The Consuming Fire

Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire.

— Hebrews 12:28-29

 

When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of him is groundless? No. As much as they fear, such will come upon them, possibly far more. But there is something beyond their fear, a divine fate which they cannot withstand, because it works along with the human individuality which the divine individuality has created in them. The wrath will consume what they call ‘themselves;’ so that the selves God made shall appear, coming out with tenfold consciousness of being, and bringing with them all that made the blessedness of the life the men tried to lead without God. They will know that now first are they fully themselves. The avaricious, weary, selfish, suspicious old man shall have passed away. The young, ever young self, will remain. That which they thought themselves shall have vanished: that which they felt themselves, though they misjudged their own feelings, shall remain—remain glorified in repentant hope. For that which cannot be shaken shall remain. That which is immortal in God shall remain in man. The death that is in them shall be consumed. It is the law of Nature, of God, that all that is destructible shall be destroyed. The destructible must be burned out of a man, or begin to be burned out of him, before he can partake of eternal life.  Many a man’s work must be burned, that by that very burning he may be saved “so as by fire.”

The man who acquiesces in the burning is saved by the fire.

Commentary 

by Jess Lederman

In my introduction to the book, Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love, I wrote:

The second sermon of volume I, inspired by a verse from Hebrews, introduces the powerful motif of God as the Consuming Fire. God is one, and God is love; he is not sometimes a God of wrath and other times a God of love. Do we then teach that men have nothing to fear from God? By no means! “For Love loves unto purity,” and is oft experienced as wrath, as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away. Twenty-two years after the publication of volume I, MacDonald developed these ideas at length in what may be his most influential sermon, Justice. “God’s anger,” MacDonald wrote, “is at one with his love;” so, too, God’s mercy and his justice are one and the same. Mercy and punishment are not opposed; for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.

MacDonald's understanding of the nature of God has been of inestimable importance to me, for it allows me to read Scripture in a way that resolves paradoxes which would otherwise get in the way of allowing me to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. If John's words--that God is love--are in fact a profound statement about His nature, then all of His other attributes must be manifestations of love. That then becomes a key to interpreting Scripture. If His the punishments he inflicts are a manifestation of His love, then they cannot be purely retributory. And if they are therefore meant to redeem us, to purify us, we dare not imagine that God will fail in what He sets out to do.

Today's entry from Consuming Fire closes with words that are both thrilling and chilling:

Many a man’s work must be burned, that by that very burning he may be saved “so as by fire.”

The man who acquiesces in the burning is saved by the fire.

In Hell and Beyond and Heaven and Beyond, Michael Phillips explores these ideas in the context of the afterlife, as C.S. Lewis did in The Great Divorce. But I think we can all identify with this experience in our current lives, as well. Indeed, it seems to me that to "acquiesce in the burning" is often just what it means to "pick up our cross and follow Him." A Gospel preached in any other way is guilty of offering what Bonhoeffer referred to as "cheap grace."