What The Evangelical Covenant Church Believes About God

by Glen V. Wiberg

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion on him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

The title of my sermon may sound a bit presumptuous, as if we as Covenanters somehow have a special corner on God that other churches or Christians don't have. Or as if we have some new truth to proclaim or new interpretation that justifies our being. Or as if I could presume to speak in such inclusive terms about what the rest of my fellow Covenanters believe about God. I am reminded of what St. Paul says in his prayer for the Ephesian Christians that together with all the saints they might comprehend what is the length, breadth, height, and depth of the love of God. (Ephesians 3:18) One angle of vision is never enough. It takes all the saints.

But, with that disclaimer, I believe, we as Covenanters have, nevertheless, a gift of grace to share with the rest of the church; an experience of God, though not unique, is still no less authentic and blessed. William Bredberg, a theologian of our sister church in Sweden says that, first and foremost, this charisma, or gift of grace, is the emphasis on God as a personal Father, made concrete in the text in Luke 15 in the parable of the Prodigal Son and Loving Father — not in the great, echoing vaults of the temple-God, holy and almighty, but in the Father of erring children who are anxious, alienated, and lost. The One who is found in the simple proclamation of that message by lay preachers, colporteurs, and converted priests meeting in homes and later in mission houses. A meeting took place between this loving, seeking, waiting Father and society's lost and hungry masses.1

To tell what we believe about God, I want to share first an anecdote, next an historical footnote, then speak a bit more on what William Bredberg sees as a theological shift, and finally a modern parable.

I

First, an anecdote. In Salem's first official history written in to our history. 1913 by Pastor C.F. Sandstrom on the occasion of our 25th anniversary, he tells a story from the early 1880s when Swedish immigrants were flooding into the city. In the winter of 1882 a revival broke out and many were converted. During this time, Rev. Emil Gustaf Turnquist, who was pastor of the only Swedish Mission Church in the city — now First Covenant, was preaching one Sunday evening on the story of the Prodigal Son. In the midst of the sermon, a woman in the gallery cried out in great anguish, "I am lost." And from the pulpit the voice came loud and clear: "You are lost no longer because your Father comes out to meet you."

This is what brought springtime to the masses who, in the revivals of the 19th century, sought a way out of the social displacement and spiritual oppression they were suffering. It was a happy, optimistic message — logical, positive, easily grasped, and needing no defense. It spoke for itself. It was a message that came with the gladness of a spring song.

II

Next, an historical footnote. In July of 1872, Paul Peter Waldenström, an ordained priest in the Lutheran State Church of Sweden, a professor of Christianity at a college in Gävle, and the editor of an influential religious paper called Pietisten ("The Pietist"), published a sermon he had written based on the Gospel for the 20th Sunday after Trinity. This sermon, which was never preached, became a theological bombshell raising cries of heresy from the ranks of the clergy and sending great shockwaves through the ranks of Swedish Lutherans, both in Sweden and here in America.

What Paul Peter Waldenström did was challenge official church teaching that God's wrath was somehow satisfied through Christ's death on the cross and thus God was reconciled to humanity. Says Dr. Waldenström: "Here comes now the Kingdom of God in the Gospel with another message, which brings to naught all human speculation and renders the wisdom of the wise foolishness, teaching:

  • that through our fall no change has entered the heart of God
  • that because of this it was no severity or anger against us which through the fall rose up as barrier in the way of our redemption
  • that in the change which occurred with the fall was a change in us alone, in that we became sinful and thus fell away from God and from the life which is in him
  • that for this reason an atonement indeed is needed for our salvation, but not an act of atonement which appeases God and presents him as being once again gracious but one which removes our sin and makes us once again right
  • that this atonement is in Jesus Christ.2
  • Today the argument may seem quite academic. Certainly nothing as earthshaking as the abortion issue or the homosexual and AIDS issues. Some in Covenant circles now consider Paul Peter Waldenström as a less-than-first-rank theologian and that his significance is only political as the leader of the revival movement and as second president of the Swedish Covenant. That may all be true. But at least the atonement question he raised is a footnote to our history.

    III

    One would have to concede, however, that this footnote to history and its bearing on what Covenanters believe about God represents a significant theological shift, William Bredberg suggests that the shift is from emphasis on the temple-God, high, holy, almighty, to the personal, loving Father of the anxious and lost. But Dr. Waldenström sees no such dichotomy either between the high and holy God and the loving Father or between God the almighty Judge and Lawgiver and Christ the merciful Savior. No, the joyful message consists just in this: that the high, holy, almighty One is just and righteous and therefore merciful; that the high, holy almighty God of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ has a bias toward the poor, the oppressed, the marginal, the lost; that God's righteousness consists in a Father's broken heart over those lost children for whose recovery he would give his most precious possession, his only Son.

    If the theological debate seems somewhat remote and trifling from where we stand today, do you begin at least to understand what was going on in terms of a certain spirit, of feeling, of emphasis, of experience? The shift of thinking is away from the "letter of the law" to the "spirit" — how one reads Bible and attends to the biblical story. Where is it written? A shift from theology to Bible. But even more: The shift of spirit and feeling is from the academic to the pastoral — how one speaks to the human condition, the broken and contrite heart.

    You see, the real issue in what you believe about God is not the sources you quote — though the Bible is primary — or how you define orthodox belief, but how you attend to the cry of the distraught woman in the balcony — "I am lost" — a cry also articulated by a young black woman, a student about whom I read in the Tribune a couple of weeks ago. Speaking of her generation with its drugs, its epidemics of AIDS, and its despairing hopelessness, she said, "My generation is the lost generation." Are we listening to that cry? And what do we have to say to that cry?

    4'hat the woman heard from the pulpit was altogether pastoral. hot "Listen, lady, you had better repent," or "You better read the Four Spiritual laws," or even, "If you come forward tonight and accept Jesus Christ as your Savior everything will be all right" But rather, "You are lost no longer because your Father comes out to meet you." For, the one who looks life in the face, who comes up against his or her own reality, who feels so lost that she must cry out of her own broken and contrite heart has already been found. "You are lost no longer." Like the problem-drinker who finally says "I am an alcoholic" in the context of a recovery program, the change has already begun.

    "Because your Father comes out to meet you" — not just my Father or the Father of the righteous but "your Father" too, the God of the lost, or as Luther would say, "the God of the very desperate and damned." He has already found you. You can come home. For see how unchangeable is the heart of your Father, how buried in forgetfulness are all your sins, how broken down and destroyed all the walls, gates, locks, and bolts of his house, how wide open his arms, how warm his embrace, how tender his kiss of forgiveness, how full of joy his homecoming party. "It is right to make merry, for this my child was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found!"

    IV

    And finally a modern parable. Last Tuesday evening Greg Fondell shared with us a scene from the play "Gideon," written by Paddy Chayefsky about his own finding and being found.

    Gideon is out in the desert in his tent a thousand miles from nowhere, feeling deserted and rejected by God. One night, God breaks into the tent and Gideon is seduced, ravished, overcome, burnt by the wild fire of God's love. He is up all night, pacing back and forth in his tent. Finally dawn comes and Gideon, in his Jewish Brooklyn accent, cries out,"God, oh God, all night long I've thought of nuttin' but You, nuttin' but You. I'm caught up in raptures of love. God, I want to take You into my tent, wrap You up, and keep You all to myself. God, hey God, Tell me that You love me."

    God answers: " I love you Gideon."

    "Yeah, tell me again, God."

    "I love you, Gideon."

    Then Gideon scratches his head, "I don't understand. Why? Why do you love me?"

    And God scratches His head and answers, "I really don't know. Sometimes, my Gideon, passion is unreasonable."3

    This is the God of Jesus and the God revealed in Jesus — not the normal God of religion who operates within the prescribed bounds of propriety and justice, according to the rules, but the system-cracking God:

    the God of Hosea who cries out," How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender, I will not execute my fierce anger... I will not come to destroy";

    the God who loves and cherishes all people without distinction;

    the God who leaves the ninety-nine righteous in order to seek the one lost sheep and who seeks until finding;

    the God whose heart is broken when we turn away, who is grieved when we get hurt, who cries in our tears, and who loves unconditionally;

    the God who gave his most precious possession, his only Son — not to be atoned but to atone for the sins of the whole world;

    the God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself;

    the God who speaks to the cry of the woman that erupts from the balcony, but who also listens to your cry and mine and says, "You are no longer lost because your Father comes out to meet you."

    THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD. AMEN.

    Thank you, dear Father, that there is a homecoming for all because there is a home and because you run out to meet us with open arms; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

    1. Taken from Vart är frikyrkan pa väg? by Runar Eldebo, Förlgshuset Gothia, Göteborg, 1985, p. 7,

    2. Covenant Roots: Sources and Affirmations, edited by Glenn P. Anderson, Covenant Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1960, pp. 119-120.

    3. Taken from Lion and Lamb by Brennan Manning, ChosenBooks, Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1986, pp. 96-97.

    Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

    See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg