Even in the mid-1980s, according to Andrew Greeley, three-quarters of his respondents in an important poll reported that they preferred to think of God as “friend” than as “king.” I wonder what the percentage would have been if the option had been “friend” or “judge.” Today most people seem to have little difficulty believing in the love of God; they have far more difficulty believing in the justice of God, the wrath of God, and the non-contradictory truthfulness of an omniscient God. But is the biblical teaching on the love of God maintaining its shape when the meaning of “God” dissolves in mist?
We must not think that Christians are immune from these influences. In an important book, Marsha Witten surveys what is being preached in the Protestant pulpit. Let us admit the limitations of her study. Her pool of sermons was drawn, on the one hand, from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), scarcely a bastion of confessional evangelicalism; and, on the other, from churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention. Strikingly, on many of the crucial issues, there was only marginal statistical difference between these two ecclesiastical heritages. A more significant limitation was that the sermons she studied all focused on the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). That is bound to slant sermons in a certain direction.
Nevertheless her book abounds in lengthy quotations from these sermons, and they are immensely troubling. There is a powerful tendency “to present God through characterizations of his inner states, with an emphasis on his emotions, which closely resemble those of human beings.…God is more likely to ‘feel’ than to ‘act,’ to ‘think’ than to ‘say.’ ” Or again:
The relatively weak notion of God’s fearsome capabilities regarding judgment is underscored by an almost complete lack of discursive construction of anxiety around one’s future state. As we have already seen, the sermons dramatize feelings of anxiety for listeners over many other (this-worldly) aspects of their removal from God, whether they are discussing in the vocabulary of sin or in other formulations. But even when directly referring to the unconverted, only two sermons press on fear of God’s judgment by depicting anxiety over salvation, and each text does this only obliquely, as it makes the point indirectly on its way to other issues while buffering the audience from negative feelings.…The transcendent, majestic, awesome God of Luther and Calvin—whose image informed early Protestant visions of the relationship between human beings and the divine has undergone a softening of demeanor through the American experience of Protestantism, with only minor exceptions.…Many of the sermons depict a God whose behavior is regular, patterned, and predictable; he is portrayed in terms of the consistency of his behavior, of the conformity of his actions to the single rule of “love.”
With such sentimentalizing of God multiplying in Protestant churches, it does not take much to see how difficult maintaining a biblical doctrine of the love of God can be.*
Soli Deo Gloria!
For His Glory,
*Carson, D. A. (2000). The difficult doctrine of the love of God (12–13). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.