Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God is NOT Reckless

Define the word "reckless."

This is Merriam - Webster's definition:

"Marked by lack of proper caution: careless of consequences; irresponsible."

Doesn't sound like a particularly admirable quality, does it? Yet in the past several years, the term has taken on a firestorm of popularity in some Christian circles to define an attribute of God.

While I suspect Wild at Heart author John Eldredge may be at least partly culpable for this unfortunate trend, it seems to have really taken off since Redeemer Presbyterian's Tim Keller's book, The Prodigal God, advances a variation of the phrase. In addition, Keller once tweeted, "God's reckless grace is our greatest hope" to his legion of fans.

Considering his dynamic ministry in New York City and his proven track record in reformed evangelical apologetics, I would be inclined to give Keller a pass on this issue, if not for its burgeoning popularity. I've heard there is a contemporary Christian band out there, a contemporary Christian DVD, and other pop-culture twists to Christianity that have jumped on the "reckless" bandwagon, turning it into a hot, hip byword for edgy evangelicalism.

A short post currently on Christianity Today's website spells is out a bit more, claiming that God is reckless in His love for us. Or at least, so says Nathan Foster, son of Christian author Richard Foster, who wrote Celebration of Discipline (1978).

But is God really reckless? Is calling God reckless and prodigal being clever while sacrificing clarity? Does portraying a risk-taking, rebel-happy god of sloppy proportions - which is the imagery "reckless" conjures up - a wise thing to do? God is many things, but a caricature of irresponsibility and waste?

A Word Aptly Spoken?

Don't say I'm splitting grammatical hairs or playing the vocabulary purist on this one. I realize it's fun and cheeky to strip evocative words of their conventional meanings and contrive new contexts for them. Politicians have been doing it for years, as have used car salesmen. However, just because the trend has finally hit a sort of mainstream with the advent of information technology, where rules get re-written constantly, doesn't mean the Gospel needs words re-contextualized to stay relevant.

Granted, when enough people in a culture use a word the wrong way, the wrong way ends up becoming the right context for that word. Take the term "gay," for instance. Thirty years ago, if you said Christ was gay at the wedding of Cana, everybody would have known you meant he was happy and having a good time. Today, if you said Christ was gay, everybody would assume you were saying Christ was a homosexual.

Is that what people who want to think their god is reckless are trying to do? Distort our language?

Because really, when you start investigating what these people intend to say by claiming God is reckless, you soon realize none of them have come up with new understandings of the Trinity. We already know God's love is lavish. We already know it's free, oftentimes contrary to what we would expect, limitless, and will not be thwarted. Do we need a new way to express eternal truths? If so, is this the best way?

Of What Prodigal Means

Of course, Keller has seized upon a word many of us use improperly anyway. The church fathers who compiled the Canon used the word "prodigal" in its traditional sense, with its original meaning. Which, as Keller explains below, isn't the same as what many of us have assumed it to be.

In his preface to Prodigal God, Keller explains his title this way:

“The word ‘prodigal’ does not mean ‘wayward’ but according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, ‘reckless spendthrift’. It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as the younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to ‘reckon’ or count his sin against him or demand repayment. This response offended the elder son and most likely the local community."

So for Keller, it seems plausible to jump from "reckless" to "prodigal," and then use the two words interchangeably when describing God.

But what's the flaw in this assumption? Which word most defined the son who took his inheritance early? It's not the "reckless" part of the definition, but "spendthrift," as in "wasteful expenditure" (which is the first listing in Merriam-Webster for the word "prodigal.") Just being reckless could have meant the Prodigal Son was irresponsible in any number of ways, but it was his unwise use of money that led him to eat pigs' slop.

We can't necessarily take the definition for a word or phrase and then use that definition to describe something else entirely. It's linguistic hubris predicated on the assumption taught by our culture that such correlations should be transferable.

Christ Wasn't Wasted

But they doesn't necessarily work out that way. Particularly when we're describing our Heavenly Father. Did God waste His resources to save us? Christ, His pure Son, was poured out as a holy sacrifice for our sins, but was that a reckless plan on God's part? Particularly since both of them knew Christ's death and burial were not going to permanently separate them from each other, or from the Elect?

Even if you don't believe in predestination, can you see how your salvation, as something you could never have earned, has been provided to you out of pure love? Even if Christ died for just one soul, would His death have been in vain? Would the defeat of sin, Hell, and Satan have been a reckless demonstration of God's sovereignty? How much of a box are we putting God in by ascribing such a contrivance as recklessness?

Who - and What - God Is

God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-present, which means He will save whom He will save, and He'll do whatever He needs to do to save His people. But that does not mean God is reckless.
Going back to our definition of the word, consider the fact that God does not ignore caution. He's God - who or what can caution Him about anything? What danger could He ever face? What problem might He encounter that He wouldn't be able to anticipate and overcome?

God is not careless of consequences. All things - ALL things - work TOGETHER for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes. God knows everything that has happened, is happening now, and will take place tomorrow and 23 million years from now. Everything He does is perfect - there are no negative "consequences" because everything that takes place ultimately points to His glory.

God is not irresponsible. Good grief, He MADE everything! He knows how everything works! Everything - from how blood circulates in our bodies to number of hair on your head (obviously, He's got a lot less my hair to keep track of) to the number of Islamic militants who are training as suicide bombers at this very moment. God can't not be responsible - everything is His for Him to do with as He pleases. He's it. The top. You can' get more trustworthy, reliable, or secure than God.

Can I have a witness here?

So let's stop with the borderline heresy of ascribing recklessness to God. I appreciate the point Keller tries to make about God's lavish love. But even the Prodigal Son's father was motivated by genuine love that was untainted by recklessness, as seen by the way he reasoned with the loyal son and understood his bitterness. Just as their father had the situation well in hand, even moreso does our Heavenly Father.

How thankful we should be that our God is not reckless!


  1. When my daughter called me yesterday to tell me about this book ("the prodigal God"), I'd never heard of it. During our conversation I told her that I thought that TK probably used that title to get the readers attention (and she agreed). I downloaded it on kindle (free excerpts). I was excited reading it (and about to purchase it) until I got to the term: "God's reckless grace." I couldn't believe my own eyes, so I researched Tim Keller. On his site I found a question and answer portion. There was a question about predestination (I think it was question 3 or 4). He explained that God knew that no one would ever come to Him on their own and so He selected [only] some to be saved (I guess by force). After I thought about it, TK's agenda scared me. [IMO] This man is saying that we don't need Jesus...that Jesus died for nothing, because it has already be predetermined who will and will not be saved. This morning, I was looking at Luke 15; there are two parables in that chapter...lost sheep and lost son. You can't be lost if you don't belong to anyone. No one goes out and looks for sheep who doesn't belong to them; and no one is happy to see you coming, if they don't know you or if they have disowned you. (Yes, the Good father was happy to see his lost son return.) IMO, Tim Keller is misusing God in order to strengthen his selection view. I think he's aaying: ignore the biblical invitations to accept Christ. I hope that I'm wrong about TK.

  2. Thank you for your feedback!

    Perhaps I should clarify that although I don't like Keller's choice of words, I don't believe that predestination itself is unBiblical. In fact, I believe that God does choose those whom He will save.

    Predestination doesn't devalue Christ; in fact, it hinges on His substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection to attone for the sins of God's "elect." When you realize that you are not your own; that you have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20), you cannot help but worship the One who paid that price.

    Please think about it: if God does not call His people to Himself, how can He be considered sovereign? His deity demands that He control everything, whether we want to live in that reality or not.

    It's precisely this sovereign control of God's that means He cannot possibly take risks. He is not sloppy or careless - in fact, the Good Shepherd will not lose one of His sheep! (John 10:28). He will go and bring His people to Himself, and He will rejoice when a wandering son comes home.

    Tim Keller is a teaching elder in the same denomination as the church where I worship, the Presbyterian Church in America. If this brief explanation of predestination causes more questions than it answers, please feel free to contact me and discuss it further!

    I praise God that He predestined me for adoption as a son through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will! (Ephesians 1:5)

    In Christ, Tim Laitinen


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