Our Faith by Emil Brunner
Emil Brunner is one of the great systematic theologians of the early twentieth century. Our Faith was translated by John W. Rilling, and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1954. This book prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 3: The Mystery Of God
Any one who speaks of God as though He were a cousin, about whom, naturally, one knows everything, really knows nothing at all of God. The first and most important fact that we can know about God is ever this: we know nothing of Him, except what He Himself has revealed to us. God's revelation of Himself always occurs in such a way as to manifest more deeply His inaccessibility to our thought and imagination. All that we can know is the world. God is not the world. Therefore He is also exalted above all our knowledge. He is Mystery. Not simply a riddle, for riddles can eventually be solved, -- some sooner, some later. That God is mystery means that we cannot solve the enigma. "Can'st thou by searching find out God?" To man's proud "not yet" the Bible replies "not ever." Such majesty is like a profound abyss, whoever looks into it becomes dizzy. "From everlasting to everlasting" -- who can understand that? He who was in the beginning when there was as yet nothing, and through whose will all things that are have arisen -- who can ever conceive of such a thing? To think of the mystery of God makes us feel vain and petty, we remember that we are dust.
There is, however, another thought that abases us even more; that God is the Holy One. Probably every one remembers from childhood what impression it made upon him when he was told, "God's eye sees you continually. He even sees into your heart, and there is nothing in you that God does not know." For we knew quite well even then that this seeing is also judging. God is not simply a spectator, God is the Lord. That means God wants something. He wants what he wants without condition. There are men of great will power about whom one perceives that they know what they want. Mysterious influence, something of almost crushing power radiates from such men. But what is human will power! No man wants anything absolutely, thereunto even the strongest will is much too weak. Even an iron will can be bent, deflected, paralyzed. For every man there are conditions under which he simply will not go on, but God's will is absolute. He wants to be absolutely Lord of all. If He did not want that. He would not bt- God. But that He does will, that He wants unconditional obedience to Himself, this thought really humbles us utterly. "The holy God" destroys us even more than "the almighty God." When the Prophet Isaiah heard the song of the cherubim, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord," he answered, "Woe is me for I am undone." The holiness of God is like a powerful electric current, who- ever touches it dies.
What if we refuse to do what God wants, what He absolutely desires? When we will not obey Him, what? Imagine an automobile driven by a madman. He will not permit a wall to block his way. "I won't stand for that," he says, and opens the throttle wide and rushes against the wall. That is a simile for the man who is disobedient to God. He must simply dash himself to pieces against God's holiness. God's holiness is absolute. The disobedience of man shatters upon God, God resists the proud -- is more trustworthy even than the natural law of gravity. It is just this unconditional trustworthiness of God which is the salvation of the world. For without it everything would fall into disorder. God's righteousness stands like the mountains. He who withstands God must shatter himself upon God. This is the meaning of God's wrath. Because God's will is absolute obedience He therefore hates disobedience absolutely. He who persists in disobedience falls under the fearful wrath of God. That is the holy God.
But the mystery of God is even greater. The will of this holy God -- what He absolutely desires, is love. His feeling toward us is infinite love. He wants to give Himself to us, to draw and bind us to Him. Fellowship is the one thing He wants absolutely. God created the world in order to share Himself, He created us for fellowship, and that He might have fellowship with us. For that reason, too, He did not permit the world and the humanity which did not want Him to follow its own devices, but hastened after it as a mother follows her faithless child into all the byways of the city until she finds it. Though every one showers discouraging advice "be ashamed for running after the ugly thing, he never really deserved it," the mother can say only, "I am still his mother." So, too, is God. It is this which He has shown Himself to be in Jesus Christ. It is not too much for Him to descend into the lowest depths of human filth, to be bespattered and befouled as He pursues His child that it may not be lost. "For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost." That is the God of mercy.
We must keep this endless and merciful pursuit in focus with what we said of the majesty and the holiness of God in order to understand the greatness of His love. There is nothing remarkable in a beggar lending a hand to a beggar. But whoever heard of a king dismounting from his horse to take a beggar's hand? That the heavenly King, whose majesty is inconceivable, comes down to seek His unfaithful child in all his squalor, is the love of God as the gospel and only the gospel knows. And we, the beggars, should know what sort of King it is who has come down to us. We should be terrified by the Holiness of God and our sin, that God may then make our heart obedient through His love. God desires one thing absolutely: that we should know the greatness and seriousness of his will-to-love, and permit ourselves to be led by it. Our heart is like a fortress which God wants to capture. He wants to capture it with His love. If, overcome by His love we open the gate, it is well with our souls. If, however, we obstinately close our hearts to His love. His absolute will -- then woe to us! If we refuse to surrender to the love of God, we must feel the absoluteness of His will as wrath.