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George MacDonald's Theology on Obedience (continued)


McDonald's Theology of Obedience

Continued from Page 1

     What is the reward of such theorizing? It is a reward in the eyes of men, not of God. It is the same reward sought by the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, "They have received their reward in full."36 It is simply easier on the carnal nature to deal in theories than to walk in the obedience of faith. Walking in the obedience of faith requires changed behavior, but systematizing theology does not. MacDonald also suggests that theorizing may be a kind of solace to the man who has abandoned obedience to God, just as it was to the fallen angels in Milton's Paradise Lost.37

      The attraction of theorizing may also be due simply to a misunderstanding of biblical faith. MacDonald believed this, and, while he wanted to avoid controversy, he also wanted to help those who were misguided. People had been taught and had come to view faith primarily as the intellectual holding of certain doctrines. They saw faith and obedience as things that could function separately, rather than, for instance, the two blades of a pair of scissors, which need one another for either to be of use. A mind that divides the two might say, "I may believe a thing, even if I don't obey. I believe in Jesus, but he knows I can't obey him." It may simply be sheer ignorance and wrong teaching that leads a person to make such a statement. MacDonald had no tolerance for this kind of teaching, this pressing of theories rather than simple obedience to Christ. His response was, "From such and their false teaching I would gladly help to deliver the true-hearted. Let the dead bury their dead, but I would do what I may to keep them from burying the living."38 The devils are a good example of those who have separated faith from obedience. They know the truth of the creeds. They are convinced of them. But they have refused obedience, and assenting to statements or explanations will not save them. Neither will it save any man.

     For MacDonald, the folly of pursuing theory before obedience was multiplied in the fact that such a pursuit would inevitably yield distorted theories. If a person was truly interested in proper theory, he must approach it first by living rightly, not by thinking meticulously. MacDonald explains:

Our business is not to think correctly, but to live truly; then first will there be a possibility of our thinking correctly. One chief cause of the amount of unbelief in the world is, that those who have seen something of the glory of Christ, set themselves to theorize concerning him rather than to obey him. In teaching men, they have not taught them Christ, but taught them about Christ. More eager after credible theory than after doing the truth, they have speculated in a condition of heart in which it was impossible they should understand; they have presumed to explain a Christ whom years and years of obedience could alone have made them able to comprehend.39

     For MacDonald, it is only the one who does rightly who can think rightly. He asserts that it is "pride that will understand what it cannot, before it will obey what it sees. He that will understand first will believe a lie-a lie from which obedience alone will at length deliver him."40 Lack of obedience is a recipe for wrong theories and theologies.

     The issue of finding escape from obedience, or solace without obedience, was indeed a trap for Israel in the day of Christ's visitation, and it has been a trap since then until now. Jesus put his finger on this when he said to the Jews, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."41 These Jews continued to theorize and to discuss the Scriptures, but they were neglecting, avoiding, refusing the Life that would fulfill them. They chose blind theorizing rather than true and vital relationship with God, and as a result, they had wandered far astray. False religion is forever offering substitutes for true religion. The Psalmist records this rebuke to those who choose to build themselves up with the Word of God while ignoring the obedience it commands: "But to the wicked, God says: 'What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you."42 Wickedness does not necessarily imply abandoning the Scriptures as a predominant source of thought and speech. The wicked may indeed be found among those who diligently study the Scriptures, for, as Paul writes to the Romans, "it is not those who hear the law who will be declared righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous."43 Righteousness is inseparably connected to obedience, not simply to study and reflection.

Obedience and Understanding

      Though MacDonald emphasized obedience, and cautioned against placing too much importance on theory, he did not regard understanding as unimportant; he simply saw obedience as the means to true understanding. It was not the search for understanding that he opposed, but the pursuit of understanding before or without obedience. He writes, "To put off obeying him till we find a credible theory concerning him, is to set aside the potion we know it our duty to drink, for the study of the various schools of therapy."44  This is not to suggest that the study of schools of therapy is unimportant. It is simply to say that such study ought not to set aside the needful drinking of the cup. MacDonald actually rebuked those who would seek no further understanding or explanation of a command than "the Lord said so." He encouraged believers to search out the underlying eternal truth behind the command, not as a substitute for obeying, but as a strengthener for obedience. "Why should I obey?" MacDonald asks. "We must not say 'Because the Lord says so.' It is because the Lord says so that the man is inquiring after some help to obey."45

     MacDonald found many who thought that the authority of Scripture was reason enough to shut down honest inquiry into understanding of what lay behind the commands. They could not see the character of God in the thing he commanded, nor the implication that he wanted man to share and manifest his righteous character. MacDonald writes, "An arbitrary utterance of the will of our Lord would certainly find ten thousand to obey it, even to suffering, for one that will be able to receive such a vital truth of his character as is contained in the words; but it is not obedience alone that our Lord will have, but obedience to the truth, that is, to the Light of the World, truth beheld and known."46  Again, MacDonald was not opposed to understanding; he was opposed to the pursuit of understanding apart from obedience. Ultimately, obedience and understanding must travel together, obedience leading the way, and continuously being reinforced by the understanding springing from obedience.

     Abraham shows us the obedience that precedes understanding when he took his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him there to the Lord. Surely he did not understand the foundations that God was laying in the world through this test of his faith. But he had come to trust God and knew that he had heard God's command. Understanding would follow, and the proverb would be passed down: "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided."47 Abraham came to see the character of his God through this experience, and though he set out for the mountain to sacrifice his son "because the Lord said so," he discovered the deeper issue of total surrender before he returned.

Obedience and the Atonement

     One of the theories that MacDonald warned against placing too much importance in was that of the atonement. He found many teaching that to be saved, a man must believe such-and-such about the atonement. MacDonald urged that "we must believe in the atoning Christ, and cannot possibly believe in any theory concerning the atonement."48  He wanted to fix a man's faith squarely on Christ, and relationship to him, as opposed to a particular explanation of the atonement. MacDonald was not nearly as interested in how God had accomplished this reconciliation, as he was in the fact that God had accomplished it. MacDonald wanted to see men and women actually experiencing the Life that Christ died to provide, not struggling over, or even resting in, a certain theological interpretation of the atonement. For MacDonald, the atonement was simply the actual restoration of vital relationship between God and man-man's justification, or actual realignment, to God.

     In speaking of this realignment, MacDonald says that man's unbelief gives him an "incapacity to accept the freedom of God's forgiveness; incapacity to believe that it is God's chosen nature to forgive, that he is bound in his own divinely willed nature to forgive."49 He goes on to say that "no atonement is necessary to [God] but that men should leave their sins and return to his heart. But men cannot believe in the forgiveness of God. Therefore they need, therefore he has given them a mediator."50 Here MacDonald suggests that the cross was necessary simply because we could not believe in God's forgiveness. If men could only believe in God's merciful and forgiving heart, the mediation of Christ on the cross would not have been necessary.

    It seems that MacDonald's understanding of the atonement, from the above statement, is inadequate biblically. He seems to be saying that if men could only believe in God's forgiveness, Jesus would never have had to come, would never have had to "bear our sins in his body on the tree," that his crucifixion was not really to bear sins, but merely to help us to believe something about God. That seems to make Jesus' act on the cross peripheral.

     Though MacDonald believed that the cross was necessary, he believed it was necessary primarily as an example, as a revelation, not as a redemptive work in and of itself. MacDonald's view in this matter strongly resembles the Moral Example Theory of the Atonement. While emphasizing some important aspects of the atonement, this view is incomplete, and MacDonald's heavy use of it gives him an imbalance when it comes to his perspective on the atonement. The Moral Example Theory does not adequately explain Jesus' title as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world51 -- the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.52 Though Jesus' purpose did indeed include modeling for his disciples that self-giving and sacrificial life he wanted them to imitate,53  his death on the cross did far more than simply teach man how to die, or convince man that God truly desired to forgive him. He bore the sins of the world in a way that no one else could ever bear them.

     The Old Testament concept of forgiveness is very closely related to the concept of bearing or carrying a load. For instance, Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem: "Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive."54 The Hebrew word translated here as forgive55 is the same word used in the following verses from Isaiah, chapter 53: "Surely he has borne our griefs,"56 and "for he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."57 In order for sin to be forgiven, it must be borne, and God has patiently borne our sin from the very beginning. The incarnation and the cross are simply the meeting of this fallen, wicked world, and the holy God, who has borne our sin. By his bodily death, Christ added the seal of completion to God's bearing, and thus, forgiving, of man's sin. Sin cannot simply be swept away in a forgiveness that does not include bearing. If it could have been dealt with in any other way than by bearing it bodily on the cross, God surely would have found that way in answer to the earnest pleas of his beloved son in the garden of Gethsemane.

     But MacDonald is admittedly not as interested in the interpretation of the atonement as he is in God's intended result of the atonement. Christ bore our sins to reconcile us to God, to restore us into that Life of divine fellowship that man lost in his infancy in Eden. MacDonald's sentiments might be articulated in this way: "Don't explain to me the mechanics of God's justification of man, but enter into the justified, the realigned, the reconciled Life. The understanding of a reality is not nearly as important as the actual experience of it. Understanding will come. Many try to understand it without any experience of it, and teach others to follow the same pursuit of barren understanding. Don't fall into that trap. Enter by childlike faith and obedience into the reality that the 'wise and learned' are struggling unsuccessfully to understand and explain from the outside." Even MacDonald's inadequate view of the atonement serves to show the incredible emphasis he puts on obedience-the obedience that is central to the experience of the reconciled Life. He was surely overcompensating because of the great need he saw for people to experience the life of obedience.

Obedience and Trying

     Setting theories aside, MacDonald assumed the ability of God to communicate directly with the believer, and the believer's ability to respond to God's communication. God himself is the great Teacher, and he unfolds his treasures of wisdom and understanding to those who obey him. But is obedience truly possible? Some might become overwhelmed by the enormous implications of obedience. It carries with it an absoluteness in MacDonald's teaching. But though MacDonald unswervingly proclaims perfection of obedience as the biblical aim, and even promise, for all believers, his pastoral counsel is very practical: "Obedience is not perfection, but trying….He knows that you can try, and that in your trying and failing he will be able to help you, until you shall do the will of God even as he does it himself. He takes the will in the imperfect deed, and makes the deed at last perfect."58  Notice the importance that MacDonald places on the will-the will that says, "even if I can't do this perfectly, even if I'm going to look a fool because of failure, I'm going to try to do this because my Lord commands it." MacDonald is focused on that point where the will and the action engage together. To try to obey means that I have sided with God in my will, even if I am not able to perform perfectly. It is this siding with God in the will that is very important to MacDonald. If we will side with God in our heart and will, God himself will see that our performance does in time become perfect, just like that of Jesus. He will indeed enable us to walk as Jesus walked. But trying is the crucial first step.

     Trying is in fact so important to MacDonald that he says that even if we do what is displeasing to Christ, but we think it is his will, and have thus sided with as much as we believe (even in error) to be his will, we will still gain by that, because such a willful trying gives God a hold on us, which he will use.59 He will show us our error, that we, desiring to follow and obey him, may make the change from error to righteousness. Much more problematic is the man who does the kind of thing that would please Christ, but has not yet fully yielded up his will to Christ. The will is more primary than the particular action. It is easier for a man desiring to please Christ to change a wrong course of action, than for a man "doing good" out of a selfish heart to yield up his will. A man who wills to obey Christ, but lacks the knowledge of what pleases Christ, will, with each stepping forward in even basic duties, learn more of what is best to know, and how to walk. By the spirit of ready obedience, a believer ought to try to obey even when he is not completely sure. MacDonald says, "With those who recognize no authority as the ground of tentative action, a doubt, a suspicion of truth ought to be ground enough for putting it to the test."60 Trying enables the will to engage the action.

     Through obedience we not only come to understand more of God's character, but we come to know, step by step, how we are to live out that character. MacDonald taught that obedience is an ever-unfolding way: only as a person obeys the light he has been given, will he be given more light. He likens it to climbing a stair. As a man takes the first step and obeys the most basic duty before him, he will come to see the next step, which was less plain to him until he took the first.61 A man must recognize that there are basic obligations and responsibilities that lay claim upon him. If he will not acknowledge and fulfill these responsibilities, he may never come to know the obligation he owes to his Creator. But if he will start on the lowest level and do justly and fairly to all with whom he comes into relationship, he will, as he continues to grow and do right, continue to discover further dimensions of responsibility and grace. In this way, "obedience is the opener of eyes."62

     Obedience increases our sensitivity to sin in ourselves, that sin may thus be done away with. MacDonald says it in this way: "A man may indeed have turned to obey God, and yet be capable of many an injustice to his neighbor which he has not yet discovered to be an injustice; but as he goes on obeying, he will go on discovering. Not only will he grow more and more determined to be just, but he will grow more and more sensitive to the idea of injustice-I do not mean in others, but in himself."63  MacDonald is speaking here about becoming aware of ungodly things in our lives of which we were not aware. He is not speaking of known sin, for he goes on to say, "A man who continues capable of a known injustice to his neighbor, cannot be believed to have turned to God."64  The obedient heart is ready to turn from any sin as it becomes aware of it, and continued obedience unfolds its awareness in a steady progression. The obedient heart will never nourish a sin once it sees it as such.

     The notion of trying helps a person to avoid paralysis. A person may not be able to obey perfectly, but that is no excuse not to try. MacDonald supports this by asserting that God never "gave a commandment knowing it was of no use for it could not be done."65  Trying keeps obedience in view, rather than letting it go. When a person stops trying, disobedience rushes in with little hindrance. MacDonald's intent in encouraging believers to try to obey is not simply an excuse to aim lower than perfection. MacDonald urges that "it is the highest love constantly to demand of [a person] perfect righteousness as what he must attain to. With what life and possibility is in him, he must keep turning to righteousness and abjuring iniquity, ever aiming at the perfection of God."66 No, MacDonald does not lower the standard, but he wants to emphasize that even when a commanded task seems daunting, the believer can and must exert the raw effort of launching out in faith on the promises of God. The wilderness generation of Israel would not try to enter the land because of the giants, even though Joshua and Caleb urged them to trust the Lord and obey his command.67  The following generation did not refuse to try because of the giants, but entered the land and took possession of it.68 When the Philistines threatened Israel with a vast and innumerable army in the days of King Saul, Jonathan launched out in faith and tried the unthinkable, saying to his armor-bearer, "Come, let's go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few."69 God honored Jonathan and his armor-bearer that day, and Israel routed the Philistines. When Peter heard Jesus tell him to throw his nets on the opposite side of the boat to get a catch of fish, he tried it, and soon found himself with a catch too big for his boat to hold.70

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[1] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Series I (London, Alexander Strahan, 1867), Unspoken Sermons, Series II (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1885), Unspoken Sermons, Series III (Longmans, Green, & Co., 1889); reprinted as Unspoken Sermons, First, Second, & Third Series (Whitethorn, CA: Johannesen, 1997, 1999) (all page citations will be to the reprint edition).

[2] John 14:6. The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1983). All Biblical references are taken from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

[3] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 424.

[4] Ibid., 423.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 424-425.

[7] Ibid., 165, 370.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 478.

[10] Heb. 5:8-9.

[11] Heb. 2:10.

[12] Phil. 2:8.

[13] Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42.

[14] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 118.

[15] Ibid., 578.  In contrast to the notion of imputed righteousness MacDonald offers 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”  MacDonald reasons that “…if the former half means, ‘he made him to be treated as if he were a sinner,’ then the latter half should, in logical precision, mean, ‘that we might be treated as if we were righteous.’” Ibid., 577.

[16] Ibid., 580.

[17] Ibid., 581.

[18] George MacDonald, Thomas Wingfold, Curate (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1867, fourth edition, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1887, reprint, Whitethorn, CA: Johannesan, 1996), 152 (page citation is from the reprint).

[19] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 390.

[20] Matt. 13:58 NASB

[21] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 583-584.

[22] Ibid., 396.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 310.

[25] 1 John 2:6.

[26] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 373.

[27] E. Stanley Jones, The Way (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1946), 62.

[28] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 397.

[29] John 15:5.

[30] Phil. 4:12-13.

[31] See Col. 3:1-17.

[32] See Eph. 4:1-5:20.

[33] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 408.

[34] Ibid., 533.

[35] Ibid., 406.

[36] Matt. 6: 2, 5, 16.

[37] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 533.

[38] Ibid., 521.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 522.

[41] John 5:39.

[42 Ps. 50:16-17.

[43] Rom. 2:13.

[44] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 533.

[45] Ibid., 135.

[46] Ibid., 7-8.

[47] Gen. 22:14.

[48] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 392.  Here MacDonald is not rejecting belief in the atonement; rather, he is rejecting the resting of one’s faith in any work of Christ apart from a vital personal relationship with Christ himself.  A man may not rest in his salvation through the atonement while neglecting his relationship with Christ.  Christ is his salvation.  Christ is his atonement.

[49] Ibid., 539.

[50] Ibid.

[51] John 1:29.

[52] Rev. 13:8.

[53] Rom. 8:36; Gal. 5:1-2.

[54] 1 Kings 8:30.

[55] Hebrew nasa’.

[56] Isa. 53:4 NKJV

[57] Isa. 53:12.

[58] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, 399.

[59] Ibid., 409.

[60] Ibid., 138.

[61] Ibid., 471.

[62] Ibid., 185.

[63] Ibid., 583.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid., 399.

[66] Ibid., 584.

[67] Num. 14:1-10.

[68] Josh. 21:43-45.

[69] 1 Sam. 14:6.

[70] Luke 5:4-11.