Sunday, December 21, 2008

If God Kills You

Recently our Gospel Transformation study was reading in the book of I Samuel where we came across an incident that raised some serious concerns about God and His goodness.  In I Samuel 15 God commands Saul, King of Israel, to utterly destroy the Amalekites because of their treatment of the people of Israel on their way into the promised land.  The Lord says to Saul, “Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (I Samuel 15:3). 

Several years ago my daughter, Hannah, and I also struggled with this command.  Can you guess what upset Hannah in this verse?  Our conversation that followed went something like this:  She said to me, “But I thought that Jesus loved little children.  Why would God command that children and babies be killed?”

How do you answer?  You can only say, “Go and ask your mother” so many times.  “You should ask the pastor” wasn’t going to work for me either.  So I thought for a moment, and I prayed that Jesus might give me words to help Hannah to understand.  Then I said, “Just because God kills you, does not mean that He doesn’t love you.”**  Hannah looked more than a little confused by this statement, so I asked, “Who has God loved with an infinite love from all eternity?”  She knew the answer to this question; “Jesus,” she said.

“That’s right,” I replied, “God has always loved and delighted in His one and only Son with a love that can never be measured.  But let me ask you this, what did God do to His one and only Son whom He loves with an infinite love?”

She wrinkled her brow and pondered for a moment and then it came to her, “God killed His Son.”

She was right.  God killed His Son.  Isaiah 53:10 says, “Yet it was the will of God to crush him;  he has put him to grief.”  On the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter proclaimed that “Jesus [was] delivered up [to be killed] according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).  The Father who loves the Son willed to crush Him, to deliver Him over for crucifixion.  Just because God kills you, does not mean that He doesn’t love you.  Jesus above all others shows us this.

It is a hope-giving truth for 7 year-olds and 37 year-olds and 87 year-olds.  One day we know that we will die, that God will take our lives.  It may be by cancer or car accident;  it may be a heart attack or a bomb in Iraq.  Unless Jesus returns first, we will all die.  But the fact that God will kill us one day does not mean that He doesn’t love us.

No, what it means is that there is something that is infinitely worse than death and something that is infinitely better than earthly life.  We often think of death as the worst thing that could happen to someone, but we know it is not.  Hell is the worst thing.  To spend eternity away from the presence of the Lord and all that is good, is horror beyond imagining.  To spend eternity in the presence of God, seeing Jesus face to face, knowing Him as we have been known, is joy unspeakable.  Life in God’s presence will make this life (and our death) seem almost as nothing, compared to what is in store for those who know and love Jesus.

Let us join with the apostle Paul and say, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Let us add our voices to Job’s and proclaim, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15).  Let us remember that God loves us, and therefore “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15).  Amen.  Just because God kills you does not mean that He doesn’t love you.


**But did God love these infants and children of the Amalekites?  As I stated, just because God kills you does not mean that He doesn’t love you; but the fact that God kills you does not mean that He does love you.  Did God love these pagan children?  For some the answer would be that all children who die before the age of accountability (whatever that age may be) are elect children and will go to heaven.  Thus God did love these children.  Rather than have them grow up as pagans and be lost eternally, He brought them to Himself.  This may be.  

One might also consider that even if these children were not saved, it may have been more loving of God to take their lives at an early age than to allow them to grow up.  Why?  Because as they grew older, walking in rebellion to God, their sin and guilt before God would have been compounded, and thus their degree of eternal punishment would have been much worse (see Luke 12:47-48;  20:47;  Matthew 11:22). 



Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Best Book Makes Itself Unnecessary

Came across this quote from A. W. Tozer about books:

"It takes a determined effort of the mind to break free from the error of making books an end in themselves. The worst thing a book can do for a Christian is to leave him with the impression that he has received from it anything really good; the best it can do is to point the way to the Good he is seeking. The function of a good book is to stand like a signpost directing the reader toward the Truth and the Life. That book serves best which early makes itself unnecessary, just as a signpost serves best after it is forgotten, after the traveler has arrived safely at his desired haven. The work of a good book is to incite the reader to moral action, to turn his eves toward God and urge him forward. Beyond that it cannot go."

A good prayer when we take up a new book--"Lord, in these pages may I see more of You, and may You increase my desire to follow You more closely with greater confidence in who You are."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Thoughts

A couple of things on my mind and heart as we contemplate Barack Obama's victory.

1) Our calling is clear as Christians and citizens. We are to pray for President Obama. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Notice Paul even says we should pray, intercede and give thanks for President Obama.

2) Please. Please. Please. Be very careful about any rhetoric that says Barack Obama's election is God's judgement on our country. I would even say repudiate it. Think about our black brothers and sisters who are rejoicing this day in seeing an African-American raised to the highest position of leadership in our country. And they should rejoice. In 40 or so years we have moved from entrenched, Jim Crow discrimination to an African-American President. Do we call this judgement when so many of our black brothers and sisters call it a blessing? Such talk will come across as racist and hateful.

In addition reading or interpreting providence apart from God's special revelation is just plain dangerous. Most of us know that prosperity is not necessarily a sign of God's blessing. We also know that affliction is not necessarily a sign of God's displeasure (see the Book of Job). So what does the election of Barack Obama mean? How do we interpret it? Is this God's blessing of America or his judgement? My answer: I have no idea and neither does anyone else.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Why Did God Allow the Fall of Man?

In our Gospel Tranformation study two weeks ago this difficult question arose: why did a good and sovereign God allow the Fall of man? I will answer this with an explanation from Jonathan Edwards. But then I would like to explore a follow up question that was asked: can this be explained to unbelievers?

First, why did a good and sovereign God allow the Fall of Man? Edwards writes,
It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God's glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. . . .

Thus it is necessary, that God's awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God's glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.

If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God's holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God's grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired (from Concerning the Divine Decrees).

Edwards' stunning answer is that by allowing the Fall more of the glory God will be seen and known than if God had not allowed the Fall to take place. We will see more clearly God's hatred for sin, His justice and holiness. But we will also know in a greater way His mercy, His patience, His compassion which will shine that much brighter as we see how much God hates sin.
I know it is a lot to take in. However, it is well worth pondering and praying over. 

What of the second question? Is this something that can be explained to unbelievers? Here is what I would say: if they ask we should be ready to respond as best as we are able. The problem with giving this answer to those who do not yet know God is that it sounds as if God is absolutely full of Himself. In the skeptic's ear it sounds as if God allowed all the suffering in history that sin has brought about so that He will look good. We get sin and suffering. He looks more glorious. It sounds atrocious! We suffer so that God looks good.

But it is not, if we can understand that seeing more of God's glory is what brings mankind true and lasting happiness. Edwards completes the above passage by saying:
So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature's happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.
If Edwards is correct that man's highest happiness consists in the knowledge of God then we must bow before God's throne in wonder. God allowed the Fall that His glory might be seen and the joy of His people be made full.

Again, can a skeptic understand this? I think so. But a work of God's Spirit is needed to make this truth beautiful and compelling to the one who hears it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How to Understand the Secrets of the Kingdom

Was reading this week in Mark 4. Here Jesus has been teaching the crowds in parables. And then we are told in verse 10: “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” Jesus says that His disciples have what they need to understand the parables but others do not. But then notice the next verse. Jesus says to them, “Do you not understand this parable?” (they did not!). And then to vv. 33-34. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

Here is what I wondered: Jesus says that His disciples have the key to really understanding the parables. Yet, in the next verse the disciples don't understand the parable, and Jesus must explain it. I thought, "If the disciples have the key to unlock the parables then why must Jesus explain it to them?" Then I wondered if the question didn't carry the answer. They had Jesus. Jesus was the key. Jesus is the one who is able to open His Word to us that we might understand it and see the wonders of God in it and begin to change or own dull and dreary hearts.

We need the same thing if we are to really understand God's Word and God's kingdom. We need Jesus or perhaps more accurately for us--we need the Spirit of Christ. Jesus, himself, said, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things" (John 14:26).

Even as I write this, though, I see a pitfall. It is easy to misuse this doctrine and to say, "Studying and thinking are not important. We just need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us understanding." In 2 Timothy 2:7 Paul commands Timothy, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." Notice: Who will give understanding? Understanding is a gift of God--God gives it-- just like we said above. What is the means that God uses to give us understanding? Thinking over what we read! Study and hard thinking have a place as we seek more understanding. We study, and we think, and we ask Jesus to give us understanding!

I'll end with a quote from John Piper, "So by all means pray and ask God to give you the light you need. But don't replace thinking with praying. Think and pray. Pray and think. This is the way God has set it up. A historical Christ. A book of preservation and revelation. All of that says: read and study and ransack and think. But all is in vain without prayer. Both-and, not either-or."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Faith is Weakness

A controversial title--I know. But I did steal it from C.H. Spurgeon, so I think I'm on pretty safe ground. I put it out there because so many times I think of faith as something that is strong and a man or woman of faith as someone who is so mighty and sufficient and able. This is not so. True men and women of faith are those who are weak and sinful and know they are weak and sinful, and in their weakness they cling to Jesus. Here is Spurgeons full definition of faith: "faith is weakness clinging to strength, and becoming strong through so doing."

I see this same description of faith in Ephesians 2:8, "It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves--it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one may boast." What do we learn about faith? Faith is turning from ourselves and our own speculations and looking to God alone for salvation and strength. Faith is not strong nor an exhibition of strength, it is clinging to the strength of another. Faith is not a work we must do or accomplish. It is looking to the work another has done. Faith leaves no room for boasting. It is a gift. Faith means turning from anything I can boast in and boasting in Christ alone.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Fool Takes no Pleasure in Understanding But Only in Expressing His Opinion

That fool might just be me.  Let me explain.  Yesterday in Sunday School we were talking about how God uses our weakness much more than our "strength" to advance His kingdom.  Fresh on my mind was a quote from J.R. Miller who says, "God is the God of those who fail. Not that He loves those who stumble and fall, better than those who walk erect without stumbling; but He helps them more. The weak believers get more of His grace--than those who are strong believers. There is a special divine promise, which says, ‘My divine power is made perfect in weakness.’ When we are conscious of our own insufficiency, then we are ready to receive of the divine sufficiency. Thus our very weakness is an element of strength. Our weakness is an empty cup--which God fills with His own strength.” 

I believe this to be wonderfully true.  There are many Scriptures that teach us the same thing:  "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6);  "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:6);   "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Here, though, is where I--the proverbial fool--got carried away with expressing my opinion.  I said something to this affect, "God never commands us in His Word to become strong, but in our weakness to continually look to the Strong One."  I even challenged folks to find any place where God commands us to be strong.  No one answered (perhaps out of kindness)--but guess what?  Even a cursory search of the Scriptures will turn up this very command.  "Be strong and courageous, " God commands Joshua and the people of Israel, no less than four times in the first chapter of Joshua.  There are other such instances in the OT and even in the New:  "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong" (1 Corinthians 16:13).

Obviously God does command us to be strong.  I think my idea was correct, but the way I expressed it was . . . lacking.   Here may be a better way:  "God never wants us to grow strong by looking to ourselves and our own resources.  God wants us to grow strong as we look to His strength.  We will always in ourselves be weak.  We are only strong as we rest in the strength of Jesus."  Is this not what Paul is saying in Ephesians 6:10, "Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power."  The Psalmist sings the same tune, "The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped" (Psalm 28:7).  Our weakness is an empty cup which God fills with His strength, but God does not fill the cup so that it never needs to be filled again.  As soon as it is filled it is poured out for God's work, so the need and weakness continue, and the cup is filled and filled again.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Place of Anger in the Life of a Christian

I've been thinking about anger this week--specifically about its good purpose. It even seems strange to speak of a good and gracious purpose for being angry. Yet I think there is no other way to describe Jesus's emotion when he drove the money changers from the temple. Most dictionaries define anger as "an intense feeling of displeasure." This appears to me an apt description of what Jesus was feeling when he cleared the court of the Gentiles.

The question for me has been what is the good purpose of anger that we see in Jesus? It appears to me that the answer is somewhere along these lines: the good purpose of anger in the Christian life is to awaken those we love to a dangerous attitude or action in their lives. The danger may be to their spiritual or physical well-being. If I see my daughter wandering out into a busy street, it is not appropriate to call out, "Honey, come on back now, OK?" It is right to scream, "GET OUT OF THE ROAD!" Is this anger? I think it is. It certainly is an intense feeling of displeasure manifested in what I say and how I say it. But notice this anger carries no ill-will with it--just the opposite. It expresses a a desire for my child's safety and good. I hope that my anger will awaken her to her danger.

You might think about like Tabasco sauce. On the right food, in the right amount, at the right time it enhances your meal. But if you put Tabasco on everything, all the time, to excess, it ends up ruining everything. No one can stomach all that fire constantly. So should our anger be as Christians. There is right place and time and proportion for our anger, but it should not permeate everything or it will ruin much.

Yet I also keep in mind James 1:20, "The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." My anger may awaken someone to their danger, but it is ineffective in drawing people to righteousness in Jesus. It is similar to preaching about Hell. Jonathan Edwards once said, "Some talk of it as an unreasonable thing to fright persons to heaven, but I think it is a reasonable thing to endeavour to fright persons away from hell. They stand upon its brink, and are just ready to fall into it, and are senseless of their danger. Is it not a reasonable thing to fright a person out of a house on fire?"

Our anger just like preaching about Hell may awaken someone to their danger, but this is not saving faith. That is why the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God. Righteous anger has its place. It may awaken someone to the danger they are in or the great harm that their conduct or attitude is causing, but your anger will never really change someone’s life and heart. It is something to think about. How many people do you know testify that it was the righteous anger of their parents or of their husband or wife that finally lead them to Jesus? I don’t know of any. But I know a great many people who will say that it was the enduring love and mercy of my parent or husband or wife that finally broke through in my life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Edwards on Being Self Controlled

Came across this passage in George Marsden's Biography of Jonathan Edwards:

Edwards had glimpsed something of the future of American religion as well. Self-controlled individuals, as he had observed in his parishes for the past fifteen years, would acknowledge guilt for particular sins, but not guilt for their fundamentally rebellious hearts. Guided by conscience, they saw particular sins as failures of will power, which might be overcome by exercising greater self-control . . . Even the most popular evangelicalism of the next two centuries tended to emphasize guilt for and victory over known sins. Although the submission of one's will to God and a subsequent infilling or baptism of the Holy Spirit typically would be urged as necessary to achieve moral purity, God's power was most often seen as cooperating with or working through the native powers of the sovereign individual will (pg. 439).

There is much here, but it is a good description, I think, of the failure of modern religion. How many of us have struggled to overcome some sin--that we truly grieve over--by greater self-control. Edwards reminds us that our very "self" is corrupt, so that our seeking to rein in our sin by our own determination and power is still rebellion; it is failing to look to and rest in our gracious and sovereign God who alone can change our hearts. It also speaks of the isolation so many of us feel in our churches. "Sin is a private matter to be dealt with privately." We need each other. We need the body of Christ.