God Doesn’t Need Us – But Is That The Point? A Response to D.A. Carson

This is a response on a TGC [The Gospel Coalition – a Calvinist/Reformed ministry)] channel to this video by D.A. Carson:

Dear Todd: Yes – I have listened to the sermon in its entirety. If I have failed to interact with one of Dr. Carson’s main points (that God doesn’t need us) then my mind is utterly failing me. My question (in answer to your “raise questions”) remains: where is this point emphasized in Scripture (or, indeed, the Gospel)? I am quite familiar with Dr. Carson (and with his Calvinism – having been a Calvinist for 15 years or so – and a “reformed” pastor for over 10). I understand this rhetorical “move” as one against the “man centered gospel” of this modern and post-modern age. But, again, the very statement itself (that God doesn’t “need” us) flavors and tinges the whole tone of Dr. Carson’s presentation of the Gospel (as he understands it).

But it is commensurate with his Calvinistic presuppositions – with a special and foundational emphasis on “total depravity”. But this is an inference from that doctrine that simply doesn’t follow: Yes – we are born into sin and with a sinful nature – but does it really follow that we are therefore utterly worthless before God? I am sure this is intended to magnify the staggering enormity of His grace – and the utter otherness (read “holiness”) of His choice(s) in loving “us”.

But I would challenge such an anthropology: might it not be the case that God finds us to be of genuine worth – of value – as did the woman who looks for the lost coin – or the shepherd who leaves all to find the lost sheep? Every single human being born bears the image of God – every single human being is (in some biblical sense) an “offspring of God” (Acts 17:28 – or as the NASV daringly puts it, “For we also are His children.”) Dr. Carson (strangely and inconsistently with his own understanding of the proper exegetical rule of “context”) brings us to Acts 17 to tell us that “God doesn’t need us” – when, in fact, the tone and tenor of Paul’s Gospel message seems patently to take us in another (far more winsome, dare I say) direction: That God wants us to “grope for Him and find Him” – even premising further exhortations on this astounding and neglected truth: “Being then the children of God, we ought…”. And, further more, that “He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being…”

As anyone who listens closely to this sermon must deduce – there is a certain foundational ambiguity and ambivalence about God’s love: as Dr. Carson makes clear at one point (but, through subsequent generalized ambiguities, seems to gloss over – as is consistently the case in Calvinistic evangelism) God does NOT love us “all the same” – but has a special love for “the elect”. Yes, He loves all generally in the sense of providential “love” – but amongst that crowd there are some (if not many) who, like Esau, He even “hates”.

This perspective fails in this one critical theological point: it does not take seriously the affirmation that “God IS love”. What we are left with is something else – e.g. that God is loving – and that in varying degrees (is it no wonder that Calvin never refers to 1 John 4:8 in his Institutes?). For the Calvinist – it is far more fundamental that God is sovereign and Holy. But this begs the question as to what that holiness entails. As I understand it – it means there is no one like God – He is wholly “other” – but, above all, in His Love toward all and, perhaps, especially His enemies! That kind of holiness is on display in such passages as Hosea 11:9…

Such a view of God’s love introduces a duality into the picture that threatens to undo the doctrine of the divine “simplicity” (theologically speaking) of the Triune God – to bifurcate the very inner reality and life of the Trinity – but also the simplicity of the Gospel. This is most evident in Dr. Carson’s twice repeating that Jesus (the Son) came to save us from the wrath of God the Father. One can better understand this as reflecting his assumption that “penal substitutionary atonement” is the de facto “truth” as to how (limited) atonement was achieved. But that is simply not the case. And it obscures the fundamental truth that “God set him forth as a propitiation for our sins” (Romans 3:25) – that, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (1 Cor.5:19).

His (and Calvin’s) perspective reads too much back into the meaning of the word, “propitiation” – and ignores other aspects recognized early on in patristic theology that atonement is premised not fundamentally on a forensic/legal exchange so much as on the at-one-ment accomplished through the Incarnation: that Jesus, being fully God and fully man has entered into solidarity with humanity – assuming our very fallen flesh – and, on the cross bore that sin and its wages, death – accomplishing “the death of death in the death of Christ”. But He was raised again for our justification! It is this union of God and man IN Christ that brings about atonement and reconciliation through the cross. Jesus IS the Gospel – and that is why belief in HIM alone (not in a doctrine) brings (actuates) that Good News in our lives: we ARE reconciled to God – now (in view of that astounding fact) “be ye reconciled” (1 Cor.15)!

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