The Purpose-Driven God
This post is a lightly-edited version of a presentation by Grace Communion Seminary president Michael Morrison at the July 2023 Grace Communion International denominational celebration.
|"Jesus Speaks Near the Treasury" by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
God has a purpose
In referring to the purpose-driven God, I do not mean that there is some purpose or force in the universe that is driving God. The purpose is God’s own purpose, what he has chosen to do. God has a purpose, and his actions with humanity are (anthropomorphically speaking) designed to serve that purpose. We will have a better understanding of what he is doing at various times in history by keeping his overall purpose in mind, and how each of his actions serves to support that purpose.
Now, God may well have additional purposes in the universe, in all the galaxies and planetary systems we are discovering. We are such an incredibly microscopic part of the universe; I am sure that God is capable of having purposes that are bigger than us here on earth. If the entire solar system were the size of a coin, then the nearest star would be about two football fields away. It’s just empty space in between – that’s why they call it “space.” It’s a huge universe, and God may well have purposes out there that we know nothing about. But God has told us what he’s doing with humanity here on earth, and we can understand what’s going on better if we see these things as part of a larger purpose.
You may recognize that my title is adapted from Rick Warren’s best-selling books The Purpose-Driven Church and The Purpose-Driven Life. I have no major complaint with what he wrote in those books, but I do think he could have done a better job of connecting life and ministry with the big picture of what God is doing in our lives. God is not just asking us to do work for him – there is a bigger purpose in mind, and our work makes more sense when it is seen as part of that bigger purpose.
Recently at the Grace Communion Seminary graduation ceremony, I spoke about the Great Commission, the command that Jesus gave his disciples to go into all the world, to make disciples, baptize them and teach them. There have been many books and sermons about the Great Commission, and they often stress that we have work to do. Well, yes, that’s true, but why is it important?
The usual answer is that people will miss out on salvation if we don’t go into all the world. Well, that answer can raise a number of theological questions, but no matter how we answer them, we are still given a mission; we are still told to do something, even if we don’t necessarily have an accurate understanding of why.
We still need to address the biggest question: Why does God want people to be saved? And if he really wants that, why does he send us, when he knows that we make mistakes, and in fact we often don’t do it very well at all? If he really wanted this to happen, it seems that he would send angels to do the job right. A few miracles here, a few there, and everybody would be on board. If God had just gone to Harvard Business School, then surely he would have picked up a few pointers about how to go about his business a bit more efficiently!
Well, maybe there’s something more going on here. God not only wants us to work, but he also has a purpose in going about it in this seemingly inefficient way.
What is it?
I think that God’s purpose is shown most clearly in Revelation 21:2-4:
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and be their God; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (NRSVue)
Now, I am cautious about setting doctrines and proofs from the book of Revelation, which is filled with all sorts of strange symbolism. But here the symbolism seems to be rolled away, unveiled, and we see what it’s all been about. This depicts the end state, the end product of it all: God wants to live with humans. As Karl Barth said, “[God] does not will to be without us, and He does not will that we should be without Him.” (CD II/1, section 28, p. 274). He wants to live with us.
The image here is interesting. At least in my culture, adults do not wipe away tears from other adults’ eyes. This is something a parent does for a child. The parent stoops down, at eye level with the child, to wipe away their tears. It’s a picture of tenderness, and Revelation uses that imagery to depict God’s love for his people. It does not say that we will live with God. Rather, it says that God will live with us. He comes to us, to live with us mortals, to be with us.
If this is a symbol of something, then it would seem that the reality is even better than this – it’s just put in these terms because this is as much as we are able to understand right now. But, since this is in the book of Revelation, we have to be cautious about using it as doctrine. However, let’s take it as a hypothesis and see if it doesn’t shed light on the rest of the Bible. That’s what a good hypothesis will do – it will help us understand other things better, and, when more and more things seem to fit the hypothesis, then it gets confirmed and its usefulness grows into more and more areas. As they say in science, it has “explanatory power.” So let’s take this hypothesis: God’s greatest goal for us is that he wants to live with us.
At first glance, this is astonishing – even preposterous. It would be like us wanting to live with earthworms. But there is an important difference: We are told in Genesis that humans were made in God’s image, male and female in God’s image. And in the New Testament, we are told that the Son of God became a human being.
Astonishing as it might seem, God has already taken the first steps toward his goal. Fellowship between God and humans is possible, not because we are so great, but because God is so great that he can do it. And fortunately for God, living with humans does not exhaust his capabilities – he can do a zillion other things at the same time. He can stoop to our level even as he remains the omnipotent ruler of the universe.
God didn’t have to do this, of course – he did it by choice, because he wanted to. This was not a spur-of-the-moment idea, a flash in the pan – God planned this from the beginning of the creation, even to having his Son die for our sins. Revelation 13:8 says that the Lamb of God was killed even from the beginning. God knew that we would sin, knew that a costly redemption would be needed, and he created us anyway, because he wants us.
To help us think about God’s love for us, we might compare it to our love for our pets. Many people enjoy having pets, whether dogs, cats, canaries, or lizards. But would they die for their pets? We occasionally hear stories of someone risking their life to save a pet from a house fire, for example. But they do not do that if they know for sure they are going to die, because then they wouldn’t be able to enjoy being with the pet.
But to God, we are much more than pets – he calls us his children, he calls us the bride of Christ. He uses the closest relationships humans have, to portray the relationship he wants with us. He does not want to be God without us, and we do not yet see or understand all that we shall be in the future. God will bring us up to a level higher than we now know. The relationship will grow.
What does it mean, that God will live with us? There’s more to it than simply being in the same place. God is omnipresent, in every place all the time. In terms of geography, he already lives with everyone, so something more than geography is being conveyed when we are told that God wants to live with us. It indicates a personal relationship, an interaction – but then, God has a relationship and interactions with Satan, too.
Something more is involved, and it is the quality of life. We will not only be with God, but we will also be like God in that we will live in the way of love. That’s the only way there could be no more sorrow, crying or pain – those things are the result of sin. There will be no more sin.
Salvation involves not just the gift of living forever, but it also involves a change in the way we are living. God is with us not just geographically but also ethically, in the same way that Jesus did and said only what his Father wanted him to do and say. I think that this dimension of salvation is rarely denied, but it’s often overlooked. It explains, for one thing, why salvation can be spoken of in the past tense, present tense, and future tense.
Paul says that we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. These are different aspects of salvation. We have been saved in the past by the death and resurrection of Christ. He has atoned for our sin, reconciled us to God. But that is only part of what it means to be saved. The job isn’t finished yet, we might say.
As long as we are in the grip of sin, as long as we have a tendency to sin, we are deceived by sin and enslaved to sin, we still need to be rescued, we still need to be saved from that. And as we in our Christian lives are in the process of escaping from wrong desires and wrong actions, then we are being saved in the present tense.
And last, we look forward to a day when we will be transformed to be more like Christ, freed at last from all sin. I think we invite misunderstanding when we say that everyone’s been saved, past tense, and just leave it there as if that’s all there is to salvation. What Christ did in the crucifixion and resurrection was absolutely vital – but so is the subsequent transformation in our lives.
I think this concept also ties in to another question that some people have with the New Testament – that’s the combination of grace and command: If the grace of God that we are given in Christ is all there is to salvation, then why does the New Testament have so many commands in it? Like, the command to love one another, or to love our enemies, or to pray without ceasing, and hundreds of other commands. What happens if we don’t do those – doesn’t the grace of God cover all our failures? Does it really matter when we do those things that are commanded?
Grace covers everything, but it also matters what we do with it
Let’s suppose there is a person who accepts Jesus’ death as payment for all their sins, and says “Thank you very much,” but also says, “I really like being selfish and greedy. I accept myself just as I am.” Is a person like that saved? In the first sense, yes, Jesus did die to reconcile that person to the Father, but in the second sense, the person is not saved, because he’s still in the grip of sin. He’s not going to enjoy eternal life with God. God’s goal for that person has not yet been achieved. God wants people who love him and trust him, and this selfish guy doesn’t love him and trust him.
By sending Jesus to earth to die for our sins, God has given grace to that person. But that’s not the only grace that God has – there is also the grace of the Holy Spirit, a grace that will transform people to be like Christ, and the aforementioned selfish person is resisting that part of God’s grace. God allows people to resist the Holy Spirit, to resist his work in their lives.
If the grace of forgiveness is the only thing that we needed, then there would be no need for Christian life. There would be no need for commands in the New Testament. The grace of the Holy Spirit does not force us to do everything right. It’s not automatic. His grace does not force us to change. The gospel of salvation does not stop with the resurrection of Jesus in Matthew 28. There is more to the story, and there’s more to the New Testament.
God is in the business not just of handing out indulgences, saying it doesn’t matter what we do. The penalty of sin has been taken care of – in one sense, but not in another. People who are selfish still reap the results of selfishness. People who are greedy still suffer from the results of greed. There are still penalties to be paid.
People are not completely saved until the source of the problems is taken care of. People need to be changed, and that’s what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives, and that is done in part by the commands given to us in the New Testament. They show us what the target is, what life with God should be like. As we keep these commands, we are being shaped by the Holy Spirit to be more like what God wants us to be in eternity.
Let’s go back to the example I gave earlier. In the Great Commission, Christ commands his disciples to go into all the world, to make disciples, and to teach them all that he has commanded. That teaching would include the Great Commission, too. It’s a self-perpetuating command. Each generation of the church should be learning and teaching and carrying out this command.
Now, God’s commands are given to us for our own good. He is not just interested in recruiting more workers, just to accumulate numbers. He is also interested in transformation, of turning selfish people into loving people. That is done as we keep the commands – including the command to go into all the world, preach the gospel, make disciples, baptize them and teach them to do the same.
The work is being done by us, but the work is also being done IN us. The Great Commission is actually part of our training, part of our preparation for life with God. God wants us to care about the things that he cares about, and one of the things that he cares about is that people hear the gospel and become disciples, learning the way of Jesus by doing it, being transformed more and more into the image of Christ, what Christ is like.
So why should we do this? Is it just to recruit more workers, so they can recruit more workers? No—our primary relationship to God is not that of “workers” – it is that of family. We are being prepared to be part of God’s forever family. Or to use the terminology of the Great Commission, we are to recruit disciples, people who learn and people who obey. Our work is so that we ourselves are doing what disciples do, learning more about the way of Christ by doing what he says.
Think back to one of the scenes in Matthew, Mark and Luke: Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs to preach the gospel. They come back and report some success. Luke 10:17 tells us, “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’”
They did not come back rejoicing that thousands of people believed the message. Rather, they came back impressed about how much power they had. The Gospels tell us that they had a rather shallow understanding of what Jesus was up to. I doubt that the message they preached was very much like the gospel that we know today.
So why did Jesus send them out?
It was part of their training. They were doing some work, yes, but the real work was being done IN them, not through them. When they came back, I suspect that they paid more attention to what Jesus was doing and saying, because they knew that they were going to have to repeat it. “This will be on the exam,” we might say. “You will be tested by seeing if you can do this.” The best way to learn something is to teach it. When we teach, we become more aware of the subject, and more aware of where we lack understanding.
When the disciples came back rejoicing about the power they had, Jesus reminded them that it was he who gave them that power, and he pointed them instead to their own spiritual status: “Do not rejoice…that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” That’s what their mission trip was really about. That’s what the Great Commission is really about – it’s not just recruiting other people, as important as that might be – it’s about training us for the Great Purpose: God wants to live with us, and he’s starting right now, and he is preparing us for “the next level” of life with him.