The Gospel According to Tobler


Editor’s Note:  This article first appeared in the January 2006 “Moderator’s Corner” column of the ARP Magazine.  Earlier today old age and cancer finally caught up with Tobler.  We will miss him.

Awhile back I read a newspaper article on Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ dog. Apparently the gubernatorial canine had been taken to obedience school repeatedly and had failed the course every time, thus earning the description “incorrigible canine.” Nevertheless, despite the dog’s behavior it was abundantly clear in the article that the governor and his family dearly loved their pet.

I can relate to this story, and I suspect that many of you can as well.   A well-known member of the Evans household here in Due West is a six-year-old chocolate-brown Boykin Spaniel named Tobler. To be sure, Tobler has his good points. He loves to run outside and catch the Frisbee, often spectacularly launching himself high into the air to retrieve the spinning disk. When we return home he welcomes his “favorite humans” at the door with obvious affection as he wiggles violently from stem to stern.

On the other hand, Tobler has never quite learned to be obedient. Stubborn to a fault, he remains invincibly ignorant of the meaning of the command come. He will come eventually, of course, but only on his own terms. The biggest problem, however, is that Tobler is an inveterate thief. He loves to steal stuffed animals, socks, and other small articles of clothing. Sometimes he will try to swallow the item he has stolen. Once a stolen sock caused a life-threatening intestinal blockage that required surgery. His penchant for swallowing textiles has made him infamous with the staff of our local veterinarian. “Ah yes,” they say with a smile, “we remember Tobler.”

There is a lesson in all of this. We love Tobler as much in spite of his faults as because of his doggish virtues. There is a real element of grace at work here, which in a partial and imperfect way illustrates the grace that God shows to us. When we think about it, sinful human beings don’t come off nearly as well as our canine friends. For all his faults, Tobler is affectionate and loyal, and dogs often demonstrate such qualities even when mistreated by their owners. By contrast, sinful human beings are in consistent rebellion against God. Apart from God’s grace we do not seek His company, even though God has poured out the rich blessings of His creation upon us. The miracle of God’s grace is that not only does he love us in spite of our sin and rebellion, but also that he loves us when we are thoroughly unlovable and entirely lacking in virtues that might commend us to Him.

This radical grace of God lies at the heart of the gospel message and of the Christian faith, properly understood. Paul tells us that Christ “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), and St. Paul insists that sinners are declared righteous before God, not on the basis of their behavior, but only through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). Throughout Christian history, however, many have been tempted to compromise this truth. The greatest contribution of the Protestant Reformation was the recovery by men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin of the foundational truth that we are saved by grace through faith, and not through our own good behavior. A bit later, men such as the Erskine brothers worked valiantly to recover this same insight in the context of a Scottish Kirk that was losing sight of God’s grace. It seems that each generation of Christians must deal with this issue. Today, for example, battles are being waged within Reformed churches over the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” which argues that Luther and Calvin seriously misunderstood Paul on this issue of justification by grace through faith.

From our pets we can get an inkling of how God loves us in spite of our faults. From Scripture we learn a much more amazing truth—that God loved us when we were thoroughly unlovable. This Christmas Season let us never forget that Christ came to save sinners, and that we become children of God by grace alone.