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Why Crazy Love Is Almost Wesleyan (but not quite) #FrancisChan

Updated: May 7



It's been more than ten years since I first read Francis Chan's Crazy Love, and there was much then that I appreciated about it. I've been reading it again and still find much to commend, even though I now see some theological inconsistency. Let's start with the good stuff.


Crazy Love as Christian Perfection

The overall thesis of the book is that God loves us with an infinitely deep, abiding, consistent, and undeserved love. Our appropriate response to that love is full surrender to God such that we love God with our whole being (nothing held back!) and, consequently, embody a deep, abiding, selfless love to those around us. This, for Chan, is "crazy love" - it's a love that is unconditionally sacrificial and unexplainable apart from the power of God at work within us. It's other-oriented, self-giving, unconditional, unmerited love for God and neighbor. Chan frequently uses language like "fully surrendered" and "wholehearted commitment" to describe this "crazy love" for God and others. Anyone familiar with the Wesleyan tradition and it's emphasis on entire sanctification or Christian perfection will find that Chan's account of "crazy love" resonates deeply with these features of Wesleyan theology. Consider these quotes from Chan (NB: all quotes are from the 2008 edition of Crazy Love):

Are you willing to say to God that He can have whatever He wants? Do you believe that wholehearted commitment to Him is more important than any other thing or person in your life? Do you know that nothing you do in this life will ever matter, unless it is about loving God and loving the people He has made?” (97, italics original).
“When we love, we’re free! We don’t have to worry about a burdensome load of commands, because when we are loving, we can’t sin” (102, italics added).
“In the same way, you have to stop loving and pursuing Christ in order to sin. When you are pursuing love, running toward Christ, you do not have opportunity to wonder, Am I doing this right? or Did I serve enough this week? When you are running toward Christ, you are freed up to serve, love, and give thanks without guilt, worry, or fear. As long as you are running, you are safe” (104, italics original).

Now consider these words from John Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection:

“The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love” (19).
“Scripture perfection is, pure love filling the heart, and governing all the words and actions…Pure love reigning alone in the heart and life, – this is the whole of Scriptural perfection” (19).

For Wesley, Christian perfection did not mean sinless perfection. It meant perfection in love, which is language taken straight from the New Testament (see, for example 1 John 2:5). Wesley was convinced on the basis of scripture that God's grace at work in us was so powerful and so thorough that it could enable us to consistently live to honor God and embody God's love to others. Chan's Crazy Love sounds very much like John Wesley's Plain Account.


Now About that Inconsistency

One of the most shocking (in a bad way) statements in Crazy Love comes when Chan raises the question, "So why does God still love us, despite us?" (60). Chan has just been describing how deeply our sin offends God and how much we deserve condemnation. The question is on point and justified, but Chan's answer left me in disbelief. Here's what he said in response to the question of why God loves unlovable sinners: "I do not have an answer to this question" (60). What? How can a book that is all about the magnitude of God's love for us remain agnostic about the reason for God's love for us? To answer that question, we have to take a look at the way God is portrayed in Crazy Love.


At the beginning of Crazy Love, Chan sets forth a pop-level account of the doctrine of God, and anyone familiar with the way various Protestant traditions handle the doctrine of God will recognize that Chan has been deeply influenced by the Reformed tradition. He leans heavily into the language of God as sovereign and God as judge. And, of course, sovereign and judge are both examples of language that scripture uses to describe the roles God takes up in relation to creation. This creates two problems. The first problem is that those aren't the only language categories that scripture gives us for God. The second problem is that they are anthropocentric (human-centered) ways of describing God. The Bible offers us a much more robust and well-rounded account of the roles of God (see further Portraits of God by Allan Coppedge).


Let's start with the second problem. Words like "sovereign" and "judge" describe God's relationship to the world he has made and human beings in the world he has made. God is sovereign over creation and over us. He is our judge. These terms describe God with reference to humanity; thus, they are human-centered descriptions of God. How might we describe God with reference to himself rather than us? What is a God-centered description of God? The good news is that the Bible offers us the language for that sort of account, and it is language revealed to us by Jesus. With the Incarnation, it is revealed to us that God is not only sovereign and judge, he is eternal Father to the Son. Before anything was made, before there were people to rule or sin to judge, one person of the Trinity called another person of Trinity "Father." Even more, before anything was made, the Father loved the Son and the Spirit; the Son loved the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit loved the Father and the Son. If you want a God-centered account of God in contrast to a human-centered account of God, you get that in the language of the Trinity, and that further reveals that the eternal being of God is marked by other-oriented love. Chan can't answer the question as to why God loves us because he has a fundamentally human-centered definition of God. A God-centered account of God gives us a God whose inter-trinitarian life is perfect love. And God can love us, despite us, because the very being of God is eternal perfect love (see further, Let's Start with Jesus by Dennis Kinlaw). This helps us with the first problem: scripture offers the language of "Father," "Son," and "Spirit" alongside that of "sovereign" and "judge." Our doctrine of God needs to account for the full range of biblical language to describe God.


And therein lies the inconsistency. Chan understands that the Bible offers a vision of the Christian life marked by perfect love because God loves us with a perfect love. But he can't answer the question as to why God loves us with a perfect love because his doctrine of God is insufficiently trinitarian. A consistent doctrine of sanctification as perfect love is grounded in the reality that the persons of the Godhead love one another with an eternal perfect love. Our experience of God's love and the extent to which we embody God's perfect love is grounded in the work of the Holy Spirit to incorporate us into the Son and make us participants in the Trinity's own eternal perfect love. Crazy love is trinitarian love.

Let me be clear. I deeply appreciate what Chan is trying to do with Crazy Love. His vision of the Christian life is commendable in many ways, and that vision would be even more powerful grounded in a robust doctrine of the God who is also triune. This is where the Wesleyan tradition can help.

 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly (Ph.D., Gloucestershire) is Lead Pastor of Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. A two-time recipient of the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement, he is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online and follow @mporeilly.




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