Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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***If God Is Love

Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World

by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland

Reviewed December 19, 2004.
HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.  303 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (248.4 GUL).
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #5, Christian Nonfiction

I’ve already described in my reviews of Knowing the Heart of God and Discovering the Character of God how George MacDonald convinced me that the Bible does teach that a loving Father will save all men, eventually.  I was delighted to find a book by a modern author that teaches the same thing.

However, as I read on, I realized that this book wouldn’t have convinced me when I still held the traditional view.  In fact, by the end the book made me sad, since instead of believing as I do, as I thought they did at first, the authors don’t seem to believe that Jesus was God, and they’re not looking forward to a Second Coming.  They seem to pick and choose which Biblical passages they want to believe, quoting a Scripture in one place, and then mentioning a passage a few verses down as an outdated attitude probably put into the Scripture by the church years after the fact.

However, there are still some wonderful things found in this book.  I decided to treat it as they did Scripture, picking and choosing out the good parts with the things I want to believe.

And the good things are very good.  They have a wonderful message about God’s work in the world:

“I believe that God is love and that everything God does, God does because of love.  When this love is poured on the wicked, the rebellious, and the resistant—adjectives that fit all of us on occasion—we call it grace.  Where sin abounds, God’s grace increases all the more.  Unwilling to abandon us, God works in the lives of every person to redeem and restore.  The restoration of all things is God’s ultimate desire.

“This universal salvation is not an event, but a process.  It is God’s primary action in the world.  Jesus came to proclaim this good news, to draw people to God.  He broke down the barriers he encountered and refused to limit God’s favor to a chosen few.”

“I believe God will accomplish the salvation of every person, in this life or the next, no matter how long we resist.”

They talk about salvation as a process, not an instantaneous event.  I recently encountered the same idea both in a devotional reading from C. S. Lewis, and in an e-mail from an evangelical friend.  Paul talks about God working in us—as a process.

The authors say, “Discovering salvation was a process rather than an event allowed me to be patient with myself.  I no longer lived in constant fear of making a mistake.”

“Too often, God’s desire to transform us into mature, responsible, and gracious people was obscured.  When religion factored in the fragility of life and the threat of eternal damnation, the product (a spot in heaven) rather than the process (becoming an authentic person) became the priority.

“Growing up, I was asked repeatedly, ‘If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?’  I was never asked, ‘If you live tomorrow, what kind of life will it be?’”

I was excited about these ideas because the authors were echoing some of the lessons God had taken me through after I changed my way of thinking.  If the whole point of salvation is not saying certain words of a certain prayer, then you begin to emphasize the beliefs that translate into action.  (None of this is foreign to the evangelical way of thinking, but I found it interesting that for both the authors and me, it was emphasized after we came to believe that God will save everyone.)

They also describe how the belief in universal salvation has changed their lives:

“Believing in the universal love of God has changed my world.  It has changed how I talk about God.  It has transformed my self-image.  It has altered my attitudes and actions.  It has helped me see how much damage my old way of thinking did to me and to others.”

They also describe how this view changes the way they look at other people.  “Embracing a theology of universal love requires far more than a change of beliefs.  It alters our perception of every human being in the world.  People can no longer be divided into tidy categories of saved, unsaved, or wicked.  Rather, they are welcomed as beloved children of God, yearning for the same happiness and fulfillment that drives us all.  They can never again be seen as anything less than precious in God’s sight.  Instead of consigning the ignorant, cruel, or self-righteous to hell, we eagerly anticipate their transformation.  Instead of hating them, then, we must learn to love them.”

Again, I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that evangelicals teach anything different from this.  Since they don’t know who God will save, and they know that God loved them even when they were sinners, they know they are to love everyone.  They know that Jesus commanded them not to judge.  However, in my own sinful heart, my way of looking at people was changed when I came to believe that I’d see these people in heaven some day.  As wrong as it was, I found I had been dismissing some people as unlikely to be saved.

As the authors say, “My greatest challenge isn’t believing God will save every person.  It is treating each and every person as a child of God.  It is remembering this wonderful grace, which has overwhelmed and transformed me, is also at work in every other person.  It is seeing the worst of sinners as the beloved of God.”

This book isn’t so much about why you should believe that God will save every person as it is about how we should live, once we believe it.  As such, it was tremendously challenging to me.  “A belief in the ultimate salvation of every person is more than simply speculation about the afterlife.  It is a declaration of God’s work in every life in the here and now.  It is a commitment to sharing that passion and participating in God’s gracious activity in the world.  It is being confident of God’s ability to complete the work God has begun in every person.  It is realizing how our acceptance of others plays a part in their transformation.  Believing in the salvation of all persons changes how we perceive God, ourselves, and those around us.  It alters the way we live in both the profound and mundane.  It has the potential to make us better persons, citizens, friends, children, siblings, spouses, or parents.  It is a belief that matters.”

“When I became convinced of God’s intention to save every person, my perspective on the purpose of life changed.  Salvation became as a lifelong adventure in which God is gently and patiently drawing us away from self-absorption and toward authentic relationship with God and one another.  The point of life was to live graciously.  Freed from personal anxiety about God’s acceptance and no longer obsessed with creating others in my own image, I was able to focus on what it means to be rather than do.”

I remember when my sister went to Japan, it bothered her that people talked about how she could minister to the Japanese, but they didn’t talk about how much she might learn from them.  “Being universally curious doesn’t mean we’ll adopt every new belief or idea, but neither will we discount them quickly and carelessly.  If God loves every person as much as God loves me, God is working in and through others as much as God is at work in and through me.  If so, they may know something I need to know.  Or they may be as confused as I am.  Regardless, I leave open the possibility that God may speak through them to me.”

“A lack of curiosity demonstrates our fear and disrespect for others.  An easy assurance in our righteousness and right thinking makes it nearly impossible for us to consider any new idea.  We become truth keepers rather than truth seekers—quick to speak and slow to listen.”

This book is a call to live graciously, as God is gracious, something all Christians can take to heart.  “The commitment to live graciously with family and friends and to work for a more gracious world is our true vocation.  It is that to which God is calling us, regardless of our situation, occupation, or social status.  Whether we are at home, at work, or at play, grace must inform every aspect of our lives.”

As I said at the beginning, I didn’t agree with every word of this book.  The authors talk about being gracious at work, at play, and even in your politics and economics.  I don’t agree with all of their conclusions.  However, I was challenged by all of it, made to think, and exhorted to live a more gracious life.  Discovering this book was a blessing to me.

Reviews of related books:
If Grace Is True,  by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland

Exploring Universalism

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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