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” . 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.
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.”