“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

I am going to write a statement that is extremely elementary.

Man struggles with the problem of sinning.

Yet in Chapter Four of John Stott’s book, the title is “The Problem of Forgiveness,” which explores man’s sinning from God’s perspective. 

Can we say God struggles with the problem of man’s sinning?

As humans we try to deny that there is a “God problem” with sin.  We act like sin is a word that has lost its meaning in our world today.  So if we are not worried about sin, why should God be concerned?  We blame anyone or anything for our sinning. Sinning is not our fault so why should we worry about what God thinks?   Eventually we may grow to accept responsibility for our sinning and when we do, we do the opposite of ignoring it or denying responsibility for it, we wallow in our guilt, going straight to absolute conviction [Stott writes that we become “sin-sick”].  Sounds like man is bi-polar.

By this point I begin to think that Stott has written all around the idea of “The Problem of Forgiveness;” he has indulged in what he calls “torturous theologizing” and his chapter has turned more toward man and less toward God.

Remember, Chapter Four was intended to discuss the problem that God has in forgiving man, not the problem man has in accepting responsibility for sin.  From God’s point of view, He is perfection.  For God, forgiveness can seem impossible because He is righteous and when He chooses to forgive human sin, He chooses to accept unrighteous human behavior. Why would a righteous God do that?

As we wrap our discussion of Chapter Four, let’s return to addressing this problem from a Divine perspective [if any human being can begin to understand a Divine perspective].

I recall a sermon I read many years ago as part of an American literature course in college, a sermon so powerful that it was included in our anthology of early American literary works: it was entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and it was written by Jonathan Edwards.  In this sermon Edwards delivers a “fire and brimstone” message, that man is wicked, sinful, and deserving of judgment and that judgement will indeed come if man does not repent.  God’s wrath is like black clouds hanging over the heads of Edward’s congregation. The clouds are full of storms, “big with thunder,” and ready to burst forth upon his congregation at any moment.  The year was 1741.

I ask myself how would a congregation handle this type of message today?

The answer is not well!

Here is how I justify my comment “not well.”  It is all focused on one word—wrath.

As believers, Christians today have a hard time accepting the fact that we worship a God who can feel wrath toward us.  Wrath can be a synonym for anger and for us, it can be described as “arbitrary, and uninhibited…a spasmodic outburst, aroused by pique and seeking revenge” [Stott, 107].  I would add words like irrational, uncontrolled, and furious. 

Here is where we have a problem with wrath: it comes from our efforts at anthropomorphism.  As human beings we have this tendency to attribute human characteristics to God when we should not.  God is God.  God is not human.  Genesis 1:27 says “So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”  I interpret this to mean that we may have some qualities which allow God to work through us.  It does not mean that God has our human qualities e.g. human wrath.

We should not take Genesis 1: 27 and “create” a human God.

Stott points to the folly of this activity using what he calls “vivid metaphors.” 

The first metaphor is “height.” We can look at our expressions toward God like “the Most High God.”  He has sovereignty over all nations, the whole earth and all gods.  He has a throne of grace, which makes Him “high and exalted”.  Earth is His footstool.  All these expressions are not literal, but are designed to give God a sense of what Stott calls “transcendence.”  He is above the concerns of this earth.  “When thinking of the great and living God, it is better to look up than down, and outside than inside ourselves” [Stott, 108].

The second metaphor is “distance”.  God is away from us.  We dare not approach too closely.  Moses was told to keep his distance from the burning bush.  Israel’s worship arrangements with God separated Him from worshippers with the inner part of the Tent of Meeting off limits to all but the High Priest.   No one was allowed in the inner sanctuary on pain of death (except that priest).  Israelites were told to keep a thousand yards away from the ark in Joshua 3:4.  Stott writes that it is clear that “sinners cannot approach an all-holy God with impunity” [109].  They must keep their distance.

The third and fourth metaphors are “light and fire”.  God is light and God is a consuming fire.  Bright light can be blinding.  Our eyes cannot endure its brilliance.  The heat of fire can destroy anything.  In First John, Hebrews, Deuteronomy and other places in the Bible, God is referred to as a God of Judgement who uses fire to consume His enemies.

The most dramatic metaphor is “vomiting”.  That truly is a violent image.  The Canaanites had disgusting practices, so God had the land of Canaan “vomit out its inhabitants” and He warned the Israelites that if they did those practices, they would suffer the same fate.   In the New Testament, Jesus threatens to “spit” the lukewarm Laodicean church people out of his mouth, but the Greek word literally means to vomit.  The picture may be disgusting but the idea that God cannot tolerate sin is clear.  He has to rid Himself of people who cannot follow His laws.

I can understand man’s efforts to bring God down to a human level, to make Him more accessible, more approachable, but the fact of the matter is this.  He is not on our level.  This cannot be seen more clearly than when we consider God’s wrath.  When we commit sin, we should “tremble before God” and admit that we deserve hell.  Indeed we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” 

Today we have grown accustomed to the kind of God who is what Stott calls “easygoing…tolerant of our offenses, gentle, kind, accommodating.”  Our God has no violent reactions to our sinning.  Maybe the church has lost the vision of how majestic God is.  “In public worship our habit is to slouch and squat; we do not kneel nowadays, let alone prostrate ourselves in humility before god.  It is more characteristic of us to clap our hands in joy than to blush with shame or tears.  We saunter up to God to claim His patronage and friendship; it does not occur to us that He might send us away” [Stott, 110].

What we need to have as we conclude our discussion of Chapter Four is something akin to a balance regarding God.    There is such a thing as “gravity of sin” in man and “majesty” for our Lord and Savior.  Just because God forgives our sins does not imply that His majesty is diminished.  Our failings do not reflect poorly on Him.  We cannot bring God down to our level or raise ourselves to His level.  This is a mistake we make when we attribute human characteristics to an Almighty God.  “So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” should not be misinterpreted to allow us to feel we can sin and feel ok about it. 

We can’t.

Anthropomorphism is something that we should not do to God.  Just because we don’t get too angry about the sins of man does not mean that the sins of man don’t provoke the wrath of God.

Stott ends Chapter Four with words from Bishop B.F. Westcott: “Nothing superficially seems simpler than forgiveness,” whereas “nothing is more mysterious and more difficult.”  God demands respect from us as humans, but God also respects Himself.  

When we continue discussing The Cross of Christ in Chapter Five, we will consider what God requires of us for us to be forgiven. 

Some kind of satisfaction is necessary, “Satisfaction for Sin” is the chapter’s title.

More “tortuous theologizing?

We shall see.

* Addendum:  My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to John Stott’s book Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.  In my next post we return to commenting on Basic Christianity  Chapter Three “The Character of Christ.”

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Does the Church Make Us Feel “Sin Sick”?

It was 1971 and I was enrolled at college.  I was an impressionable, inquisitive young guy from a rural upbringing, seeking an education and enjoying exploring ideas that were new to me.  My college had a movie theater where they screened films that were a bit out of the “mainstream.”  My girlfriend and I would often go see some of those films; I recall one that made a distinct impression on me because of its portrayal of lawlessness: A Clockwork Orange.  In this post, I won’t synopsize the film to any great degree, but one can view it and see that it was a controversial depiction of a group of ruthless, young, British men who wreaked havoc on their world.  In the context of 1971, many complained about the film’s violence, language and sexuality.  By today’s jaded standards, many may judge it less harshly.  Like many at that time, I remember reacting to the film with dismay but I looked beyond the obvious shock factors of violence, language and sexuality.  I was disturbed by the main character Alex because he and his cronies committed crimes with impunity, absolutely enjoying their attacks on defenseless people.  No one seemed to have any conception of remorse.  Eventually Alex is forced to change his behavior, but it is not by his own choice. 

Today I recall the experience of viewing A Clockwork Orange in the context of John Stott’s discussion of “True and False Guilt”, a section of Chapter 4 in his book The Cross of Christ.  Stott’s whole chapter considers how man handles sin.  He has already written that man makes the effort to ignore sin [we just refuse to think about it, much less take responsibility for it].  He has already discussed that man tries to blame sin on factors outside of his control [eg. genes, social environment, parents etc].  Now Stott is ready to discuss what Alex and his cronies don’t feel: they don’t feel they are sinning and they don’t feel guilt for what they have done.  “If human beings have sinned (which they have), and they are responsible for their sins (which they are), then they are guilty before God” [Stott, 98].

As I approach this discussion, it seems to me that Stott is trying to make a case that Christians are bi-polar.  We either deny the existence of sin or rationalize it away or we go the opposite direction: we become obsessed with sin and guilt.

“Christians have often been criticized (not least evangelical Christians) for continuously harping on sin, for becoming obsessed with it in our own lives, particularly in our evangelism, for trying to induce in others a sense of their guilt” [Stott, 99].  I know this may be hard for some to swallow, but is the role of the church to induce guilt?  Does the church exist to convince us we are “sick,” and after conviction, we need the church to get over the sickness of our sinning?  This makes Christianity the medicine for the “sin-sick.”

For many, this approach is anathema: how could anyone look at the cross of Christ and see anything other than forgiveness of sin?  How could anyone look at Christ’s sacrifice and think of our shame?  We caused Him to go to Golgotha?  Aren’t we supposed to focus on the glory of what He did for us?

Stott writes there is such a thing as a “morbid, overscrupulous conscience.”  In these cases it may be unhealthy to insist on the gravity of sin.  Some are already holding themselves too responsible for their actions, maybe even feeling bad about evil they have not done.

They are suffering from an extreme responsibility toward sin and they are living miserable lives.

Let’s try to find a middle ground.

All of mankind suffers from what I call the “bent toward” sinning.  We can’t help it.  God has given us all the freedom to choose our behaviors. In some cases, it all boils down to this:  we either sin or don’t sin and we get weak from time to time and are tempted to sin.  We just do it.

We all know that Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden.  He gave them freedom to choose their acts with one limitation.  They must not touch the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  We could analyze what triggered their weakness all day: was it curiosity, was it the quest for power, was it pride, was it simple disobedience?  The fact of the matter is that they could not follow God’s rules.  They ate the forbidden fruit.  In Chapter Four, Stott writes that Adam and Even could have denied that the sin existed [that snake just told us what to do and we were simply following his direction-that is not sin].  Maybe God has made us with fatal flaws; it is not our fault that we have defects due to poor manufacture. 

No, it was their fault and we have been able to choose sin over righteous behavior since their grievous error. 

What must we do when we commit our own grievous errors? 

Wallow in guilt?

That is unhealthy.  Wallowing does not lead to God’s forgiveness.   Wallowing does not allow us to enter the joy of His salvation.  Wallowing does not allow us to grow into more complete human beings, healthy human beings.  “A full acknowledgement of human responsibility and therefore guilt, far from diminishing the dignity of human beings, actually enhances it.   It presupposes that men and women, unlike the animals, are morally responsible beings who know what they are, could be and should be, and do not make excuses for their poor performance” [Stott, 102].

The church does not exist to make us “sin-sick.”  The church exists to provide a means to escape the sickness we feel from guilt.  The law that condemns us becomes God’s good gift because it sends us to Jesus Christ to be justified.  Jesus says in Mark 2: 17 that He comes to this world to help “tax collectors and sinners”: it is not the “healthy who need a doctor but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.  With this in mind, do we begin to see the church taking on the role of helping people with their sickness, alerting them to their maladies so they can turn to the Great Physician? 

As part of his discussion Stott references C.S. Lewis who agonizes over “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.”  In his discussion Lewis “bemoans” the modern tendency to concentrate on criminal reform and deterrence instead of grappling with the link between punishment and justice.  “When we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case.’” 

Spoiler Alert for A Clockwork Orange

That is exactly what happens at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film.  At the end, Alex is caught and is forced to undergo some form of aversion therapy.  The government made him into a person who hated violence so much that he could not be violent even if there was a need [e.g. to defend himself from evil assailants].  He was “cured” against his will, what Stott calls put on “a level with those who have not reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles and domestic animals.”

No we don’t need to wallow in guilt.  We don’t need to take on responsibility for acts that we do not commit.  We don’t need to think of the Christian church as an institution that makes us feel “sin sick.” 

We need to take our punishment, however severe.  We need to take it because we deserve it.  We need to take it because we “should have known better.”

Stott says we need to be treated “as a human person made in God’s image.”

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Excuses for Our Sins…

Chapter Four of John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ is entitled “The Problem of Forgiveness” and the emphasis should be placed on the word problem.  He begins his chapter setting up his main discussion points and states in his introduction that it “should be” difficult for God to forgive man’s sins.  We have a perfect God and His perfect Son who were the instigators of the process of forgiveness and they decided to make ultimate sacrifices.  God is righteous and for forgiveness to occur, He chose to excuse “unrighteous” human behavior.  God also chose to give His Son to man so His Son would be killed, atoning for mankind’s sins.  The Old Testament atonement of men sacrificing unblemished animals and “first fruits” to God was not good enough.  God determined that there must be a Divine Human sacrifice.  Of course Jesus was the One who had to undergo a painful torture and death, a conviction and sentencing He did not deserve.  He had done no wrong.

Talk about problems.  None of us can understand this from a Godly point-of-view but I guess if I were God, I would have problems with it.  I am not sure man deserves all this.    

Stott’s first point is why should God sacrifice so much for humans who don’t think that sin is big deal?  They don’t understand “The Gravity of Sin.”  In man’s mind, sin is no longer relevant.  We don’t acknowledge it or talk about it and we don’t need anyone to save us from it.  God’s laws seem old-fashioned.  In our own self-centered world view, we can now be autonomous beings, independent of God. 

Let’s add a second problem to the mix: the problem of “Human Moral Responsibility.”  We exclaim is it fair to blame human beings for their misconduct?  If the problem of sin cannot be dealt with by ignoring  it, Stott says let’s say that God’s judgement is just not fair.

I have bad genes which predispose me to sinning.  I have a hormonal imbalance that causes me to feel negative thoughts which lead me to perform negative actions.  I have inherited a temperament from my father or mother [or both] which causes me to do bad acts.  My parents failed to teach me right from wrong.  My education did not prepare me for righteous living.  I come from a neighborhood that is full of criminal activity; I had to learn to sin to survive on the streets.  The list goes on and on.

Reasons that God’s judgement is not fair…

Look closely at all of my examples.  Are they reasons or are they excuses for sinning?  Stott writes “We accept the concept of diminished responsibility, but not the total dissolution of all responsibility” [94].  The reason we won’t go all the way into “I can’t help myself mode” is that we just can’t accept the idea that we are automatons. We like our ability to make free choices except when it leads us to sin.  Stott admits “we are conditioned by our genes and upbringing, but the human spirit (not to mention the Christian mind) protests against the reductionism that declares a human being to be nothing but a computer” [95].  Within what we call “reasonable limits,” we like being free agents making choices and when we make bad choices, we may even feel sorry because we know we could have behaved differently.  We may even engage in justification behavior, trying to persuade others to excuse our bad behavior. We want them to understand our point of view.  Maybe our argument is “diminished responsibility.”

Can we turn to the Bible to support this view?  Of course we can.  One can point to the Book of Genesis and the doctrine of original sin.  The very nature that we have all inherited from Adam means that we have a “tainted” nature that leads us to sinning.  Jesus says in Mark 7: 21-23 that “from within, out of men’s hearts” evil thoughts and actions come.  Jesus describes a sinner as a slave to sin (John 8: 34).  Even after Jesus dies to liberate us from sin, we are not rid of the idea of original sin.  Paul in Romans 7: 25 states: “So then I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

Does this sound like we have something that can diminish our responsibility for our actions? 

Maybe…

Stott feels that original sin does have power over us, but it does not destroy our responsibility to make righteous choices.  God is patient with us because He knows how we are formed.  He is slow to anger and does not treat us as the sinners we are, but He does not absolve us completely.  Scripture treats us as responsible human beings.  In the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, man must choose between life and death, good and evil, living God and idols.  Scripture “exhorts” us to be obedient and declares our punishment when we are disobedient.  We don’t get a “diminished responsibility” pass.

Jesus was well aware of man’s ability for choosing sin over righteousness.  In Matthew 23: 37 He declares to the people of Jerusalem “I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  He was really saying that people were strong-willed and unable to make the right choice.  He says in John 5: 40 “you refuse to come to Me.”  Inability to commit to Christ is not based on some environmental factor or some genetic force; people are “choosing” not to come to Him even though they have human flaws.

Emil Brunner from his book Man in Revolt emphasizes our responsibility as an indispensable aspect of being human.  Man must be seen as a “thinking and willing being,” responsible to God.  The choice to believe is “not…a task but a gift …not law but grace.”  The choice to be responsible is a sign of belief, a sign of love.  Brunner states that responsibility is not just an attribute of human existence, but is the “substance” of human existence.  It “contains everything… [it is] that which distinguishes man from all other creatures.”  Brunner goes even further on the importance of human responsibility: “if responsibility be eliminated, the whole meaning of human existence disappears.”

That is a strong statement.  That indeed is a problem!

Ok, we have not been very successful in dodging responsibility for our actions.  Genetic influences cannot be blamed or inherited temperament.  Poor upbringing won’t absolve us of our sins; neither will poor educational preparation.  Pointing to the social environment won’t even help, so where are we? 

We fall back on Adam and the idea of original sin in The Garden, but even that won’t work.  Stott writes [has the] “fall seriously weakened humankind’s responsibility?  Are we responsible for our actions any longer?  Yes, we are.  Man never sins purely out of weakness, but always also in the fact that he lets himself go in weakness.”  Stott is very clear when he writes “even in the dullest sinner there is a spark of decision.”  He goes so far as to declare acts against God “defiant rebellion” [Stott, 98].  It seems that all of our weak-kneed defenses for dodging responsibility do not work.

I know it shows my age, but I am reminded of a popular sitcom from the 70’s entitled “Sanford and Son.”  In the show, Fred Sanford [comedian Red Foxx] experienced times when he made mistakes and had to own up to his errors.  Of course, the bigger the mistake, the more it was hard to accept blame.  When all else failed, he faked a heart attack and declared he was going to see his deceased wife:  “I’m coming to see you Elizabeth.  This is the big one!”   That was his way of deflecting responsibility for his actions.

Stott says of course we would all like to “shuffle off our responsibility” for our own wickedness but we can’t do that.  Man is responsible for his own sin.  It does not work to ignore the need for forgiveness by acting like sin is not a “big deal” anymore.  In this discussion, avoiding responsibility for sin is not a better strategy.

Stott uses Emil Brunner to close this section of his discussion of the problem of forgiveness and it is easy to see why. 

Brunner’s statement is so strong.

Brunner writes “No fate, no metaphysical constitution, no weakness of nature, but himself, man in the centre of his personality is made responsible* for his sin.”

*bolding, italics and underlining mine…

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The Gravity of Sin

“I have done wrong!”

“This is my fault!”

“I have sinned!”

These are statements that  someone says when they are trying to take responsibility for their bad acts. 

I don’t like to make general comments but…[here comes one]…today many people just don’t seem to be able to take responsibility for anything that reflects negatively on them.  In the context of  The Cross of Christ,  John Stott is concerned about Jesus dying on the cross to atone for man’s sins. With today’s attitude toward sinning, what is the purpose for Jesus’ sacrifice?  In a world where few people seem to be willing to admit that they sin, why is it a big deal that Jesus died for us sinners?

We can find multiple examples today of people who just don’t want to say they ever do anything wrong.  Others are unwilling to own up to their actions, preferring to blame others, the “circumstances” or even the influence of popular culture.   The media is full of examples of people who are accused of committing crimes and they hire the best defense attorneys they can and totally deny any wrongdoing. 

Stott makes a good point…

Why be concerned about Jesus dying on the cross to atone for man’s sins when man does not think he is committing sin?

That is a bold question, but let’s add a strong statement to the question [this one from Stott]: “The word sin has in recent years been dropped from most people’s vocabulary.  It belongs to traditional religious phraseology which, at least in the increasingly secularized West is now declared by many to be meaningless” [Stott, 90]. 

Where has sin gone?  Stott refers to Karl Menninger’s book Whatever Became of Sin? to come up with three possibilities.  Menninger says that “many former sins have become crimes” so the responsibility for dealing with them has gone from church to state, from priest to policeman.  Others have “dissipated into sickness” so punishment has been watered down to treatment.  Finally responsibility for sin has been transferred to society or what Menninger calls “collective responsibility.”  In my mind that is the “everybody’s doing it” defense.  If everyone is doing it, it must be ok.

This is a far cry from Stott’s early discussion in Chapter Four of The Cross of Christ.  There he took the attitude that sin is extremely serious.

Again, where has sin gone?

Nowhere… It is alive and well and a part of our world today.

For some insight, let’s look at the origin of God’s laws.  Maybe we think that God’s moral law was established for God alone.  It was not.  It was also established for man.  God made us in His image so the requirements of His law were created with us in mind.  Stott explains that there is a “vital correspondence” between God’s law and man, so when we commit sins we are not only sinning against God, we are sinning against our “highest welfare.”

What is the root of man’s rebellion?

The short answer is our own self-centeredness. 

Man should be centered on God but instead of humbly acknowledging the debt we have to our Creator, we would love to say that we are independent.  “We have rejected the position of dependence that our createdness inevitably involves and made a bid for independence” [Stott, 92].  Worse than that, Stott says that man claims autonomy, which is a position that is reserved for God alone.    It says in Romans 8: 7 that “Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards; its essence is hostility to God.”  This self-centeredness is what Stott calls active rebellion against God.  “It has been described in terms of getting rid of the Lord God in order to put ourselves in His place in a haughty spirit of Godalmightiness” [92].

Stott quotes from the Swiss Theologian Emil Brunner: “Sin is defiance, arrogance, the desire to be equal with God,….the assertion of human independence over against God” [from Brunner’s book entitled Man in Revolt].

Sin has gone nowhere.  It is here.  Maybe what we have forgotten is the serious nature of sin or maybe we just don’t want to acknowledge the serious nature of sin.  Stott refers to King David and his many Psalms of regret; he often cries out to God in the pain and agony of his guilt.  No greater example occurs than his pain over his sinful lust for Bathsheba.  He not only committed adultery with her but arranged for her husband Uriah to be in a dangerous position on the battlefield.  With Uriah out of the way, he has a chance to have Bathsheba all to himself, but he also had the guilt of great sin on his heart.  Psalms 51: 4 states “Against you, you only I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”  Sin is there with David and he acknowledges it.  He boldly declares “I have done wrong! This is my fault! I have sinned!”  He knows it was God’s laws that he has broken and he has offended his Lord. 

That same guilt that David was feeling is here today…alive and well.

Maybe what we really don’t want to admit is that sin is serious, what Stott calls “the gravity of sin” [92].  That reluctance has led to its omission from the vocabulary of today’s world.  Stott paraphrases Menninger [quoted above] when he pleads that the word “sin” needs to be reinstated into our vocabulary.  Sin is real and we need to admit it.  Sin cannot be dismissed as merely a cultural taboo or social blunder.  It must be taken seriously.  Menninger has criticism for preachers who “soft-pedal” sin:  “The clergyman cannot minimize sin and maintain his proper role in our culture” [from Whatever Became of Sin?].

Menninger uses harsh words for sin like it has an aggressive quality, a ruthlessness, it alienates and it is an act of rebellion.  God is defied, offended and hurt.  He writes “to ignore this would be dishonest.”

Man needs to understand the gravity of the sinful act. 

Man needs to admit responsibility for sinful actions.

If we cannot confess our sins, we will never be able to do anything about them. 

Stott ends his discussion of the gravity of sin with the following words from Menninger: “the reinstatement of sin would lead inevitably to the revival or reassertion of personal responsibility.” 

“Against you, you only I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

Strength comes from honesty.  Forgiveness comes from honesty.  What we need to realize is that before honesty and strength and forgiveness one must also have humility.

Maybe that is the problem; humility today is in short supply.

* Addendum:  My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.  Now we return to commenting on The Cross.

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It Had To Be That Way…

Chapter Three of John Stott’s The Cross of Christ* promises a “look below the surface,” in fact that is what he entitles his chapter.  As we leave Basic Christianity and return to The Cross, we recall the previous in-depth discussions of the highly symbolic acts in the upper room [“Remember Him” posted on St. John Studies on February 10, 2021], the Garden of Gethsemane [“What Will Our Acceptance of God’s Will do for Us?” posted on February 17, 2021], and when Jesus cried out on the cross [“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” posted on February 24, 2021].  Stott begins Chapter Four of The Cross of Christ with an apology.  He apologizes for complicating everything with “torturous theologizing;” he apologizes for Chapter Three.

This past Sunday April 4th 2021 was the celebration of Easter, the culmination of the forty day Christian season of Lent.  Of course most Easter services were marked by joy, beautiful music and jubilation.  Christ rose from the dead!  Christ conquered death!  Jesus died on the cross forgiving man’s sin!   Whoa… 

Jesus dying on the cross was the method God utilized for His forgiveness of our sins?  Jesus had to go through all that pain and misery for us?   Could God have taken another route?

Some may wonder why God brought about man’s forgiveness this way?  God has the power to forgive us without all that suffering doesn’t He?  The agony of Christ on the cross seems so incongruent with the joy of the season.  Why didn’t God allow man to forgive other men for sins without all that pain?  Stott writes “Why can’t God practice what He preaches and be equally generous?  Nobody’s death is necessary before we forgive each other.  Why then does God make so much fuss about forgiving us and even declaring it impossible without His Son’s sacrifice for sin?” [Stott, 89].  God expects us to be generous with other people regarding their sin; He expects us to forgive others. Why is our own forgiveness impossible without the sacrifice of His Son?

This is a good point that Stott wants to explore in Chapter  Four, “The Problem of Forgiveness.”  “This insistence that the death of His Son is essential for forgiveness “sounds like a primitive superstition that modern people have long discarded” [89].

But let’s stop and consider God’s attitude toward all this.  Let’s be humble and admit that it is highly unlikely that we will understand “God’s attitude” but Stott is willing to try [is he about to do more “torturous theologizing”?]. 

First of all, we must consider the seriousness of sin.  When a Christian simply states man should forgive other men their sins and leave it at that,  is that enough?  Jesus did teach us to pray “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  But what does that mean?  It is a simple act?  Is it an adequate act?  Is this prayer admonition on par with what God intended when He had His Son go to the cross for our sins?   Is God’s act similar to man forgiving other men their sins or is God doing much more?

Stott thinks God’s forgiveness is much, much more.  Jesus is saying to man that it should not be impossible for us to forgive others; He clearly states: as we have been forgiven, it is essential for us to forgive others.  “He was not drawing a parallel between God and us in relation to the basis of forgiveness” [90].  To do so is to take a very shallow view of sin.  What Stott is essentially saying is that God looks at sin on a much higher plane than we do.  “We are private individuals, and other people’s misdemeanors [against us] are personal injuries.  God is not a private individual however, and sin against God is much more than just a personal injury.   God is the Maker of the laws we break, and sin is rebellion against Him” [Stott, 90].   

Man is fallible but we know that God is perfection.  Every man knows that human forgiveness can be hard in certain circumstances but God’s forgiveness seems almost impossible for us to accept.  This raises a problem because it is a common idea among Christians that God is love, but too often we think of this “God is love” statement in terms of human love and not Divine love.  Maybe God’s love should be referred to as “Holy Love.”  Yes God cares for all of us including those who sin, but God is being asked to forgive sinners and at the same time preserve His holiness. His task is much more complex than human forgiveness.

Stott feels that this is the basic idea that makes the cross necessary.  God is accomplishing at least two purposes when He forgives.  God is choosing to save man and is maintaining His righteousness at the same time.  I don’t know how many times I have heard Christians say that “Christ paid the penalty for our sin.  He took our judgement in order to bring us the forgiveness we did not deserve.”  Are those sentences being said without a thorough analysis of their import?  Do Christians say them because they “sound Christian?”  Have they become meaningless catchphrases? 

Stott thinks they may be…

He intends to carefully consider the careful balancing act that God has to perform.  He knows that sin is a serious rebellion from God’s laws and at the same time a majestic God has chosen to forgive that serious rebellion.  To do so he will examine the gravity of sin, human moral responsibility, true and false guilt and the wrath of God.  In the rest of Chapter Four, Stott says “We will see ourselves successively as sinful, responsible, guilty and lost.”  This will not be an easy discussion.  It will not be a pleasant discussion.  It will test our integrity.

At the end of the chapter, we may again feel we are victims of torturous theologizing but maybe we will have more appreciation of what we just experienced this past Easter Sunday.  Maybe we will have some small inkling of what Easter means from God’s perspective. 

Maybe, just maybe, we will really benefit from trying to understand that perspective…

Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

It had to be that way…

* Addendum:  My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.  Now we return to commenting on The Cross.

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Coming to Believe…

How do we come to believe what we believe?

I spent my teaching career instructing people about how to communicate better.  My favorite class to teach was a course entitled interpersonal communication, which is the study of how humans talk to each other on a one-to-one basis.  That course had a serious consideration about how we build our beliefs about the world, how we come to see the world as we see it.   Our belief system is what we are often trying to communicate to other people because it is a fact that no two people have exactly the same system, no two people see the world the same way.

But how do beliefs come about?  There are many complex answers to that question but one I tried to illustrate in my class was inductive reasoning.  My course was not a philosophy course or a logic course so I tried to come up with examples that were practical and easy to understand.  For inductive reasoning I used the example of coming to the conclusion that you are late to work through the process of induction.  Here is a sampling of how it went: you go to bed at night and in the middle of the night the electricity goes off and your electric alarm clock stops functioning [fact 1].  As you awaken in the morning you notice the alarm is off and that the sun is up higher than it should be for your normal awakening time [fact 2].  As you feel some sense of urgency, you begin to rush to get ready for work and you head to the car [stay with me here in order for this make this example to work].  You have been so rushed that you have ignored your phone and you left it in the house when you left.  Your car clock has been off since you had that battery malfunction last week.  You head down the road wondering if you are late.  On the corner you pass a little market and they have an illuminated clock on the outside; you glance and see that it shows you are very late [fact 3].  You keep driving until you get to a stop light where the video billboard on the right shows the time and it confirms the illuminated clock [fact 4].  You continue driving to work and see the parking lot full of cars; your car is one of the last ones to get there which is not normal [fact 5].  You conclude that you are indeed late for work.

This is a building of facts that occurs until you are ready to make what is called an “inductive lead” or what some people commonly call a conclusion [a belief, not an earthshaking, long-lasting belief, but at least a more comprehensive conclusion]. 

Let’s take this simple belief-building basis and apply it to the dramatized claims of Jesus.  In his book Basic Christianity John Stott tries in chapter two to make the case that Jesus is who He has said He is.    His contention is that if a person feels a need to become a Christian they must accept that Jesus is the Son of God. .  Stott has already argued in chapter two that Jesus claims to be who He is using “self-centered” statements, imputing powers for Himself and connections to God that no other man has tried to claim.  Jesus instructed His Disciples that He was God’s Son using parables [Stott calls these “direct claims”].  Then he writes that Jesus proves His identity by “indirect claims” or statements that He could forgive sins, He was the “bread of life” and He came to judge the world. 

Let’s apply inductive reasoning to Stott’s last argument for Jesus’ divinity in chapter two.  Let’s examine what Stott calls Jesus’ “dramatized claims,” the miracles He performed while He was living on earth. 

In my totally fictionalized example above, it took five facts for a worker to realize he was going to be late for work.  How many miracles will it take for you to consider that Jesus is indeed God?

A miracle is “an event that involves the direct and powerful action of God, transcending the ordinary laws of nature and defying common expectations of behavior.”*  Jesus performed many miracles to help others, to glorify God and finally, to prove who He said He was—the Son of God.  When He calmed the storm in Matthew 8, the Disciples were amazed and exclaimed “What kind of man is this?  Even the winds and waves obey Him?”

The Gospels list a multitude of miracles dedicated to healing others, feeding people, nature miracles [e.g. calming storms], miracles with fishing etc.  In the book of John, this Disciple admits that Jesus did more miracles than are recorded: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His Disciples, which are not recorded in this book…Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” [John 20:30 and 21:25].

Stott writes that Jesus’ miracles occurred more for their spiritual significance than their supernatural character.  He calls them “acted parables”, “His claims visually” or “works that dramatize His words.”  By far, Jesus’ miracles revolved around healing but even those miracles rarely centered on the simple alleviation of physical suffering.  The miracle of healing for example points to a larger truth, that Jesus is the Son of God who had authority over suffering, disease and death. 

The miracles themselves were “I AM” declarations, essentially saying to the world I am who I say I am.  Even Jesus’s first declaration of divinity came with the miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding reception.  At first glance this may seem inconsequential, a sincere effort to help the wedding host avoid embarrassment, but as we look deeper, it may be interpreted as more than that.  Stott says the stone water pots at the wedding location were full of water that was supposed to be used for Jewish purification rites.  Stott writes “This is the clue we are seeking.”  The water stood for the old religion, water and purification being essential to Old Testament teaching.  The wine that Jesus furnished stood for the religion of Jesus Christ, who came to the earth to supersede the Old Laws.  Even in this initial miracle Jesus was signaling that He has come to establish a new order. 

Another miracle that Stott mentions is the feeding of the five thousand.  On one level Jesus is alleviating hunger in a large crowd of people with a scant supply of food.  On the other hand, He is claiming to satisfy the hunger of the human heart.  The morning after feeding all the people, they were looking for Him and He was not impressed with why they sought Him. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for Me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” [John 6: 26].  Were they looking for another free meal?  I think Jesus suspected as much.  They did not see the intent of the miracle.  Jesus meant for people to see His miracles as dramatic signs that His teachings were true; they were proof that He was indeed who He said He was.  He wanted the people to see beyond the loaves and fishes.  He wanted them to see that He was the Bread of Life, something greater than mere sustenance.

He opened the eyes of the blind man to give him sight but also to illustrate that He was the “light of the world” and all men should open their eyes to see and know God.  He brought Lazarus back from the dead to claim “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Lazarus’ body symbolized more than just a body; his body symbolized the life of the soul. 

How many miracles does one have to read about to accept that Jesus is who He said He was?   It took five facts above for the worker to realize that he was late.  Some eyewitnesses may have only required one, a cleansed leper, a deaf and mute man healed, a demon cast out, or a cut off ear repaired.  Jesus performed His many miracles for as Stott writes “men [who] are spiritually hungry, blind and dead, and [to show that] only Christ can satisfy their hunger, restore their sight and raise them to a new life.” 

It is important to note that Jesus never performed a miracle to show off.  He never performed a miracle too compel submission.   The purpose of miracles was not for His own selfish gain. 

As we bring chapter 2 of Basic Christianity to a close, we are back to where we began.   A basic concern for anyone who wants to be a Christian is dealing with Jesus as real or Jesus as imposter.  Did Jesus attempt to gain authority over men when He did not deserve it?  Was He just mistaken about His identity and suffering from a delusion?  His claims for identity were based on what He said about Himself, His direct connection with God His Father, His indirect claims for divine responsibilities and finally His miracles. 

Skeptical people may always be skeptical.  They may always find explanations that will deny facts.  I don’t need an alarm clock.  I have a natural way of waking up.  The sun in my bedroom is an aberration, maybe I have just never noticed it before.  That clock at the market is wrong; they never have it set accurately.  The video billboard is wrong because it was affected with the power outage also. 

Making an “inductive leap” varies from person to person.  Five facts may do it for someone but someone else may take fifteen.  Some people are so stubborn that nothing will make them believe.  Then we have people like “Doubting Thomas” who observe miracle after miracle and will not declare Jesus’ identity until some irrefutable dramatic moment.  It took Thomas to be in the presence of Jesus after His death.  He had to touch His crucifixion wounds to move him from doubter to believer crying out “My Lord and my God!”  That was when Thomas made his inductive leap.

The dramatized claims of Jesus may make the strongest case for His identity because they “show” His power over this world, a power that is not of this world.

They show that Jesus has…

The power of God.

They show that Jesus…

Is God…

*Miracle facts are from the gotquestions.org website from articles like “What Were the Miracles of Jesus?”

*My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.

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The Knot at the End of My Rope…

Let’s imagine that it seems like everything in your life is falling apart.  You literally embody the phrase “I am at the end of myself,” meaning that you have lost control and you can see no bright future ahead.  At that point you just need answers, or maybe even just one single answer.  You don’t know where to turn.  Pastor Ed Taylor writes “man’s extremities are God’s opportunities.  It’s not a Bible verse but a spiritual truth seen throughout the Bible.  What it means is that until we come to the end of ourselves and our resources and our fleshly attempts to solve the issues in our lives, God is then given a platform to work on our behalf. God will often allow us to get to the very end of ourselves in our current situations.  He will watch us fight and squirm. He will observe us struggle and wrestle until we come to the very end. He wants us at the place where we finally conclude it’s too much, where we just can’t take it anymore. It’s when we finally give up that God is given the opportunity to take over and do His work, showing His solution, revealing His salvation” [from “Ministry”  Ed Taylor  June 24, 2016].  That’s when many are ready to “come to Jesus,” accept the claims that He is their Lord.

Last week I commented on what John Stott calls Jesus’ direct claims for His divinity.  He stated His life was a fulfillment of Scripture.  I wrote about Simon Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ divinity.   Jesus’ parable method of instruction was certainly meant to lead the Disciples to the conclusion that He was Divine. Finally when “doubting” Thomas had his first-hand experience of touching Jesus’ scars after the resurrection, that was Thomas’ defining moment: indeed, he saw Jesus was the Son of God. 

Surely a Divine Savior should be able to provide all the needed answers one has to have to solve life’s problems and direct claims of divinity would surely be enough to sway a seeker.

But maybe direct claims need to be bolstered by indirect claims. Stott writes* that “the implications of His ministry were as eloquent as testimony to His person as His plain statements [direct statements].  On many occasions He exercised functions which belong properly to God” [29].  Stott labels these functions as “indirect claims.”  Don’t let the word “indirect” be misinterpreted.  Indirect does not mean weak.  Many times when Jesus made these types of claims, bystanders declared “Who is this who makes such claims?”  “Who can do this but God alone?” and “What blasphemy is this?”

We have a cliché today that might apply: “it is not what you know as much as who you know.”  In this case, Jesus claimed to know God.

First of all Jesus said that He could forgive sins.  When a paralytic came to Jesus via a pallet lowered from the roof, He saw that the man’s problem was more spiritual than physical.   He just said “My son, your sins are forgiven” and the paralytic was no longer paralyzed.  One would think that this would be met with amazement but many in the crowd had questions; in Luke 5 verses 24 and 25 we see the following:  “‘So that you may know the Son of Man has the right and the power on earth to forgive sins,’ He said to the man who could not move his body, ‘I say to you, get up. Take your bed and go to your home.’  At once the sick man got up in front of them. He took his bed and went to his home thanking God.”  Another instance was the woman known to be immoral.  Jesus was dining at a Pharisee’s home when the woman came behind Him.  She washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. She kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with oil.  He replied  “Your sins are forgiven.”  In both these examples Jesus was forgiving people as only God could.

Secondly, Jesus made the indirect claim of bestowing life.  He certainly referred to Himself as the “bread of life,” “the life” and “the resurrection and the life.”  He compared his followers’ dependence on Him as “sustenance derived from the vine by its branches.”  He referred to Himself as the “Good Shepherd” who give up His life for His sheep.  He said that He has authority over all flesh and even goes so far as to say in several places in the Gospels “the Son gives life to whom He will.”  Stott admits that it is very unclear about this “life” that Jesus is referring to.  Is it actual physical life or is it spiritual life?  Does it matter?  When He offers a Samaritan woman “living water” is it important if it is literal or spiritual?  I think she gets the implication; look at the verses:  “Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again.  But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fount of water springing up to eternal life.’   The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I will not get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’” [John 4: 13-15].

Jesus claimed to teach the truth.  Stott writes it is “not so much the truths that He taught as the direct and dogmatic manner in which He taught them which calls for notice” [30].  Teachers of Jesus’ day did not teach without quoting their authorities, but Jesus claimed an authority on His own.  Instead of saying “Thus says the Lord” Jesus said “Truly, truly I say to you.”  Stott admits that Jesus describes His doctrine as His Father’s but He knew He could speak with personal confidence because He had Divine revelation.  “He never hesitated or apologized.  He had no need to contradict, withdraw or modify anything He said.  He spoke the unequivocal words of God” [Stott, 31].  Instead of suggestions, Jesus spoke in commands: “Love your enemies,” “Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” and “Judge not lest you be judged.”  His words were law and they would never pass away. 

Lastly, Jesus claimed to judge the world.  Maybe this was the most audacious claim He made.  Jesus claimed to not only be the Judge but He established the criterion of judgment.  Judgment is based on how people treat His brothers and how they respond to His word.   “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.”  In addition, if you deny Jesus you will be denied.  On a person’s last day, denial of Jesus will be met with Jesus saying “I never knew you.”  Jesus uses several parables to instruct that He will be there at the final day of “reckoning” and He will be there to separate men one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  Some will be invited to inherit the Kingdom while others will hear the awful words “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire.”

Earlier I wrote “it is not what you know as much as who you know.”  At second glance, I am not sure that this cliché applies.  Jesus claimed to know God?  We know that Jesus was God.  Was it appropriate to claim the right to forgive sins, bestow life, teach the truth and judge the world?  I think so, for He was God.    When we get to the point in life when we are lost, it is good to know that Jesus is there to help us to hang on.  When I looked up the origin of the expression “I am at the end of myself” I found several references to being “at the end of my rope.”  I found one author who said when we are at that point, we need to tie a knot in the rope and hang on. It is a good image; let’s extend it a bit.

Maybe that Knot is Jesus Christ and his “indirect claims.”

Maybe I should add another well-known Christian expression about that Knot at this point…

“Jesus Saves”

*in his book Basic Christianity   

***My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.

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“You can be assured, God will Provide…”

Trying to establish that Jesus Christ was a “self-centered Messiah may be a “stretch” for many Christians  because so much of Jesus’ teaching centers around living a humble life.*  Yet in the previous post entitled “Jesus Christ, the Self-centered Messiah” [March 10, 2021] I try to show that Jesus took that unique approach in His ministry [John Stott’s idea, not mine].  I attempt to argue that Jesus made bold claims that He knew were foretold by Scripture in the Old Testament.  The Pentateuch, The Law of the Prophets and the Psalms and Wisdom Literature have prophetic passages that point to the coming of Jesus.   When He arrived in this world, it was only natural for Him to say “I am the truth; follow Me.”  Maybe instead of “self-centered,” John Stott (in his book Basic Christianity) could have described Jesus as forthright, determined or even courageous.

If there indeed is a problem with the pejorative nature of the words “self-centered” or not, Stott’s initial contention still stands: that if someone is wondering about the value of belief in Jesus Christ, they must make an effort to get to know the Man.  Laying aside his comments about self-centeredness, Stott says “Essentially Christianity is Christ.  The person and work of Christ are the rock upon which the Christian religion is built…Take Christ from Christianity and you disembowel it; there is nothing left.”  For the seeker, who is Jesus Christ?

In “getting to know” Jesus, the biggest faith hurdle that one must accept is that Jesus Christ is divine.  For seekers that is a big hurdle. 

For one to accept this, Stott knows that evidence needs to prove that Jesus was the Son of God.  “Vague divinity” will not suffice.  Believers need to know that Jesus has “an eternal and essential relation to God possessed by no other person.  We regard Him neither as God in human disguise, nor as a man with divine qualities, but as God-man” [Stott, 22].

I am reading the Book of Luke right now and Luke [the learned physician] begins his Gospel with these thoughts: “Since many have undertaken to put in order and draw up a narrative of the surely established deeds which have been accomplished and fulfilled in and among us.  Exactly as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word.”  Focus on the words that Luke uses: “surely established deeds” “fulfilled in and among us” and “from the beginning were eyewitnesses.”   He is telling the reader that he saw the divinity of Jesus first hand, with his own eyes and Jesus’ deeds actually happened.   In other words, he is not making this stuff up.

Jesus began His public ministry with the word “fulfilled.”  He had gone into Galilee where He began to proclaim the good news of God:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the Gospel!” [Mark 1: 15].  What is the significance of these words?  Stott comments that this is His acceptance of the title of “Son of God.”  It is from one of Daniel’s visions in the Old Testament.  It is also a title that is taken from Psalm 2:7.  Jesus interpreted His mission on earth in light of the portrayal of “the suffering servant of Jehovah” in the latter part of the book of Isaiah.  Did the Disciples come to believe in His divinity?  Did they understand the idea that Jesus came to fulfill God’s plan for connecting with man?  The first one to come onboard was Simon Peter. 

In the Gospels this is referred to as Peter’s Confession at Caesarea Philippi. The Disciples had walked with Jesus for about three years, listening to His teachings and witnessing His miracles. They came to know Jesus as a man. However, Thanks to God,  Simon had come to understand that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.  Caesarea Philippi is on the northern edge of Israel and it had a popular reputation as a center for cult worship [even having a location where infants were sacrificed to appease the gods].  It is interesting that in this very dark place, God revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God.

With this background in mind, the words that Jesus spoke on this spot are even more meaningful. Here’s what happened as recorded in the book of Matthew:  “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His Disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’  They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’  Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’  Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’” (Matthew 16:13-19).

The Disciples had walked with Jesus for three years before this had happened.  He had instructed them and He had performed miracles before them.  Finally a Disciple publicly acknowledged the divinity of Jesus.  

Did His instruction make sense and if it did, does this prove His divinity? Turn to Mark 4 10-12 and see what He says about His parable instruction to His disciples.  “When they were alone, the people around Jesus, along with the Twelve, asked Him about the parables. He said to them, ‘The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables.  This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven.’”  “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!”  Jesus says to His Disciples.  “Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” [from the book of Luke]. 

Further instruction came in the fact that Jesus taught His Disciples to address God as Father.  In His mind His Father was God but He also was trying to teach that men needed to have a closer relationship with God.  He also wanted them to accept the idea that to know Him was to know God.  Stott picks out several examples of Jesus trying to instruct the Disciples that He was God and God was also His Father.  “To see Him was to see God; to believe in Him was to believe in God; to receive Him was to receive God; to hate Him was to hate God; to honor Him was to honor God” [from Stott, 27].

At the end of the eighth Chapter of John, Jesus makes another claim about His relationship with God.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, they will never see death.”  Critics of Jesus could not stand this, rebutting this comment with a reference to the Jewish Father Abraham, who had died.  “Abraham died as did the prophets…are you greater than our Father Abraham?”  When Jesus said “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day” they saw that Jesus claimed divinity.  He had seen Abraham: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  They took up stones to stone Him.

For some disciples it took extreme measures to prove that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.  Let’s look at Thomas who did not accept the fact that Jesus was God until Jesus had undergone death and then resurrection.  We know there were eyewitness accounts that Thomas was in the upper room with other Disciples when Jesus appeared.  He still doubted.  Jesus asked him to feel His wounds.  At that point, Thomas went from doubter to believer crying out “My Lord and my God!”  He had finally accepted Jesus’ divinity. 

What does it take for one to accept Jesus as God?  How many times does Jesus have to claim divinity?  How may disciples have to declare it?  Will reading the Gospels make the case?   Maybe none of this is enough.  Maybe the only way for a stubborn person to come to the realization that Jesus was God is to experience their own personal miracle.   Something that has no worldly explanation comes about and the recipient of the miracle knows that it has to be God. 

There are many doubting Thomases in the world.  Thomas heard Jesus’ claims first hand, he sat at the foot of the Teacher, yet he never declared his acceptance of Jesus’ divinity until he touched His wounds.

Some come to Christ easier than others, but others remain skeptics, refusing to believe without direct personal experience.  If that is what it takes…

You can be assured, God will provide.

* My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.  This post is based on comments from Basic Christianity.

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Jesus Christ, the Self-centered Messiah

Self-centered: “concerned solely with one’s own desires, needs, or interests.”

In his book Basic Christianity* John Stott attempts to provide evidence that Jesus Christ is God.  His contention is that if someone seeking a foundation for Christianity cannot believe that Christ is who He said He was, then any foundation that one may have is undermined.  To provide evidence, Stott turns to the Bible for Jesus’ claims. The first major point that he attempts to make is that Jesus is self-centered.  Stott writes “The most striking feature of the teaching of Jesus is that He was constantly talking about Himself.”

 “Jesus is self-centered” [23].

How could this be?  This is the Child who was born in a stable, and cradled in a manger.  He was so common that he did not own an acre of land, much less a home.  He rode into Jerusalem in His last days on a donkey.  His told parables of humility, sending a message that a simple work of service can be considered doing the work of God. Jesus told of the Pharisee who prayed in a proud manner when Jesus said that humble prayer is the best way to thank God for the blessings of life.  He told the parable of the guests at the wedding feast “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. “But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”  [Luke 14].  In the upper room Jesus took the time to wash his Disciples’ feet, sending a message that a simple work of service can be considered doing the work of God.  Richard Newton, writing on Christ’s humility says “He did not mean that they should literally make a practice of washing each other’s feet; but that they should show the same humility to others that He had shown to them, by being willing to do anything, however humble it might be, in order to promote their comfort and happiness. It is not the act itself, here spoken of, that Jesus teaches us to do; but the spirit of humility in which the act was performed that He teaches us to cultivate.”

Yet Stott says “Jesus is self-centered.”

There is great evidence of this.  “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me.” [a sampling of Scripture from John and Matthew].

Truly these seem to be self-centered claims and they are powerful statements.  Stott writes these types of statements are not “self-effacing. He [Jesus] was self-advancing.”  When He could have pointed men away from Himself saying “This is the truth; follow that.” He said “I am the truth; follow Me.”

When it comes to His role as a human being in this world,  He had no doubt.  He was sent on a mission and that allowed Him to be bold about His claims.  Luke 24: 27 is a passage showing His strength for He was rebuking two disciples on the road to Emmaus:  “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Him.  A few verses later [44] He says to a group of His followers “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Some Christians feel that Jesus only shows up in the New Testament but what He was saying is no, I have always been.  In Genesis we learn that The Messiah would be descended from Eve, Jewish [from Abraham and the tribe of Judah] and He would crush Satan and rule as King forever.  Moses says in Deuteronomy “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like Me from among your brothers.  You must listen to Him.”  God deals with Israel by choosing them, redeeming them and establishing a covenant with them, making atonement for their sin, but in their experiences, they were redeemed from their bondage to the Egyptians and through our experiences, we have been redeemed of our bondage to sin.  The parallels are there.

In the Law of the Prophets, we encounter many Old Testament kings who tried to rule a nation on their own, a nation that knew it was really ruled by God.  Over and over kingdoms fell as kings ignored God’s laws.  Kingdoms were redeemed as God found a way to forgive His wayward people.  King David vowed to build God a permanent home and even though he was another imperfect ruler, his better qualities began a discussion of what Jesus would eventually be.  Stott writes that the four characteristics were “peace, justice, universality and eternity.”  Isaiah 9: 6-7 prophesizes the coming of Jesus in these words: “For unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.  And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom…the zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”  These words foretell the glory of Jesus and in Isaiah 53, we see words that foretell His suffering.  “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.  All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.  He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.”

The third division of the Old Testament is called the Writings, the Psalms and wisdom literature.  Several Psalms apply to Jesus in the New Testament making reference to His deity, His humanity, His suffering and His exaltation.   Phrases from the Psalms are repeated often in the New Testament such as the words of God from Psalm 2: 7 which we find repeated at Jesus’ transfiguration “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”  References from Psalm 8 to man as “lower than the heavenly beings” are applied to Christ in the New Testament book of Hebrews.  “My God, My God why have you forsaken Me” is a direct quote from Psalm22:1 Wisdom literature references are common in the teachings of Jesus and when we turn to Proverbs 8: 27-31 and note that this Scripture celebrating God’s creation of the earth starts with the words “I was there when He set the heavens in place” the inference is very strong that the One who was there was Jesus. 

Stott makes it perfectly clear that when he writes that “Jesus is self-centered” this is not to be considered a criticism.  He writes that Old Testament Scripture “depicts Him [Jesus] as a greater prophet than Moses, a greater priest than Aaron and a greater king than David.  That is to say, He will perfectly reveal God to man, reconcile man to God and rule over man for God.  In Him, the Old Testament ideals of prophecy, priesthood and kingship will find their final fulfillment.”

Jesus may have been bold in His claims but He knew what He was supposed to do.  He was calling man to Himself when He said “come to Me” and “follow Me.”  In Him He knew that salvation for man was possible, if we could only let go of our earthly concerns and look for a life with Him.  He knew He was our guide.  He was opening the door for us to live a life with Him now and forever.  He was prophesized to do this work and He knew the best approach.

Not “This is the truth; follow that.”

He knew the best way was “I am the truth; follow Me.”**

*My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.

**Supplemental content for this post comes from John Stott  Understanding the Bible.

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“It’s Time To Get Back To Fundamentals!”

Recently I have had some serious questions about my Christian faith.* 

I was “born again” in 1998 in the midst of personal upheaval.  I found God in that upheaval.  I have referenced that many times in this blog so let’s not return to that story.  Before 1998, I had forty-seven years of mostly “regular” church attendance.  In reality, I would say my regular attendance should really be better described as “spotty” but the main point is that I was raised in a home that valued church attendance.  After 1998, I have been on a different pathway in my Christian life.  Like most Christians, I have had my ups and downs over the years, but generally I began to try to learn more about God, support my church, advance my prayer life, serve others and be more disciplined in my life choices. I have had a sincere interest in having a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.**  You might say I have been on a pathway to righteousness.

Recently, I have been interested in focusing on fundamentals.  Athletic coaches sometimes love to preach that sermon.  When gifted athletes begin to have problems they say “It’s time to get back to the fundamentals!”  So I have begun to reread, rethink and meditate on basic books like Rick Warren’s The Purpose- Driven Life.  Another basic book for me has been John Stott’s Basic Christianity.  If  you have been following this blog, you know I have devoted some posts to Basic Christianity.  I have been interweaving them with posts from Stott’s more challenging book The Cross of Christ. 

Stott has already declared in his book “Basics” and I have written on the following ideas: “Jesus is the Son of God,” “Jesus came to earth for a reason and we need to respond with our actions,” “God created the world and He has expectations of us humans.”***

Those ideas are what I would call introductory, but I am not sure they are what most Christians would call “the absolute foundation of Christian faith”.  Stott begins Chapter 2 in Basic with the following statements and questions that get at that foundation.  “We have seen that it is necessary to seek if we are ever to find.  But where shall we begin our search?  The Christian answers that the only place at which to begin is the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth; for if God has spoken and acted, it is fully and finally in Jesus Christ that He has done so.  The crucial issue is this: was the Carpenter of Nazareth the Son of God?” [Stott, 21].

If one does not believe that Christ is who He said He was and if He did not do what He said He had come to do, then the foundation of our faith is undermined. Jesus Christ must be the absolute center of our beliefs.  Who was this God Man?  If one can accept that Jesus Christ was and is real, then God becomes real and God’s character is revealed.  Man begins to have a purpose because man’s purpose is wrapped up in God’s purpose for man.  Rick Warren says “You were born by His purpose and for His purpose.”  Life after death has meaning because Jesus taught us in His words and His actions that life after death is real.  Even the teaching of the Old Testament has more meaning because Jesus taught from the Old Testament and we can see that His life fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

But for the person who seeks to have Christian faith, the starting point is not the Old Testament but instead, the Gospels.****  The seeker needs to see these books of the Bible as historical even though more advanced believers see them as inspired by God.*****  Their authors were Christian men who were honest, objective observers of Jesus Christ on this earth. Their accounts are the accounts of eye witnesses.  Based on what they say, Stott writes that the seeker should see Jesus portrayed in the Gospels as “neither God in human disguise, nor as man with Divine qualities, but as God-Man…Jesus was a historic person with two distinct and perfect natures,  Godhead and manhood” [Stott, 22].

Where is the evidence?

As I have stated, it is in the Gospels, but when we search the Gospels, what should we be looking for?  One thing is the claims that Jesus made, His teachings.  Stott describes Jesus’ teachings as “self-centered.”  He said “I” am the Messiah, the One who has come to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, the Kingdom that was prophesized in the Old Testament.  Still another is the “indirect claims,” the ideas He advanced as implications of His ministry [e.g. forgiving sins, bestowing life, teaching the truth and judging the world].  He did things that were functions of God.  Finally Jesus had what Stott calls “dramatized claims” which were His signs and wonders or what we would commonly call miracles. 

In the upcoming posts, I will be discussing all these claims as answers for people who are seeking a foundation for Christian faith.  Some would argue that a supposed “God-Man” making claims does not constitute evidence but the claims do demand an explanation.  Stott cites Archbishop William Temple who wrote “It is now recognized that the one Christ for whose existence there is any evidence at all is a miraculous Figure making stupendous claims.”  The claims of Jesus bear explaining and as they are explained, people who are seeking to fulfill their spiritual longing can find hope in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth.

In helping others with their faith, I may be helping myself to resolve some of the serious questions I have recently been having about my faith.  In 1998, I found purpose for my life in my born-again faith.  Is that purpose still alive?  Is it real in my life?  Famous atheist Bertrand Russell is to have said “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” 

Here is how I respond:  I know I was born to live for God and I do live for Him. 

I look forward in the next posts to discussing the “self-centered teaching of Jesus” and His claims (direct, indirect and dramatized). 

As I reaffirm my faith maybe I can reaffirm others’ faith.

Let’s get back to the fundamentals!

*Here is my problem:  I have exposed myself to people who love to tell others they are Christian and then do things that don’t quite seem Christian [I will be the first to tell you that I don’t know their heart].  My return to “fundamentals” has helped me a lot, but also I recognize that I need to quit paying so much attention to people in the media who seem so confused about “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

**This “closer relationship with Jesus Christ” is a trite phrase in Christian circles, but it really means a sincere desire to live a better life according to Biblical principles; the more a person lives like Jesus [impossible task] the more they “relate” to Him.

***These ideas are explained in greater detail in posts on St. John Studies on December 7, 2020; December 21, 2020;  January 27, 2021 and February 2, 2021.

****the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

*****more advanced believers also often have knowledge of the Gospels as historical documents with proof texts from the First Century that corroborate the accuracy of the writings.

Addendum:  My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross…   I think readers may find this approach interesting.  For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020.  I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that.

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