Jesus Has United Himself to Us with C. Baxter Kruger
The starting place of the gospel is that we are already included, and it is our choice whether to live in that relationship.
JMF: Your PhD degree is from King’s College, Aberdeen, and you were mentored by Professor James B. Torrance. Would you talk about that?
CBK: J.B. (as we called him – he preferred to be called James, but all his students called him JB) was a father figure to many of us that studied. There were a group of Americans that were there at that time back in the late ’80s. I did my doctoral dissertation on the subject of the knowledge of God in the theology of T.F. Torrance. But JB was my professor. TF had retired by those days, and JB was just wonderful. Just to be able to go and listen to him lecture – this was at the end of his career, so he was fantastic. My wife and I basically hawked everything we had, just to go have the opportunity of studying with him.
JMF: You wound up taking over his classes after he retired, didn’t you?
CBK: Yeah, that was a tremendous privilege and a very fearful undertaking, but the university did not hire a replacement for JB that one year. That left Trevor Hart to teach theology by himself, and so he asked Dante Mail (who was a friend of ours) to stay for a few months and teach, and then he asked me to come behind them and teach; then I realized what he was asking me to teach was JB’s classes. So I stayed there for two years and taught his classes.
I remembered the first day walking into his class, and that was at the other side of the podium and lectern, and I was saying, “What are you doing here?”
There’s so much history there: that building was built in 1495, about the time Columbus was discovering America – that building was there and theology was being taught there. [JMF: Wow.] And it was a remarkable experience for me.
Then we decided it was time for us to move back the United States. It’s a bit colder in Scotland than it is in Mississippi. Five years of freezing is enough, so we moved back to the United States and worked as associate pastor for a while. In that process we realized that what we need to be doing, what I need to be doing, was writing and teaching in a wider format. Steve Horn, David Upshaw, Clayton James and myself got together and decided we’re going to have a go at a non-profit ministry that did just that, that wrote books and did lectures and put on conferences, and let’s see what happens.
JMF: Your focus is unique. Could you talk about that?
CBK: You mean theological focus? “Unique” is an interesting word – in some ways I would say “Yes,” but I don’t want to say “unique” in the sense of not part of mainstream historic Christianity.
In studying T.F. Torrance, you have to learn Athanasius and Irenaeus and Hilary and the two Gregorys and Basil and the early church’s theology. You have to learn Barth, you have to learn Calvin and Luther, because those were so formative to his thinking. So what I have to say is not unique in the sense that it’s part of all of that conversation. Every theologian wants to make a contribution to the church – contribution to the way we see things. Not necessarily original and un-thought of, but one that is “on the basis of.” [i.e., building on previous work]
Integrating our humanity with our salvation in Christ is one of the areas where I think there’s a unique flavor. It sounds very much like a Southern version of what the Reformation and Athanasius and early church were on about. It’s sort of my take on it, because for me religion is never to be separated from our humanity. I hear what the fathers in ancient and modern times are saying about Jesus’ relationship with us and his union with us.
My question is always been, “Well, I see that. I see that he’s united himself with us as a gift of grace and this is who we are. What does that mean? And what does that look like? Does that mean we have to give up motherhood and fatherhood and fishing? Does that mean we give up life?” I struggled with some of that early on in my childhood because I felt like there was a gap between God/church and my humanity, and I knew it was wrong.
So in the fathers and in Torrance and in Barth and in the Reformation – the reformers, I realized that there is an integration here, and so I think to do something unique about us is holding on to that magnificent powerful vision of Jesus Christ’s union with the human race – is something that he did, and is something that is real. We are turning the page and saying, Now here’s what it looks like as we live it out. It works its way out in our human expression, in our motherhood, in our fatherhood and making lures, and being a teacher, and being a janitor, running a bread route.
Years ago I was teaching in the central United States, and this young student picked me up. It’s flat in that part of the country, and we were passing farm after farm after farm and there were tractors and farmers. This young student, we were talking and I asked him, “What are you going to do when you finish school?”
He said he’s going to go to seminary.
I said, you’re going to be a pastor?
He said, “Yeah, I’m gonna be a pastor.”
I said, “What would you say to that farmer on that tractor right over there, about the way Jesus Christ relates to his farming?”
The young student said, “Well, I never thought about that.”
I said, “He’s gonna be in your congregation, and that man gives 70 hours a week to farming. His family gives their father and husband for 70 hours a week to farming, their whole family tradition is bound up in farming, and so you don’t know how Jesus relates to what he is and what he does as a human being.”
He said, “I haven’t really thought about that.”
I said, “Why would you expect him to want to come to church? You’re not showing him how Jesus is related to his whole existence.”
And I said, “Isn’t it striking that you will go home tonight…” and I said, “are you married?”
He said, “Yeah, I’m married.”
I said, you’re going to go home tonight and you’re going to eat supper, right?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you sit down at the meal?”
He said, “We’re going to pray.”
I said, “What are you going to do?”
He said, “We’ll thank God for the food.”
I said, “Why? He did not grow the food.” I was being facetious because, yes, the Father provided food through the farmer – the farmer’s participating in the Father’s provision through the Son and in the Spirit, and this is holy and beautiful and good, it’s not secular. It’s the way we participate.
This young student said, “I never thought about that.”
I said, “Now you can honor the farmer for who he is, and his family. It’s not just the farmer, he is one who participates in the way the Father provides food…
JMF: And the farmer needs to know that.
CBK: Yes! He needs to live in the dignity of it over and against our culture, which says “Money, prestige, power, position, gives dignity.” No. Dignity comes from what we’re participating in.
The servants got water for Jesus. He transformed it into wine. We can’t do that. The farmer can make the things grow. But he participates, and Jesus is the one who makes it grow. He’s the good shepherd. He’s the bread of life. We need to learn to relate to people in Christ, in who they are in Christ, and take off our sort of glasses – flesh glasses which says, it’s segmented according to money and prestige and power and position and education.
If you want to talk something unique, it’s not unique in the sense that it is biblical and Jewish right down the line for centuries. But it’s been lost in any kind of meaningful way. We can now begin to see our humanity for what it is. There is no such thing as just human. There is no independent self. There is no just human person. It’s us bound up in the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and life comes to expression in our ordinary human life.
JMF: In a marriage, or say, a person is a doctor or a scientist, or a lawyer or a factory worker or a fisherman, if his eyes are open to that, how does it change how he goes about what he is doing?
CBK: Let me give you a story. I was on a plane many years ago, flying from Dallas to Seattle, Washington. And I think it was Seattle, maybe in Portland. It was the first time I had flown in that part of the country and I had never seen the Rocky Mountains, so I deliberately got a ticket booked on the side of the plane; window seat. We got on the plane, and every other seat in the plane was empty, everybody had space, and I thought, this is going to be great. The plane backed out and stopped and pulled forward, and the door opened and on the plane came this guy who looks like Indiana Jones. He’s got leather hat, leather backpack, jacket, the whole nine yards, and he was walking back and I thought, I know exactly where the man’s going to sit. Sure enough, he walked back 30 rows and sat next to me. There was a young lady, I believe on the other side.
He introduced himself as a systematic micro-evolutionary biologist. He was coming back from a research trip in the Caribbean, and he was all concerned about plants, all concerned about plants becoming extinct. He had a list of plants and the Latin names of plants that we’ve already lost, some that we’re losing, what we must do to save them. He was going on and on about this. Then he started a little bit about evolution.
Somewhere over Idaho, I think, he said, “What do you do?”
I said, “I’m a theologian.”
He said, “I guess you want to talk about evolution.”
I said, “No, I don’t care about evolution. But I’ve got a question.”
He said, “What’s your question?”
I said, “Where did you get your passion for plants?”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “Was your Uncle Freddie a botanist, I mean, your mother a botanist? Did you just decide one day you’re going to be passionate about plants? You’re a grown man, you know their Latin names, Latin names of plants that are no longer extinct, you’re concerned about their future, you want to see them flourish not die. Where did that come from?”
He said, “I never thought about it.”
So I pull out my napkin – he’s got his diagrams – and drew three circles, and I said, Father, Son, and Spirit. I said there’s only one man, there is only one person in this universe that cares about plants, because they belong to his Father – his name is Jesus. And Jesus is not going to care about those plants without our participation. He’s put his passion for his Father’s plants inside of you, you’ve been toiling around in the Caribbean participating in his passion for his Father’s creation and its care, and its flourishing. And you don’t know who you are.
The first thing he said was, “If that’s the truth, why haven’t I ever been told about that?”
I said, “You just were. You just were told.”
In that moment you could see the difference, because until that moment, he thought he was doing that. It was his passion, and by God, it was his idea and it was his energy and he was doing this, and he was proud of what he thought he was doing in his own strength as a human being. And in that second, the light of Christ dawned, he saw himself for who he really was. He’s part of something much larger.
He said, “I’m not even sure I believe in God.”
I said, “The most important thing is whether or not God believes in you. He does, and he’s sharing his life with you, and that’s who you are. If you can come to see that and believe in Jesus, then you can give yourself to participate not in a prideful look-at-me-I’m-better-than-you way, because he’s going to make everybody in other departments feel “less than” because they’re not botanists, they’re just theologians or whatever. But you can participate in this in a much more personal way where you can give yourself to be a part of this and include the way in which Jesus is doing a lot other things.”
That’s a simple illustration to me of how that begins to work out. Pride is gone in a sense of, I want to participate, Jesus, in what you are doing here. Show me more, what am I missing, what are you doing with these plants. You’re the one that’s in resurrection and you’re bringing these plants back, what do we do, how does that work? And you give yourself to participate in a much more intelligent and clear and less prideful and sanctimonious way.
JMF: Typically, when you go to church, you hear a sermon, you come away feeling discouraged or even worried about your relationship with God, because what you hear at church is, “Here’s ten commandments.” You not only hear “ten commandments,” but then Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself, love the Lord with all your heart and all your mind,” and all. And you feel like, “I don’t do that,” and you feel condemned because you know you don’t measure up to what you’re hearing you’re supposed to be doing – and that’s where you learn about God and about what you’re supposed to be doing. We don’t hear this. Why is that?
CBK: Can I tell another story, is that all right?
JMF: Go ahead.
CBK: This is my all-time favorite. This is a true story that happened when my son was… he’s now 19, he’s six-foot-five and he looks down on his father with great delight, but anyway he was 6 or 7 at that time. I was sitting in the den in our house on Saturday afternoon sorting through junk mail getting rid of them, watching a football game. He peered around the corner, 6 or 7 years old – face paint, camouflaged, plastic knife, guns, the whole nine yards, and one of his buddies was with him. The next thing I knew, there’s two camouflaged blurs that just came flying through the air and hit me, and we started horsing around and laughing and we end up on the floor in a pile of laughter.
Right in the middle of that, I felt the Lord saying, “Baxter, pay attention. There’s something huge happening here that’s very important.” I’m just scratching my head thinking, “A dad, his son horsing around on the floor, Saturday afternoon, it’s got to be going on all over the planet, what’s the big deal?”
Little by little it began to dawn on me… I did not even really know this other little boy. If you replay the story and you take my son out for a moment, and he’s back in the back of the house and this other little boy walks in the den camouflaged, the same outfit, he looks at me, he’s never seen me, I’ve never seen him. I don’t even know his name, he didn’t know my name. Presumably, he would have thought I was Mr. Kruger. But the last thing he’s going to do is come flying through the air and engage me in that kind of intimate play.
But the fact was, my son was there, and did know me. He knew that I loved him, he knew that I liked him, and that I wanted him, he knew my acceptance. In the freedom of that knowledge of my acceptance and that knowledge of who he was and my love for him, he did the most natural thing in the world, which was to engage me. The stunning miracle was that, I saw my son’s freedom with me, my son’s knowledge of my heart rubbed off on that other little boy. He got to feel it and taste it and experience it with us. It wasn’t his, but he got to share in it with us. It not only rubbed off on him, it was in him and he functioned from it. So to me, the Lord was saying, “That’s the gospel.”
The gospel is the news, and my son in the equation would be Jesus. The gospel is the news that we have a place in Jesus’ relationship with his Father and in the Spirit he’s sharing his own emotions, his own life, his own sense of his Father’s presence – he wants us to live in it.
Religion would be when the boy suddenly gets… a whisper comes along and says, “But you’re really not a part.” So the boy steps over here, and he starts thinking, “How can have a relationship with God like… or to use the analogy, how can I have a relationship with Mr. Kruger like his son does?” And he starts writing down things that he can do that look like our relationship. The fact is, he is included in it, but he’s choosing to carve out his own relationship with me rather than to participate. Every religion starts out with that separation, and it is going to prescribe things that you can do to have a relationship with God, when the New Testament is saying the stunning news is that Jesus has come to bring us and to receive us into his life and that’s who we are and he wants us to participate – bear his fruit, fruit of his relationship with his Father.
That’s the simplest story, but man, is it huge in its implications. We back out and we insist on having our own path to God, our own relationship to God the way we want it, the way we think it ought to work, the way we read the New Testament, and we’re going to go at it that way. When the whole time, we’ve been included in this Son’s relationship with his Father. Somehow we get to thinking that dirt can somehow climb into the being of the Trinity. Somehow that we who are fashioned out of the ground, can do something to achieve the Holy Spirit – the one single special Spirit in the universe. We’re going to do something to achieve that. That’s where religion – it’s just a constant striving to create a relationship that really is already there and given to us, and it’s the function of darkness and blindness.
JMF: In most preaching, what I hear all the time is, you are separated from God, you’re a sinner, we’ve got to help people know that they’re sinners and cut off from God and then show them the way. The way is, you say the sinner’s prayer, let’s say, or you start believing and now God will change his mind toward you. It’s the old Jonathan Edwards … the hanging over the throne…[CBK: Oh, oh, in the pit of hell dangling like a spider’s web over…] of an angry God, if you do x, y, or z (have faith, repent, change your ways, etc.), then God will change his mind toward you, apply the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on your behalf – that’s how the gospel is most often presented.
CBK: You want to know why the church is dead and dying? I mean, that’s not the gospel.
JMF: Give me a one or two-minute gospel presentation that…
CBK: The Incarnation means that God has come… the Father has sent his Son to establish a relationship with us. Did Jesus establish a relationship with us, or not? Is he the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world or not?
I’ve grown up here in the same kind of preaching you’re talking about. It’s a much larger discussion, but it’s a product of Augustinian dualism, then the Western tradition, and legalism. The gospel is the news is that the Father’s SON – the Anointed One – has come to us and established a relationship with us. We’re like my son’s buddy – we’re included in it, and we don’t know who we are, so I’m not trying to get anyone to Jesus. I’m not trying to get anyone into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has done that – he’s bigger than we are, he’s bigger that Adam, he’s bigger than the church. He’s the one who embraced the human race in his own life, death, and resurrection and ascension.
Our role is to announce the good news. Not to say, “It’s possible to have good news.” Our role is to say, this is who you are. You too belong. You’re in this. You’re included in this. In that moment of announcement of the light… or in that moment of revelation, where we suddenly see that we’re already included, not separated, not trying to figure out how to climb my way back to God, that produces, as my friend Bruce Wauchope says, “That produces mental illness.” Striving, all kinds of fragmentation, and our soul is in fear. It doesn’t produce relationship.
But when we see who we are, we discover reality that we don’t create. That the Father, Son, and Spirit have created, in relation with us, we discover it, and at that moment we’re called to believe. Are we going to believe in this reality or in… (I carry my glasses with me, because this is the issue.) Are we going to believe in the way we see things (and that’s the little boy backing off and saying, “I’m going to do it my way”), or are we going to say when the light comes, “Man, now I see who I am.”
When you see who you are – that you’re included in this relationship, here’s one of the things that happens. You then begin to know for the first time, what it means to be a sinner. Now that I see that I’m included in that relationship, what a fool I’ve been trying to create my own. How proud I’ve been of what I have created and maintained in my own strength, and that’s where the gospel reveals to us what sin is.
JMF: So the starting place of the gospel is that the truth that you’re already included.
CBK: Yes, the starting of the gospel is Jesus Christ, and he is the one who has a relationship with the Father, he’s the Anointed One, he’s the one who has the relationship with us and in him, in his existence, in his person – all of us are bound together in that relation – that’s the starting point, and that’s the light of life that Jesus talks about.
When you see this in this light, you know the light of life, you won’t walk in the darkness – that’s the truth that sets us free (John 14:20). In that day you will know that I am in my Father, you’re in me – you’re not outside, you’re going to see that you’re in me and I’m in you.
That’s the truth that sets us free from the illusions of our religion, and illusions of our own ideas which we keep trying to impose upon God, I mean the Father, Son, and Spirit. What’s ironic is that in laying out the gospel presentation as we’ve done in the modern evangelical (and I stress modern evangelical) approach – laying it out the way that we do: we start off with a holiness of God and a sin – that we became sinners and there has to be some sort of a sacrifice. We have defined sin there out of our darkness.
Jesus says, “No one knows the Father but the Son.” We who don’t know the Father have come up with a definition of sin over here, and we’re going to figure out how Jesus solves that problem. But we’re blind! Even our doctrine of sin is a blind doctrine of sin. We need the life of Jesus Christ to help us to see the problem, so we can’t start with the problem.
We start with the truth of who we are in Christ, that shines light on the darkness and we suddenly say, “Oh, now I can begin to see what sin is – sin is our not receiving the Father’s love. Sin is believing that I’m separated from God and figuring out a way to carve my own way back. Sin is me insisting that God live in my world with me, rather than me living in the embrace of the Father. He loves me, he calls me to receive his love, now I can see who I really am. Now I can see what a mess I have made of my life and why. Now I can see what my future is.
JMF: That’s very different from religion, that is also very different from universalism.
CBK: Yes, universalism … I get accused of this a lot. You can understand if you’ve grown up in this other model, then the other model says, if you’ve done the contract, if you’ve had the deal and closed the deal with Jesus, then you’re going to heaven.
So if everybody is included then, everybody’s going to heaven. But the biblical notion of heaven is relationship. Jesus says, “This is eternal life.” Not that you go to a place and have a seat in the auditorium and can watch the big show. Eternal life is knowing the Father. Eternal death is living without knowing the Father. It’s relational.
Universalism is this idea that says, it’s the counterpart to Calvinism and its double predestination sort of thing which says, there are a selected number of elect and they will irresistibly be brought to know the truth and set free by it. Universalism is just extending that sort of irresistible grace kind of doctrine that says, everybody’s included and everybody’s going to be brought to see it, and that’s that, it doesn’t matter.
That’s not at all what I’m saying. That’s not at all what the Scripture is saying. Jesus says, he is the light of the cosmos, not all the Christian church. He says, he takes away the sin of the world – the cosmos, not just the sin of the believers. What happens in Jesus is the Father has come searching for us in the far country of our blindness and darkness and has established a relationship with us, and he will never let us go. That is the truth about the whole cosmos. Every person on the planet, Jesus Christ is in relationship with them – that’s what he’s done.
As we hear about it, we have to make a decision: which world am I going to live in? The New Testament says even the people who chose to live here are already included, they’re just insisting on imposing their way of relating to Jesus onto Jesus rather than saying, “Take my mind and turn it around, I want to live in your world with you, your way. I want to participate.”
So the New Testament leaves it, in my interpretation, the New Testament says it’s possible for people to sit, who are included in this relationship, people who are not only loved by the Father, but now Jesus has established a relationship with them – it’s possible for them to live in their own world although they’re part of this relationship indefinitely. That’s where we ended. You can’t go any further than that.
I’ve got younger people who have come along and who have studied Barth and Torrance and George McDonald and they want to make a doctrine, they want to say, “Oh, everybody’s going to be saved.” George McDonald did that, and so did Thomas Erskine. C.S. Lewis didn’t. He said, “No, we have to stop and say that…”
My hope is, I think it’d be the greatest in the universe if everybody came to see the truth and be set free by… and I hope for that, and I pray for that. But I cannot say that, that’s exactly what will happen, because that would be to deny our freedom as human beings. That would mean all we are is computers with Christological software. We’re not persons in relationship, we’re just computers, and we are being programmed by God, and that’s not the way it is.
Universalism is a hope. I mean, who wouldn’t want… don’t you want to see everyone come to know the truth and be set free by it? Well of course we do, that’s our heart’s desire. That’s not something we created, that’s the desire of the Father, Son, and Spirit. But can we make a doctrine out of that? No way, the New Testament won’t allow us to do it, and even the gospel as we see it in Jesus won’t allow us to do it. It’s possible for us to live in our darkness.
But that darkness is chosen, and it’s chosen again, and again, and again. We refuse… Jesus is able to break through our darkness and reveal the truth to us, and that creates a crisis. What am I going to believe? Which world am I going to believe? Which world am I going to live in? Which Baxter? I’m the one that’s making that decision. He doesn’t give up. But it’s possible for me, for us to say, “Were going to continue to live in this goofy world that we’ve created in our own heads – as being the real world.”