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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“Sometimes We Truly Deserve The Switch”

I was at a family gathering recently and I told a tale of my youth.  It may sound appalling by today’s standards but it was true.  As a rambunctious boy, I committed a grievous error by damaging one of my brothers [on purpose], and I had to be corrected.  I remember feeling such trepidation as I anticipated what my Dad was going to do to punish me.   I will never forget his request.  He said to go get a switch [a small limb from a tree] so he could administer my punishment.  I guess I was not thinking straight because I brought him a little sprig.  When he saw what I got, he was not amused; in fact, I think it angered him more.  He got a more appropriate size switch and I surely felt the pain of my error.  Before thinking ill of my Dad, you must know that I truly deserved the punishment and I have never regretted getting it.  Of course, today corporal punishment is frowned upon, but in my youth, it was used and it worked in some situations.  It made a serious impression on me; I never repeated my “grievous error” again.

I use this story to introduce a difficult subject to write about one of the most difficult I have had to write about in our effort to know God.   In previous posts I struggled to discuss the topic of God as Judge [not a popular concept].  Now I must discuss “The Wrath of God.”  It has been so much easier writing about God’s unchanging nature, His majesty, His wisdom, His Word as truth, His Love and His grace.  Those were all positive attributes of God that J.I. Packer discusses in his book Knowing God.   Just like I shied away from Dad’s switch, no one seems to want to deal with the fact that God is wrathful. 

The Bible certainly makes the case that God is wrathful.  Packer comments that Biblical writers talk of God’s wrath repeatedly: “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.”  Packer cites A.W. Pink: “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness” [From The Attributes of God, 75].  God indeed does not fear using His “deep, intense anger and indignation” [148].

Ok, one of the attributes of God is His wrath.  What is the problem?   God’s wrath makes many Christians uncomfortable.  The modern way of thinking about God’s wrath is to play it down, even to the point that many believers do not even want to think that God feels it for man.  I do not recall any pastor in my lifetime preaching a sermon on God’s wrath.  I certainly have never heard a pastor on television or the radio preach a sermon on wrath.  I don’t recall reading a written exposition on the topic of God’s wrath. 

Packer calls this a “taboo topic.”  “Christians by and large have accepted the taboo and conditioned themselves never to raise the matter” [149].

Read the words from Nahum 1: 2-8: “The Lord is a jealous God and avengeth; the Lord avengeth and is full of wrath; the Lord taketh vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for his enemies.  The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty….Who can stand before His indignation?  and who can abide the fierceness of His anger?  His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by Him.  The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and He knoweth them that put their trust in Him.  But He …will pursue His enemies into darkness.”

Many may think that Nahum is a little known Old Testament book; “wrath is not that common in my New Testament Bible”.  The Apostle Paul writes the Lord Jesus will one day appear “in blazing fire” and “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.”  Packer writes “throughout the New Testament the wrath of God is…against those who have defied Him.”  He cites Scripture in Romans, Thessalonians, Revelation, Luke “and so on”.

This raises the question, if Bible writers do not have a problem expressing the reality of God’s wrath, why do we have such a problem with it?

Packer says the root cause is our idea that wrath is somehow an unworthy attribute of God.

Too often, man takes human characteristics and applies them to God and this may just be the case with wrath.  If a human being is feeling wrath, this suggests someone who is out of control, irrational, full of wounded pride or just horrible temper.  Packer writes that there is no “anthropomorphic language of Scripture” to suggest that God has any of these traits.  People twist the idea that God made us in His image to the idea that God shares the same characteristics of us sinful creatures.  God must have the same corresponding qualities we have.

God does not have to have our qualities.

“God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is.  It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil” [Packer, 151].  In other words, God is angry when it is called for.  I have always heard the expression righteous indignation.  God’s anger is always righteous. 

To others, God’s wrath brings forth images of cruelty.   God’s quick and decisive responses to evil abound in the Bible from the cursing and banishment of Adam and Eve in Genesis to the great assizes of Revelation [the last general judgement of this world].   Is God a cruel God as He administers His punishment for human evil?  Will sinners in this world today be faced with a cruel God as the balance of their life is judged and they are dangled over the pit of hell, which consists of fire and brimstone?  Are people correct in feeling that God can be described as a fierce and cruel monster when His wrath is unleashed?

No God is not too cruel.  His wrath is judicial and His wrath is merited.

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans “The day of God’s wrath is when His righteous judgement will be revealed, when God will give each person according to what he has done [from Romans 2].  The believer knows what God requires and knows what is worthy of punishment [recall my switching?].  Luke 12 states “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  Any believer who has felt the conviction of sin knows that the disobedience of God deserves great and grievous punishment.  God weighs the disobedience and administers the appropriate response.

Secondly, God does not force us to disobey.  That is our choice.  Jesus has come into the world to lead us to a life of light.  If we don’t choose to follow His guidance, who do we have to blame?    Jesus says in Matthew, “Come to Me….take my yoke upon you and learn from Me.”  If we resist this command and decide to live our lives by our own rules, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  “The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him; he shall have his preference.  Nobody stands under the wrath of God except those who have chosen to do so” [Packer, 153].

God gives man what he deserves, nothing more; nothing less.  God’s wrath is “poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by [human] cruelty” [Packer, 153].

Today we can act like God is not a wrathful God, denying one of the most obvious attributes that we see in His Word, but that is not very realistic.  God will act to punish evil.  He will do so in a righteous way, administering His will in a judicious manner.   Just because we lose control as we express our anger does not mean that He will.  He does not; he gives us what we deserve, nothing more; nothing less.

It is hard to admit.  We don’t want it.  We know it will hurt.  We can’t imagine our friendly Father punishing us. 

But that is what He has to do.

Yes…

Sometimes we truly deserve “the switch.”

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“Christ, The Always Gift For All Our Days*”

I have had the pleasure of reading the Bible through a few times, but as you know, it is a complex book.  The Word of God provided a challenge to me [as I am sure, to you].  Some parts remain deeply ingrained in memory while other parts do not.  No one can expect to remember it all [or for that matter, understand it all].  Recently I was asked to read Scripture for my church on the third Sunday of Advent. I was asked to read Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s blessing in Luke 1: 46-56.  I decided to really do some serious study prior to my reading, so I could understand the magnitude of the Scripture and the context of Mary’s response. 

I found that I did not recall the context at all.  I did not recall that Elizabeth [the wife of Zechriah] was pregnant with her baby [John the Baptist] when she blessed Mary.  I did not know that when Mary encountered Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby was filled with the Holy Spirit and leaped for joy in her womb.  I did not recall that Elizabeth was far beyond child-bearing years and Zechariah had received an Angelic visit with the announcement that his wife was to have a son.

When I taught Sunday school the morning of my reading, I taught on the “Secret of the Christian Life.”  That secret is the secret of joy.  This was on the third Sunday in Advent, the Sunday when the Advent candle is pink, the liturgical color for joy.  I opened my class with “Fa La La La La” and I kept repeating that happy Welsh refrain from Deck the Halls.  I kept repeating it until several class members joined in [forced joyfulness?].

I asked tough questions like “What about your life right now is stealing your joy?”  I asked “Why should a Christian be joyful?”  Squirmy questions.  I often ask indirect questions, questions that can prompt a comfortable response that does not reveal things personal things.  I have even used rhetorical questions which are statements that are posed in the form of questions: no reply necessary.  On this Sunday I let the squirmy questions come out.

Why do we not approach the Christmas season with joy?  Some would say that it is a cultural problem.  We are influenced too much by “the world” which expects a big, glossy, loud and fast Christmas.  Turn on the television and you see it on the commercials and in many Christmas shows and movies.  We have to be ultimately happy and of course, the more presents we get under the tree, the happier we will be.  Christmas is a mad dash to purchase gifts, the more dear a person is in your life, the more difficult it is to buy them the “perfect” gift.  We wind up spending way too much money, wasting way too much time and for what? 

I truly do not know.

Ann Voskamp** says that at Christmas, we spend too much time at the foot of the Christmas tree.  We think we can understand the story of Christmas there.  Instead she thinks we should try to spend time at the Jesse Tree.  At that tree we will find hope; we will find true joy.

Isaiah 1 recounts the story of the tree [which really represents the family tree of Jesus]: “Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—yes a Branch bearing fruit from the old root….In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of civilization to all the world.  The nations will rally to Him, and the land where He lives will be a glorious place.”

Imagine our obsession with that big real or fake evergreen.  Replace that with a stump.

What a contrast.

Imagine our obsession with what the world tells us to do during Christmas:  go for the big, glossy, loud and fast.  Instead focus on the miracles that are within each of us, focus on making time and space for Christ in the Christmas season, focus on being defiant in the face of a world that seems insane and too stressed.  Wait for the coming Christ.  Wait……..

What a contrast.

From out of that stump grows a sprig, a hopeful spring, a sign that hope still exists, is alive and well in this world.

The gift that really matters is coming; the gift of Jesus Christ.   On Christmas day we celebrate the greatest gift.  On Christmas day the Light comes into the world,  the Light that shines in all the dark places of this world, all the dark places in our hearts. 

When Christmas comes, the Jesus candle burns brightest, burns hot, gives its light to the world.  The greatest gift comes into the world for you and for me.  Christ came into the world for all of us; we come into the world for Him.

Like the shepherds at the manger, when we consider what we have been given, we want to spread the word to the world.  “When you’re a manger tramp who came with nothing but your ragged heart and leaned in close over that crèche, when you’ve beheld His glory, the white heat of a Love like this; who doesn’t tramp out of the manger and into the world with a glowing heart like hot embers in your chest?  A heart like this could catch the world on fire” [Voskamp, 258].  

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given” [Isaiah 9: 6].

When Christmas comes, we get our greatest gift….

God is with us…

“Christ, the always Gift for all our days.”***

When Christmas comes, we understand Christian joy.

Christ the Christian’s secret…Christ, the source of our joy…

*Commenting on J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God has been challenging.  Since beginning this blog on December 30, 2014 with Kyle Idleman’s AHA!, I realize how far it has come.  Idleman’s thoughts are exemplary, full of well-intended discussion of the “aha” moments we can find in our spiritual lives but Packer’s work is much more dense, more thorough and more complex.  I began in 2014 by posting almost every day.  Recently I have been posting on a weekly basis and that is ok, because Knowing God is so difficult.  Recently I have been commenting on chapters that are the hardest to comment on; “God the Judge” is not full of “happy” news as we have had to confront the fact that Jesus Christ will decide if our body of earthly work is good enough for salvation or condemnation. At this Christmas season, I have decided to suspend our discussion for one post because the next chapter is “The Wrath of God.”  I would like to be uplifting in my thoughts five days before the birth of Jesus.  Hopefully the discussion in today’s post will be acceptable for all who follow this blog and to anyone who visits…

**author of The Greatest Gift

***Voskamp, The Greatest Gift, 259.

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