Whether musicians realize it or not, they are appropriating a gift from God.

Watch trained musicians playing together and you are witnessing the realization of a joy that non-musicians will never experience. And this is true whether the setting is a symphony orchestra or a jazz trio or a high school marching band.

It’s a complex and nebulous joy, comprised of many parts and having many degrees. There is mutual dependence and respect, there is the satisfaction of being a contributing member to a community of the like-minded and like-skilled, there is shared aspiration and shared satisfaction, there is a sense of generosity and aesthetic accomplishment, of being part of something unique and therefore timeless. And much else besides.

This special joy is available to anyone who is willing to acquire the skill of playing an instrument. You can say it is a reward, but that’s a loose and misleading way of speaking. To speak of rewards is to assume a rewarder. When you reach the top of a mountain and enjoy the view from there, the view is not the reward, as if it’s something that might have been withheld. The view is the discovery of what was there all along, waiting for you to climb the mountain and appropriate it.

Christianity is often spoken of as a religion of rewards, and that is equally loose and misleading. The thought is that, if you do such-and-such or lead a life that is so-and-so, God will then benefit you with something. But that’s like saying the dramatic view is like a pat on the head for the effort of climbing the mountain; or the special joy of playing in a jazz trio is like the payment from the owner of the club.

Christ does not teach how to earn rewards. He teaches how to appropriate the joy of being in harmony with God.


God’s sacrifice did not consist in the murder of Jesus on a cross, nor in allowing that murder. God’s sacrifice consisted in becoming human, and therefore helpless to the degree humans are helpless.

The Old Testament understanding is of God being in control, even of the terrible things that happen; the New Testament understanding is of love relinquishing control, in faith.

To theorize about God’s permissive will is to shrink from this terrible revelation.


There are only two ways of accomplishing education, that is, of lifting out of ignorance. One is through verbal instruction; the other is through demonstration.

Typically these two methods are combined in various proportions. We all begin ignorant of carpentry, for example, and our ignorance is lifted by someone showing us a mitered joint and telling us how it works, by holding up a model buttress and describing where the gravitational forces lean upon it. And so, little by little, we learn carpentry.

For some sorts of education – learning how to box, say, or to swim, or to kiss – the education leans very heavily on the showing; in teaching history or astrophysics, say, the verbal instruction takes most of the responsibility.

“Sinfulness” is a variety of ignorance, and salvation from it consists in education, the education, both verbal and demonstrative, that Christ provides. That is what is meant by Christ saving us from our sins.

Our salvation through Christ is not like being plucked from a leaky boat. It’s like being taught how to patch holes, and how to swim.


We have nothing but our language to describe God, heaven, the work of Christ, and so on, and our language is entirely a product of our concerns and objectives and limitations. The words God, heaven, and work are good examples. So is the word good. So is the word example. So is the word word.

You see the difficulty?

For all its wondrous powers, human language is of little use in communicating that which stands outside of our concerns and objectives and limitations. That’s why Jesus is almost always allusive and parabolic in his speech.

Consider the insistence that God is morally just, and how that contention is used to argue that God’s very nature requires the infliction of punishment – perhaps even never-ending punishment – on the wrong-doer. According to this way of thought, moral righteousness requires that each moral being be treated according to his works. So virtue merits proportionate reward, and vice proportionate punishment. For God to arrange consequences according to any other pattern would run contrary to his own nature, which is impossible. Quod erat demonstrandum.

(We won’t dwell on the unforeseen implications this way of thinking has for commonplace notions of heaven and hell, except to say that no imaginable human virtue is proportional (by any human understanding of proportion) to everlasting bliss, nor any vice to endless torment. Thus this argument from God’s nature would rule out both heaven and hell, as they are commonly conceived.)

But from the point of view of our present reflection, there is a much more fundamental problem. Our God-given conscience does most certainly incline us to think that effortful goodness (virtue) and effortful malfeasance (vice) merit or warrant different consequences, just as an itch merits scratching or a full ear of corn warrants harvesting. And so in order to reflect this warranted revelation of conscience we speak of rewarding the one and punishing the other, here as always utilizing words that are products of our own concerns and practices.

We can trust the distinction itself, since it is revealed by God in conscience; but what we cannot trust is how humans have embodied the distinction in language and therefore in thought. How God embodies the distinction in reality may be entirely different.

It may, in fact, be true of vice, as it is said to be of virtue, that in God’s reality, it is its own reward.


Christ did not achieve or establish the divine truths of the gospel, he did not alter the relationship between God and humanity. God’s love for sinners has always existed, God’s forgiveness of sins has never wavered or changed or grown: these were as much a part of the fabric of reality before the life, ministry and suffering of our Lord as they have been since. The doctrines of the resurrection and never-ending life with God were true before Jesus taught them. That’s why Jesus offered the summary of his work to Pilate in these words: For this cause I was born, and to this end came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.

To bear witness. Not to establish or create. To bear witness to what is and has always been and always will be: the truth.

The same thing is meant by Paul writing to the Romans: But God commended his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The death of Christ was God commending his love towards us, showing his love. All that Jesus did was making God manifest. The reality that had been kept secret from the foundation of the world was made known when this sun of righteousness arose with healing in its rays, just as the rising sun in the east reveals that which had been hidden by the night.

Jesus did not abolish death; his resurrection made manifest the abolition of death.


Scripture provides us with several examples of when God, frustrated by his own creation, so to say steps back and starts over. The disobedience in Eden is one, the scattering after Babel another, and of course the great Flood. The truth captured by these profound stories is that there is something impossible about community and peace between God, in his unthinkable singularity and remoteness, and anything that is not God.

The solution, or at least the last – or perhaps, the only – attempt at solution, the only possibility for God to escape loneliness, was for God himself to change, we may even say, to die. Reconciliation was not accomplished through humans becoming God, but through God becoming human.

The faith that accomplishes reconciliation is not our faith, it’s God’s faith.


Imagine a father and son stranded on a desert island. There is a small amount of food on the island, just enough to keep them barely alive indefinitely.

The son has limited sailing skill, but the father nonetheless loads their boat with most of the food, and sends the son off in search of rescue.

The father’s action is the manifestation of his faith in his son. Not a proof or a demonstration, a manifestation. It is the father’s faith.

This is the true picture of the atonement. And the son is not Christ. The son is us.