Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe, and is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. To find out more about him or view more of his works, visit his website or the Center for Open and Relational Theology.
It was subsequently published in chapter 12 of Missional Discipleship: Partners in God’s Redemptive Mission, eds., Jay Akkerman and Mark Maddix (Beacon Hill Press, 2012).
Oord argues that God’s mission is to serve all and save all.
“Today, salvation has come to this household. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
Jesus says these words to the rich man, Zacchaeus. But we find the message repeatedly in the Bible that God seeks and saves. The missional adventure these words inspire prompts me to wonder:
What would it mean to believe Jesus’ loving pursuit of the lost – which seems to include you, me, everyone, and everything – tells us something essential about who God is?
This question may seem boring. But upon closer examination, I think we’ll find it’s revolutionary! In fact, the missional theology emerging from believing God lovingly pursues creation radically alters the status quo.
The God who seeks and saves is a God on a mission!
Overcoming the Status Quo
“Of course, God wants to save us all,” someone might say. “Who would argue otherwise?”
Unfortunately, a host of theological voices in the past and present argue this way. The theology supporting these voices is sometimes hidden or unconscious. But sometimes the not-really-wanting-to-save-all God is explicitly preached.
Let’s start with the easy pickings.
Those who believe God’s sovereignty and election means God predestines some to hell say God doesn’t want to save everyone. At least they would say God’s effective will doesn’t offer salvation to all. They argue for predestination, despite St. Peter’s claim that God is not willing that any should perish but all should come to repentance (2 Pt. 3:9).
Their peculiar interpretation of this verse, in my opinion, undermines their own doctrine of divine sovereignty. I wonder, why isn’t a sovereign God supposedly capable of anything also able to save all?
Those in the Wesleyan tradition walk in step with theologians who reject this view of predestination. Wesleyans, instead, affirm genuine creaturely freedom. In philosophical terms, Wesleyans affirm “libertarian” freedom. 
John Wesley stressed the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “work out your own salvation, with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12). Wesley believes passages such as this one argue that God’s loving action (“prevenient grace”) precedes and makes possible free creaturely responses. He advocates a theology of freedom, not predestination. This freedom has limits, of course. But it is genuine freedom nonetheless.
The God who wants to save all, however, may not actually save all out of respect for creaturely freedom. Wesleyans can affirm a missional theology that says God’s intent is universal salvation. Yet they can also say universal salvation may not occur. After all, free creatures may choose to reject God’s loving invitation. And God respects such decisions, despite their devastating consequences.
God “Wants” to Save Us?
In criticizing predestination, I picked the easy fruit. I said predestinarians cannot account well for the biblical notion God wants to save us all. But let’s stretch to pick some fruit less often noticed.
Many theologies – at least in their sophisticated forms – affirm an idea at odds with the missional notion God wants to seek and save. They say God lacks nothing whatsoever. God is “without passions,” to use ancient theological language.
Only a needy God, say these theologians, has desires. A perfectly complete God wouldn’t want anything. When the Bible says God seeks us, it isn’t saying God’s love desires or wants.
The Greeks called desiring love “eros.” Today, we unfortunately think of eros in sexual terms. But the original meaning of eros isn’t about sex. Eros love might best be defined as promoting what is good when desiring what is valuable, beautiful, or worthwhile. Eros sees value and seeks to appreciate or enhance it.
In addition to denying divine eros, some theologians believe the doctrine of original sin supports their view God doesn’t really have desires related to creation. Their view of original sin denies that anything good remains in creation. Sin – more particularly, the Fall of Adam and Eve – left creation totally depraved, they say.
A holy God would find nothing valuable in a totally depraved world, say these theologians. In fact, God would not associate with such sinful filth. We hear this argument today, in fact, when some say a holy God cannot be in the presence of sin. A holy God, so this argument goes, cannot relate to unholy people, because sin would taint God’s pure holiness.
To which I say, “Hogwash!” (or utter some other holy expletive)
Jesus Christ best expresses God’s desiring love – even, or especially love for filthy people. Jesus was known for hanging around unholy folk. He earned a reputation for befriending with those of ill repute and ungodly character. He wanted – desired – those sick and broken be healed and whole.
In short, the desire for salvation we see in Jesus reflects the desire we find in God. And vice versa: the desires of God are expressed in the desires Jesus expresses in his missional life. In other words, the incarnation is our best argument that God’s desires are so intense and God’s love so radical “that he gave his only begotten son” (Jn. 3:16a).
A robust missional theology, therefore, returns us to the biblical portrait of a God who desires. While God’s nature is perfect and complete, God’s relational experience and passionate heart include wanting something better: the restoration of God’s leadership of love. God’s salvation derives, at least in part, from eros.
Continuing my Christological focus, let’s look at another important issue for missional theology: what the ancients called “divine passability.”
Passability might best be described with contemporary terms like “influence,” “affect,” or “sway.” We certainly see Jesus being influenced, affected, and swayed by others. Jesus was passable.
The shortest verse in Scripture describes Jesus’ passability well: “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35). Matthew also reports Jesus had compassion on people, because they were “weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). In these instances and others, we find Jesus affected by others.
With skewed views of God’s perfection, some theologians have said God is uninfluenced by others. God is impassable, they argue. God only influences creatures; creatures never influence God. Many classic theologies implicitly adopted Aristotle’s view that God is unmoved.
This vision of an unmoved/uninfluenced/unaffected God doesn’t jibe well with the Bible. The God of Scripture expresses love that both gives and receives. God loves as friend (philia), for instance. When believers respond well to God’s love, we find God rejoicing. When they respond poorly, God is saddened, angry, and even wrathful. According to Scripture, creatures really affect God.
Today, many rightly speak of God’s passability by saying our Savior is the “suffering God.” This suffering was most poignant on the cross. In Christ, God suffers pain and death for the benefit of all. In fact, many theologians agree with Jürgen Moltmann and call the one who seeks and saves, “the crucified God.”
A suffering God – one genuinely affected by creation – is the relational God at the heart of missional theology. The influence creation has upon God does not alter God’s loving nature, of course. We best interpret biblical verses saying there is “no shadow of change” (James 1:17) in God as describing God’s unchanging nature.
But creatures do influence the particular ways God relates to creation. Just as a perfectly loving father always loves his children, that same loving father allows his children to influence him, so he knows how best to love them in specific instances. A living God gives and receives in relationship.
To put it in missional terms, the God who seeks and saves does so to best address the specific ways we need saving! Some of us need saving from alcohol abuse; others need saving from dishonesty; others saving from unhealthy pride. God saves from all sin; but the specific ways God saves are tailor-made for creatures.
Kenosis and Mission
So… God wants to save us all. This is God’s loving desire, the divine eros. And the God of robust missional theology is affected by others. God is relational: both giving to and receiving from creatures. This is neither the God of predestination nor the status quo.
Now it’s time to reach for perhaps the most elusive fruit of all. It’s time to talk about the power of a missional God. We can’t ignore the power issue if we want a robust missional theology. Appealing to utter mystery isn’t helpful.
A number of contemporary theologians consider the Philippian love hymn especially helpful for thinking about God’s sovereignty. To refresh our memory, here’s the key part of that profound praise chorus:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (2:5-7).
Theologians often focus on the Greek word, kenosis, which is translated here, “made himself nothing.” Other translators render kenosis “emptied himself” or “gave of himself.” These translations suggest that Jesus does not overpower or totally control others. Instead, Jesus reveals God’s servant-style power.
Kenosis suggests divine self-limitation. The Bible says Jesus reveals God’s very nature in this kenosis, because Jesus expresses limited power, like a servant.
Perhaps it’s best to say God empowers rather than overpowers. After all, empowering describes servant-style influence better than overpowering or total control. And empowering fits the notion that creatures possess some measure of freedom to respond well or poorly to God. Presumably, God grants power/agency to creatures to make freedom and agency possible. God is our provider.
There are two main ways to talk about God’s self-limitation revealed in Jesus. The first and more common is to say self-limitation is voluntary on God’s part. This view says God could totally control and overpower others. But God voluntarily chooses not to be all determining – at least most of the time. The voluntary self-limitation model says God could totally control others, however, should God so decide.
The main problem with the voluntary divine self-limitation model is the problem of evil. The God who could overpower those who inflict genuine evil should in the name of love. To put it another way, the God who voluntarily self-limits should become un-self-limited to rescue those who suffer needlessly. At least in some cases, God should become un-self-limited to seek and save the lost. Voluntary divine self-limitation cannot provide a satisfactory answer to why God doesn’t prevent unnecessary pain, suffering, and death.
The other way to talk about God’s limited power Jesus reveals says God’s self-limitation is involuntary. It is self-limitation, in the sense that no outside force or factor imposes constraints on God. But it is involuntary, in the sense that God’s power of love derives from God’s own nature.
Because God is love, God never overpowers others. In love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to others and never completely controls them. God’s loving nature compels God to empower and never overpower others. We might call this “essential kenosis.”
John Wesley endorses involuntarily self-limitation in one of his sermons: “Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones,” Wesley argues. “Therefore (with reverence be it spoken) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself or undo what he has done” (emphases added). God must be God, says Wesley, and God’s nature of love involves giving freedom/agency to others.
Although often unnoticed, the Bible offers examples of things God cannot do. (E.g., God cannot lie; God cannot tempt.) In my view, however, these examples fall under the general category expressed in Paul’s words: “God cannot deny himself” (1 Tim. 2:13). God’s power as involuntary self-limitation says God controlling others entirely – coercion – would require God to deny God’s loving nature. And that’s impossible… even for God.
Of course, affirming involuntary divine self-limitation requires new thinking about doctrines of creation, miracles, and eschatology. But these doctrines can still be affirmed: God is still Creator, miracle-worker, and hope for final redemption. They may need recasting, however, in light of God’s persistently persuasive love. Such recasting is not new to Wesleyans, because they typically try to propose Christian doctrines in light of divine love.
The main point of this section, then, is that the power God exercises in the missional adventure to seek and to save the lost is persuasive power. Missional theologians may prefer one form of divine self-limitation over the other. But they together affirm that God’s power operates through love. God’s kenotic love, revealed in Jesus, is primarily if not exclusively the power of persuasion. God calls instead of controls.
Those called to missions – which includes us all – ought to follow the kenotic example of Jesus: we should express empowering, relational love.
Free, Free, Set Them Free
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” said Jesus. Standing in his hometown temple, he continues reading a passage from Isaiah: “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18-19).
Among the many ways biblical authors talk about God seeking and saving, the themes of healing and freedom from oppression appear often. Healing and deliverance are part of the well-being/abundant life/favor the Lord generously offers. And we desperately need the well-being – shalom – of God’s salvation.
In a world of brokenness, wholeness breaks in. This wholeness is evident in the local church I attend, in which a robust Celebrate Recovery ministry has emerged. Those in this group believe God empowers them to overcome hurts, habits, and hang-ups. God is their deliverer. Through this and other avenues in the church, many find God’s healing and deliverance.
The Apostle Paul says liberation comes from the Spirit and becomes effective through Jesus. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death,” he says (Rm. 8:2). In this liberation, we see God again empowering us in ways that provide salvation from destruction.
A look at the overall scope of Scripture leads one to believe humans are the focus of God’s seeking and saving. But the Bible also says God cares about nonhumans.  In fact, Scripture says God intends to redeem all things. “The whole creation” hopes to be “set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rm. 8:21-22).
We play a vital role in this mission. We can be co-laborers with God’s work for the redemption of all things. God acts first to call, empower, and guide us in love – prevenient grace. But God seeks our cooperation. This becomes clear in the Revised Standard Version’s translation of Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (emphases added).
We can work for good with God. The healing and deliverance God has in mind involves our participation.
Love is on the Move
A God on a mission is a God on the move. And love is the primary and persistent intent of our God-on-the-move. A robust missional theology is a theology of love.
To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. God’s initial and empowering action makes response possible. We live in community with others to whom we also respond. We are not isolated individuals, and God desires the common good.
God’s love establishes the God’s kingdom – or what I call God’s loving leadership. Here again, it is through Jesus we believe such things. Jesus preached God’s loving leadership as both possible and actual here in this life. And he proclaimed its fulfillment in the life to come.
As a young child, I learned a chorus I now sing to my kids. It derives from 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is from God, and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. The one that doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love.” John says our best clue about what love entails is this: God sent Jesus.
The God who seeks and saves is revealed best in Jesus Christ. This God of love desires that all creation live shalom. God works powerfully through love to fulfill this desire, and we are invited to join in this love project. The result is the healing, restoration, and liberation of all held captive to sin and death. This holy God revealed best in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is on a mission of love.
John takes these truths about God, love, and Jesus a bit further and concludes with this logic: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (4:11). Thankfully God makes love possible, says John: “We love, because he first loved us” (4:19). The empowering God enables us to love.
A missional theology supporting the endeavor to seek and save the lost is not based primarily on an evangelistic canvassing strategy. Nor is it based primarily upon duty and obedience to God. It’s not even based primarily upon worship. Strategies, obedience, and worship are all important. But missional theology is based primarily on love.
We ought to be “imitators of God, as dearly love children, and life a life of love, just as Christ loved us...” (Eph. 5:1, 2a). This missional ethic emphasizes generosity, listening and speaking, both influencing and being influenced by, enabling, mutuality, and community. It’s a strategy that cares for the least of these and all creation.
In short: God loves us, and we ought to love one another. We ought to imitate God’s full-orbed love – agape, eros, and philia as we cooperate with God’s mission to seek and save the lost.
The God on a mission invites us on an adventure of love.
For a short and accessible introduction to the gospel of love, see the evangelistic book I co-wrote with Robert Luhn, The Best News You Will Ever Hear (Boise, ID: Russell Media, 2011). ↑
The distinction about forms of freedom is necessary, because some predestinarians say they affirm creaturely freedom but also the idea God alone decides the chosen few who will be saved. They are, to use the philosophical language, “compatibilists,” at least when it comes to issues of salvation. ↑
For an accessible theology of holiness from a relational perspective, see the book I wrote with Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 2005). ↑
Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1993; New York: HarperCollins, 1991; London: SCM, 1974). ↑
John Wesley, “On Divine Providence,” Sermon 67, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 2 (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1985) paragraph 15. ↑
See, for instance, my book, The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010). ↑
For an exploration of a Wesleyan doctrine of creation, see Michael Lodahl, God of Nature and of Grace: Reading the World in a Wesleyan Way (Nashville, Tenn.: Kingswood, 2003). ↑
I explain the details of this definition from philosophical, scientific, and theological perspectives in my book, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010). ↑