The God Who Risks

Reviewed by John A. Lynn

Thank God for John Sanders, and thank God for the many other authors he quotes in his fabulous book titled, The God Who Risks (InterVarsity Press). In conjunction with reading this review, I heartily encourage you to read the transcription of our Nov/Dec 1999 audio teaching, You are the Only You God Has, in which I read a number of quotes from Sanders’ book. It is the “missing piece” that we have been looking for to put together an understanding of something that we have believed for quite a few years, but were not able to articulate to our satisfaction.

The thesis of Sanders’ book is that once upon a time, when God was all by Himself, He sovereignly decided to establish a world of free will creatures with whom He would linearly relate in a give-and-take dialogue. Since the fall of man, God has invited each human being to participate with Him in the overall plan of redemption. The title of Sanders’ book indicates the “risk model” of God that he propounds, that is, a God who does not control everything that happens and who risks being unloved, and even hated, by the creatures He has designed to love Him.

I consider Sanders’ book an absolute masterpiece and it has “changed my life.” I realize that this phrase has become too trite and is often thrown around in regard to many things, but in this case I really mean it. Since reading The God Who Risks, my prayer life has been greatly expanded, taking on much more urgency and fervency. Also, my vision of the importance of my life has been magnified many-fold. I am the only me that God has and the choices I make moment by moment either limit Him or allow Him to get involved in shaping the history of my life and that of those I touch with His love the way He wants it to be.

After reading Sanders’ book, there are really only two things I can see on the “down side.” First, he does not appear to understand the figurative language God uses in the Old Testament portraying Himself as the source of both good and evil. I have written Mr. Sanders a letter telling him how much his book helped me and I enclosed a copy of our Don’t Blame God! book for him.

The other limiting factor is something very ironic in light of the title of the book. Mr. Sanders is an ardent Trinitarian and that belief is evident in reading his book. I sent him a copy of our book, One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith, along with a kind letter suggesting that he consider the following: Jesus is the greatest risk that God ever took because Jesus Christ was a true human being with genuine free will and the success of the entire plan of God was resting on his shoulders. Like the First Adam, he was tempted to disobey God and, as the Last Adam, he could have sinned just like the First Adam did. Until Jesus said, “It is finished,” everything was “up for grabs.”

Jesus had the choice to make all the Old Testament prophecies about him and the future of God’s people either true or false. Romans 15:8 (NKJV) says that Christ came to “…confirm the promises made to the fathers [Israel],” that is, to make them come true, which only he could do. It was God who made the promises to Israel and who then put “all His eggs in Jesus’ basket,” so to speak, to see them come to pass. Having genuine free will, Jesus could have turned away from the mission set before him and thus negated God’s promises. In that vein, I see the Old Testament prophecies about Christ as God giving him a good reputation to live up to, if he chose to do so. That was the risk God took and that is why Jesus is now God’s favorite subject!

On the other hand, as I suggested to Mr. Sanders, if Jesus is God, then he could not have failed in his mission because God can neither sin nor fail. If God became a baby and was planning all along to return to His former state of glory, then He took absolutely no risk at all.

In regard to Sanders’ thesis, if there is no verse in the Bible stating that God is “omniscient,” meaning that He knows the past, the present, and the future, why do so many Christians believe that? Well, if there is no verse in the Bible talking about the “Trinity,” why do so many people believe that? The answers to these two questions are the same: ancient Greek mythology and philosophy. Consider the following quotes from Sanders’ book:

Whereas theology has traditionally emphasized the abstractions of omniscience and foreknowledge, the biblical writers stress the wisdom and knowledge of God, which enabled God to be of help…For the biblical writers, God’s foreknowledge of the future is less important than His promises and His faithfulness to them…What makes God God is not prediction, but promise, God’s hesed [Hebrew for “steadfast love”] or covenant faithfulness.

The word foreknowledge occurs seven times in the New Testament…Five times it is used for divine knowing in advance, and twice it refers to humans having foreknowledge. Obviously, if the term is applied to humans, then the mere use of the word foreknowledge does not settle our dispute…When God is said to have foreknowledge, the object of the divine foreknowledge is either Jesus Christ or the people of God (as a group). Hence God “foreknows” [Jesus] as well as his decision to elect a people of God. Neither of these requires exhaustive foreknowledge of future contingencies, only knowledge of what God chooses to do” (pp. 129 and 130).

For two millennia the Neoplatonic philosophical understanding of God (which begins with a particular understanding of “perfection”) has been brought together with the biblical portrait of God and evolved through history into one grand “biblical-classical synthesis”…This resulted in a radical displacement of the Old Testament understanding of God as a personal being involved in a relationship of “steadfast love” (hesed) with His creation…The classical doctrine of the divine essence was sometimes abstracted from the divine project and made a subject unto itself; thus “God” was analyzed as a nonrelational concept. That is, the nature of God was divorced from the relationship in which God created us, and God was defined in terms of utter transcendence, immutability and power apart from the project [mankind] God initiated and carries on. Consequently, the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence…often acquired meanings that they need not have. Such terms may be used, but they must be defined in light of the biblical understanding of the divine wisdom, love, holiness, and faithfulness. Divine immutability, omni-potence, and so on…were often defined in terms of Plato’s understanding of perfection – that which could never change, since any change would only be for the worse (p. 173).

Western theology has had a difficult time placing “God is love” at center stage when discussing the divine attributes. Instead, it emphasizes the more abstract and impersonal attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. In my opinion, this results from the failure to place the discussion of the divine nature under the category of a personal God carrying out a project. Despite its claim that God is a personal being, Western thought has paid insufficient attention to the specific sort of world God decided to create—a world in which God enters into reciprocal interpersonal relationships (p. 175).

God sovereignly enters into a relationship that involves risks for both God and His creatures. The almighty God created significant others with freedom, and grants them space to be alongside Him and to collaborate with Him. God expects this collaboration to proceed toward the fulfillment of His goal for creation. God loves us, provides for us, and desires our trust and love in return. We see this most fundamentally demonstrated in the life of Jesus, who came not to dominate others but to reconcile rebellious creatures by the power of love (p. 137).

[Quoting W. Norris Clarke]: “God is one who enters into deep personal relations of love with His creatures. And an authentic interpersonal relation of love necessarily involves not merely purely creative or one-way love, but genuine mutuality and reciprocity of love, including not only the giving of love, but the joyful acceptance of love in response to it. This means that our God is a God who really cares, is really concerned with our lives and happiness, who enters into truly reciprocal personal relations with us, who responds to our prayers – to whom, in a word, our contingent world and its history somehow make a genuine difference” (p. 164).

God freely chooses to be affected by His creatures—there is contingency in God’s relation with creation. Moreover, God is the sovereign determiner of the sort of sovereignty He will exercise. God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything that happens in history. He does not have to because He is supremely wise, endlessly resourceful, majorly creative, and omni-competent in seeking to fulfill His project. In the God-human relationship, God sometimes decides alone what will happen; and other times God modifies His plans in order to accommodate the choices, actions, and desires of His creatures (p. 169).

[In regard to prayer and its importance in the risk model that God and Scripture sets forth, Sanders writes the following]: God removes certain plagues at the request of Moses (Exod. 8:13 and 31)…[Continuing on, he then cites the record of King Hezekiah and how his prayer to God allowed God to give him fifteen more years of life. In regard to these and many other biblical characters, Sanders continues]: They received because they asked. In the risk model, it is quite possible for us to miss a blessing that God desires to give because we fail to ask for it (James 4:2 and 3) (p. 271).

[Quoting Abraham Heschel]: “To pray means to bring God back into the world…to expand His presence…His being immanent in the world depends on us.” [Sanders goes on]: Allowing for overstatement, Heschel is correct that God takes our prayers seriously and weaves them into purposes and actions for the world. God desires a deep personal relationship with us and this requires genuine dialogue rather than monologue…[People in Scripture] dialogued with God in order to determine together what the future would be.”

God wants us to be His partners, not because He needs our wisdom but because He wants our fellowship. It is the person making the request who makes the difference to God. The request is important because God is interested in us. God loves us and takes our concerns to heart just because they are our concerns. This is the nature of a personal, loving relationship. This relationship is not one of domination or manipulation but of participation and cooperation wherein we become co-laborers with God (1 Cor. 3:9). It did not have to be this way. It is so only because God wanted a reciprocal relationship of love and elected to make dialogical prayer an important element in such a relationship (p. 272).

Biblical characters prayed boldly because they believed their prayers could change things—even God’s mind. They understood that they were working with God to determine the future…God has open routes into the future, and He desires that we participate with Him in determining which ones to take…When we turn to God in prayer, we open a window of opportunity for the spirit’s work in our lives, creating new possibilities for God to carry out His project. Dialogical prayer affects both parties and changes the situation making it different than what it was prior to the prayer…[Quoting Peter Baelz]: “Our asking in faith may make it possible for God to do something which He could not have done without our asking” (pp. 272 and 273).

Some sincere Christians may initially think that this “open view of God” makes Him smaller or less impressive. To the contrary, properly understanding His Word regarding this topic magnifies His infinite resourcefulness and His personal involvement in our lives. Rather than trusting in a static, pre-determined “plan,” we can trust in the living God, our Father, and our Lord Jesus who walk with us in the trenches of life and work closely with us in every aspect of our lives, always fighting for the best for us. The importance of our choices is also magnified as we see that we either limit God (Ps. 78:41.) or allow God to be who, and do what, He desires to be and do for us. Truly we do have a great big wonderful God!