Post 2: Christ, Universal Lord of Mankind
(Back to Introduction and Post 1)
There is inevitably an eschatological aspect to the title “Universal Lord of Mankind”. We look forward to the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11). The implication of this is naturally that the Lordship of Christ is not universally recognised in the present age. But in what sense can we say that Jesus is Lord, even when he is not recognised as such?
Again we must make a contrast with the Reformed view that God is the ultimate cause of everything that happens – and everything we do. Such a view, although not perhaps consciously thought through, may lie behind phrases such as “God willing” (as in – “I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing!”) or the song text “the days I cannot see have all been planned for me”. It is however one thing for God to have a plan for my life, and another to believe that I have no choice but to follow that plan. Although the Bible does occasionally give the impression that people are not entirely masters of their own actions (e.g. Genesis 45:4-8), there are far more references to people making choices, and specifically choosing either to obey God or reject him. It is quite clear, throughout the Bible, that people are held to account for the choices they make, and that they are responsible for the consequences of their actions (e.g. Joshua 24:15, John 3:18). Wayne Grudem, in his “Systematic Theology” maintains that our choices are real, and that we are therefore responsible for our actions – but that God nevertheless is the ultimate cause of everything that happens and everything we do. This is self-contradictory. If God is the ultimate cause of all of our actions, we cannot be said to have made real choices – and therefore we are not accountable. In the end such a viewpoint must undermine the gospel, for if we are not accountable, our sin is not real, and there is no need for forgiveness or atonement.
The opposite of this is viewpoint is the Pelagian heresy that we are entirely free, and that by consistently choosing the good we may attain salvation. Pelagianism has in a sense resurfaced in Existentialism, so that Sartre, for example, can insist that mankind is bound only by itself. Each individual has the freedom to make choices in life, regardless of other influences, and in this way we can construct our own unique identity. It is not hard to see the extent to which this individualist philosophy has influenced Western society in recent years, but the idea is nevertheless flawed because it fails to take into account that people’s choices are not, in the final analysis, entirely free. We are naturally influenced by our genetic history, our environment, and by our (and our parents’) previous choices, which may develop into habits of thought and action that we no longer question.
The Salvation Army, then, has again maintained a middle position. We insist that people are accountable – and this must mean that our actions are not determined in advance, or entirely directed either by God’s agency or sociological determinism. Despite everything that influences us, we have a genuine choice – or at least an element of choice – in what we do. Habits may be broken, circumstances overcome – at least to some extent. But we also recognise that our choices are not entirely free and unfettered. In many ways we are caught in the patterns of behaviour that our background and circumstances dictate, and, humanly speaking, our freedom of choice will always be limited. Nevertheless, as Salvationists we also believe that mankind is influenced by God’s prevenient grace – the work of the Holy Spirit who calls us to Christ and makes it possible for us to break free from our circumstances.
All this means that the Lordship of Christ in the present age is in a sense a matter of potentiality rather than an actual fact. Although as creator God he could force his will on mankind, he has chosen to limit himself. His power is revealed not in his controlling people or events, but in his spirit of love and self-sacrifice, and it is when this spirit is evident that we can recognise his lordship. Each individual has the opportunity to accept or deny his lordship over their life – and it is ultimately this choice which will be decisive when Christ is finally acknowledged to be Lord indeed. (At this point it would be relevant to explore what form this choice takes for those who have not heard the gospel, or who have only heard a caricatured version of Christianity, but that lies outside the field of this post).
In addition, Christ asserts his lordship over mankind in a number of ways. The first of these is his universal standard of behaviour: The dual command to love God and our neighbour. This command is not just a matter of discipleship, but sets the bar for all mankind. This is what God expects of us, and but for redemption through Christ, it is the standard we will be judged by. In a sense, then, we can say that Christ’s lordship is visible whenever anyone acts in a way that reflects his spirit – whether or not they are conscious of following Christ. An example might the act of mercy in which an Iranian couple forgave the man who killed their son, saving him from the death penalty, or a simple act of kindness for a colleague at work. Secondly, then, Christ’s lordship is apparent in universal judgement. Although the Bible speaks of a final judgement at the end of the world, Jesus also made it clear that the most important judgement is the one that happens in this present age. By choosing to follow him or to reject him, to acknowledge his lordship or to cling to our supposed freedom, we in fact judge ourselves. The eschatological lordship of Christ is in this sense a present reality. Thirdly, however, we assert that Christ’s redemption is also universal. Not universal in the sense that “everyone will be saved in the end”, but universal in its potential application. Whoever responds to Christ’s invitation, will be saved, and Christ’s desire is that everyone will respond to him. It is the tragedy of our world that some, at all times, reject him, but the atonement is nevertheless universal in its scope and intention.
Again we see that the dual roles of Lord and Saviour come together in the person of Christ, and are ultimately inseparable. He is our Saviour because he is also our Lord, and in his lordship we find salvation.