Thursday, October 31, 2013

Giving and forgiving: the heart of Christianity

A book that's been rocking my world is Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf.

Volf has spent his life grappling with giving and forgiveness. As a Croation Volf's been personally touched by the centuries-old ethnic conflicts and blood feuds that dominate the history of that part of the world. This book arises from that reflection and is a lot less intimidating for the average reader than the book he's most known for: Exclusion and Embrace.

Free of Charge is four things according to the author: an invitation to the Christian faith as seen through the lens of giving and forgiving, an interpretation of the apostle Paul, a reading of Martin Luther, and a spiritual exercise (for the author and those that would read). Volf is a Luther scholar and the German reformer's influence is all over this book. Since it's Reformation Day here's Volf's assessment of Luther.

Luther, I think, got the substance of the Christian faith roughly right -- or rather, the Luther who discovered the Christian faith afresh did, not the Luther concerned with preserving reformation by earthly powers. And Luther, in my judgment, also got the apostle Paul basically right. This view is not popular today, but popularity isn't an index of truthfulness (Kindle location 3801)

Volf quotes liberally from Luther's writings including the famous last point of The 1518 Heidelberg Disputation distinguishing God's love from human love: "The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

Beginning by describing the triune God who is perfect giver and forgiver Volf works out the implications for us by answering the questions how should we give and forgive, and how can we give and forgive? Profound is an overused word, but it applies here. Free of Charge is theological reflection of the highest order. I can't recommend it too highly. I'll end with a thought from the book.

If on the bottom line of our lives lies the principle that we should get what we deserve, whether good or ill, forgiveness will sit uncomfortably with us. To forgive is to give people more than their due, it's to release them from the debt they have incurred, and that's bound to mess up the books.
For a Christian, however, a bottom-line principle can never be that we should get what we deserve. Our very existence is God's gift. Our redemption from the snares of sin is God's gift. Both are undeserved, and neither could have been deserved. From start to finish, we are always given free of charge and given more than our due. It is therefore only fitting that we give others more than their due -- give them gifts that satisfy their needs or delight their senses and imagination, and give them the gift of forgiveness that frees them from guilt and the obligation to pay for their misdeeds. (Kindle location 3253) 

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