and perfect our obedience;
- descend into self-condemnation and despair;
- abandon the Christian adventure altogether.
We are all intimately acquainted with transactional communication. It is the discourse of industry and commerce, civil and criminal judicial systems, communal and family life, education … and religion. It is the language of our Pelagian world. We determine our future by the contracts we make. Law functions as demand upon our performance, and upon this performance falls the weight of the utterance. Once a conditional promise is spoken to us, we had best get busy, either to obtain or avoid the consequent. Conditional promise, in other words, presents the future to us as demand, obligation, and threat. It actualizes our fallen existence. Hence it is not surprising, given the dominance of conditionalist preaching in both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, that legalism, anxiety, judgmentalism, despondency, and works-righteousness pervade congregational life. And this is true even in Churches that pride themselves on their anti-Pelagian dogmas. As one of my friends likes to quip, “I get salvation the old-fashioned way. I earn it!”
Underlying the conditionalist preaching of the Church is the long-standing doctrine of hell. Once everlasting damnation is embraced, all preaching, theology, penitential discipline must and will be reworked around it. Hell generates conditionalist preaching, and conditionalist preaching leads to hell.
If you do not repent of your sins,
if you do not do not love your neighbor as yourself,
if you do ____ or do not do ____ ,
God will condemn you to everlasting suffering.
Given the magnitude of the punishment—everlasting damnation, after all, is the worst possible conclusion of anybody’s life—this threat must condition how every sermon is heard by the congregation, even if not explicitly stated. Hell is eager to snatch the sinner into unrelieved torment and misery. The preacher of conditional promises is always the purveyor of fire and brimstone.
Unconditional promise, too, has its own characteristic linguistic pattern: because … therefore …
Because Jesus is risen,
your future will be glorious.
Because you are baptized by water and the Spirit,
you are now empowered to live a life of faithfulness and love.
Because your Creator will see to your needs,
you are free to give generously and sacrificially to the poor and destitute.
Because God has forgiven you all your sins on the cross,
you are now free from the bondage of the past and can give yourself wholeheartedly to the way of love and compassion.
Because God is your Good and will bring you into overflowing happiness,
you have nothing to gain from sin and wickedness.
Because the Holy Trinity is absolute and unconditional Love,
you need not fear that God will ever abandon you, no matter what.
Just as conditional promise posits a specific kind of future, so does unconditional promise; but note how differently these two kinds of utterance impact our lives. When God speaks to us a conditional promise, the burden of its fulfillment falls totally upon us. We are back on Mt Sinai. Existentially, it doesn’t matter if we are also told that God will assist us with his grace. What matters is doing or not doing what needs to be done. Herein lies the difference between heaven and hell. But when God speaks unconditional promise, he assumes responsibility for our future; he is its guarantor. In the unconditional promise God presents the future to us as eschatological gift.
The preacher who dares in the name of Christ to speak the gospel of cross and resurrection in the mode of unconditional promise—and there is no other gospel—will always be on the lookout for new ways to reinterpret our antecedent hopes and nightmares and subvert the existential conditions that enslave and bind us. Every “no” we utter to God becomes an occasion for the prophetic “yes” of Pascha. The preacher thrives on these occasions, as Robert W. Jenson observes:
Our alienated fear of the future will always seek safely conditional evocations of future possibility, that is, “law.” “Rightly dividing” the law and the gospel is the knack of so making promises in Jesus’ name as endlessly to transcend this turn back to law. “God loves you for Jesus’ sake.” “Yes, if I could believe that. But I can’t.” To which the gospel-sayer who knows his job responds, “Just by your unbelief you prove yourself the very man whom God loves, for he chooses above all the ungodly!” In actual preaching, teaching, liturgical practice, counseling, etc., the game can go on forever. He “rightly divides law and gospel” who always finds the way to make new proposed conditions into so many objects and reasons for the promise; who in the speaking of the gospel discovers how never to take “but” for an answer.
The gospel tolerates no conditions. It is itself unconditional promise. And when it is rightly spoken, it takes the conditions we put on the value of our life as the very occasions of its promise.1
Yet as attractive as all this talk about unconditional promise may be, we still cling to the conditional. We still must repent, we insist. Here we must distinguish between two kinds of repentance. When the preacher declares “If you repent of your sins, God will forgive you” (with emphasis on the hypothetical “if”), he is asserting that God only offers absolution upon our fulfillment of a prior condition. Our repentance moves God from wrath to mercy. James B. Torrance calls this legal repentance. Of course, somebody will need to explain to us what repentance involves—but that is by the by. The critical point is that the responsibility and burden of fulfilling the stipulated conditions of salvation falls totally upon our shoulders. And at every moment hangs the threat of failure: What if I am unable to achieve a whole-hearted repentance? What if I cannot free myself from my disordered desires and addictions? What if I don’t want to convert? Will God forgive? If I die in mortal sin, can God forgive?
But now consider the difference when forgiveness is declared in the mode of unconditional promise: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I say to you: God forgives you and will make all things right; therefore, repent and live in the unconquerable joy of the Spirit.” Suddenly everything changes. By the gospel annunciation, God raises us from the condemnation of sin and grants us a future no longer bound to the past. He enters our lives as an emancipating and transforming power. Repentance is no longer a work that merits the divine grace: it is the fruit of a freely bestowed absolution. Forgiveness is logically prior to our penitential response. Torrance calls this evangelical repentance. “Because Christ has died for your sins and risen into the life of the Kingdom for you, you may now repent of your iniquities and give yourself over totally to love.” When the recreative promise of the gospel is spoken to us, our lives are reframed, ex opere operato, and set upon an eschatological foundation. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). The sermon does not seek, Jenson incisively explains, to induce or manipulate conversion. The hearer’s conversion is
accomplished as the act of gospel-speaking itself. Conversion is a change in the communication situation within which every person lives; a proper sermon or baptism liturgy or penance liturgy just is that change. Using penance as the simplest paradigm, when the confessor says, “you have confessed cheating and coveting. Now I forgive all your sins, in Jesus’ name,” these words do not seek to stimulate conversion as an event external to their being said. Rather, this utterance is conversion of the penitent’s life, from a situation in which the word he or she hears and must live by is “you are a cheat and a coveter,” to one in which the word he or she hears and must live by is “You are Jesus’ beloved.”2
Life in Christ thus becomes pure joy, celebrated in thanksgiving and tears, discipleship, holy works, ascetical discipline, and the worship and praise of our Savior. At every moment we are surrounded and upheld by the divine mercy. We were lost but have been found, we were blind but now we see, we were dead but now we live in the power of the eschaton.
Immediately our minds raise a host of objections. I am acquainted, I think, with most of them. They boil down to a single concern: if God declares me unconditionally forgiven, does that mean that I am free to disobey the commandments of God with impunity? The Apostle Paul addressed a similar concern in his Epistle to the Romans: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” He must have been asked this question on multiple occasions. Note his answer:
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)
Continue in sin that grace may abound? Absolutely not! Because the gospel has been done to us in baptism, Paul replies, we are no longer the kind of people who can even ask this question. There is now only one way forward—to walk in newness of life! The same question can be restated in its universal scope: Will all therefore be saved? What about free-will and our cooperation with grace? What about faith and conversion, sin and wickedness? Can’t we reject God forever? All of these questions have been effectively addressed by theologians, past and present (see my universalist reading list). The critical move—and perhaps only God can bring the necessary enlightenment—is to see how our lives are already comprehended within the unconditional love of God as revealed in the incarnate Son.3 At every moment we are embraced by the eternal Creator who will never let us go. He will always find a way. We do not need an abstruse metaphysics of human freedom or a contestable theology of salvation. All we need is for the gospel of love to be declared to us. To believe the unconditional promise of salvation is to experience its liberating truth. We are thus brought back to the robust hope of St Isaac of Nineveh.
What difference does apokatastasis make to the churchly preaching of the gospel? Above all, it should encourage and authorize our pastors to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ precisely as good news. No more qualifications and compromises; no more ifs, buts, and maybes. The gospel is a message of triumphant hope, or it is not gospel at all. This does not mean that each homily must now be about universal salvation. Quite the contrary. As always, the pastor will continue to preach on the lectionary texts appointed for that day; but he now searches for ways to proclaim even the harshest biblical passage through the hermeneutic of Pascha. Every text now speaks Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Every text summons to a life made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Every text is gospel.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is risen! He has transcended death and lives with death behind him. In our fallen world, all of our promises ultimately turn to dust and ashes—we cannot pledge a future we do not possess. At any point death may intervene and nullify our commitments. But by his paschal victory, Jesus of Nazareth possesses the final future. Only the risen One can make an unconditional promise and mean it unconditionally. “If Jesus has death behind him,” states Jenson, “then his intention for his followers, defined by his particular life and death, must utterly triumph, there being no longer anything to stop him.”4
If Jesus were Attila the Hun or Joseph Stalin, the resurrection would be horrifying news; but the resurrection of the Jesus to whom the gospels testify is the best, most wonderful, brilliant, and transforming news possible. Neither death nor life, neither principalities nor powers, not even our pathetic attempts to reject our Savior irrevocably and definitively, can defeat the illimited love by which Jesus lived and died. His omnipotent intentions for his brethren, his intentions for all of humanity, his intentions for you and me, must and will triumph—utterly, completely, gloriously. The preaching of the gospel is simply this—the proclamation of Easter, with all of its consequences and implications for our lives.
Eastern Christians know this—surely we know this. At the Paschal Vigil we declaim the words of St John Chrysostom:
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.
The indicatives of the gospel precede the imperatives; the evangelical narrative prefaces all doctrinal teaching and qualifies all ethical and ascetical exhortations. Pastors may dare to boldly bestow the kingdom, for the Crucified lives and has given himself as surety.
But not only does Jesus guarantee the promise of eschatological fulfillment, he is its ultimate speaker. Every address is the personal presence of someone. In this article I am presently intruding into your life with my idiosyncratic, and perhaps controversial, reflections on preaching. But were I to stand before you and unconditionally promise you eternal salvation in the kingdom of the incarnate Son, then it could not be only me addressing you. I cannot rightly make such a pledge, for I cannot implement its promised outcome. Only the One who has death behind him can do so. Only the conqueror of sin and alienation may bestow the final future. When the preacher dares to proclaim the gospel in its radicality and power, there is the gladdening and inspirited voice of Jesus the Christ. The making of eschatological promise must be his act, his presence, his Word, his Kingdom. “If the gospel promise is true and unconditional,” Jenson writes, “then the event of the living word, of one person speaking the gospel to another, is the locus of God’s reality for us. Where is God? He is where one man is promising good unconditionally to another, in Jesus’ name.”5 Or as our Lord has taught us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am between you” (Matt 18:20). A homily rightly proclaimed is a sacrament of the risen and exalted Son.
I propose the following grammatical or hermeneutical rule for our preaching: so proclaim the story of Jesus Christ that it elicits from our hearers nothing less than faith or offense. Or to put the rule in its most succinct form: proclaim the gospel in the performative mode of unconditional promise. Robert Jenson calls this a meta-linguistic rule, George Lindbeck a meta-theological rule. Their point is the meta-. The rule does not specify the content of our preaching—that content is given in the Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition of the Church. The rule, rather, prescribes and instructs how to rightly speak this content: preach the gospel of the crucified and risen Son of God, not as law and legal obligation, but as word that liberates sinners from the bondage of sin, conquers despair, and empowers believers to live lives of holiness, love, prayer, sacrifice, and radical discipleship. The proclamatory rule summons preachers to speak into the world the coming Kingdom of the Lord.
(2 December 2014; rev.)
 Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism, p. 44.
 Robert W. Jenson, “Pneumatological Soteriology,” in Christian Dogmatics, II:134.
 Robert W. Jenson, “On the Problem(s) of Scriptural Authority,” p. 238.
 Lutheranism, p. 102. Also see my series “Preaching Gospel as Gospel.”