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*****= An all-time favorite
Series I, II, and III
by George MacDonald
Reviewed August 3, 2004.
Originally published in 1889.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #5, Nonfiction Old Favorites
I have this collection of sermons in three volumes, but since Amazon.com now offers them in a one-volume edition, and since the material in all three volumes is similar, I decided to review them all together.
I first discovered George MacDonald’s fiction when I was a student at Biola University. I understood that C. S. Lewis regarded him “as my master” and Madeleine L’Engle also spoke highly of him. I didn’t realize that they were referring especially to his nonfiction works, which I didn’t encounter until about six years ago, when I read Discovering the Character of God, compiled by Michael Phillips from selections from MacDonald’s works, followed by Knowing the Heart of God, with more of the same.
Although I was brought up in a Christian home and went to Christian schools all the way through my Bachelor’s degree, those books revolutionized my thinking about God. I had to read more, and I found it in the Unspoken Sermons—the books that held the full text of the excerpts I’d already been fascinated by.
Frankly, although George MacDonald is revered by great Christian thinkers like C. S. Lewis, his theology was quite different from the evangelical theology I’ve been taught from childhood. One huge difference is that, although he believed that salvation comes through faith in Christ, he also believed that “in Christ all shall be made alive,” and “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.” He believed that some will not repent until after death, but that God is not the kind of Father who would say, “Too late! You missed your chance!” He often quoted the verse, “He will not get out until he has paid the last penny.” The punishment would be horrible, a thing to be avoided, but he will, eventually, get out, “when thou hast learned of God in hell what thou didst refuse to learn of him upon the gentle-toned earth.”
He said, “Those who believe that God will thus be defeated by many souls, must surely be of those who do not believe he cares enough to do his very best for them.”
This view changes the whole portrayal of the character of God. It makes the idea of a just God compatible with the idea of a loving God. He rejects the idea that God is bound to punish sin. “Think for a moment what degree of justice it would indicate in a man—that he punished every wrong. A Roman emperor, a Turkish cadi, might do that, and be the most unjust both of men and judges.”
Instead, he believed that God is bound, not to punish sin, but to destroy sin in his creatures. “Justice then requires that sin should be put an end to; and not that only, but that it should be atoned for; and where punishment can do anything to this end, where it can help the sinner to know what he has been guilty of, where it can soften his heart to see his pride and wrong and cruelty, justice requires that punishment shall not be spared. And the more we believe in God, the surer we shall be that he will spare nothing that suffering can do to deliver his child from death.”
“His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes. Because God is so altogether alien to wrong, because it is to him a heart-pain and trouble that one of his little ones should do the evil thing, there is, I believe, no extreme of suffering to which, for the sake of destroying the evil thing in them, he would not subject them. A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing.”
This view also changes the way we look at the work of Jesus. “Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins.”
Jesus didn’t die to save us from an angry God. He died to save us from our sins. “Jesus sacrificed himself to his father and the children to bring them together—all the love on the side of the Father and the Son, all the selfishness on the side of the children.”
“It is God’s chosen nature to forgive. . . he is bound in his own divinely willed nature to forgive. No atonement is necessary to him but that men should leave their sins and come back to his heart. But men cannot believe in the forgiveness of God. Therefore they need, therefore he has given them a mediator.”
George MacDonald’s emphasis is not on having the right opinion, but on obeying God. “Is Christianity a system of articles of belief, let them be correct as language can give them? Never. So far am I from believing it, that I would rather have a man holding, as numbers of you do, what seem to me the most obnoxious untruths, opinions the most irreverent and gross, if at the same time he lived in the faith of the Son of God, that is, trusted in God as the Son of God trusted in him, than I would have a man with every one of whose formulas of belief I utterly coincided, but who knew nothing of a daily life and walk with God.”
At first, I didn’t think I could believe these things that George MacDonald taught, since I didn’t think they matched what the Bible teaches. He assures me, about some of the teachings I thought were in the Bible, “It may be some little comfort to have one who has studied the New Testament for many years and loves it beyond the power of speech to express, declare to them his conviction that there is not an atom of such teaching in the whole lovely, divine utterance; that such things are all and altogether the invention of men—honest invention, in part at least, I grant, but yet not true. Thank God, we are nowise bound to accept any man’s explanation of God’s ways and God’s doings, however good the man may be, if it do not commend itself to our conscience.” The more I study the New Testament with new eyes, the more convinced and thrilled I am to think that George MacDonald was right.
Now, these books are by no means light reading. I recommend reading Michael Phillips’ compilations first, as I did. If those appeal to you and you want to read more, you can’t go wrong with this collection of sermons. I’ve only scratched the surface of his teachings here. There is so much more material about following God in your daily life. I will have plenty of things to read over and think about for years to come.
I don’t know if these books will appeal to those who are not Christians already. I do think that this message is more attractive than the one that is sometimes preached. God is not someone who’s out to get you for every little mistake. God wants to work with you to make you the best person you can possibly be, the person he created you to be. And he loves you enough that Jesus died to get your attention and bring you to God.
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Copyright © 2006 Sondra Eklund. All rights reserved.