Jesus and the First Spiritual Law

Here is the First Spiritual Law of Bill Bright’s famous Four Spiritual Laws tract, just in case you haven’t used it or heard it:

Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so are there spiritual laws which govern your relationship with God.

Law One: God LOVES you, and offers a wonderful PLAN for your life.

God’s Love: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 see notes)

God’s Plan: Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (that it might be full and meaningful)
(John 10:10 see notes)

Why is it that most people are not experiencing the abundant life?

Because… [next Law]

Premise: the “laws” introduction is modernist, to be sure, but it is (in my assessment) mostly rhetorical: it is a way of connecting the “real” world to the “spiritual” world. It is a bridge, a touchstone, a way of connecting to modernists who think of the world in terms of laws. I’m no scientist, but I do know that scientists today don’t like this idea of “laws” (it gets its classical orientation among the Deists). Today they are talking about “string theory” and “braneworlds” and “Higgs field,” and the like, and are much less certain of laws of science that describe the real world. I leave it to the scientists to come to terms with these things. But, if they are nervous about scientific laws, then perhaps the correlation in the spiritual world has undergone as much of a revolution.

Now, because the correlation thing is mine (the law statement is a rhetorical move to connect the real world with the spiritual world) and I may not be as accurate about this as someone else might be, what I say now is of less weight: if it is the case that this “law” premise is an attempt to connect the “real” world to the “spiritual” world, then I would disagree right here: the distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world doesn’t obtain for me. We are wholes — heart, soul, mind, body, community, world — and the whole thing comes unravelled into analytical bits when we begin to break this wholeness apart.

The two points are this: God loves “you” and offers a “plan” for your life.

That God is love and that therefore he loves the world and that therefore he loves us and that therefore he loves “me” (or “you”) is clear enough, but there is a lot left out in going from “world” to “you.” And furthermore, it is highly individualistic and (Western and all that) to begin with the Individual as the Object of God’s own special love.

But, I do believe that God’s love for individuals was shown dramatically in Jesus, so my point is less what is said and more what is not said.

Which leads me to my first serious disagreement with The Four Spiritual Laws: humans are treated as Individuals and God’s love is treated as an abstraction. The fundamental reality of gospeling is not based on that Individual-God abstraction of God’s love and plan, but on the reality of experiencing and seeing and knowing love in the face of an Other. This is quite a claim so let me explain briefly: humans are not logical machines who wake up one morning and conclude “I am special” and “God must love me” and therefore “God does love me” and therefore “I must respond.” The foundation for evangelism is relationship and not mere abstract thinking. Nearly everyone comes to faith through the face of an Other: parents, siblings, close friends, etc.. Is this an accident? Or is this part of the gospel itself? Is community part of the gospel or not?

Perhaps the users of The Four Spiritual Laws will tell me, which they have told me, that it is the personal relationship between the “user” of The Four Spiritual Laws and the “potential convert” that makes the whole thing work. I tend to believe them, but the relational part is not part of The Four Spiritual Laws and I think it ought to be.

That God loves “you” is incontestable to me; God is love; God created out of an overflow of that love; love is at the foundation of everything. Jesus “taught” this love because first of all he “wrought” this love: in other words, those around Jesus learned God’s love by being loved by Jesus and by being invited to sit at his table and by being challenged by his words and by being overwhelmed by his entire life (birth to ascension and intercession). At the heart of the Western Church gospel is this problem with Individualism and it starts right here when we shape the gospel apart from its ecclesial shape in the Bible.

Now about the plan for “your life.”

When Bill Bright tells us that God’s plan is “abundant life,” which he does tell us because that is the verse he quotes from John 10, I’m indeed curious to see what he will do with it. There are two senses to what he means by this, and the three remaining laws will bring this to the surface as will the final conclusion/invitation: first, it could mean “eternal life” in the sense of “forever living with God” or “going to heaven.” And second it could mean a new birth and a Christ-directed life.

If he means “only” the first, then I disagree: but I’m certain he does not mean that, and that he means both the first and second.

Which means I have only one serious squabble with this direction of the “abundant life.” Namely, again, it is purely Individualistic. It will be defined in Law #4 as Christ on the throne, Self yielding to Christ, and one’s interests being directed by Christ, resulting in harmony with God’s plan.

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  • Oh no, Scot, now you’ve gone and done it! You have dared to get “picky.” Picky, picky, picky. Theologians are too picky…homoousia and homoiousia and all that! Don’t you believe in “the law of gravity,” Scot. That’s all they mean. And plus, people are going to hell in a handbasket and we don’t have time for analysis. Urgency is vital, not golly-lagging around “listening to someone’s story” for crying out loud. You’re going to stall us in “the paralysis of analysis!” Can you share the “4 laws” in 3 minutes as the plane plummets to the earth?Seriously, near the heart of this conversation is the dreadful error of substituting a theologically questional “plan of salvation” for “the gospel of the kingdom of God.” If I say “gospel” and someone says “laws” instead of Shalom, we’re in deep doo-doo.Plow ahead, Scot, this should be an interresting series!

  • A couple of quick thoughts. First, as to the whole “individual” aspect of the 4 spiritual laws—I think that an analogy between the heavenly and earthly family is helpful here. For example, I value my son as an individual, apart from his relationship to the rest of the family. His worth to me is not dependant upon anything other than the fact that he is my son—and it is from this family relationship (that of father to son) that he derives his value in my eyes. So though I agree that we were created to exist in community, and that it is only in community that we experience the fullness of all that God intends us to be, I have hesitancy to embrace a form of Christianity that minimizes the significance of the individual as valuable in his or her own right. The answer lies not in minimizing the individual, but in elevating community. These are two different moves, but they are often thought of as the same thing. We don’t need to deconstruct the individual in order to elevate the need for community. Thus I think there are reasons as to why we have neglected community, but I don’t think it is because we have placed too high of a value on the individual. But that’s for another day…Secondly, I agree that Jesus is the starting point in our knowledge of God. But those who say as much often seem to refer to the Jesus of the first coming, and can often forget about the Jesus of the second coming. The Jesus who said, “Come all who are weary” is also the Jesus who will “tread the winepress of the wrath and fury of God almighty.” The gospel of the kingdom is a gospel of repentance and preparation. The kingdom of God is already not yet. It has broken in among us, and Jesus calls us to repent and enter into it now, if we would have hope of entering into when it comes in its fullness.Which brings me to my final thought. The problem that I have with the four spiritual laws is not that it is too individualistic, but rather that it frames the “bad news” in a neutered fashion. Ultimately, the 4SLs assumes the Reformed (and earlier) doctrine of culpability, which grounds culpability in a legal breech of the divine law. The emphasis is upon sins of volition, and thus forgiveness and the cross become the central focus of the gospel. But Jesus, Paul, (and Augustine and Edwards), all ground culpability first in ontology, thus regeneration and the resurrection become the central focus. “Unless a man be born again…”

  • John,You had me going at first, until I realized you were setting me up “to go on.” Thanks for the comments, as always.

  • Gerald,I like your thoughts about individualism vs. community, and I don’t mean to suggest the two are opposites: but an “individualism only” gospel is quite a ways from a gospel that takes community into consideration at a serious level. I’m persuaded that our ecclesiology is at the center of the gospel itself.What about you?

  • Gerald, the gospel is not either individual or community; it is both/and. So, the question then is where do you start? With the individual so that we actually downgrade John 3:16 to read, “For God so loved (put your name here) that he gave….”? Or do we start with God’s desire and unfolding purpose to call out a people? The USAmerican gospel is all about me…”…You took the fall, and thought OF ME above all….” we sing. The “4 laws” seems to make the church an addendum to the individual convert, i.e., he or she can join one (or not) if they want to grow, but the really “big stuff,” being assured you’re going to heaven is already done. I think, on the other hand, the individual is an addendum to the church. Christ has and loves a “body” of which the individual is a kidney, eye, elbow, etc. There is no salvation apart from the church and I’m not Catholic.

  • Great post and comments! I was on staff with Crusade in Kyrgyzstan two years back and the laws, all faults aside, were a great tool as I was not fluent in the local language. When someone asked me what I believed it was much easier to pull out a copy of the laws in their language and walk through that then to try to stumble around get everyone on both sides of the conversation confused.

  • Jamie, it’s very commendable that you sought to express the gospel in Krygyzstan in the language of the people. You wrote that the “Laws” helped you express to them “what I believed.” The question is: Is this gospel what the Krygystani should believe? Do the “Laws” truly express the gospel that Jesus and Paul taught? I think Scot McKnight is asking us to question our assumptions about the packaged gospel in the West. Is there really a universal gospel presentation? Many are beginning to understand that the gospel is much bigger and breath-taking than the 4 laws and it is, if anything, very contextual and local. There is no “one size fits all” gospel plan.

  • Brothers, Appreciate your thoughts, and I too agree that the issue is not an “either or”. John—I think that your question as to which comes first, the individual or the community, is a great question. But I’m not sure that either the individual or the community should act as an addendum. Perhaps trying to choose between the two is like trying to decide whether the plurality or the unity of God is more central to the divine nature. There is an eternal reciprocal relationship between the two and I’m not sure we do well to make one subservient to the other. I fear that just as making the individual preeminent over the community marginalizes the significance of the community, so too making the community preeminent over the individual marginalizes the individual. And as to the whole “body” illustration, I think the analogy (as used by Paul) was intended to show the significance and interdependence of the members in relationship to each other, not the priority of the whole over the members. The members serve in unity for the betterment of the body, and the body serves as a cohesive unit for the betterment of the members. But I agree with your statement that there is no salvation outside the Church. It was Calvin (I believe) who said something to the effect, “If a man will not have the church as his mother, he will not have God as his Father.”And Scott, I do think that ecclesiology is at the center of the gospel. This is a bit of a long answer, so bear with me. My theology generally, and sotieriology specifically, has been heavily influenced by Augustine. As I understand it, for Augustine, perseverance is not only necessary as a sign of saving faith (as became the standard Reformed position) but is necessary as a prerequisite of final salvation. Augustine did not shy away from merit language and was comfortable discussing the eternal reward as a reward given to merit (divinely and infallibly wrought through the Holy Spirit, of course). But here’s where ecclesiology fits in. At no time during the course of a believer’s life, does God coerce the believer into perseverance and obedience. It is through the interior enlightening work of the spirit and the external workings of providence that the believer is “wooed” continually into final salvation. And a significant and necessary component of this “wooing” is accomplished through the church, the community of believers. Thus the community (the church) is a necessary element in the believer’s ability to persevere. For Augustine, the gospel begins in regenerative justification. But though it is certain that the elect will persevere, still the elect must persevere, and he or she is not safely home until final perseverance. This is a bit convoluted and truncated, so please forgive me. Perhaps an illustration from Reformed (and Augustinian) sotieriology would help make sense of what I am trying to say. When Calvinists are accused that a high view of God’s sovereignty leads to the logical conclusion that we don’t need to witness, they respond be saying that the Church is the God-ordained means by which the gospel infallibly reaches the elect. So for the Calvinist, though it is true that God will save the elect, it is also true that God will save the elect through the Church. Gospel witness by the Church is a necessity of the elect’s conversion. In the same way, Augustine views the Church as a necessary instrument of perseverance—we cannot endure without participation in the body of Christ. So John is right—if we view salvation as having already been totally accomplished at the moment of conversion, if is difficult to see what need for the community we really still possess. It gets relegated the realm of discipleship. But if we view perseverance in Christ as a perquisite of final salvation (as did Luther and Augustine), and further understand that the community of the Saints is God’s primary instrument of perseverance, then we can understand the necessity of the Church. How does that sit with you guys?And Jamie, I appreciate your comments. Though I am not a huge fan of the 4SLs, God has used them to lead people to himself, and us “theological” types do well to remember that God speaks through many distorted means—even through donkeys and the likes of me.

  • Gerald,For me the issue is found in this comment of yours:”Thus the community (the church) is a necessary element in the believer’s ability to persevere.”I agree with you about perseverance; I like Augustine too. But, to fashion the Church as the community that enables the perseverance of the individuals gets things backwards for me. I don’t doubt the community does this. But, I’d like to see the perseverance of the community as a doctrine too (Matt 16:13-19).More importantly, the gospel is the work of God to restore Eikons in the context of the community (God’s people) for the good of the world, and more than the restoration/regeneration of Individuals. In other words, from the beginning (at least from Gen 12 on), the work of God is at the level of community, and that community mediates redemption. So, the community is more central to me.But, on this we probably agree.

  • Scott,Even as I finished my comment, I knew that I was left open to your critique. I too think that the community exists for more than the perseverance of the individual. I view the image of God, as expressed within humanity, to consist of both the individual as well as the communal, reflecting both the diversity and plurality of the God-head. We are fully human as indivuals in as much as we are a part of humanity–we simply cannot/do not exist apart from community, for the individual members of the God-head do not exist apart from community.Trying to sit-upright on this horse without falling off of either side is tricky business for me. Appreciate your thoughts.