Salvation, according to the Bible, comes from God’s self-giving. That’s pretty high-falutin’ theologizing, even if you leave the Trinitarian part out of it. But it’s also immediately relevant to our lives.
There is an evangelical spirituality which corresponds to the deeply personal nature of God’s self-giving. It is a spirituality that focuses relentlessly on God himself, and is on constant guard against the temptation to be distracted from God by his blessings, benefits, or gifts. A. B. Simpson’s gospel song, “Himself,” captures it perfectly:
Once it was the blessing, now it is the Lord;
Once it was the feeling, now it is His Word;
Once His gift I wanted, now the Giver own;
Once I sought for healing, now Himself alone.
It goes on like that for several verses, and while it might not be your taste in poetry, but the idea is crucial. Depending on our individual tendencies in self-expression, the spirituality it expresses may seem histrionic and melodramatic. But this is the kind of language evangelicals have always used, and if they have often been able to say it with more decorum in a cultured and liturgical setting, they have also frequently said it so directly and emotionally that they made A. B. Simpson sound like a stuffy high-churchman by comparison. The modes of expression are many, but evangelical spirituality will always find a way to declare its adherence to God himself, emphasizing precisely the personal character of it. In view of the way God has thrown open his heart and turned his inner life inside out to be our salvation, how else could the people of the gospel respond? He speaks passionately to us, and we must answer.
God gave himself totally to us for our salvation, and the only reasonable response is a total self-giving back to him. This is not how salvation had to be, by the way. I’m totally free-wheeling and speculating here, but think about it. Imagine that you’re God (take a minute). You’re totally omnipotent and infinitely creative. You’ve got this human creation, and it has a sin problem. How do you solve it? I’m just guessing God had lots of options on the table. But it’s no part of the task of Christian theology or biblical faithfulness to speculate about what options God entertained. The task of Christians who are being biblical is to study and understand what God has in fact done. So maybe God could have sent a super-angel to kill the devil, or worked out some other solution. I don’t know —God’s more creative than I am, plus omnipotent. But what God did in fact do was open his inner life to us, and make available to us this eternal Son who had always been in unity with the Father and the Spirit in the unity of the triune God. For us and our salvation God has opened his life to us. Much more could be said. This is why we’re adopted as sons, because the eternal Son has brought us into a saving relationship to the Father.
The gospel is that God is God for us, that he gives himself to be our salvation. In this sense, as John Piper has said in a series of “meditations on God’s love as the gift of himself:” God is the Gospel. He does not give us some thing that makes us blessed, but he blesses us by giving us himself. That’s a kind of non-trinitarian way to say it; a more Trinitarian and more biblical way to say it is that God gave his Son.
It is a great thing to have said this much: these are the deep things of God that Paul invites us to. It’s good to have thought such grand thoughts about salvation that we have come to view it as God-sized, and to confront the fact that God gives nothing less than himself to be our salvation. This is what’s new in the good news; it’s newer than the new year, it’s newer than your new toys, and it’s not going to get old. Even though it’s been here for two millennia, it’s still new. It’s new like the new heaven and the new earth, new like the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven as a bride adorned for her groom. It’s new with a newness that cannot grow old, even though we may grow old, or bored with great things. It stays new.
John Wesley, in the eighteenth century, composed a little Covenant Service which he encouraged his people to gather together and enter into on solemn occasions in a moment of serious consecration. He wanted them to count the cost and decide if they were going to live for themselves or live for Christ. Partly it’s an altar call, a call to conversion. But he also wanted adult Christians who had been believers for a long time to take this up periodically throughout their lives. In this covenant service, deep calls to deep; God’s total self-giving is best answered by our total self-giving to him. By way of conclusion, I want to read three paragraphs of John Wesley’s covenant service. Listen to this human response to God’s self-giving in the gospel through the Son and the Spirit:
Yield yourselves to the Lord, that is, as his servants, give up the dominion and government of yourselves to Christ. Neither yield your members, as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but yield yourselves to God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members, as instruments of righteousness unto God. To whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey. Yield yourselves so to the Lord, that you may henceforth be the Lord’s; I am thine, saith the Psalmist [to God]. Those that yield themselves to Sin, and the World, their hearts say, Sin, I am thine; World, I am thine; Riches, I am yours; Pleasures, I am yours; I am thine, saith the Psalmist; devoted to thy fear, dedicated to thy service; I am thine, save me; give yourselves to Christ, Sinners, be devoted to his fear.” (Wesley, Covenant Service, 11)
Lay hold on the Covenant of God, and rely upon his promise of giving grace and strength, whereby you may be enabled to perform your promise. Trust not to your own strength, to the strength of your own resolutions, but take hold on his strength. (Wesley, Covenant Service, p. 17.)
This is Wesley pointing out that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. If you want to increase your faith, you don’t clench your faith muscles and try to faith harder; you hear more of the word of the Lord, and this awakens faith in you. When you make a covenant with God, you don’t say, “I’m such a good covenant maker and promise keeper that I’m going to make me a covenant with God.” No, you remind yourself of God’s covenant promises, and respond.
And now, glory be to thee, O God the Father, whom I shall be bold from this day forward to look upon as my God and Father; [glory to thee] that ever thou shouldst find out such a way for the recovery of undone Sinners. Glory be to thee, O God the Son, who hast loved me, and washed me from my sins in thine own blood, and art now become my Saviour and Redeemer. Glory be to thee, O God the Holy Ghost, who by the Finger of thine almighty power hast turned about my heart from Sin to God. O dreadful Jehovah, the Lord God Omnipotent, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Thou art now become my Covenant-Friend, and I through thine infinite grace, am become thy Covenant-Servant. Amen. So be it. And the Covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. (covenant service, 22-23)