John Updike, from his 1963 review of Paul Tillich’s Morality and Beyond:

[T]he net effect is one of ambiguity, even futility — as if the theologian were trying to revivify the Christian corpse with transfusions of Greek humanism, German metaphysics, and psychoanalytical theory. Terms like “grace” and “Will of God” walk through these pages as bloodless ghosts, transparent against the milky background of “beyond” and “being” that Tillich, God forbid, would confuse with the Christian faith.

— from “Tillich,” in Assorted Prose of John Updike (New York: Knopf, 1966), 220.

We too often toss around words like “spirit,” “grace,” “peace,” and “hope,” smooshing them all into some Christian-ese gobbledegook. This is not the Christian faith. The Bible will not let us have these ideas merely as ideas, as things. They are personal. Thus: “He himself is our peace” (Micah 5:5; Eph. 2:14) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Let’s not mess with ethereal virtues, no matter how Christianly gauzed. Leave ethereal virtues to vague saviors. Let’s not toy with bloodless ghosts, which time and time again only slip through our grasping fingers like smoke through pitchfork tines. All biblical virtues find their solidity in our real and risen Lord, Jesus the Christ. The Word is real and em(glorified)bodied!

Sinclair Ferguson brings it home:

[R]emember that there isn’t a thing, a substance, or a “quasi-substance” called “grace.” All there is is the person of the Lord Jesus — “Christ clothed in the gospel,” as Calvin loved to put it. Grace is the grace of Jesus. If I can highlight the thought here: there is no “thing” that Jesus takes from Himself and then, as it were, hands over to me. There is only Jesus Himself.

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One thought on “Against Bloodless Ghosts”

  1. JR says:

    Jared, this seems to be one of those areas where I tend to think some contemporary Calvinists/Reformed thinkers are missing something (perhaps over correction to the RC?).

    For instance, what of Common Grace? Surely, we can speak of grace in those terms even with unbelievers. And what of Providence? Isn’t it possible to discuss the will of God in a general way, such that even unbelievers can acknowledge His providential care and activity in their lives?

    Aren’t common grace, the Providence of God and such things as God’s Will sufficient evidences and experiences to work with an unbeliever and help them move FROM a generic, distant concept of a creator TO what we as Christians know and possess as intimate and personal knowledge of our Heavenly Father in Jesus Christ?

    I agree with Updike, that general concepts such as “spirit,” “grace,” “peace,” and “hope,” should never be confused with actual Christian faith. But I also think perhaps you and Ferguson go too far by saying that there is no such thing as “grace” as a thing, idea, or concept without Jesus Christ. Of course, as a Christian I do believe that all grace is only made possible through the redemptive provision of Christ. But what I’m getting at here is that it seems likely that unbelievers will have an experience or a knowledge of grace and the will of God without (or before they have) personal/direct relationship with Christ.

    That’s my $.02 – for what it may be worth… Any thoughts?

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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