Two Very Important Words…

It has been a challenge; one that I am glad I accepted, commenting on J.I. Packer’s Knowing God.  I make no claim to being a theologian but I do have a hunger to learn more about God, from a layman’s perspective.  I began writing on Knowing God on April 22, 2019.  Here it is February 17, 2020 and I am beginning part three of the book, entitled “If God Be For Us,” the last section of the book.

The rest of the phrase of “If God be for us” is “then who can be against us.”  It is based on Romans 8: 31: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

After a section of the book entitled “Know The Lord” and another entitled “Behold Your God” we are in “If God Be For Us” and we are face to face with the word propitiation.

That’s a word that is not used in everyday parlance.

What does it mean?

Why would Packer start the last section of his book bringing up the word propitiation?

We can look the word up in a concordance, see it used in Romans 3: 25, and First John 4: 10 but Packer refers to First John 2:2 [King James Version] “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”  He of course, refers to Jesus Christ.

Propitiation means the act of appeasing  a deity, thus incurring divine favor or avoiding divine retribution.

That’s not a new idea.  Many religions have this concept as a foundational idea.  It seems that humans have always tried to appease the gods by offering various gifts or sacrifices.  Packer begins chapter 18 with the tale of Agamemnon, the Greek general who slaughtered his own daughter to appease his gods.  His army was on ships trying to reach a destination and the winds were blowing against the ships, keeping them from moving.  Agamemnon gave orders for his own daughter to be sacrificed to change the winds.  It worked.  The gods were appeased, and the fleet reached Troy, the intended destination. 

How does this relate to us knowing God?

Of course the Bible is full of human beings sacrificing to God.  The Israelites used many sacrifices to the Lord.  Burnt offerings were made of bullocks, rams, goats, doves and pigeons.  Meal offerings were made of grain, flour, and cakes without leaven.  Peace offerings were made of cattle, sheep or goats [unlike burnt offerings, peace offerings were partially eaten].  Sin offerings and trespass offerings were made according to the sins that were committed. 

We all know of the meticulous rules for the Jewish priesthood, the system of laws administered by the Levites, the tribe of the Israelites that were in charge of the Tabernacle and all associated activities [read the Book of Leviticus].

 But there was no human sacrifice [Abraham got very close with Isaac]. *

Until Jesus Christ.

Then we have the ultimate propitiation.

Modern Christians have argued that, whatever the Old Testament may have been about, the New Testament can’t possibly have anything to do with propitiation.  The fact of the matter is that the concept of God’s wrath needing to be appeased by a sacrifice is very much a New Testament idea.  Is this the same model as the Greek model of Agamemnon?  Does this follow the pagan model of sacrifice that was common in Jesus’ day?  Theologian John Stott has argued that “The Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan or animistic superstitions.”

What makes it different?

First of all pagan gods were “grumpy and capricious.”  They did not care much about humans and did not even attend  them until they were  angered.  Then the angry pagan god “smote” humans and to avoid additional wrath the god must be placated with a sacrifice.

Our God is not moody and easily provoked.  He is holy and just and His behavior is consistent.  Man never sees God’s wrath unless he commits some ungodly or unrighteous act.   

In addition, God carried out  propitiation, because He declared what He wanted and then provided it.  God fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy by giving His own Son to die for our sins.  Stott says “God gave Himself to save us from Himself.”  We must read Romans 3: 24-25 “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, whom God has put forward as propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”

Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God and we cannot understand the Bible or any teaching about Christianity apart from this.  We deserve harsh punishment, because we sin every day we are alive.  Jesus’ supreme sacrifice on the cross placated God because God’s wrath would cause us to be eternally condemned if not for His Son.

Jesus saved us from God’s wrath which we deserve.

He saved us from the danger brought about by our own sins.  He atoned for our sins. 

We can understand propitiation now, the sacrifice of another for our benefit.  There is no offering that man can give to God that would make us acceptable in His eyes.  We are incapable of satisfying God’s justice, appeasing His holy wrath, and living up to the standard of His perfect nature.  For this reason, the perfect sacrifice for our sin is His own Son, who came into this world in human flesh, to experience what it is like to be a human, to inspire us to live a righteous life through His perfection and to take “that cup” which in a moment of weakness He wanted God to take away from Him.  Quickly He knew that was not to be, as He said “Yet not as I will, but as you will” to His Father right after asking for this favor.

All this benefits us, as Jesus is our substitute.  He gave His all for us.

Let me throw another word at you related to this act or sacrifice.

Expiation…

Because of Jesus’ propitiation, we experience expiation.  Expiation means the blotting out or the removal of sin.  When we have expiation, we renew our communion with God because sin is no longer in the way.

Jesus saved us and if we can profess our faith in God, we can experience the salvation that God offers. 

Two words we don’t use much, but two words every Christian should know…

Propitiation and expiation.

Truly, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

*The Hebrews (and especially the authors of Scripture) were aghast at the practice of human sacrifice in the cultures around them…even though some of their own rulers were sometimes guilty of it. King Ahaz did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, and he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, not God. Also Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel, offered up human sacrifice (his own daughter!) to the God of Israel.  These examples were abominable practices of nations that had too much influence on Israel.  Scripture is quite clear—from the “sacrifice of Isaac” onwards—that God isn’t asking his people to engage in human sacrifice.

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"Lukewarm Christianity"

Several times in his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer has a special section called “The Christian Response.” 

Usually this section comes after he has explained some controversial idea that some Christians may object to.  In the case of Chapter 17, he has just explained that we have a God who is jealous.  In my previous post, I paraphrased his position by stating that God assumes that man understands the covenant relationship that is in place between God and man.  God expects unqualified love and loyalty from his people and nothing less.  That sounds very strident but God has His reasons: He wants us to understand His sovereignty in judgment upon sin, He wants us to understand that we are His chosen people, and He wants the love and praise that He truly deserves.

He is jealous for a reason…

But He is still jealous…and maybe that is a bit controversial.

What do you make of that?  How do you respond to that?

You are probably not going to respond as Packer recommends.

Packer says we should be zealous for God. 

Hmmm.  A jealous God should make us zealous Christians.

Zealous is not a word I use very much so I did a bit of study about “zealousy”.  In the First Century there was a political movement among Judean Jews who wanted to overthrow Roman rule.  They were called Zealots.  Some describe these people as “terrorists” because they used forceful tactics to accomplish their objectives.  When Rome introduced what they called “cult worship,” the Zealots revolted, they overtook Jerusalem and they were eventually  defeated.  This led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Also, Jesus picked Simon the Zealot to be one of his twelve disciples.    

In contemporary language, a zealot is a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.  This next statement is hard to make, but a Christian zealot today could have the derisive label “nutty” applied to them.  They exhibit behavior so extreme that it is not socially acceptable.

But should they have that label?

Jesus spoke so much about lukewarm faith.  If a Christian has that kind of faith, they are limited in their value to Christ.  In Revelation Chapter 13 , the church at Laodicea is described as lukewarm, like water that is too warm to be a refreshing drink but not warm enough for an invigorating bath.  That is water with little value.  The members of this church saw themselves as rich and self-sufficient, but Jesus described them as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”  They sickened Him, and He said “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

What about our deeds?  Are our deeds a clue to the state of our faith?  Jesus equates our deeds as a sign of our true spiritual welfare.  Often He compares followers to trees: By your fruit you will recognize them and every good tree bears good fruit.  The deeds of a true believer will be “hot” or “cold.”  If they are, they will benefit the world in some way [reference the waters of Laodicea].  Lukewarm followers do harm to a watching world.  When one claims to know God but then they act like He doesn’t exist, it sends out a very confusing message.  God is sickened by this hypocrisy and unbelievers who observe these Christians are uninspired.

Let’s describe the Christian who has zeal [according to Packer].  This person has a true cause for life, a true passion and they are devoted to their God.  Packer quotes Bishop J.C. Ryle at length: “Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way…the Spirit puts in the heart of the believer…an earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, whole-hearted, fervent [attitude].  He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing, and that one thing is to please God.”

A zealous Christian is like a candle. He burns for God and if he is consumed in the process of serving his Lord, that’s ok.  “Whether he lives or whether he dies—whether he has health, or whether he has sickness, whether he is rich, or whether he is poor—whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offence—whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish—whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise—whether he gets honor, or whether he gets shame—for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all” [Ryle, Practical Religion, 130].

What are we to make of this?

Packer says “zeal is commanded and commended in the Scriptures.”  Paul was a zealous man.  He faced prison and persecution for his beliefs.  Facing prison, Paul says in Acts 20:24 “None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”  Need we say it, but Jesus was a zealous man, a supreme example of zeal.

This leaves us as Christians to ask ourselves about our own zeal.  Do we burn to do the Lord’s bidding or are we more concerned with materialism, a quest for fame and a desire for power?  What consumes us?  Are we like the candle?

How many of our churches are lukewarm today?  They may be sound and respectable but they are not that interested in doing the Lord’s work.  Maybe many churches today are interested in providing fellowship for Christians.  Maybe they exist to give people a good feeling about themselves: “I have done my duty for the week; I have gone to church.” 

I recall an excellent book I read years ago by Pastor Skip Heitzig entitled How to Study the Bible and Enjoy It.  Early in this book (devoted to getting Christians to open God’s Word) he recalls an instance in his life when he took his Bible to church.  He visited the church where he was raised after dedicating his life to the Lord at another church: “I went back to the church in which I’d been raised.  Although it was considered a Christian denomination, Bible reading was never emphasized.  As I entered the front door, Bible in hand, and made my way through the foyer, people looked at me as if I were some extraterrestrial being.  ‘Why are you bringing in one of those things?’ someone asked.  I thought, ‘What am I supposed to carry?  A coloring book?’  It dawned on me that of all the places that should welcome and foster the study of the Bible, it would be a church” [3].

Maybe Heitzig felt like people were labelling him “nutty” but should they?  One can only make so much out of this one instance, but what if God judges us on how zealous we are?  What if God judged our churches on how zealous they are?  Would He be pleased that we are doing all that we can do to advance His kingdom here on earth, that we have a burning love for Him?  Would He classify our churches with that lukewarm Laodicean congregation, a church of little faith, hypocritical faith, full of unconverted “pretend” Christians.

It would be best for us to remember Revelation verse 16 regarding our zealous behavior or lack thereof. 

I would be best for us to remember Revelation verse 16 regarding our churches.

The prophetic words of Revelation says it best.  The Lord says “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

That’s how disgusted He is…

With lukewarm Christians.

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Anthropomorphism?

It happened last Sunday in my Sunday school class…

Anthropomorphism.

That word is a mouthful and when it happened, I did not say it.  I tried to explain my response to it, but I am not sure I did an adequate job.  It was in reference to a common interpretation from Genesis.  A class member said “We are made in His image.”  Everyone has heard that from 1: 27, but it can lead us to conclusions that are based on… you got it:  anthropomorphism.

Yes we are made in His image, but too often we extend Genesis 1:27 to “He is made in ours.” 

That is where we make our mistake.

Let’s use a common characteristic of God to illustrate. 

Jealousy.

Christians struggle with the idea that God could be jealous yet instances of His jealousy abound in the Bible.  There are multiple examples of it in the Pentateuch, the history books and in the Psalms.  Ezekiel 39:25 states “I [God]…will be jealous for My holy name.”  Zechariah 1:14 has a passage where God states “I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy.  Nahum has the Scripture “The Lord is a jealous God and avengeth” [1:2].  Further evidence of God’s jealousy can be found in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, First Kings, Joel, Zephaniah etc.

Our problem in understanding God’s jealousy often resides in anthropomorphism.

We think of human jealousy and we attribute human jealousy to God.

J.I. Packer* feels that there are two kinds of human jealousy.  One kind of human jealousy is a “vice;” the other may give us some insight on our jealous God.

First of all is the hateful jealousy that occurs when we have the attitude behind the statement “I want what you’ve got, and I hate you because I haven’t got it.”  This childish type of jealousy springs from covetousness [the Tenth Commandment].  This jealousy can lead to envy, malice, and meanness of action.  It springs [Packer says] from “the taproot of our fallen nature”—pride.  Proverbs 27:4 states “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy.”    In our effort to understand God, we may make the mistake of taking this base human vice and assuming that God operates in jealousy as we do.  That would be wrong; He doesn’t.

But there is another type of jealousy that may give us more accurate insight.  Packer calls it the “zeal to protect a love relationship or to avenge it when broken” [170].  Packer is quick to be frank about trying to nudge us out of the sexual arena.  Again, base human thoughts may try to understand this in the context of a marriage that has been ripped asunder by an affair.  A lover or adulterer has entered a marriage and they have torn it apart.  Partly this context can give us some understanding, but not total understanding.  When this happens it is very painful and it can lead to extreme human acts of retribution, but that is not the redeeming response that Packer wants to focus upon.  He writes “This sort of jealousy is a positive virtue, for it shows a grasp of the true meaning of the husband-wife relationship, together with a proper zeal to keep it intact” [Packer, 170]. 

We see Scripture that supports this positive virtue.  Proverbs 6:34 speaks of a man who resolves to guard his marriage against attack, who is willing to take action against anyone who violates it.  What does this say about the man?  He values his marriage.

Let’s take this concept and move it into the God-man relationship.  It is a basic Biblical idea that God has a covenant relationship with His own people.  The Old Testament is all about God’s covenant relationship with Israel; God demanding unqualified love and loyalty from His people.  The Old Testament is also full of times when His people committed spiritual adultery, worshipping idols instead of God.  God saw this as disobedience and unfaithfulness and responded with jealousy and vengeance.  In Ezekiel 16, God depicts Israel as His adulterous wife, “embroiled in unholy liaisons with idols and idolaters of Canaan, Egypt and Assyria” [Packer, 171].  He pronounces sentence in the following Scripture “I will judge you as women who break wedlock and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy” [Ezekiel 16].

We can easily see that God’s jealousy is much different from human jealousy.   God demands utter and absolute loyalty from those that He loves utter and absolute loyalty and if He does not get it, He is correct in taking stern action against them.

One needs to recognize the nature of covenant love.  This type of love (which is Godlike) is not transitory.  It is not mere human affection.   It is not accidental and most of all, it is not aimless.  It has a Sovereign purpose.  God intends that He should have a faithful relationship with people of this earth as long as history lasts and He intends that humans should live righteous lives with Him in glory. 

What happens in the Bible as we begin to see God’s jealousy in a whole new light?  He is justified in judging His people as they fall into idolatry and sin and justified in judging the enemies of righteousness and mercy everywhere.  But He also is quick to try to get His people to understand His undying love.   Over and over God restores His people after they have been chastened and humbled.  He never gives up on them, despite their repeated wayward behavior. 

Packer boils down God’s objectives into three points: He wants to “vindicate His rule and righteousness by showing His sovereignty in judgement upon sin, to ransom and redeem His chosen people; and to be loved and praised by them for His glorious acts of love and self-vindication” [Packer, 172].

It is all about getting man to see God’s glory.  Packer says “God seeks what we should seek—His glory in and through men” [172]

In Isaiah 42 God says “I am the Lord; that is my name!  I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.  For my own sake, I do this.  How can I let myself be defamed?  I will not yield my glory to another.”

Now we see that God is standing His ground against anyone or anything that can hurt His covenant relationship with man.  This is not some base human jealousy that is driven by covetousness.  This is not some knee-jerk response by God as He punishes man for unfaithfulness. 

If you will, I would call it righteous indignation with a divine goal. 

Our jealous God is trying to get man to understand that I am God and I love you and I expect you to love Me.  When you stray away from My love, you will suffer [as you should] but I will bring you back into my covenant relationship with one condition.

You should love Me as I love you.

Pure and simple…

*from his book Knowing God

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Goodness or Severity: It's Your Choice…

On this blog, some things are easier to discuss than others…

It was challenging to write about God as judge.

It was super challenging to write about God as wrathful.

Now I have to discuss the last half of J.I. Packer’s chapter entitled God’s “Goodness and Severity.” 

Severe is a word that elicits immediate negative reaction.  When someone is severe with you, they are giving you behavior that is bad.  Severe is defined as an adjective meaning (of something bad or undesirable) very grave, dire, intense. 

Packer provides some Biblical context for God’s severity.  He turns to Paul in Romans 11:22 when he writes that God “cuts off” His goodness from individuals who have spurned His goodness.  God is severe when He does this.

Let’s flesh out that comment a bit more.  This is the same God who told Moses that His love is “abounding and faithful.”   Sounds good doesn’t it?  God will give us plentiful love, abundant love and  will be loyal, constant and steadfast.  But let’s look at the key word in the comment from Paul in Romans 11:22: that word is spurned. 

Spurned means you have offered something to someone and they have declined it, refused it and it is often done with disdain or contempt.  In the aforementioned Scripture from Romans, Paul is speaking of the nation of Israel who refused to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They presumed that God was going to be good to them, but when they found themselves face-to-face with God’s Son Jesus, they turned away.  What is Paul trying to tell us?

God’s love is magnificent if you accept it.  If you turn away from it, God can be very severe in His reaction.  Paul is doing much more than just speaking of the Jewish people; he is also speaking to Christians who are susceptible to a lack of appreciation of Divine love.

Why are we discussing God’s severity?  When I wrote about God as judge and God as wrathful, it seemed like that covered the topic of God’s negative qualities.

In the chapter on “Goodness and Severity,” Packer is trying to make a different point.  He is discussing choices that we can make in life.  Knowing God as judge helps us to understand God more and after all, the title of Packer’s book is Knowing God.  Knowing that God can be wrathful helps us understand God too even though we would much rather not think about God as a deity who shows rage and fury.  I guess it is better to be warned if His wrath than to be surprised.*

God’s severity is a much different matter since it is coupled with God’s goodness.   We don’t have to experience a “severe” God if we make choices that lead us to a more righteous life.  We don’t have to experience a “severe” God is we repent of our sins. 

There you have it; God’s severity is intended to lead you to repentance.  “Paul tells the Roman Christians that God’s goodness is their portion only on a certain condition—‘provided that you continue in His kindness.’”  It is no mystery why some people are “cut off” from a loving God.  “Those who decline to respond to God’s goodness by repentance, and faith, and trust and submission to His will cannot wonder or complain if sooner or later the tokens of His goodness are withdrawn” [Packer, 164].

This sounds ominous until you consult Scripture that speaks of God as a patient God.   Many times in the Bible, God is described as “slow to anger.”  Many times in the Bible He is described as “longsuffering.”  He postpones judgement to give us multiple chances to repent.  Packer cites Peter’s reference to Noah in 1st Peter: “the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah” referring to God’s one hundred twenty year wait to destroy the corrupt earth by the flood after He had judged it as hopeless.

Again in First Peter, the Disciple tells us that the final judgement of man has not happened due to God’s longsuffering nature.  God does not want unbelievers to perish; He wants them to repent.  “The patience of God in giving a chance to repent (Revelation 2:5) before judgement finally falls is one of the marvels of the Bible story.  It is no wonder that the New Testament stresses that longsuffering is a Christian virtue and duty; it is in truth a part of the image of God” [Packer, 165].

Ok, we know God can be severe.  We know that we don’t have to experience His severity.  We have a choice to appreciate His goodness.  We also know that God can be patient with us, hoping that we will come to Him and accept His goodness and repent of our evil.

Given this knowledge, Packer writes that we should respond to this information in three ways.

First of all, we should appreciate God’s goodness.  This is going to sound simplistic, but be grateful for what God has given you aka. “count your blessings.”  Thank God for your earthly pleasures.  Do not take the Bible for granted; read it.  Work to get to know Jesus Christ; don’t just lapse into a casual relationship with Him.  The Bible tells the story of a wonderful God who has given His Son to us and allowed His Son to be killed on Calvary for our sins.  What can we do to repay our Lord for this unbelievable gesture?  Live a life of everlasting gratitude.

Secondly, we should appreciate the fact that God is patient.  I speak for myself.  I have sinned so much that I wonder at times why God has not taken me.  My life is far from worthy.  What I deserve is to be taken and then rejected.  Yet He keeps me around, trying to do some of His work to the best of my ability.  As God is patient with me, He expects me to be patient with others. 

Lastly, we should appreciate the discipline of God.  If God’s longsuffering nature is designed to lead us to Him, then we can view this quality as a means to discipline us.  If you have experienced God’s goodness in your life and you have yet to repent and express your faith in His loving Son, what is causing that reluctance?  Are you “trifling with God” even though you stand under the threat of His severity.  The famous Methodist George Whitefield says God puts thorns in our bed on purpose.  Are they put there to awaken you from the sleep of spiritual death; we feel them and rise to ask God’s mercy.  Or as a believer do we continue to sleep in complacency as we take God’s goodness for granted. 

The thorns are there to remind us of God’s severity, to keep us from having to bear the full brunt of that severity which we will feel if we ignore God’s discipline and continue on with a sinful life.

In retrospect, I conclude this discussion of God’s severity with the admonition that no believer has to experience it.  It is our choice to accept God’s goodness and God’s love and appreciate it.  God does not desire His children to suffer; He wants them to thrive, to live good lives, to experience His blessings.  Jeremiah 29:11 speaks directly to all of us when God says “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord,  plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

These plans are based on us accepting His goodness, appreciating His goodness, repenting of our sins and trying to live the best life we can.

A life inspired by God’s son…

A life inspired by Jesus Christ.

*[See discussion of wrath on the St. John Studies posts “Sometimes We Truly Deserve the Switch” December 28, 2019 and “The Cross: Protection from a Wrathful God” January 5, 2020].

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The "Good" Side of the Coin…

The Bible states, J.I. Packer comments and I have written that God can be both good and severe at the same time.  The previous post “Santa Claus Theology” makes that argument.  It also acknowledges that man prefers “good” God to “bad” God.  My guess is that our desire to see God as good is only natural.  Who wants to have a close relationship with a God who is severe? 

According to Pew Research, Christianity loses more people than it gains from religious conversion. They found that 23% of Americans raised as Christians no longer identified with Christianity, whereas 6% of current Christians were converts. Infant baptism has declined in many nations, with thousands of churches closing or merging due to lack of attendees.*

Maybe a “severe” God would only contribute to our troubles within the church, causing more people to lose their faith, resulting in fewer people going to church and more parents not worrying about trying to raise their kids in a Christian home. 

A friend commented on a recent post dealing with God’s wrath [another tough topic].  I am paraphrasing here but he basically said that “pastors today don’t give people the truth.” They would rather talk about God’s goodness, God’s favor, God’s forgiveness of our sins, God’s grace and a multitude of God’s more positive attributes. 

This is only natural.  Pastors want people to come into a nice church, with happy people, experience a good introduction to a “good” God.  Pastors naturally want people to stay and become members. 

Severe God discussions may equal empty pews.

Yes, maybe severe God discussions may equal more people losing their faith, resulting in fewer people going to church and more parents not worrying about trying to raise their kids in a Christian home [I know I repeated, but I was trying to make a point].

But the truth is, God is good and God is also severe: one coin; two sides.

Packer spends some pages discussing the good side of the coin and I will comment on those ideas in this post [the “severe” stuff will follow in the next post].

Johnson Oatman Jr. wrote a classic Christian song in 1897 entitled “Count Your Blessings.”  In almost childlike lyrics, he wrote  about the good God that we all want to know.

“When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed, When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”**

Good…

A simple word but what does it mean when you apply it to God?  Packer says God’s goodness means “something admirable, attractive and praiseworthy.  When the Biblical writers call God good, they are thinking in general of all those moral qualities which prompt His people to call Him perfect, and in particular of the generosity which moves them to call Him merciful and gracious and to speak of His love” [161].

Let’s paraphrase Exodus 34: 6-7, as the writer describes God as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love, faithful, loving to thousands, forgiving of wickedness, rebellion and sin.  These qualities point to the moral perfection of God and they make it easy to worship Him.  David writing in Psalm 18 describes God’s way as “perfect, the word of the Lord is flawless.  He is a shield for all who take refuge in Him.”

Packer goes further in his “good God” discussion.  He is particularly impressed with God’s generosity.   “Generosity expresses the simple wish that others should have what they need to make them happy” [162].  This generosity from God is different from generosity from man.  Often man’s generosity has “strings attached.”  God has no mercenary motive in His generosity.  It could be best described as spontaneous, without thought of payback or need for credit.  God does not need to feel good when He is generous.  He is good…always good.

One might ask how is God generous?  Some pastors today love to espouse what is called the prosperity gospel.  They preach that you should not be happy with what you have; you should strive for more, more money, more job responsibility, a larger home, a  bigger car.  Believe God for more!  Maybe that is God being generous.  I will have more money, more things in my life.

Personally, I don’t think that is what the Scripture means.  God controls everything in this world and good abounds all around.  God’s goodness is in the meals we eat, the pleasure we get from playing the piano.  God can give pleasure in the sink we wash our face in, the light switch we flip to turn on the lights and the door that keeps out the cold.  God is good when He allows the sun to shine in the back door of my home in the morning.  He is good in the restful sleep that I get at night.  When I feel good as I walk through my home, I feel His goodness in the ability to walk, especially when the steps are pain free.  Packer states that “everything that sustains and enriches life, is a Divine gift.”

Too often we get caught up in the magnificent goodness of God and we miss the small goodness we can experience throughout the day.  The Bible is full of extraordinary examples of God’s goodness.  Look no further than Psalm 107 when God delivers the helpless Israelites from their enemies, God shields them from the shadow of death when they rebel against Him, God heals them from diseases when they disregard Him and God protects voyagers by stilling a storm when their ship is in danger of sinking. 

Surely God is capable of all types of goodness on a large scale and I can point to times in my life when I know He has done big things for me, but I want to see God’s goodness daily, several times each day.  All I have to do is open my eyes, attend to what I have around me, and marvel in the abilities that He gives me to live my life.  Truly we don’t appreciate what we have and we don’t give God the credit for giving what we have.  The world’s focus is on acquisition and working hard to acquire more.  We want the credit for what we have; we don’t want to give it to God.  Spend some time with a woman who cannot breathe and you will be thankful to God for your breath.  Spend some time with a person who is homeless and you will thank God for your home, your heating system and the furniture you enjoy.  Spend some time with a grieving spouse and be thankful that God has given you a person to share your life with.

I recently had a wise woman tell me that I should take a long legal pad and start listing the gifts that God has given me.  She said the exercise will cause me to hone in on the multitude of things that our good God has allowed us to have, God’s gifts.  She said that the more you do this, the more you begin to realize that a good God is giving us things all day long.  When you hear the beautiful birds, you realize the gift of beautiful sounds.  When you turn on the water, you thank God for clean running water in your home.  When you get a friendly card in the mail, you thank God for friends.  The list goes on and on, page after page of the legal pad gets filled and you begin to see that truly God is a generous, good God to us all the time.

Earlier, I quoted from Exodus 34 and now I must admit that the quote was not complete.  Indeed “God is a compassionate and gracious God” and He loves us all, every day in lot of big ways and small ways.  At the end of Exodus 34 [6-7] the writer includes a phrase that does not support God’s goodness.  It goes like this; “He does not leave the guilty unpunished.”  I left it out because it does not support the goodness of God which this post is discussing; it fits the upcoming post that will deal with God’s severity.

Right now, let’s acknowledge all the goodness that God gives us.   Let’s celebrate it.  It is truly awesome.

“Count your blessings, name them one by one….and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”  

*2013 Pew Research statistics…

**from “Timeless Truths” free online library [accessed January 17, 2020].

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Santa Claus Theology

Romans 11:22

“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.”

I have just finished discussing two difficult chapters about God’s character; God as judge and God as wrathful.  Without a doubt, the reader of His Word will find multiple examples of God as judge and multiple examples of God’s wrath.  The premise of J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God is that through a careful exploration of God’s Word, one can pinpoint characteristics of God and therefore we can know Him. 

But what are we to do with Romans 11:22?  Can God be good and severe at the same time?

Most of us like consistency.  I have been accused of being confusing by my spouse, inconsistent and at times downright hard to understand, but I am a mere human.  I guess I can claim the right to be mixed up, but can we tolerate this in God?

Let’s provide some context for Romans [written by the Apostle Paul].  “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness.”  He is referring to the Jews of Jesus’ day who for the most part, rejected Him.  God will be severe with those who reject Him. The people who experienced His “goodness” are the pagans, the Gentiles.  However, Paul wants the readers of his words to make sure and see the dual nature of God’s character; He is capable of good, but He is also capable of being severe. 

Packer says it this way: “Both appear alongside each other in the economy of grace.  Both must be acknowledged together if God is to be truly known.”

Most of us like consistency.  We look for patterns in human behavior.  Sometimes when we don’t see them, we create them.  We love to put complex people in boxes and the quicker we can do that, the more we are at ease.  We can come to the conclusion that we “know them”.

But we don’t.

Today Packer asserts that many Christians really don’t know God.  He calls our knowledge of God “modern muddle-headedness.”  People say they believe in God, but they have no idea who it is they believe in or what difference believing in Him may make” [Packer, 159].  We don’t know that God is complex enough to be both good and severe at the same time.

How has this happened?  We can’t grapple with a “good” God and a “severe” God.  We have to make Him one or the other.  Guess which characteristic most Christians prefer today?

The “good” God.

Packer goes so far as to say that contemporary Christians feel like God is a “celestial Santa Claus” and this Santa Claus theology cannot cope with the idea of evil.  “How on earth have people got into such a muddle?  What lies at the root of their confusion?

He has four answers.

First of all, we see Christians who operate on “private religious hunches.”  God’s Word is available but to read it is too difficult or too time-consuming.  Once people have their hunches in place, it is too hard to unlearn them.  Packer also points to the problem some people have with pride.  It is ok to base my knowledge on how I feel.  It is humbling to open God’s Word and find out that one’s ideas are not confirmed.

Secondly, many modern people think all religion is equal, and they draw many of their ideas from “pagan” sources instead of Christian sources.  “We have to try to show people the uniqueness and finality of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s last word to man” [Packer, 159].  It is so hard to confront people with “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” [Matthew 7].  Most avoid that Scripture because we fear that it may be offensive to nonbelievers, but it really says that Jesus is the way; every faith on the face of the earth in not equal to Christianity.  One who desires to be a Christian should consult God’s Word.

Next is the problem that culture normalizes sinfulness.  Let’s be truthful, as people act out and their behavior becomes more acceptable due to large numbers of copy cats, celebrity actors or some kind or popular trend, people cease to recognize the reality of their own sinfulness.  Some forms of sinfulness become accepted and no one wants to be confronted by the idea that God does not appreciate such behavior.  It is our task as believers to introduce people to the fact that God can be severe in His judgement of sin.  This is not popular and to be honest, Packer is right when he says that it can cause “enmity against God.”

Last is the habit people have of disassociation.  We are back to the idea I expressed above about consistency.  We just don’t like disparate ideas when it comes to humans and we don’t like disparate ideas about God.  He is either one way of the other.  He can’t be both good and severe.   As humans, why do we stereotype?   Before you say, “I don’t,” let’s be honest; everyone does.  It is a short cut to making conclusions about people.  People are complex and we never take the time we need to know someone.  We jump to conclusions based on scant evidence.  It takes less thought and it certainly takes less time. 

God is complex; much more complex than we can ever understand.  Our finite minds can’t comprehend His nature and if we believe in a God who is always “good” and never “severe,” we don’t have to worry about the consequences of sin.  Packer writes “On the basis of Santa Claus theology, sins create no problem, and atonement becomes needless” [160].  It is no different for those who disregard God’s commandments than those who keep them.  “Trembling at His word gets written off as impossibly old fashioned—‘Victorian,’ ‘Puritan’ and ‘sub-Christian’ [160].

“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.”

Yes, it is from our Bibles, from Romans 11: 22.

God’s Word…

God’s truth…

God is good…

God is also severe…

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The Cross: Protection from a Wrathful God…

Sodom and Gomorroh were notoriously sinful cities that are mentioned in the book of Genesis.  Due to their wickedness, God destroyed them by “sulfur and fire.”  God reveals to Abraham that He is going to destroy the inhabitants of these cities and Abraham “negotiates” with God, saying that he thinks he can find city dwellers who deserve to be saved due to their righteousness.  If he can find enough righteous people, he asks God to spare the cities.  He can only find Lot and his family, not enough people to change God’s mind.

As a child, I had this vivid image of God destroying these cities.  He is in heaven, raining down thunderbolts on the cities with an angry face.  He shows no mercy, destroying every building and everyone in every building.  All is reduced to rubble.

God’s wrath…

I begin with this to illustrate how many Christians may see God.  God can be vengeful, like a magistrate sentencing criminals and executing them.   God is up in heaven throwing down thunderbolts directly at sinners [ahem… you and me].

God is active in exacting His vengeance.

But is that the case?

The answer is no.

As mentioned in my December 28th post, God does not dole out punishment on sinners unless they deserve it.  They choose to disobey God’s commands.  Jesus says “Come to me….Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me [Matthew, 11: 28-29].  He is inviting people to choose to save themselves.  Deny yourself, pick up your cross, become My disciple and let Me have My way with you.  He invites us to lose our former life so we can find our life with Him.

Recipients of God’s wrath are people who choose to ignore God; they turn away, and they have their own way.  They defy God.  They would rather be by themselves than be in the company of God.  This deliberate choice is what many do not see.

God is merely respecting man’s choice.  J.I. Packer puts it this way:  “What God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgements which those whom He ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow [from Knowing God, 153].  This is God’s extremely consistent behavior throughout the whole Bible from His first wrath that we see in Genesis in the Garden of Eden to Revelation.  God is merely respecting human choice; He is not cruel, He is not wanton, He is not irresponsible in His infliction of pain on man.

Before we go further, let’s be clear about God’s “attitude” as revealed in His actions.  Packer says that God is “resolute” in taking action in punishing sin.  If God loves it when we make good choices, He hates it when we make poor ones.  Packer writes about God’s “active manifestation of His hatred of irreligion and moral evil.”  God’s laws are clear; we know what He expects, yet we choose not to obey His laws.  Passages from Ephesians are clear about this; sinners are “fitted for destruction,” “vessels of wrath” [objects of wrath], servants of the world, flesh and the devil.

They call down wrath on themselves.

This raises the question about how we can know we have displeased God.  Without being too “theological,” Packer speaks directly to any reader of his book [believer or unbeliever alike].  God imprints His revelation of His wrath “directly on every person’s conscience….no one is entirely without inklings of judgement to come.”  By inklings, Packer means that if one looks around, the world is full of signs of what he calls “degeneration.”  A sampling of some signs are man’s idolatry, man’s immorality, uninhibited lusts and sinful hearts.  The Apostle Paul describes the process of degeneration as “God giving man over.”  God gave man over to sexual impurity; God gave man over to shameful lust.  Similar to Packer, Paul writes that one need only look around in the world to see what God has “given them over to” [from Romans].

This sounds so dire, many readers may have already given up on reading this post, but let’s talk about a positive, like how can we be delivered from God’s wrath?

I sin. We all sin.  “No one is righteous, not even one.”

We know God’s law cannot save us; it can only stimulate sin as we choose to rebel or it can show us how far we fall from righteous living.  The outward manifestation of “religion” cannot save us; we might look good in the eyes of man, but God knows our heart. 

Our delivery is due to the blood of Jesus.  Our delivery is due to the faith we have in trusting the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus came to earth to save man from God’s wrath.  He sacrificed Himself for us.  Packer refers to this act as “propitiation,” a sacrifice that “averts wrath through expiating sin and canceling guilt.”  This is the heart of the Gospel; that Jesus is our substitute on the cross.  He is our “sinbearer.”  What stands between us and the thunderbolts of a wrathful God?

The cross of Jesus Christ.

First Thessalonians 1:10 says it so well: “If we are Christ’s through faith, then we are justified through His cross, and the wrath will never touch us, neither here or hereafter.”

As we return to how we began this post, we do have to admit that God is a wrathful God.  It would do us all good to respect Him, to “fear” Him, but let’s not focus on His wrath so much that we forget to acknowledge the Gospel of salvation, the propitiation of the cross and the wonder of God’s love for all of us.  Godly wrath is real and our fear of His righteous anger is justified. 

Is it fashionable to preach God’s wrath from the pulpit?

Judging from contemporary pastors who just can’t bring themselves to deliver a “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God*” sermon, I would say it is not.  But to ignore God’s wrath totally is to avoid the truth of the Bible. 

Maybe we should take Packer’s approach to this topic, expressed at the end of his chapter on “The Wrath of God:”  “If we would truly know God, and be known by Him, we should ask Him to teach us here and now to reckon with the solemn reality of His wrath.”

Where can we find this teaching?

You know where.

Between the covers of your Bible.

*a famous sermon on God’s wrath delivered by Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts on July 8, 1741

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