#10 For Christians, Jesus Must be Lord as Well as Savior

In the previous chapter, I emphasized that Christians need to be careful when they call Jesus “Lord,” but this chapter emphasizes what seems to be just the opposite: Christians must be careful to call Jesus “Lord” and to mean it. In other words, if people are to be true Christians, Jesus must be their Lord as well as their Savior.

Perhaps most Christians became Christians primarily because they realized their need for salvation. That is how it was in my case: when I became a Christian as an elementary school boy, it was after a week of worry about what would happen to me if I died. I came to realize that I would not go to Heaven if I did not trust Jesus to be my Savior. So I made a public profession of faith in Jesus, and as a result I felt great joy and relief.

While there was not anything particularly wrong with my motivation for trusting in Jesus, or any fatal flaw in the way I entered the Christian faith, still in a decisive way my initial commitment to Christ was inadequate. Not necessarily inadequate for being saved from the penalty of sin, but inadequate for living the Christian life. I do not remember my pastor or anyone else at that time saying that to trust Jesus as Savior also means to follow him as Lord. But it does mean that, or at least it should.

What Is Salvation?

Salvation is, of course, a tremendously important concept with different levels of meaning. Many contemporary religious writers rightly point out that originally salvation meant being delivered from any danger or distress or from enemies. That was especially true in the Old Testament, but the same idea is often found in the New Testament as well.

Primarily, however, beginning in New Testament times and continuing to the present salvation in Christianity has regularly been interpreted to mean the redemption of human beings from the punishment of sin (eternal death, Hell) and the gift/promise of everlasting life (in Heaven).

From the fifth century on, “orthodox” Christian theology, mainly the theology developed by Augustine of Hippo, understood every human being to be the recipient of original (or inherited) sin and thus bound for eternal separation from God unless saved from that fate. According to Augustine, though, everyone, including newly born infants, could be saved through baptism.

The Council of Carthage in 418, condemned Pelagius, Augustine’s theological opponent, and declared that “even babies, who are yet unable to commit any sin personally, are truly baptized for the forgiveness of sins, for the purpose of cleansing by rebirth what they have received by birth.” Such baptism is clearly for salvation from eternal death, Hell, and for eternal life, Heaven.

Although the Baptist tradition, in which I grew up, emphasized personal confession of faith as the means of receiving God’s forgiveness, the concept of salvation was largely the same. It was salvation from eternal torment which awaited all the “unsaved” at the time of death. That was my original view of salvation, and it was only later that I came to realize that that view was insufficient and that Jesus must be Lord as well as Savior. That is, salvation is meant to be more than “fire insurance” (which will shortly be considered a little more fully). Salvation is supposed to be a whole new way of living in this present world.

Why is Salvation Not Enough?

When I first became a Christian, I didn’t have the foggiest idea about the meaning of the Kingdom of God, especially as interpreted as something present in this world now, such as I wrote about in a previous chapter. I did learn in Sunday School and in “church,” which is what we usually called the worship services then, that Christians were not supposed to do some things and were supposed to do other things. We were to refrain from sin mainly in order to be able to be able to witness effectively to people who had not yet been saved.

So, there was some ethical content in my early Christian education, but there was little, at least little that took hold, about the Lordship of Jesus and nothing about the Kingdom of God being God’s desire for the world now. And, being a completely non-liturgical church, I seldom heard or prayed the Lord’s Prayer, with the words “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Although it was much later before I began to grasp the significance of the concept of the Kingdom of God, during my first two years in college I came to understand more and more about the lordship of Jesus for Christians and about the importance of Jesus being Lord as well as Savior.

Even though I probably didn’t think of it exactly in this way then, I came to realize that to become a Christian is primarily to become a follower of Jesus. And to be a follower of Jesus entails making faith an integral part of every aspect of one’s life, not just one segment or compartment of life. That important assertion means moving from a compartmentalized view of religion, as depicted in the first table below, to the concept of a foundational faith that informs all areas of life, as depicted in the second table.

Personal

Family Work Recreation

Religion

Compartmentalized Religion

Rather than the above compartmentalization, faith should be seen as foundational, like this:

Personal

Family Work Recreation

Faith

Foundational Faith

The tragic thing about the traditional view of salvation depicted in the first table is that it is relegated to a religion compartment that is often relatively unrelated to the rest of life. Since salvation was seen primarily as the means to Heaven after one dies, it didn’t have a great deal to do with how one lived here on earth.

This is not to say, of course, that there was no emphasis on “being a good Christian” at home, at school, at work, etc. But the reason given for that was primarily for the purpose of being a good witness so as to help influence others to come to church where they could hear the Gospel and be saved from eternal damnation also.

This type of mentality, which was pretty much a “pie in the sky by and by” type of thinking, was common among Christians who wanted to justify or to maintain the status quo, such as the slaveholders in the U.S. a century and a half ago. Many Southern Christians were seriously concerned about slaves being saved—for Heaven. But among most, there was little concern for them to be saved from the scourge of slavery. In fact, many fought fiercely in the Civil War to keep them from being saved from that sinful system in the here and now.

Perhaps it would be hard to find an example of compartmentalization better than that of the religion of the Southern slaveholders. A great many of them were religious to be sure. But most did not see how their religious faith should change what they did in the area of economics or social custom. Perhaps their religion made them a little kinder and more compassionate to individual slaves, but for the most part it did little to help them see the sinfulness of the system. This is just one example of the problem when people confess Jesus as Savior but do not profess him as Lord of life.

Salvation is More than “Fire Insurance”

In much traditional evangelical Christianity, which was the religion of my home church, salvation was largely presented as a type of “fire insurance.” It was a very good policy to have so you would not “fry when you die.” Many of the revival preachers I heard were related, religiously, to the legendary “fire and brimstone” evangelists who did so much to expand the membership of the evangelical churches in England and especially in the United States—but who also fostered a limited view of what salvation really when fully understood.

The Puritan preacher Thomas Vincent authored a book called Fire and Brimstone in Hell: To Burn the Wicked.[1] In that book he quotes Psalm 11:6 “Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and a horrible tempest, this shall be the portion of their cup” (KJV).

Evangelists such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were referred to as “fire and brimstone preachers” during the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” remains among the best-known sermons of all time.[2] There are reports telling how when Edwards or Whitefield preached, many of the audience would burst out weeping and others would cry out in anguish or even faint.

The Great Awakening in the eighteenth century was followed by a Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth, led by the very effective mass evangelist Charles Gandison Finney.[3] “The father of modern revivalism,” as Finney is sometimes called, began his successful urban evangelistic meetings in 1830, and began a type of mass evangelism that was carried on by Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.[4]

Those revivalists, and many others, preached about the reality of Hell and the certainty of escaping Hell and going to Heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. These preachers depicted salvation almost exclusively as individualistic; that is, it was about the salvation of individuals from damnation upon death. And while certainly not completely devoid of ethical content—Finney, for example, was an abolitionist—salvation was seen primarily as a personal matter, so little emphasis was placed upon societal or systemic problems and the responsibility of Christians to address such issues.

In response to criticism about not speaking out on social issues, Billy Graham declared that he was called to be a New Testament evangelist, not an Old Testament prophet. By that statement it is to be assumed that he saw his calling to be helping people find salvation in the traditional sense but not in helping them to learn more, or to be challenged, about ethical issues in this present world.

Certainly, this has been at the heart of the old debate about “evangelism and social justice.” As “liberal” Christian groups, such as the World Council of Churches, and missionaries began to put more and more stress on social justice issues, conservative Christian groups, such as the many who became a part of the World Evangelical Alliance, continued to emphasize that mission work should continue to be for the primary purpose of evangelism in the traditional sense, that is, saving people for eternal life in Heaven.[5]

In recent years, to be sure, traditional, conservative, and evangelical groups here and abroad have been more involved in social justice issues than they were throughout much of the twentieth century, especially from the 1910s to the ’40s or ’50s. But there is still considerable tension between the two, especially now that much of the WCC efforts are criticized as being only concerned with social justice type issues and many within the liberal churches have almost completely renounced any evangelistic activity, including evangelistic mission work in the traditional sense.

Emphasizing Ephesians 2:10 Also

When I was in high school and in junior college, Ephesians 2:8-9 was often emphasized in sermons and elsewhere in the Baptist circles with which I regularly associated. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (RSV, the translation I used mostly back then).

In contrast to Catholics and some Protestant denominations that tended to hold a view of “salvation by works,” at least to some extent, we Baptists emphasized salvation by grace through faith alone. And I think we got that part of it right: salvation is completely a free gift from God received by repentant sinners, not something that we humans can gain or earn by our own efforts, no matter how earnest we are.

But here again, salvation was seen almost exclusively as escape from the punishment of sin in Hell and as eternal life in Heaven after death. I don’t know how long it was before I ever read and took Ephesians 2:10 seriously. Perhaps some of my boyhood pastors or preachers I heard in college emphasized that verse, but if they did it took a long time for it to make much of an impression on me.

Note well what that important verse says: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This verse clearly links salvation with life in this world in the present time, not just life in Heaven after we die.

Of course, it is quite likely that if this verse was referred to in sermons I heard in the 1950s, “good works” were primarily defined as “soul-winning” activities and other witnessing work designed to save others for Heaven in the same way we Christians had been saved. And, I want to make clear, that was not a wrong emphasis. It was just insufficient and reductionistic. That is, it reduced the multifaceted Gospel of Jesus Christ to just one dimension; it emphasized the world to come (after death) to the neglect of the world at hand (here and now).

Truly, Christians need to know that Jesus must be their Lord as well as their Savior.


[1] Vincent (1634-78) was a prominent English minister and the author of several books. Fire and Brimstone was first published in 1670.

[2] Some call Edwards (1703-58) “America’s greatest theologian.” His famous sermon was first preached in Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741. Whitefield (1714-70) was born in England and preached extensively both in his home country and in the British North American colonies. Few would doubt that he was the best-known preacher in England and America in the eighteenth century.

[3] Finney (1792-1875) was also a staunch abolitionist and a college teacher and president. In 1835 he accepted appointment to the faculty at Oberlin College (Ohio) on the condition that black students would be admitted and allowed to study in the same classroom as white students. Thus, Oberlin became the first college in the U.S. to do that. Finney was the president of that college from 1851 to 1866.

[4] Some claim that Moody (1837-1899) was the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century. Some of his most effective revivalist efforts were conducted in Great Britain. Sunday (1862-1935) was clearly the best-known revivalist in the first third of the twentieth century, and the revivals (“crusades”) of Graham (1918-2018) are legendary; he is said to have preached in person to more people around the world than any Christian in history.

[5] The World Council of Churches (WCC) was established in 1948, and their homepage states that the “The WCC brings together churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world, representing over 500 million Christians” The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) was established in 1951 as the World Evangelical Fellowship, the current name being adopted in 2001. Their homepage gives this description: “WEA is a dynamic global structure for unity and action that embraces 600 million evangelicals in 129 countries.”

Advertisements

#9  Christians Must Be Careful When They Call Jesus “Lord”

“Jesus is Lord” is the first and oldest confession of faith for Christians. In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote, “. . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). And then in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul declared that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3).

Confessing “Jesus is Lord” was, it seems, essential for the identity of Christians in New Testament times—and those words have been used by multitudes of Christians down to the present time. For example, the 1990 World Council of Churches conference on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation was held in Seoul, Korea. At that gathering, the words “Jesus Christ is Lord” were emblazoned on a huge banner above the dais.

More personally, in 1960 when I was in seminary, June and I became the proud owners of a 1958 Hillman Minx, a British car that looked a lot better than it started in the wintertime. At some point, we pasted a Jesus is Lord sticker on the trunk (or I guess I should say the boot) of our pretty little red and grey car. In addition to being a seminary student at the time, I was also pastor of the Ekron Baptist Church in Meade County, south of Louisville, and I was happy to witness to Jesus as I drove around the Ekron community.

I had no idea then, and have not realized until recently, that calling Jesus Lord can be offensive to some people. But now I understand that Christians must be careful when they call Jesus “Lord.”

What’s Wrong with Saying “Jesus is Lord”?

In the previous chapter, I introduced the challenging book American Indian Liberation by George E. “Tink” Tinker, and I mentioned that Dr. Tinker objects to calling Jesus Lord. While the original meaning of that term was an indication of a believer’s commitment to Jesus Christ, it came to be experienced by the Native Americans in this country, as well as by aboriginal people in other countries around the world, as a term of conquest and colonization.

What was meant to be a term designating, among other things, the humble submission of believers to Christ eventually came to be a term even Christian missionaries used to lord it over other people. The concept of lordship became, according to Tinker, the basis for establishing hierarchies among people whose cultures and social structures were “fundamentally marked by their egalitarian nature.”[1]

Proclaiming Jesus as Lord became linked to a colonialistic church adopting a position of triumphalism in relation to American Indians and to many ethnic groups around the world. The emphasis in the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” to greater or lesser degrees, became for some not just striving against Satan and the forces of evil in the world, but also against all nations, cultures, and people groups who did not acknowledge the lordship of Jesus.

Underlying the same triumphal spirit are hymns such as “Jesus Shall Reign.” The first verse of that old hymn by Isaac Watts says, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun / does its successive journeys run; / his kingdom spread from shore to shore, / till moons shall wax and wane no more.” And then the third verse of Watts’s hymn, one that is not usually found in modern hymnals, proclaims, “There Persia, glorious to behold, / There India shines in eastern gold; / And barb’rous nations at His word / Submit, and bow, and own their Lord.”[2] The triumphalism of the hymn becomes more problematic when one considers how Persia at that time was ruled by a Shi’a Islamic dynasty.

It is tragic that through the years Christians, and especially Christian missionaries, did not conduct their evangelistic activities in the way the first missionary, the Apostle Paul, did. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, he declared: “. . . we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (4:5).

The preaching of Paul and the early missionaries was about the lordship of Christ, but as Christianity was a small movement without power or prestige, there was no way that they could lord it over other people the way latter missionaries and other Christians tended to do when Christianity was tied to the imperialistic activities of powerful nations. But because of that misuse of the concept of lordship, Christians must be careful how they used the words “Jesus is Lord” today, especially among people that have been oppressed by “Christian” nations.

“Jesus Is Lord” as Affirmation of Jesus’ Divinity

While the way “Jesus is Lord” has sometimes been used from the fourth century to recent times is a problem especially for those who are members of a people group that has been colonized and forced to submit to the lordship of the conquering Christians, in the first years of Christianity the affirmation that Jesus is Lord was a confession of faith about the divinity of Jesus.

Through the centuries, the Jewish people—and don’t forget, Jesus and most of his earliest followers were Jews—confessed that God is the one and only Lord. The Shema was a liturgical prayer recited twice daily by adult Jewish males to reaffirm their faith. It consisted of three scriptural passages: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. The first of these begins with these familiar words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”

One of the main conflicts between the early followers of Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment of the day was over this very issue: if there is one Lord, the creator God that the Jewish people had worshipped exclusively, how could Jesus possibly be called Lord in the religious sense? There were multiple reasons why the Jewish leaders began to oppose Jesus and his followers, but the latter’s insistence that Jesus is Lord was one of the most significant of those reasons. It seemed to fly in the face of their central confession of one true God.

To be sure, it is not easy to understand how Jesus Christ could at one and the same time be both a human being and God. That conundrum was a central issue in the early church for a long time, and it was the subject of the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea, a city in what is now the country of Turkey, in A. D. 325.

The nature of Jesus and his relation to God was the central issue dealt with at that Council, and the conclusion of the bishops who convened was expressed in what is called the Nicene Creed. That Creed makes this statement about Jesus Christ:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.[3]

Note the use of the words “one Lord.” Christ was fully identified as being fully God, so the oneness of God was affirmed. This did not mean there was no more problem in understanding the relationship between Jesus and God. More than a century later, in 451, the Third Ecumenical Council was held in Chalcedon, and the creed that was produced at that conclave declared that Jesus was “truly God and truly man.”

The same creed also stated clearly that the Son was “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Consequently, most Christians at the time and in the centuries since have identified Jesus with God. Jesus is seen as being divine, in spite of the objections of the Jewish people who could not accept that claim. And he is also acknowledged as Lord, in spite of those who find the concept of lordship to be problematic.

“Jesus is Lord” as a Political Statement

Not only did the early Christians’ calling Jesus Lord elicit opposition from the Jews, there was also conflict with the Romans because of that same affirmation. During the first century, the words “Jesus is Lord” constituted a political statement which conflicted with “Caesar is Lord,” a popular greeting among Roman citizens. Thus, Christians increasingly came to be seen as a political threat to the Roman Empire.

In the Roman world, Caesar had come to view himself as “lord” and was not open to having rivals. The statement that “Jesus is Lord” in the context of the Roman world, then, was viewed as political subversion, a direct challenge to the prevailing establishment.

For Christians to confess Jesus as Lord means that their allegiance is being pledged primarily to Jesus Christ, not to any earthly ruler such as Caesar. That was what got many of the early Christians in trouble with the Roman Empire—and that was also the dangerous position taken by some German Christians in the 1930s after Hitler came into power as the Führer or supreme ruler of the country.

In 1934, leaders of what came to be known as the “Confessing Church” adopted “The Theological Declaration of Barmen” (often called just the Barmen Declaration). Its central doctrines were about the sin of idolatry and the lordship of Christ, and, naturally, opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches. One of the key leaders of the Confessing Church was Martin Niemöller. It was largely out of his commitment to Jesus, rather than to Hitler, as Lord (or Führer) that eventually led to his imprisonment, from 1937 to 1945, and nearly to his execution.[4]

Most people now, at least here in the United States, don’t have to worry about suffering such dire results. But the question remains: to whom do Christians pledge allegiance? While it is not necessarily a choice between country and Christ, I see a problem with Christians pledging allegiance to the United States, for people give their primary allegiance to that person or power that is most important in their lives.

Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) was a heroic naval officer in the War of 1812. Later in that decade he offered a toast with words that have often been repeated ever since: “Our Country! . . . may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” It is this kind of allegiance that is questionable for a Christian. A Christian’s loyalty must always be primarily to Jesus as Lord.

How Should We Think about Philippians 2:9-11?

New Testament scholars are agreed that Philippians 2:6-11 was an early Christian hymn. (That is the reason it is printed as a poem in the New Testament rather than as prose.) The second half of that poem/hymn says,

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

These words seem clearly to proclaim a universal lordship of Jesus which moves far beyond the idea of individuals choosing to confess Jesus as their lord. That passage, as much as any other, can be, and has been, used to support a triumphalistic view of those who believe in Jesus Christ.[5]

Two things, without fail need, to be noted in this passage. First, it begins with statements about Christ being humble, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and becoming “obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (vv. 7-8). Further, this hymn is preceded by these words of admonition: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4). Then, the words of the hymn are given after the command, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v. 5).

If these verses in the first part of Philippians 2 are taken seriously, as certainly they ought to be by Christians, it is hard to see how the words expressing God’s desired outcome for the human race expressed in verses 9-11 can be used in a high-handed, imperialistic manner.

It is, however, unfortunately true that Christian rulers, explorers, colonialists, and even Christian missionaries, at times, have used the concept of the Lordship of Jesus to pressure people of non-Christian tribes and nations to subjection and even to nominal conversion to Christianity. Without doubt, there are legitimate complaints about the use of the words “Jesus is Lord” to justify oppression of those who were not or are not Christians.

Thus, and this is the point of the present chapter, Christians must be careful when they call Jesus “Lord.” They must be careful because that concept has been misused. It has been inappropriately, and sometimes disastrously, used through mistakenly seeking to force obedience to Jesus as Lord by peoples of cultures or societies who did not know Jesus and who had other religious commitments and loyalties.

The hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 ends with the words, “and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” If, as I have argued in earlier chapters, God is primarily a God of love, and if, as surely is the case, God uses only love and never coercion to draw people to faith, then surely those who seek to bring glory to God the Father must use only loving means to bring others to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

Because of the errors and excesses of missionary and evangelistic activities in the past, there is reluctance among many Christians now to engage in or to support direct and/or intercultural evangelism. But isn’t perhaps doing nothing to share the message of God’s love an unacceptable extreme as much as doing that in oppressive ways? The proper response to evangelism or mission activity done in the wrong way is evangelism and missionary activity done in the right way, not giving it up altogether.

So, yes, Christians must be careful when they call Jesus “Lord.” But they must not lose confidence in the Gospel nor be lax in their efforts to woo others to faith in God by the love of God, praying that the day will come in which “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”


[1] George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Orbis Books, 2008), p. 96.

[2] Watts (1674-1748) is recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody,” as he was the first prolific and popular English hymn writer, credited with some 750 hymns. “Jesus Shall Reign” was first published in 1719. When I was a boy and a member of the Royal Ambassadors missions organization, I had to memorize the words of that hymn for advancement to the next rank. Of course, at that time I had no idea about the problem of triumphalism.

[3] These words are from the 1988 Ecumenical Version of the Nicene Creed.

[4] After being released, Niemöller (1892-1984) expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis.

[5] In addition to this passage, the two references in the book of Revelation that refer to Jesus as “Lord of lords” and “King of kings” (17:14 and 19:16) can be used to foster a triumphalistic view of Christianity.

#8 God Loves All of Creation

We need to think more now about the meaning and significance of God’s love. Through the first seven chapters, the love of God has been discussed only briefly. But the Bible is very clear: “God is love” (1 John 4:8 and 4:16).

Through the years there has been much talk about the love of God, so perhaps you wonder why I include that topic in this book. Haven’t people always known that God is love and that God really does love all of creation? Well, yes and no.

Certainly, most Christians have heard numerous sermons about the love of God, and perhaps most heard about the love of God taught in Sunday School classes from the time they can first remember attending. So, we Christians know the words “God is love” well. But have we known the implication of those words adequately, and have we sufficiently lived by the truth of those words? Sadly, probably not.

God’s Love for the World of Nature

To begin with, it is important for us to realize that God’s love is not just for human beings. Perhaps Christianity through the centuries has been the most anthropocentric of all of the world’s religions. (Anthropocentric, of course, means human-centered and refers to a viewpoint that sees all reality from the perspective of humans.)

There are, to be sure, many references to God’s concern for nature in the Hebrew Bible that Christians call the Old Testament, and Christian environmentalists have increasingly called attention to those passages. For example, Psalm 145:9 declares, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”[1] But have we really thought what it means for God to love all creation? Probably not sufficiently.

To address the lack of concern for the natural world, at the Vancouver Assembly in 1983, the World Council of Churches (WCC) encouraged member churches to commit publicly to addressing environmental concerns as part of a common effort to promote Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation. That became known as the JPIC process. (The logo of that Assembly is pictured below.) Then in 1990, the WCC sponsored the World Convocation on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation in Seoul, Korea. One study unit in this program was called “Creation as Beloved of God.”

Creation, the physical universe in its entirety and not just human beings, is loved by God. That was the important emphasis of the WCC in the 1980s and 1990s. There has been a similar emphasis in the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II’s message for New Year’s Day 1990 was titled “Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation.” Reflecting upon that important message, a noted Catholic theologian wrote in 2001 about “God’s Beloved Creation.”[2]

Most people seem to have long thought that the purpose of the natural world, the purpose of all the plants, animals, and minerals in the world of nature, is primarily to supply the needs of human beings. The creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis certainly does sound as if humans are the “crown of creation.” When the first human couple was created, “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .” (1:28).

The English words subdue and have dominion, however, may not be the best to convey what the Biblical writer really had in mind. And maybe we need to consider more about the full implication of the words, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (1:27). The idea of humans created in the image of God has nothing to do with how we look; it has everything to do with our capacity to be loving and caring as God is loving and caring. If God loves the physical world, as I insist God does, then we humans created in the image of God are expected by God to love and care for the world also.

So when I say that God really does love the world, that includes the physical world, the world of sticks and stones, of plants and animals, the whole world of nature.

God’s Love for the World of Human Beings

Brief reference was made to John 3:16 and the love of God in the first chapter. But we need to revisit that important verse as we think more about the God’s love for the world of human beings. In that key verse of the Bible that says that God “so loved the world,” the Greek word used is kosmos, the world from which the English word cosmology (“the scientific study of the origin, evolution, and structure of the universe”) and cosmic (“of or relating to the whole universe”) comes.

But it is clear from the context that world as used in John 3:16 is the world of human beings. (At least, I assume that most of us acknowledge that belief is a human phenomenon and not a concept that applies to animals or other forms of the non-human world.) In the first chapter, I emphasized that God’s love is a universal love, and I re-affirm that point here. God’s is not a narrow or a parochial love; it is a universal love.

God’s love is universal, for love is the central characteristic of God, who is the Creator of all that is. As cited in the opening paragraph of this chapter, the Bible states, and repeats, “God is love.” Thus, we can say that love is the central characteristic of God, the essence of God’s being. And while God’s love is for all of creation, as I emphasized in the previous section, God’s love is especially bestowed upon that part of creation made in God’s own image.

While God “elects” the Jewish people to be his special covenant people, according to the Old Testament, that election is always with a universal intent. There is never any indication that God loved the Israelites more than any of the other people of the world, although some have mistakenly thought that. The universality of God’s love is even more pronounced in the New Testament. God’s love for all people, and it is an unconditional love.

It has sometimes been said that there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us more, and there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us less. That is a good saying. With conditional love, good or pleasing behavior usually elicits greater love. Conversely, with conditional love, bad or displeasing behavior usually diminishes love. But God’s love never increases and never decreases. It is unconditional love.

That certainly does not mean that God is equally pleased with all human action or that it makes no difference to God whether we do good or bad. Not at all. But God’s love is the same, regardless of what we do. Goodness does not cause God to love us more, but it makes a difference to us and to others. Similarly, doing that which is bad does not cause God to love us less, but that also makes a difference to us and to others.

So, for our sake and the sake of others, God desires for us to do some things and not do other things. And it pleases God when we do some things and refrain from doing other things. God doesn’t love us more when we read the Bible a lot, or pray a lot, or worship a lot. But, you might say, doesn’t the Bible say, “God loves a cheerful giver”? Yes, that is a clear statement found in 2 Corinthians 9:7. But the Bible doesn’t say God doesn’t love a non-cheerful giver or a cheerful non-giver. It is instructive that the Amplified Bible says that “loves” in 2 Cor. 9:7 means “takes pleasure in” or “prizes above other things.” Giving cheerfully pleases God. But it doesn’t cause God to love us more.

God’s love is universal and unconditional.

God’s Love Manifested through Jesus Christ

The expression or demonstration of God’s love is not limited to Jesus Christ, but Christians have through the centuries from its beginning agreed, for good reason, that Jesus is the greatest or the definitive manifestation of the love of God. That is the main point of John 3:16. God so loved the world that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was sent to the world by God for the salvation of the world.

In the same chapter that declares, twice, that God is love, we find this clear statement: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).

God’s sending Jesus to the world to live and die for sinners, which includes all people, is the supreme manifestation of God’s love. God, without question, meant for the message of and about Jesus to be shared with all people. But God also meant for that sharing to be done by loving means only.

Unfortunately, through the centuries for some Jesus has been not an expression of God’s love so much as an excuse for conquest. This began with the Roman general Constantine in the fourth century. Before the decisive Battle of Milvian Bridge in October 312, Constantine had a vision of the first two Greek letters in the name (title) Christ. He didn’t understand the meaning of the vision, but then had a dream in which Jesus told him, “By this sign you shall conquer.”

With the sign of the cross, then, Constantine defeated his military rival and went on to become the Roman Emperor. In various ways for many of the peoples of the world, from that time until the present, with the cross as the ubiquitous symbol, Jesus has been the Christ of conquest. That was true for the Crusaders in 1095 and for most of the next two hundred years. That was true for many of the Europeans who came to the “New World” following Columbus’ first voyage here in 1492.

George E. “Tink” Tinker is an erudite professor at Iliff School of Theology, where he has taught since 1985. He is the author of several books, including American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty.[3] That is a hard-hitting book, very critical of traditional Western Christianity and the activities of Western missionaries among the indigenous peoples of North America. Among other things, Tinker emphasizes that for most Native Americans, the Jesus of the missionaries was primarily a colonial, conquering Jesus who was bad news, rather than good news.

For that reason Tinker objects using the title Lord in referring to Jesus. That is a word and a concept, he contends, that does not communicate anything useful to American Indians. In fact, he asserts that Lord is “the one scriptural metaphor used for the Christ event that is ultimately unacceptable and even hurtful to American Indian peoples” (p. 96). Many Native Americans, it seems, have come to see Jesus not as a manifestation of the love of God but as the Lord of the invading people who stole their land and systematically destroyed their cultures and traditions.

The week I was first working on this chapter (back in 2010), I met Robert Francis for the first time. I had heard of Robert; he had spoken in a Chapel service at William Jewell College that I was unable to attend. When I first talked with Robert, I asked him if he belonged to a Christian community. He said that he and other Native Americans like him were followers of Jesus but not necessarily Christians.

Robert’s name card indicates that he is a Consultant/Helper with Mid American Indian Fellowships. That organizational name was followed with the words, “following Jesus in the context of our Native cultures.” Many people around the world are attracted to the life and teachings of Jesus, but are repelled by Christians. (Recall Gandhi’s words cited in the previous chapter.)

God’s love, truly, is fully manifested through Jesus. The lack of adequately expressing that love in word and deed is one of the most shameful aspects of the religion that arose because of Jesus.

God’s Love and the Problem of Evil and Suffering

If God really does love all creation, many people have serious questions about the presence of evil and suffering in such abundance in this world. The main question is why so many good people suffer, or suffer so much. Most people are able to understand that if people do bad things, some degree of divine punishment makes sense. But from the time of Job in the Old Testament to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People[4] and since, many people have wondered, and continue to wonder, why so many good people suffer if God is really a God of love.

This is an ancient problem of great magnitude, and it cannot be addressed sufficiently in this short section. But consider this: God, it clearly seems, did not create humans to be like pets in a cage, their every need cared for by an indulgent owner/master.[5] Humans, as well as the rest of the world, were created with freedom. Affirming God as Creator and Lover of all creation in no way means that everything in the world is caused by God or that God could or should protect everyone from all harm.

As mentioned, this chapter was originally being written in 2010, soon after the earthquake in Haiti that wreaked such terrible destruction and loss of life upon that sad country. Was that earthquake the result of God’s punishment of the Haitian people because of past sins?[6] How could any thoughtful person think such a thing? Was that natural disaster an indication of God’s lack of love for the people of Haiti? By no means.

There were physical causes for the earthquake; most earthquakes are caused by rupture of geological faults in the earth’s crust. They are not the result of God’s decision to punish a poor nation such a Haiti. And God’s love does not regularly lead God to intervene in natural events to protect humans that may suffer because of those events. Humans are not like pets in a cage.

God does, however, love those who suffer—for whatever reason. God does bring comfort and solace to all who suffer from natural or human-caused disasters. God’s suffers with us through Jesus Christ. God really does love all of creation.


[1] The Contemporary English Version renders Psalm 145:8-9 this way: “You are merciful, LORD! You are kind and patient and always loving. You are good to everyone, and you take care of all your creation.

[2] Elizabeth A. Johnson, “God’s Beloved Creation” in America 184:13 (April 16, 2001). America is the national Catholic weekly; the article by Johnson was accessed at http://www.americamagazine.org. Johnson (b. 1941) is a Distinguished Professor at Fordham University and the author of the highly acclaimed She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992).

[3] Published by Orbis Books in 2008. Tinker, an ordained Lutheran pastor, is a member of the Osage Nation.

[4] First published by Random House in 1981, it was re-issued in paperback by Anchor Books in 2004 and on Kindle in 2007.

[5] I first read about this idea in John Hick, Evil and the Love of God (Harper & Row, 1966). The “pet in a cage” analogy is found in the section of his book titled “Evil and Soul-Making” (pp. 253-261).

[6] Soon after the terrible earthquake, televangelist Pat Robertson said on live TV broadcast (on The 700 Club) that Haiti has been under God’s curse because they made a pact with the Devil during the time the Haitians were trying to free themselves from French rule.

#7 The Kingdom of God is More about Society than about Individuals

WESTERN CHRISTIANITY, AND IN in many ways Western thought in general since the time of the Enlightenment, has generally focused more on individuals than on society. Christians, especially in Protestant and even more in evangelical Protestant forms of the faith, have primarily interpreted the message of the Bible in individual terms.

[To read the remainder of this chapter, please click here.]

#6  The Main Characteristic of the Kingdom of God is Shalom

IF GOD’S DESIRE IS the realization of the kingdom of God, as articulated in the previous chapter, there are ample grounds for claiming that the main characteristic of that kingdom is shalom. The chief task of this chapter, then, is to unpack the meaning of that Hebrew word—and the Hebrew word is used for there is no English term that comes close to embodying all the richness of that Old Testament term.

[Please click here to read the remainder of this chapter.}

#5 God’s Main Desire for the World is the Realization of the Kingdom of God

WHY DID GOD CREATE human beings and what is God’s desire for the humans created in God’s own image? The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) is “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” It is interesting to find that on www.IslamWeb.net a similar answer is given: the “essential purpose for which humankind was created is the worship of God.” But was that really the purpose of creation and does that continue to be God’s main desire for us humans?

[Please click here to read the entire chapter.]

#4 The Holy Spirit is God’s Universal Presence in the World and is Not Limited to Those Who Know Jesus

PERHAPS THE GREATEST THEOLOGICAL deficiency of most people, Christians and non-Christians alike,  is in their understanding of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, it is hard to get a handle on the Spirit. As is widely recognized because of the third chapter of John, there is a close relationship between wind and Spirit (see v. 8). Just as it is hard to hold the wind, it is difficult to grasp the meaning of the Spirit.

[To read the entire chapter, please click here.]

#3  God is Fully Revealed in Jesus, but the Christ is not Limited to Jesus

THE TWO PREVIOUS CHAPTERS have emphasized the greatness of God. But if God is so great and, indeed, greater than we think or even can think, how can we possibly know God? While most would readily agree that we humans cannot know God completely, can we know God partially? While we looked at this matter briefly in the previous chapter, let’s consider this question more fully now.

[For the rest of this chapter, please click here.]

#2  The Better We Know God, the Broader and Deeper Will Be Our Understanding of the Universe and Everything in It

MANY PEOPLE SEEM TO think that embracing a religious faith narrows one’s understanding of the world. Some people have even jettisoned religion because they wanted a broader worldview. Such people have viewed belief in God as a straitjacket that limits thought about the world in which we live. But are such views well founded?

[To read the entire chapter, please click here.]