Exactly how unconditional is unconditional? Surely we must respond to God’s love, must we not? Love must be freely accepted if a free and mutual relationship is to be established, right? For Orthodox, Catholics, and Arminian Protestants, the freedom of the human person to accept or reject God is decisive and ultimate. In the words of Paul Evdokimov: “God can do everything, except constrain us to love him.” It would appear, then, that here we have finally reached a limit, an authentic salvific proviso. How can the risen Jesus promise us that we are destined for his kingdom, when we are free to reject him? Given human freedom, the “gospel” can only, therefore, be a qualified promise. To each gospel announcement we need to append the clause “… if you believe, repent, and persevere.” Hence it’s not really really good news at all. In the final analysis the “gospel” thus is sheer obligation and demand. God has done his part; now it’s up to us to do ours. The burden of our ultimate salvation rests fully upon our shoulders: if we want to be saved, we must repent of our sins, ask God to forgive us, love him in return, commit ourselves to ascetical discipline, follow the moral precepts, and not be caught dead in mortal sin.
It is descriptively true that together faith, repentance, love, sanctity form the one essential condition for salvific communion with the Holy Trinity. We must be made fit for heaven. But consider how this will inevitably be heard by our congregations if we preach this condition as the evangel of the resurrection—gospel becomes law! As we have seen, nomistic preaching of this kind only reinforces the power of “the law of sin and death” over our people and ourselves. Yet preachers do it all the time, and then they wonder why their sermons bear so little spiritual fruit."
Paula Gooder is Canon Theologian both of Birmingham Cathedral and of Guildford Cathedral, a Lay canon at Salisbury Cathedral, a visiting lecturer at Kings College, London, an associate lecturer at St Mellitus, and a Senior Research Scholar of the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. After studying in Oxford, she spent 12 years in theological education: first at Ripon College Cuddesdon and then at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological education, Birmingham. Her research areas include the writings of Paul, with a particular emphasis on 2 Corinthians and Mysticism, Biblical Interpretation and the Development of Ministry in the Early Church. Her recent publications include Searching for Meaning: An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testament (SPCK, 2008), The Meaning is the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent (Canterbury Press, 2008), LentWise: Spiritual Essentials for Real Life (CHP, 2008), This Risen Existence: The Spirit of Easter (Canterbury Press, 2009), Heaven: A Rough Guide (SPCK, August 2011).