Thursday, October 18, 2007

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf

Free of Charge: Giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace,
by Miroslav Volf, 2005, Zondervan
According to Volf, we live in a culture where giving is often regarded as loosing and forgiving is for wimps. How are we to give and forgive well in such a society? The writer draws upon the resources of Scripture and theology, and also reflects on his own personal experiences and family background. In addition, he makes reference to stories, fables and a wealth of literature to invite us to live a life of giving and forgiving. This book is not a detached theological treatise, but a profoundly personal testament to the transforming power of the giving and forgiving God. Volf writes thoughtfully and with great care, anticipating objections that people may have to his arguments. This makes reading Free of Charge an interactive experience as the writer enters into conversation with his readers and talks them through what it means to give and forgive in a Christian way.
In considering "God the Giver", Volf seeks to remove misunderstandings regarding God's generous giving. He is not "God the Negotiator", with whom we can make bargains or "God the Santa Claus" who gives without making demands. He is God the Creator to whom we owe our lives and all that we may possess and God the Redeemer, who has acted to save us from sin. God gives freely and graciously to those who deserve nothing. God's gifts are to be received by faith and with gratitude. When we give to others, we pass on what God has first given to us. We become channels of the giving God. His blessings flow through us to others. We must not give to manipulate others or for self-aggrandisement, but to imitate the generosity of God, who has taught us in Christ that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." Union with Christ empowers us to be giving people. The Spirit of God unblocks the selfishness, pride and sloth that prevent us from being instruments of God's generosity. When we give to others, we help to create giving communities where gifts are reciprocated and both givers and receivers are valued and loved. Volf sees this as a pale reflection of the infinitely loving giving and receiving that characterises God's intertrinitarian life. Throughout the book, the writer delves into the rich theology of Martin Luther. But this sometimes takes him in unwelcome directions. To me, talk of Christians acting as "little Christs" to their neighbours, while understandable in a way, blurs the distinction between Christ as the unique God-man and believers who are united to Christ and indwelt by him. The suggestion that we, in a certain regard become Christ's equals (p. 82) made me even more concerned about this aspect of Volf's Lutheran thought. Notwithstanding these misgivings, Volf presents a thought-provoking account of Christian giving that is rooted in deep theological reflection wedded to wise practical application.
Next, we come to the matter of forgiving. If it is difficult for us as sinners to give well, then it is perhaps even more difficult for us to forgive well. Volf tells the moving story of how his Christian parents forgave a careless nanny and irresponsible soldier for the death of their oldest son, Daniel. Forgiveness did not come easy for these grieving parents, but they forgave because, "The Word of God tells us to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us, and so we decided to forgive." (p. 122). The Christian attitude to forgiveness is modelled on the forgiving God. He is not a doting grandparent who simply overlooks our faults. Sin is an offence to God's infinite majesty, which provokes his just wrath. But he is not an implacable judge, bent on the destruction of an evil world. He forgives sinners. God pardons us because he has taken the burden of our sin upon himself in the sacrificial death of his incarnate Son. Volf is admirably clear that the cross was an act of penal substitution, motivated by God's love for sinners, that satisfied his just demands. We must forgive others because God has provided the basis for forgiveness in the cross. The writer argues that by virtue of the believer's union with Christ, when we forgive others, Christ forgives them through us. We must forgive unconditionally. This does not mean that we pretend that we were not sinned against. Forgiveness includes the accusation of wrongdoing that makes the offending person face up to their guilt. However, we should not make repentance into a condition of forgiveness. Repentance enables the wrongdoer to acknowledge their guilt, repudiate their sin and receive forgiveness, but we should forgive others even when they refuse to repent and be forgiven. Volf argues that God's forgiveness is indiscriminate because Christ died for all people. All therefore may be forgiven. But without faith and repentance forgiveness is not received, it is, "stuck in the middle between the God who forgives and humans who don't receive". (p. 182-183).
Volf's account of Christian forgiveness gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). But there are problems with some his proposals. Volf argues that because Christ has borne the punishment of all sin on the cross, punishment of criminal offenders is inappropriate. Criminals may be disciplined and restrained for the protection of society, but not punished. (p. 170-171). I agree that Christians must forgive and relinquish retribution on a personal level. We must "turn the other cheek." But the state is permitted to justly punish those who break the law. Paul forbade personal retaliation (Romans 12:17-21). But immediately after that passage, the apostle taught that the magistrate, "is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil." (Romans 13:4). We forgive those who sin against us, yet the state may legitimately punish those who break the law.
On the basis of his teaching on the universal extent of the atonement, Volf seems to suggest that all will ultimately be forgiven. "On that day, God will condemn all sins and yet forgive them." (p. 220). Is the writer subtly advocating that all will be saved whether or not they received God's forgiveness by faith and repentance in this life? From what he has said elsewhere, apparently not. Volf also says that when non-Christians forgive, they do so because Christ is at work in them incognito. Christ is no doubt active in the lives of those who are united to him by faith, enabling them to forgive others. But would it not be better to think in terms of the Reformed concept of common grace, rather than a secretive work of Christ to account for the capacity of non-believers to forgive? However, the fact that non-Christians sometimes forgive those who have wronged them badly is a challenge to those of us who claim to follow the forgiving God. Do we genuinely embody the gospel of forgiveness we profess to believe?
Even with the reservations just mentioned, I found Free of Charge challenging and helpful in many ways. I was forced to reflect on the extent to which I am a giving and forgiving person. This is a book that will lead thoughtful readers to much heart searching and prayerful meditation. The work concludes with an imaginary conversation between Volf and a sceptic. The writer endeavours to draw his interlocutor into the beautiful and gracious life of Christian giving and forgiving. This was Rowan Williams' Lent Book for 2006 and carries a foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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