New Testament Christianity by J B Phillips
In English‑speaking countries at least we breathe such an atmosphere of diffused traditional Christianity that we are apt to take some of the major Christian revelations about God as though they were self‑evident, which of course they are not. We assume that kindness is a better thing than intolerance, and love a better thing than hatred. But these elementary assumptions are only true if the nature of the Author of the whole bewildering universe is Himself kind, understanding, and loving. Most people, whether inside or outside the churches, attempt at least to believe that "God is Love". Many non‑Christians have not the faintest idea that this is a purely Christian concept, and that before the coming of the Gospel no nation in the world had ever dared to conceive of God as active, Personal Love. Of course the Old Testament contains many passages which refer to the love of God, but it would be fair to say that on the whole they are conditional. Put very crudely, the burden of the Old Testament messages in general is: "If you are good and obey the Lord, He will be kind and will prosper you. But if you are disobedient and arouse His wrath, then He will most surely destroy you." We might profitably compare this prevailing Old Testament atmosphere with Jesus' parable of the Father and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11‑32) or with His specific statement, "He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil" (Luke ).
"God" in various religions might be thought of as benevolent towards the mortal creation, but the reason why the Gospel was Good News when it first burst upon the world was simply that men had realised that God is Love. The revelation of character provided by Christ Himself, the awe‑full brunt of suffering which He was prepared to bear in order to redeem mankind, His triumph over man's last enemy, His ascension to timeless reality taking Human Nature with Him as it were, His continual coming by the Spirit to transform and reinforce men's lives ‑ all these, the unshakable convictions of the Young Church, showed one thing, that God is by nature Love and that He loves mankind. Men who accepted this foundation‑truth found an indefinable endorsement of it in their own hearts. They also found that their own "love‑energy", which had previously been turned in upon themselves or was being given to the wrong things, now became an outflowing love embracing their fellow‑men for whom Christ died. Further, this love not only changed in direction but in quality. It was something more than natural love, it began to resemble divine Love. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Christianity gave the word "love" a new and deeper meaning. The new love was stimulated and developed by accepting the love of God as shown in Christ. "If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another", wrote John (1 John ). The new life of faith and hope is made possible according to Paul "because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts" (Romans 5:5).
I am convinced that a great deal of the joyful experience and invincible courage of the Young Church was due simply to the fact that the early Christians believed these words to be literally true. To them nothing could alter this basic fact, and no experience of life could separate them from God's unremitting love. I have become absolutely convinced that what we need to recover, perhaps more than anything else, is the conviction that God is not merely kindly disposed towards us, but that He is Love. Some theology will not allow us to enjoy this beautiful simplicity. It is far too good to be true, and the implication seems to be that if we were allowed to take John's words at their face value, we should all misbehave ourselves very badly. Consequently we are often told that God's love is not to be imagined in terms of human love, that it is higher, deeper, truer, and sterner. In fact, if we are not very much on our guard we are cheated of the Good News ‑ the inestimable comfort of knowing that God is Love is whisked away and we are given instead something so poor, unbending, and relentless, that instead of being reassured and inspired, we are repulsed and frightened. The Divine Lover has become "the Hound of Heaven".
Now of course, like every other clergyman and minister, I am familiar with the arguments which surround the Love of God with any number of caveats and provisos. Those who arrogate to themselves the task of interpreting God's Love frequently cannot bear it to be either universal or vulnerable. Yet if there is one lesson, above all, which sticks out a mile from the awe‑full spectacle of the Crucifixion of the Son of God, it is that His Love is vulnerable. It is not a conditional love, it is an open‑hearted, generous self‑giving which God offers to men. Those who would carefully limit the operation of God's Love to people who fulfil certain conditions, usually of their own making, have missed the point. Their Gospel is not "God is Love" but "God is love if you will fulfil the conditions which we will outline to you". The risk of proclaiming God's unconditional love towards mankind is precisely the same risk which God Himself took in becoming Man in Christ. People sometimes talk as though there would be a carelessness or even flippancy about living if John's words were taken at their face value. But is this really true? Is it not simply that those who are secretly afraid of God or who secretly hate Him are themselves lacking in love? And is it not equally true that those who have grasped something of the amazing love of God are most filled with generous love towards others?
I must say at this point that I
am profoundly disturbed by the technique of several modern evangelists, though
not, thank God, of all. This technique is to arouse feelings of guilt and fear,
which is not too difficult in many sensitive, conscientious people, and, having
got people thoroughly miserable about their sins, to point them to the Saviour.
Of course the Old Testament is dredged to provide ammunition for this kind of
spiritual assault, and indeed it is not a very arduous task we find texts from
the Old Testament prophets which, ripped from their context, can produce the
guilt‑feeling which many modern evangelists so earnestly desire. If these
men are right, then one is driven to the conclusion that both Jesus Himself and
If it is true that God is Love, then it follows that, as John so rightly points out, "every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God" (1 John 4:7). This we shall find absolutely true to life's experience and to our own. It is when we love, even a little, that we sense a kinship with the nature of things. For instance, in the course of true love between a man and a woman, or in the, experience of parents with their new‑born child ‑ that is, at times of special sensitivity ‑ many ordinary people feel that they are somehow touching Reality. Similarly, those who devote their lives whole‑heartedly to the service of, shall we say, deaf, blind, or mentally‑defective children, not infrequently find a satisfying sense that they are in accord with some purpose much greater than themselves. Examples could be multiplied again and again, but in the experience of ordinary people, without any particular religious faith, the actions of real love sometimes announce themselves as part of the divine Love. The opposite is equally true. However religious a man may be, however correct his beliefs and punctilious his ritual observances, unless he loves he does not know God.
It is peculiarly salutary to
reflect that in the earthly life of Jesus His bitterest enemies were the
respectably religious whose god was their own righteousness. By far the most
determined persecution of the
Of course the touching of reality, accidentally as it were by the normal giving of the human heart, can remain no more than a passing feeling. Its significance, its tremendous significance, can easily be missed. That is why so many pages were spent above in writing of the faculty of faith. For unless a man is prepared to use his faculty of faith and grasp the fact that God is Love, he will never rise above the level of being an "unconscious Christian", to his own loss and the loss of the Christian fellowship which we call the Church. This country, at least, has many thousands of such unconscious Christians. These men and women need to be told that what they are following, often spasmodically, is indeed ultimate reality and has been focused for us all in the recorded life of Jesus Christ. They already know something of love, but the garbled version of the Gospel which they hear from certain high‑pressure evangelists does nothing to associate in their minds the ideas of "love" and of "God". How early Paul saw the full truth we do not precisely know, but certainly in I Corinthians 13 he has reached a point of insight which is quite miraculous in a man with his training and background. He sees now with the utmost clarity that whatever tremendous and impressive things he may accomplish, however wide and deep his knowledge, however strong his faith, if he has no love he amounts to nothing at all.
Because all Christians (however hard‑boiled they may be in the liquor of the special tenets of their own denominational party) realise to some extent the truth of Paul's words, we find them at least attempting to love. But all those who try to love are beset by certain temptations of which these are the chief :
1. The Temptation to Imitate Love
It has truly been said that we only grow in character when we are "real", and if we merely force ourselves to act as loving Christians we do not learn to love, nor do we grow in love. Yet this sort of acting, even though it be unconscious, is quite common among Christians, and probably plays some part in all of our lives. We need to do a little honest self‑examination here, and to realise that no spiritual progress is made and no lasting spiritual growth occurs without honesty. If we find we cannot love, it is of no use at all to cover up our failure by a pretence. It is far better to turn to God Who is Love and freely admit our deficiency and allow the Spirit of God to change our inner attitude and produce the genuine fruit of love.
I believe a good deal of nonsense is talked about the business of "liking" and "loving". I have listened to several sermons in which the congregation has been told in effect that we cannot help our likes and dislikes, and that the most God expects of us towards those we dislike is to act as though we loved them. Of course the first part of this contention is true; for reasons of which we are largely unconscious, we may instinctively dislike, perhaps violently dislike, certain people even though they be with us in the Christian fellowship. That is a situation common to nearly all of us. But is the real solution to "act" as though we love such people? I believe there is a better and more constructive course for the Christian to pursue. Jesus told us to pray for those who "despitefully use us and persecute us" (Matthew 5:44), and if the greater includes the less I should imagine that includes those who "get on our nerves", "rub us up the wrong way", "get in our hair", or whatever expression we use privately about them. I make no pretence that this is an easy path to pursue, but I do suggest that if we pray for those who annoy and irritate us and whom we dislike, our dislike is lessened and our understanding is increased. We must naturally be perfectly honest about it. We must say to Him, Who is the Father of us all, in all honesty and simplicity: "I hate the sight of so‑and‑so. He (or she) irritates me beyond endurance and always brings out the worst in me. Help me to pray for him (or her)." It takes considerable courage to embark on this course of action, but the situation is invariably improved, and sometimes it is revolutionised. In praying for a person's real self, we grow immeasurably in tolerance and understanding, and it is not unknown for instinctive dislike to be transformed into respect, understanding, and even love. But this will never happen if we insist on maintaining an inner attitude of: "I can't help it; I always have disliked so‑and-so and I always will."
Now, naturally since any change of inward attitude normally takes time, we have got to "act" (and act in love) justly and fairly towards those whom we dislike, but purely as an interim way of behaviour and not as our final attitude.
There is a further danger of imitation love. It is perfectly possible for us to behave kindly, justly, and correctly towards one another, and yet withhold that giving of the "self" which is the essence of love. Married people will perhaps more easily appreciate what I am trying to say. A husband may behave with perfect kindness and consideration towards his wife, he may give her a generous allowance, he may do more than his share of the household chores, and indeed he may do all the things which an ideal husband is supposed to do. But if he withholds "himself", the marriage will be impoverished. Women who seem to know these things intuitively would infinitely prefer the husband to be less kind, considerate, and self‑sacrificing if only they were sure that he, with all his imperfections and maddening ways, gave "himself" in love in the marriage. This principle applies to some extent to all human relationships, and I am pretty certain that it is this costly self‑giving love which Paul had in mind in I Corinthians 13. Many, even among Christians, shrink from it, not I think because they are afraid to give but because they are afraid that their gift will not be appreciated; in short, that they may be hurt. But surely this is the risk that love must always take, and without this giving of the self with all the risks that that entails, love is a poor pale imitation. "Consider Him" writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (12: 3).; and if we do, we find that this is precisely the sort of rejectable, vulnerable love that Christ lived and died to prove.
2. The Temptation to Hate Oneself
The cheerful pagan takes himself, as a rule, very much for granted; but the Christian who is sooner or later brought face to face with Truth is disgusted and dispirited to find how self‑loving and self‑centred his life really is. The more he comes into contact with the living Christ the more he realises there is to be put right, and if he is not careful his normal pride and self‑respect go suddenly "into reverse". The more he thinks of the standards of love and those who live by them, the more wrong he feels until he ends with a thorough‑going contempt for himself and all his doings. The self with whom he has lived for some years in reasonable comfort becomes an intolerable person; before long he has slipped into despising himself whole‑heartedly. Now this, despite what some religious books have said, is a thoroughly bad state of mind in which to live. The man who despises or hates himself will sooner or later, for all his religious protestations, reveal hatred and contempt for his brother‑men. Whatever his profession of love for "sinners", the contempt for the sin which he has found in himself is all too easily projected on to those who sin.
At this point we need to consider the sane words of Jesus Christ Himself. According to Him, the second great commandment for a man is "to love his neighbour as himself" (Matthew ; Mark ). 'These words, I am sure, contain no accidental lapse of speech. We do naturally love ourselves, and no spiritual contortions or inverted pride can ever alter the fact. Surely what Jesus is urging is that that love, that understanding, that "making allowance", which we normally use for ourselves, should be extended and used to embrace others. It is true that in other places Jesus says that a man should "deny himself" (Matthew ; Mark ; Luke ), but this, surely, carries the force of denying his own egotistical temptations. It means self‑forgetfulness instead of self‑interest; it means voluntary self‑giving but not self‑contempt.
This business of hating oneself, though it appears virtuous, is in reality one of Satan's most plausible devices. It keeps a man preoccupied with himself and his sins; it puts part of a man in a very superior position from which he can look down and despise the rest of himself. We might well reflect something like this: "If God loves me for all my faults and peculiarities, who am I to say that I am not worth loving?" The abject attitude of self‑loathing may be natural in the presence of God's holiness, but never do we find in the Bible that God requires its continuance. Having seen and admitted our faults, the command is to stand, or go, or do. We are all of us very far from perfect, but God does not wait for our perfection before He can use us in His purposes, a fact for which we can be grateful, and the business of transforming us from within always takes time. Let us, without being complacent or self‑indulgent, come to good‑humoured terms with ourselves. It is a good thing to see how far we are off course, but no good purpose is served by despising ourselves for having been such poor pilots. It is a strange thing how hard it is for most of us to laugh at ourselves. We would far rather despise ourselves as sinners, even the chief of sinners, than laugh at ourselves as self‑important little idiots! The plank in our own eye (see Matthew 7:3; Luke ) probably provokes the angels to a good deal of laughter, but in our precious dignity we would rather have orgies of contrition and repentance and self‑loathing than the healthy gust of one good‑humoured laugh at ourselves.
3. The Temptation to Separate Love of God from Love of People
"The more I see of some people, the more I love my dog" runs the modem half‑humorous comment. Of course it is far easier to love a devoted animal who more than rewards us by the utmost fidelity and affection, than it is to love people who in addition to being much more complex beings often do not reward us at all. Similarly, it is easy to love humanity without loving people. Many of the greatest crimes against individual living people have been committed in the name of love for humanity. There are plenty of people with us today who will talk about world peace and the universal brotherhood of man who yet cannot get on with their own families or neighbours. People, in fact, unless they happen to be our own special friends, are quite difficult to love.
Naturally Jesus knew this very well, and He connected inseparably the love of God with the love of other people. Indeed, it is part of the act of incarnation that God and human beings are indissolubly wedded. This is the kind of fact which most of us would rather not have to face. It is comparatively easy for us to imagine God as the perfection of all beauty, truth, and love, and to respond with worship and adoration to such a Being. What we find almost too much to stomach is that this very same God has allied Himself through Christ with ordinary human beings. In Jesus' famous parable of the Last judgment (Matthew 25:31‑46) men find, to their astonishment, that their treatment of fellow human beings is adjudged to be the same thing as their treatment of Christ Himself. In certain "doctored" Bibles, such as one that lies before me now, this passage is carefully marked so as to indicate that it does not apply to the "saved" at all. As a translator, I wonder by what right the editors of this world-famous tendentious Bible have dared to bracket these incredibly challenging words, simply because they do not fit in with their own tight scheme of salvation. The words were spoken by Christ, and they are plain for all to read, shy as we may be of accepting their implication. They mean that the way we treat other people is a certain indication of the way we treat Christ ‑ indeed, it is the way in which we treat Christ. They are revolutionary words, and they are meant to be revolutionary. If we follow the way of love, which is the way of Christ, we find ourselves committed not to loving our own little circle but to an attitude of love towards all men. Our aim and our ideal is to be "perfect, even as our Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew ). There is a further revolutionary statement from the lips of Christ Himself which shows how closely He links Himself with humanity. Let us read again the parable of the two debtors (Matthew 18:23‑35). If the super‑evangelists of this world were to take this passage as their text, what far‑reaching conversions might follow! For here Jesus declares without the slightest doubt that there is no possibility of God's forgiving us our sins unless we are prepared to forgive sins against our precious selves. How often have I heard evangelists urging penitents to "come to the foot of the Cross", "be washed in the Blood of the Lamb" etc., yet never once have I heard an evangelist refer, for example, to the words of Jesus which read: "But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses" (Mark 11:26). Yet every time we repeat the prayer which our Lord Himself taught us, we ask God to forgive our sins in the same way as we forgive other people who sin against us. I am not in the least attempting to detract from the unique act of Reconciliation which Christ, at infinite cost, made for us on the Cross. Indeed, the very thought of God‑become‑Man, so allowing darkness and evil to close in upon Him and kill Him, fills me with awe. But I cannot suppress or minimise the words of that same Jesus Christ Who declared categorically: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6;14-15).
John once asked pertinently: "For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (I John 4:20). Of course if we separate in our minds God and Man, and regard God as wholly Other, the answer is easy. God is unimaginable beauty and goodness; but Man is ignorant, stupid, selfish, and irritating. But if we once digest the truth that God has identified Himself with Man in Christ, then we see the force of John's question. We can also realise the force of his bald statement in the same verse, "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar" (I John ). It is unhappily true that quite a number of modem Christians have separated love of God from love of their brothers and sisters. Whenever the Church turns in upon itself and restricts its love to its own members, this fatal split has occurred. Whenever the Church turns a blind eye to unfair racial discrimination or to flagrant snobbery, it is exhibiting exactly the opposite spirit to the spirit of the Incarnation. We may much prefer cut‑and‑dried schemes of salvation and the comfortable feeling that we are one of the saved, but we may safely infer from the sayings of Jesus that no individual or Church finds salvation unless love of God goes hand in hand with love of fellow‑men.
4. The Temptation to Feel that People are not Worth Loving
The world is lamentably short of outgoing love. Part of the reason for this is because it is so much easier to love among our own circle, or at least to love those who will return our love. Although we do not express it in so many words, I believe that one of the reasons why so few people venture to give themselves for the sake of other people is because they feel that "people are not really worth it". But who are we, we who call ourselves Christians, "saved", pillars of the Church, etc.? In what way do we think that we were "worth it", when Christ visited this earth to save us? In the eyes of Heaven this whole sin‑infected, blundering human race could hardly have seemed worthy of the highest sacrifice which God Himself could make for its redemption. Yet love took the initiative and bore unspeakable contradiction, misunderstanding, and humiliation to win us to Himself. To quote John's words again, "if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" ( I John ).
This sense of first being loved
and then being willing to give oneself in love is the secret of life such as
that of Paul. I mention Paul simply because we know a fair amount about his
life, but there must have been hundreds of others whose names we do not even
know who gave themselves similarly in love to the world around them; yet how rare
is that love found in the Church today among its ordinary members! Thank God,
there are exceptions in all the Churches, men and women who will go into the
dark and messy situations of human life to bring the light and order of Christ.
There are at this moment thousands of such people scattered throughout the
world ‑ doctors, nurses, pastors, teachers, social workers of all kinds ‑
who make tremendous sacrifices because they are impelled by the love of Christ.
But they are a tiny minority compared with the membership figures of all the
Churches. Why is there, in this country at least, such a tragic shortage of
Christian workers? Men and women are desperately needed not only to teach in
Sunday‑school and run youth organisations, but to bring the salvation of
Christ to the juvenile delinquents, to guide and teach and shepherd in His
Name thousands who have no hope and are "without God in the world"
(Ephesians 2:12). As I have travelled about this country the story is almost
always the same: "If only we had devoted men and women as Christian
leaders. . . ." The real lack is the lack of love. Not enough people have
realised the Love of God and His tremendous Purpose; not enough have so
experienced His Love that they are prepared to love other people at considerable
personal cost. There can be no revival of the Church's life or the Church's
influence until the Love of God sweeps once more into the hearts of men and
women as it did into the
on to 7. The Love-deficiency