Alec Brooks has served as President of Bethany Fellowship International, Senior Pastor of Bethany Missionary Church, and Professor of Theology and Missiological Studies at Bethany College of Missions, in Minneapolis, MN.
Rev. Alec Brooks is an asute observer of Hisory, who has a strong sense of mission to the poor and suffering. His powerful preaching and teaching of the Word of God and focus on missions has led hundreds of young people to choose life-long missionary careers around the world, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, and Latin America. He is an anointed counselor to the missionaries all around the world.
He is closely associated with the projects of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse. As President, he leads Charis International, a Christian relief organization, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Alec Brooks may be contacted in his e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where In the World Is God? was originally published in India by MorningStar Bookhouse, Tenkasi 627811 for distribution among the Indian pastors and Christian workers.
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai
CHRISTIAN LITERATURE TODAY
Was blind, but now I see.
1 : 2 December 2001
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS GOD?
1. God’s Relationship to World
as Creator and Redeemer
2. God’s Greatness
3. God Determines Great Purposes
and Keeps Promises
4. All Things are Present to God
5. God’s Goodness
6. God is Merciful, Compassionate,
Faithful & Persistent
7. God’s Grief: The Problem
8. The Pathos of God
9. The Price God Has Paid
10. The Essence of God’s Grace
11. The Extent of God’s Grace
12. The Experience of Grace
References and Bibliography
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Bible, copyright 1989, by the
Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Several years ago, I was invited to speak at a retreat for workers serving Afghan refugees in Pakistan. As I considered what I should say to people struggling ,under difficult and often discouraging circumstances,to show God’s love to suffering people, I felt led to speak of God’s relationship to the world.
In the light of what they, and many others in similar circumstances were facing, I wanted to raise and try to answer the question, Where in the world is God? because it is easy to lose sight of God in a world that seems more often to witness to God’s absence than to his presence.
This book grow out of the talks I gave in Pakistan and that I have since given in other places in the world. My hope and prayer is that through it Christians will have a better understanding of God and his relationship to the world which he loves passionately, for which Jesus suffered and died unconditionally, and in which the Holy Spirit works unceasingly.
I am indebted to many who have contributed to my understanding and helped to shape my thinking. A number of these are listed in the reference and bibliography.
GOD’S RELATIONSHIP TO WORLD
AS CREATOR AND REDEEMER
Are Our Lives Like Footprints in the Sand?
Life forces us to raise questions about the nature and purpose of human existence in general and our own in particular. If we think at all, we sooner or later contemplate the meaning of our lives and the things that we do to sustain them and fill them with some measure of satisfaction. We must wonder whether or not our lives are like footprints in the sand which leave an impression for a little while but are soon washed away by the tide or erased by the wind so that no one would be able to tell that they had ever been there.
Why Care about the World's Suffering?
Questions about the meaning of our lives and the things we do to sustain them, while important for all Christians, are critically important for those of us involved in relief and development, who hope somehow to relieve people’s suffering and improve their lives. We must be able to make sense of what we are doing and why if we are not to be overwhelmed by feelings of futility and despair. Are we being foolishly and needlessly heroic? Are we engaged in an exercise in futility? At the end of the day, will any of what we do matter? Why don’t we give up and live, as do most people, lives indifferent to or uninvolved in the suffering of others?
No matter who we are or what we spend our lives doing, life only makes sense if it is seen in the context or against the back-drop of a larger picture. We need to know that we are part of a greater whole, that we are contributing to a history and purpose that gives meaning to who we are and what we are doing, that what we are doing is part of the unfolding purpose of creation, and that neither what we do or who we are is insignificant or unnoticed.
Dealing with the World’s Suffering from the Perspective of God
Those of us who believe that in obedience to God we must spend much of our lives dealing with some degree of the world’s suffering, must do so from the perspective of God both as to how we see him and how he sees the world. Only this can keep us from disappointment, despair, and overwhelming discouragement.
We will not long be able to do what we believe God has called us to do if we become separated from him in the doing of it by doubt or despair, or if we lose sight of who and where God is in relationship to what we are doing.
It is only the reality of God’s existence and our relationship to him that can sustain and satisfy us. This means that we must not only know that God is, we must have a growing understanding of who he is, and what he is doing in the world, and to what end. We and everything we do must be seen in the light of God’s presence and purpose in the world.
Learn to Think of God Correctly
Because what we believe about God powerfully shapes our lives, it is critical that we learn to think of God correctly.
The American journalist and critic, Thomas Matthews, a preacher’s son, writes in his autobiography:
Try as I may, I cannot altogether shake off my
habitual awe of the church nor completely dis-
sociate it from the far more fearful God to whom
the church makes its ritual obeisance. I still think of God—no, not think, but apprehend, as I was trained as a child to envision him—as a watchful, vengeful, omniscient policeman, instantly aware of the slightest tinge of irreverence in my innermost thought, always ready to pounce if I curse, if I mention him in anger, fun or mere habit (though with ominous patience he might hold his hand for a time) .... But how can that kind of fear of God be the beginning of wisdom? (Quoted by T. E. Fretheim in The Suffering of God, p. 1.)
Sad to say, such and understanding of God has led many people to reject the very idea of God. This is why, when people say they do not believe in God, it is important to ask which God it is that they do not believe in. Very often, the God they are rejecting is not at all like Jesus and therefore, not the God of the Bible.
Come to Know Him as He Has Revealed Himself to Be
Because the greatest knowledge anyone can have is the knowledge of God, it is of the utmost importance that we not simply know about him or know him as we imagine him to be. We must come to know him as he is in himself, as he has revealed himself to be.
Thus says the Lord: do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, Do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. Jeremiah 9:23.
And this is eternal life, that they may know you,
the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have
sent. John 17:3.
Pascal, the great French philosopher and mathematician said, "There are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him, and those who seek him because they do not know him."
John Calvin, said in his Institutes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
Our God Is a Relational God
While it is legitimate to infer the existence of God from the existence and nature of the universe, God can only be known as he is in himself in the revelation he has given of himself to Israel and in the life and work of Jesus. And while the revelation that God has given of himself is not and cannot be exhaustive, it is, nevertheless, adequate so that we can know God truly. It is most certainly true that God is much more than is revealed to us, but it is also true that he is never other than is revealed to us.
God wants us to know and understand who he is, not in abstraction, but in relationship to the world as its Creator and Redeemer, in order that we may enter into fellowship with him and live our lives before him, for he is a relational God. God is not an object to be studied, but a person who can be known only in and through personal relationship. This is the key to understanding the nature of God and the nature of God's relationship to us and the world around us.
This is why in the Bible, what are referred to in theology as the attributes of God, are most often descriptions of the ways in which God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has made himself known to his people in their encounters with him; or are ascriptions of praise by God's people in response to their encounters with God. For example, when God is described as being Almighty, the Bible is not so much defining God as it is ascribing praise to God as the creator and sustainer of the world, or for the ways in which he has shown himself strong on behalf of his people.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:1, 2.
. . . and I will be your father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
2 Cor. 6:18.
Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Rev. 15:3.
Importance of God's Self Revelation in Jesus
It is essential that we root our understanding of God not in abstract philosophical ideas about him conceived in the mind of man as he thinks about God, but in how he has revealed himself in his relationship to the world as its Creator and Redeemer, particularly as he has revealed himself in Jesus. In other words, philosophically developed ideas of God must always be subject to the judgment of God's self revelation in Jesus. In thinking of God, we must always keep in mind what the Apostle John wrote,
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. John 1:18.
Unfortunately, this principle was not always followed in the Church's encounter with the philosophy of the Greeks.
The early Fathers of the church too readily accepted as
valid insights into the nature of God what Greek philosophers such as Plato taught, believing that they had received revelation by God from nature.
Robert Jenson writes:
The inheritance of Hellenic interpretation was received as what the scholastics would come to call “natural theology,” a supposed body of truth about God shared with the heathen and so taken to be resultant, at least in principle, from the merely created circumstances of life and the merely created religious and intellectual capacities of the soul.
Such of the biblical discourse about God as was clearly not shared by the heathen was therefore thought not to be thus generally available; it was received as a higher “supernatural” body of truth about God, given only by “revelation.” But when the matter is put so, the “natural” knowledge of God becomes the foundation of the “supernat-
ural”; Homer and Plato write the first chapter in the locus on God. And so the supposed timeless-
ness and impassibility of God inevitably determine all that follows. . . . (Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity, p. 117.)
This led to an understanding of God that was not always consistent with or was contrary to the revelation God has given of himself in his Word and in Jesus. Our understanding of the nature of God, therefore, must be rooted in and shaped by Scripture, because in it God makes himself known to us.
The Bible is the story of God told in relationship to the world. And the beginning chapters of that story are found in the book of Genesis. What the first few chapters of Genesis tell us about God in his relationship to the world as Creator and redeemer is: that he is Great and he is Good; that he Grieves, and he is
Gracious. Everything else we learn of God in the Bible is an unfolding of these truths.
*** *** ***
In the Presence of God
We live our lives in the presence of God. Neither we nor anything we do are unknown to him or hidden from him. Therefore, for us to live well, knowing that we are at peace with God, it is essential that we understand something of his nature and the nature of his relationship to us and to the world.
The greatness of God is first revealed to us in his creating the world and is celebrated throughout the Bible. As the creator of all else, there is no one greater than he and no one more worthy of our praise and worship.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. . . . Genesis 1:1.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Psalm 96:4, 5.
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Rev. 4:11.
God Is Above Everything and Everyone Else
The expression, God, is not a name but a descriptive or identity term which can and should be applied only to one who fits what we mean when we speak of God. There are essential characteristics that are true of God and of no one else and which set God apart from everything and everyone else. He is sui generis—in a class of his own. There is no one who can compare with him.
This means that God occupies a unique position and value status relative to everything else. St. Anslem defined God as a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
For the Judeo-Christian faith, the name of the one who bears the title God, is Yaweh, the God of Israel. To be a Christian, therefore, is to confess that Yahweh is the one than which no greater can be conceived. It also means that our understanding of the meaning of God’s greatness must be shaped by the way in which Yahweh reveals himself to us.
God, the Creator, is the uncreated, eternal one who alone contains within himself the reason for his existence. His being is like no other. He is dependent on nothing or no one else for his existence; therefore, his being cannot be threatened, harmed or destroyed. And he is the one upon whom all else depends at every moment for existence.
Langdon Gilkey points out,
Involved in the idea of creation is the clear implication that nothing in all existence, except the Lord who transcends it, is self-sufficient or everlasting. All things great and small, the mountains as well as the flowers fade, the great nations that seem to endure as well as the most transitory life, the mighty of the earth as well as the weak, all have received their being and existence, not from themselves, but from God. None is the
source of itself and its power, nor can any creature preserve itself in existence for another instant without God’s power. (Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth, p. 56.)
This truth is declared again and again throughout the Bible, as one writer after another affirms the majesty of God the creator.
To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Isaiah 40:25.
I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. Psalm 145:1-3.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. Psalm 33:6, 9.
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Revelations 4:11.
God . . . calls into existence the things that do not exist. Romans 4:17.
When the Bible tells us that God created out of nothing, it is affirming that our existence depends upon God and God alone, and that we and the world have one ground of existence—the
will of God, who is love and who desires that we love him in return. This is why, when the Apostle John writes, We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), he is speaking not just of our redemption but of our creation. They are both rooted in God’s love.
Never Confuse God with the World
The Bible also clearly establishes that as the creator of the
world, God must never be confused with it, which is one of the points that Genesis 1:1 is making. God must be seen as distinct from the world—there is God and everything else. It is important for us to understand this in the light of the world we live in. God and the world are not the same; therefore evil is real, and good and evil are not the same. This means that in resisting evil, in whatever form we may encounter it, we are not resisting God, we are, in fact, standing with God against evil.
But while God is never to be confused with the world, neither must he be separated from it. The Bible makes it clear that God is personal and therefore relational. And what the first chapters of Genesis make plain is that while God is related to the world in general, he is related to man in particular. God cares for the world that he has made, and he made the world as the place in which man would enter into and maintain loving fellowship with him.
For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. Isaiah 57:15.
It is only against this backdrop that we can understand and appreciate the unfolding relationship of God to man as it is revealed in the first six chapters of Genesis. Here God anticipates and actualizes man’s creation, is deeply affected by his refusal to trust him and remain in loving fellowship with him, refuses to abandon him, and graciously acts to rescue him at great cost to himself.
The Preeminence of God
As the creator and sustainer of all, God is the source of all value and the most valuable being in the universe. Therefore,
he alone is worthy of our worship and his will is the measure of value for all who trust in him, and the ultimate standard in the light of which their value judgments are to be made and their lives and characters reshaped.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from
everlasting to everlasting you are God.
O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed. O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! Psalm 95:1-4.
To quote Landon Gilkey again,
The most fundamental question of religious thought is: who is God–He in whom we put our trust? And the primary answer in both Bible and creed is: “He is the maker of the heavens and the earth.” Of course this fundamental assertion about God is accompanied by others of equal importance: that God has redeemed Israel, that He has sent His Son into the world to reconcile the world to Himself, that He loves His children and promises them eternal life if they return to Him, and so on. These are the crucially significant actions God has undertaken for us, and so they are the center of the devoted concern of Christians. But we learn who has done these things through the all-important affirmation that the Creator of all has done them.
In this sense the doctrine of creation provides that primary definition of God which gives meaning and significance to all else that is said about God. That God is righteous judge, a loving savior, and the promiser of an eternal destiny, is certainly the central message of the Gospel. But the importance and meaning of these very affirmations depends upon the belief that this judgment, this saving love, and this promise come to us from the Creator–He who brought us and all else into being, and so He who claims us and rules over us with an essential and eternal power. (Landon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth, pp. 4-5.)
God Has an Ultimate Claim on Us
We belong to God alone. Others may lay claim to us, or we may lay claim to ourselves, but God alone has the right to us because it is he alone who has made us and it is he who gives us existence at every moment. It is he alone who can overcome the uncertainty and finitude of our lives, give them value and meaning, and bring them to fulfillment.
God Has Ultimate Power over Us
We depend completely on God. All other powers diminish, his never does. By his “powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3) he called us into being and sustains us in existence, and by his word he calls us to redemption. And by his word he will call us to resurrection, create a new heaven and a new earth and sustain us there forever.
“Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and it
is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.”
1 Chronicles 29:11-13.
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
God Has Ultimate Significance for Us
God is the goal and the good of our existence. It is he alone who gives value to our lives. We do not have value in and of ourselves. We are valuable because God, who is supreme in value, bestows value on us freely in his love.
There is no reason for our existence apart from God’s love; therefore we can have no other reason for existence, no other purpose in life, than to live in his love.
Attempting to establish our own purpose in life is as futile and illusory as believing that we came into being by ourselves or that we sustain ourselves in existence.
Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 1 Corinthians 8:6.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38.
The Prevenience of God
God is before all things. This refers not only to our existence but also to our experience of God. He is always ahead of us as the one who graciously takes the initiative in all his dealings with us, and when we turn to God we are but responding to what he has done, is doing, and will do to draw us into the future he has for us.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Jeremiah 29:11.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words
will not pass away.” Mark 13:31.
*** *** ***
GOD DETERMINES GREAT PURPOSES AND KEEPS PROMISES
Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent
In describing the greatness of God, theologians have often spoken of him as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. While these ways of describing God’s greatness may be helpful, they can hinder our understanding of God when they are defined in abstraction—that is, when they are defined from the viewpoint of philosophy rather than the from the biblical perspective of God’s personal relationship to the world.
For example, in light of their historical experience, the Greeks concluded in reference to time: What Time produces, Time destroys. In Greek mythology, Chronos devoured all his children. This is why Greek religion was a search for that which was unaffected by the flow of time, something that was immune to change, something that was above the ravages of time—timeless and impassable. For the Greeks, therefore, God was removed from the world, unaffected by it and indifferent to it.
This understanding of God entered the stream of Christian thinking and has determined a great deal of Christian theology ever since, often at the expense of and contrary to the biblical understanding of God. This is why it is critical that we start with God’s revelation of himself in scripture and in Jesus,
in order to understand God. We must allow God to define for us what God is like. And we must be prepared to discard any ideas that we hold that are contrary to how God shows himself to be. The God of the Jews and Christians is not identified by timeless and abstract attributes, but by historical events within the life and history of Israel, Jesus and the Church. The Bible knows no other God.
Understand God by His Own Definition
Because the Bible knows no other God, God’s greatness is to be understood as God defines it for us, not as we imagine it to be in the light of our understanding of greatness. This means that we must understand God’s greatness not by abstract definition but in the light of the revelation Yaweh, the God of Israel, has given of himself in the person of Jesus.
The Lutheran theologian, Ted Peters, reflecting on the importance of the Incarnation for our understanding of who God is, writes:
At stake here is our understanding of God. Must we begin with a philosophically produced concept of an immutable spiritual essence that dwells ineffably and eternally in metaphysical isolation from the physical world? Must we then pin that on the divine symbols whenever they appear in the New Testament discourse? Or, is God free to define divinity? Is God permitted to be the author of who God is and what God does? Can we take seriously what the voice uttered to Moses from the burning bush: “I will be who I will be?” The two-natures discussion is a response to an event in which God altered our definition of what constitutes divinity. In the incarnation God ceases to be God in a previously stereotypical sense and enters fully into the plight of human suffering. The history of Jesus is divine history. (Ted Peters, God--the World’s Future, p. 203.)
Paul Ramsey writes:
Ordinarily it is supposed that the way to obtain a more and more perfect conception of the divine nature is to add on as much power as possible, as much impeccable self sufficiency, as much imperturbable sovereignty, as much unqualified majesty.
The Greeks had this notion of divinity in mind when they denied that God could love anything less than himself, and Nietzsche when he said, “If there were a God I could not endure not being he.”
However, from a Christian point of view it is possible to think of God too highly, for Christ reverses all we expect Highness to be; the God who put him forward is one whose “grace” is only his mercy and forgiveness. Of him we cannot think too lowly.
Nietzsche could not have endured being this down-going, giving-over sort of God; indeed, living men can hardly bear being his disciples. Such radical reversal of ordinary conceptions of the divine nature follows from the basic conviction that Christ is the clue to knowledge of God (Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, p. 22.)
God’s Power Is not Simply Unlimited Energy
While it is true that there is nothing that God is unable to do because of a lack of potential or power, God’s power must not be thought of as simply unlimited energy. When we speak of God as being omnipotent or all powerful, we mean that he has the creative power to bring about any coherently describable state of affairs consistent with his desires and intentions. God can, and desires to do, anything that is required by love and that love can do. Therefore God’s power is always exercised as a revelation and in the service of his self-giving, self-limiting, self-sacrificing love.
This is the principle that Jesus struggled to teach the dis-ciples both by exhortation and example:
A dispute also arose among them as to which one
of them was to be the greatest. “But he said to them, The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” Luke 22:24-26.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” John 13:3-15.
A Greatness Very Much Unlike Worldly Greatness
It was because Jesus knew who he was, where he had come from, and where he was going that he did what he did. Jesus’ divine nature was just as truly manifest in the washing of the disciples’ feet as in the creating of the universe, because whatever God calls us to be, he already is—the greatest in the Kingdom. A servant’s heart, not position or status, is what make one great in God’s kingdom. This is greatness very much unlike what the world considers greatness. But it is God’s message to us because, Jesus not only speaks God’s word to us, he is God’s word to us.
The Scottish theologian, Thomas Torrance, has written,
. . .Everything we actually think and say of God must be constrained and controlled within the bounds of the revelation of the Father in and through the incarnate Son. This is a revelation of God’s almightiness that conflicts with the idea of limitless arbitrary power which we generate out of our this worldly experiences, make infinite, and attribute to God, for the divine power manifest in Jesus Christ is of an altogether different kind. It is not in terms of what we think God can do, but in terms of what God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ that we may understand something of what divine almightiness really is. (T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, p. 82.)
And Colin Gunton reminds us,
When Revelation 13:8 (also 1 Peter 1:20, John 17:24) speaks of ‘the lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ we should not take him to be fancifully projecting back into the past an event
from recent history. If Jesus is the sacrificial self-giving of God, we must take it with every seriousness as an insight into the eternal being of the Godhead. The temporal sacrifice which is the ‘giving up’ (Romans 8:32, John 3:16) or ‘sending’ (Romans 8:3) of the Son is not an act foreign to the deity, not an isolated intervention, because it springs from what God is in eternity.
For this reason, it is not a mistake to conceive creation, too, as a function of the self-giving of God, in which out of the free, overflowing goodness of his life he gives reality and form to something that is other than he, simply for its own
sake. (Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement, p. 149.)
The Swedish theologian Gustav Aulen states,
Christian faith maintains that divine power is
nothing else than the power of love. The power
of God is not some obscure and inert fatum (fate or destiny) or a capricious and indefinable will to power, but only and exclusively the power of love. (Quoted by H. Ray Dunning in Grace, Faith and Holiness, p. 200.)
God Is Able to Keep His Promises
Because he is almighty, God is able to make and keep great promises and creatively accomplish his purposes, even in the face of opposition. He is able to create and to redeem, to overcome all evil and renew everything that he has made.
Ah Lord God! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them. O Great and mighty God whose name is the Lord of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of mortals, rewarding all according to their ways and according to the fruit of their doings. Jeremiah 32:17.
Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. Joshua 21:45.
The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
purified seven times. Psalm 12:6.
God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a
mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Numbers 23:19.
Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel according to all that he promised; not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke through his servant Moses.
1 Kings 8:56.
This God—his way is perfect; the promise of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him. Psalm 18:30.
In the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began. Titus 1:2.
Sovereignty of God
Such an understanding of God’s power must govern our understanding of God’s sovereignty. The sovereignty of God, which is the relationship he bears to the world as its creator, sustainer and redeemer, does not mean that God determines all that happens so that all that transpires is his will. The sovereign God experiences limitation, because the world he has in love freely and sovereignly chosen to create is real, and man has significant freedom. The sovereign God also experiences frustration because of man’s unwillingness to trust him and do his will.
In Matthew 23:37-39, Jesus grieves over Jerusalem and cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”
And in Acts 7:51 Stephen says of the leaders of the Jews that they “ . . . always resist the Holy Spirit . . . as did their ancestors.”
God’s Sovereignty is Qualified by His Faithfulness
It is also true that God’s sovereignty is qualified by his faithfulness to his promises—God will keep his word, no matter
what. And in faithfulness to his promises, God is sovereignly working through the power of love to overcome all that resists his will and to bring to pass the goal of creation. This means that the full expression and experience of God’s sovereignty lies in the future when
at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:10-11.
It is at the name of Jesus every thing must bow because it is in his suffering and death on the cross that God’s power finds its greatest expression as self-giving, self-sacrificing love. To bow to Jesus’ Lordship, which is what it means to be a Christian, is to acknowledge the true nature of God’s power and sovereignty, and therefore, to reject all other forms of lordship.
Daniel Migliore says it well when he writes:
God is not absolute power, not infinite egocentrism, not majestic solitariness. The power of the triune God is not coercive but creative, sacrificial, and empowering love. The glory of the triune God consists not in dominating others but in sharing life with others. (Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 63.)
And Keith Ward has written:
One may find a deeper clue to the nature of the Divine in the statement that ‘he who seeks to save himself must lose himself’ (Matthew 16:25); that the perfection of the Divine nature lies, not in its infinite self-satisfaction, but in its self-giving love. (Keith Ward, Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, p. 63.)
In another of his books Keith Ward writes,
There are many ways of spelling out exactly what
is involved in having supreme power or in being of supreme value. When one considers specifically Christian revelation, it holds some surprises for many ideas of power and value. Some notions of supreme power think of it as an all-determining will, which does exactly what it wants and leaves humans wholly at its mercy. The Christian revelation in the person of Jesus, however, suggests a paradoxical idea of power as revealed in weakness, working through love in the passion and apparent defeat of the Cross.
Some notions of supreme value think of it as wholly self-contained, untouched by suffering or by relationship to what is other than itself. Christian revelation, however, sees redemptive love as the supreme value, which relates to others and shares in their suffering.
These ideas, which derive not so much from reflection as from acceptance of the Incarnation and the Cross as revelatory of the divine nature, are so surprising that even the greatest Christian theologians have found it hard to make them central in their thought. (Keith Ward, Religion and Creation, p. 164.)
This is what Paul means when he writes to the Corinthians who were losing sight of the true meaning of God’s power and how it had been revealed in the world,
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness
is wiser than human wisdom, and god’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:18, 24, 25.
All other forms of power are perverted and parasitical; they
must ultimately fail because, not being rooted in love, they have no eternal or uncreated source.
The Cross Is God’s Way of Victory
Paul reminds the Colossians that on the cross Jesus . . . disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. Colossians 2:15.
This is why when Jesus appeared to the fearful disciples who were hiding behind closed doors, he showed them his hands and his side. They thought the powers had triumphed because Jesus had been crucified.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:19-22.
Jesus was telling them that it was the crucified who triumphed and that the cross was not the place of his defeat but of his vindication, the place where he is shown to be the Son of God. On the cross, Jesus manifested the nature of God’s power, which is self-giving love, and God had confirmed this by raising Jesus from the dead. The place of seeming powerlessness is shown to be the place where the glory of God is revealed and the true nature of God’s power is shown.
Because the cross is God’s way of victory, it is the crucified who reigns and imparts the Holy Spirit, who is called in Scripture the Spirit of Jesus, and who is God’s power in the world to overcome the spirit of the world. Those who follow Jesus bear
the mark of the cross, and through prayer and obedience become agents of change in the world, people through whom the Holy Spirit works now to reveal to the world the promise and power of the future—the reign of the crucified God. They are to be a people who demonstrate that the world is overcome, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Zechariah 4:6.
We are further reminded of this in the book of the Revelation, the message of which is victory through self-surrender. There, God’s final triumph over evil is accomplished by the Lion of Judah, who is the slain Lamb, and who is identified with the Almighty.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. Revelation 21:22.
As G. B. Caird so aptly puts it:
John who wrote the Revelation is fond of a resonant title for God, ‘the Omnipotent,’ which he uses nine times. But he repeatedly makes it clear that in using it he is recasting the concept of omnipotence, which he understands not as unlimited coercion but as unlimited per suasion. He hears a voice proclaim the victory of the Lion of Judah, but what he sees is ‘a lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him’ (Revelation 5-6); and it is by the blood of the sacrificed Lamb that the conquering martyrs win their victory, which is the only victory of God (Revelation 12:11). (G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 51-52.)
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ALL THINGS ARE PRESENT TO GOD
Can We Separate God from the World?
The Bible teaches us that while God is never to be identified or confused with the world, neither is he to be separated from it. The God who created the world sustains it not from outside but from within it, by his own creative presence.
T.F. Torrance states this so clearly when he writes,
The universe is not self-supporting or self-explaining as though it had an interior principle of its own, but neither is it mere appearance, for it is ontologically grounded beyond itself on God who has given it an authentic reality and lawfulness of its own which he unceasingly sustains through the presence of his Creator Word and Spirit. If he were to withdraw that presence from the creation it would vanish into nothing.
Thus in the last resort the inherent meaning and truth of the universe lie beyond its own limits in God who loves it, sustains it, and undergirds it by his own divine reality.
In a real sense, then, the universe may be thought of as ‘in God,’ embraced within the power and presence of the Creator Word and Spirit. (T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, p. 101).
We are Always Present to God’s All-Seeing
God knows everything and everyone immediately and exhaustively because everything is present to him and exists only because of his will and power. To exist is to be known and loved by God, for nothing can exist outside of God’s knowledge or power. We are always present to God’s all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-caring love.
Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. Jeremiah 23:24.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being;’ as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ ” Acts 17:24-28.
This is why Keith Ward writes,
I can never be outside of God; for he knows me directly and can cause me to cease to be at any moment; I exist only by his presence and power. God must be conceived as having direct knowledge of every created thing . . . God is more present to each thing even than the soul is to a human body. (Keith Ward, Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, pp. 83-84)
God Is Aware of His World
As the creator and sustainer of the world, God is not only aware of his world, he intensely cares for it. The world and we in particular matter to him, which is why Jesus counsels us not to worry about what might happen to us in the future because God knows our needs and even the smallest details of our lives—the number of hairs on our heads.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ ”Matthew 6:25-34.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31.
God Has Attached Himself to His World
While God need not have made the world, once he created it the world made a difference to him. God with the world is not the same as God without it, and because of his love for it, God refuses to be God without the world. Because God is love, he values our love and is willing to suffer with and for the world even at great cost. Even though we turn away from him, God’s infinite desire for our love is never diminished. With infinite patience he waits for us to turn to him, never forsaking his willingness to forgive those who seek him. This is why it is appropriate that the Greek word used in the Bible for God’s patience, Makrothymia, is translated as long-suffering.
Because he loves us, God is concerned about our good, and because our good is found in loving him, God desires our love. Our good and our love are of infinite value, therefore, because they are of value to God. This is why, even though we have sinned against him,
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. Psalm 145:8, 9.
God Is Active in His World
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being” . . . . Acts 17:26-28.
God is present not only to sustain the world. He is creatively active in the processes of nature and the course of human history to preserve the world from destruction, to make possible its redemption, and to accomplish its re-creation. This is what we mean by God’s providence. Such providence, however, is not meticulous--that is, determining every detail.
To suggest that God’s providence is meticulous--that it is the cause of everything that happens in the world--is to confuse God and his world in the way that pantheism does.
The providence of God is general and consistent with his love and purposes for the world and man, who have a reality of their own which God respects and to which he is able to creatively respond.
Speaking of God’s providence, Professor David A. S. Fergusson, a Scottish Presbyterian theologian, writes,
Rather than presiding over a plan immutable in every detail, providence might better be conceived of as the infinite resourcefulness of God in dealing with human creatures in a manner that is in accordance with the purposes disclosed and fulfilled in Christ. (David A. S. Fergusson, “Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,” in Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 46, p. 477.)
The Holy Spirit, the power and presence of God’s future in the world today, is present everywhere working on the basis of God’s redemptive work in Christ to bring everything to its intended purpose, to its fulfillment in the future reign of God.
It is this reality that gives meaning and focus to our prayers. We are to pray for and in the light of the coming kingdom.
In the Bible, prayer is eschatalogical—it is directed toward the kingdom of God. In prayer, the believer beseeches the God of the future with the desire that the marks of God’s rule (forgiveness, sustenance, deliverance, and the Spirit’s fullness) may be present in the current situation, which is filled with want, need, and insufficiency. Petionary prayer, in other words, requests the coming of the future into the present. (Stanley J. Grenz, Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom, p. 41.)
God Is Affected by His World
God need not have created the world, but once he did, his happiness was bound up with it because the world matters to him. God is not as he was before he created the world because in creating the world God opened himself up to that which he could not and need not have known or experienced apart from the world. As he contemplates the world which he loves and which is ever present to him, God is blessed by the good but it is also true that the sin and suffering of the world cannot but cause him suffering.
While the divine life is indeed affected by what the people have done, God’s nature is such that, in the face of whatever the world will dump on him, God will remain gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love. God will remain faithful to his promises. God will remain constant in working for the salvation of all. (T. E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God, p. 124).
God is not indifferent to his world but is affected by it because he loves it, which is why we read,
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. Hosea 11:8.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16.
We learn from Scripture that while God is providentially present everywhere, he is especially present to certain people and in certain places according to his will and purpose. In the Old Testament, the priestly benediction expresses this so well.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. Numbers 6:22-27.
This is why for Israel the most important question was not, Is God? but, Is the God who is, with us?
He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” Exodus 33:14-16.
But while God desires that we know and enjoy his presence
because of his love for us and because of our need of him, the Bible also speaks of God’s absence, which is experienced as God’s wrath. God’s wrath is the other side of God’s love. In love he allows us the freedom to resist and reject him and face the consequences of our decision because he takes us and our sin seriously.
This is why God’s wrath is shown in the Bible to be not so much something that God does to those who disobey him, but what happens when he removes his presence and allows them to experience the consequence of his absence.
God’s wrath is God’s letting human sin, the existence of which is rebellion against and a turning away from God to idolatry, run its self-destructive course. We see this clearly in Romans 11:18-32, where Paul tells us that God’s wrath against mankind takes the form of allowing people the freedom to have their own way and abandoning them to their own devices.
God’s wrath—his withdrawn presence—results in man’s experiencing perversion that he would not have otherwise experienced. In other words, moral perversion is the result of God’s wrath, not the reason for it. As evidence of this, Paul points to homosexual behavior, which is the rejection of the Creator’s design for mankind as male and female. Sexual perversion is not the result of man’s giving up on God, but of God’s giving man up to his own way.
It is important to understand that wrath is not an attribute of God, but his attitude toward sin. The purpose of God’s anger is to turn us to repentance in order that his anger may no longer have an object, and therefore come to an end.
For his anger is for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Psalm 30:5.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; and as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has com-passion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we are made; he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103:8-14.
For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:7, 8.
A. J. Conyers writes,
God comforts his people because he is intimately acquainted with their suffering and affliction. This intimacy of God in the suffering of this world is an essential element of the Hebrew prophetic theology.
Does this experience of God apply to sin? Does it
pertain not only to our innocent bearing up under temptation and persecution but also to the tendency we have to harm ourselves? If the answer is yes, would we not then experience God’s comfort or concern as the sting of wrath? We have taken the wrong road, and God wishes to set us right. And in doing so his actions may deal a drastic blow to our plans, our purposes and what we had formerly experienced as a joyride (downhill).
What Heschel and others have identified as the Hebrew experience of God implies that God must be known—and can only be known—in terms of an interaction with his people. His eye is upon us; he is ever attending to our needs, our progress, our aspirations, our failures, our ignominious rebellion. He is willing to forgive everything, but he will overlook nothing. He is closer than a brother. He is our next of kin. We experience that intimacy as love, the strength of his companionship, but also as correction, as guidance and, if we persist, as wrath.
Humans are never “on their own,” as the Marxist writer Ernst Bloch said. Instead we are always in relationship. Wrath refers to one side of that relationship. It is an experience of God’s love for his creation. When we stubbornly refuse that love out of rebellion and disobedience, we experience, by our own actions, the loss of that love. But if
we fail to experience any love or any rescue from calamity when we rebel, that should not be interpreted as love. It should be seen as indifference.
The chord of reality struck by the prophets of the Bible is our insatiable need for a life that does, after all, matter to someone. “Wrath” we can face
if we must. And if it embodies a norm that says to
us, “Yes, what you do really matters, and if it really does have consequences—both now and forever,” then we are at least encouraged that we are not shouting into a void or living in a free-fall into a valueless abyss. What we cannot endure is indifference, a life that really doesn’t matter to anyone because the God of this life is somehow apathetic. (A. J. Conyers, The End, pp. 73-74).
God’s purpose is that the experience of his wrath will lead us to repentance and to call on him to save us.
I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.
Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:12-13.
This is why the Bible speaks not only of the God who withdraws in the face of our resistance, but of the God who waits lovingly and longingly for our return. This is the whole point of the story of the Prodigal Son which Jesus told in Luke 15:11-32. It is really the story of the Waiting Father, which is why Jesus tells us that . . . while he (the son) was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; and he ran and put his arm around him and kissed him.
When we acknowledge our sin before God, we are saying that we do not want to exist simply as objects of God’s knowledge but as persons in relationship to him. We own our sin in order that we might confess it to God and receive his forgiveness and so be restored to a personal relationship with him, that we may know God not just know about him.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24.
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. Isaiah 57:15.
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God is Good and He Wills Only Good
The Book of Genesis says that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Because God is love, he is good and wills only that which is good—“He is the eternal will to all goodness.” Everything God made he declared to be good, that is, it was as he imagined and intended it should be as an expression of his love.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever; who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever; who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever; who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever; the sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever; the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever. Psalm 136:1-9, 20.
Guided by knowledge, wisdom and benevolence, God always chooses good ends because they are good, and he chooses the best possible means by which these ends are achieved.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth. . . . Proverbs 3:19.
Everything God chose to make he chose, not because he needed it, but because it was worthwhile, because it was of value in itself and to him. This means that the material world must never be thought of as evil, nor must it be thought of as good only as a means to the development of spiritual beings, as has often been the case in the history of the Church.
This way of thinking has led to the devaluing of the world and the unbiblical idea of looking for deliverance from the world as our salvation. But the redemption of the world does not take outside of it, but from within it.
The one who created the world is the one who came to save it as part of it. And it is the Creator Spirit who hovered over creation in the beginning who works within it to bring it to its intended purpose.
Together, Jesus and the Spirit bring about the new creation so that the world becomes not what it was before but what it was intended to be from the beginning.
For I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Isaiah 55:17.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17.
We Should Celebrate the Goodness of Creation
As God’s people we are to celebrate the goodness of creation. We are to resist all that would destroy it and work redemptively within it to express God’s love for it, in the knowledge that he will someday fully redeem it. Biblical eschatology is given to us as a vision to live by in the world, not as a promise of escape from it. Because God has promised that there will be a . . . new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, the Apostle Peter asks, ... what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness. . . ? 2 Peter 3:11, 13.
The Bible tells us that love, which moved God to create the world and which is the very essence of God’s nature, describes the relationship of God within himself, and is the reason for all that God does. Love, therefore, is the key to understanding God’s relationship to us. It is God’s love for us that gives us our identity and establishes our value. Each of us is of infinite value because we are irreplaceable objects of God’s infinite love.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 1 John 4:7-9, 16.
God Sympathizes with Our Suffering
and Delights in Our Joy
Because God created the world in order that he might lavish his love on it, all of God’s dealings with his creation are rooted in and are manifestations of his love. He sympathizes with suffering, delights in joy, and does whatever is most appropriate to achieve the well-being of his creatures. Because justice is impartial love, God is just and fair in all of his dealings with us. And when we speak of God’s holiness, we are describing the perfection of his love.
Clark Pinnock writes:
God is not an absolute Ego, unchangeable and all determining. God is not a single self, isolated and solitary. God is a beautiful and alluring relational and dynamic community of love who does not alienate but fulfills us. God’s glory does not lie in self-aggrandizement but in self-giving. God glories not in domination but in loving. What we see most centrally in God is the shining radiance of love. (Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love, p. 44).
In relationship to the world, God, as the source and standard of all goodness, acts in perfect accordance with all the principles that specify moral duties. Whatever is right for a moral agent to do, God does perfectly. But God is good beyond even this, because he goes beyond what is required by duty and acts benevolently and graciously. He does good that need not have been done, good that is not merited, deserved or required. God is graciously good.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. Psalm 25:7, 8.
O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone! Psalm 31:19.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:5.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Psalm 118:1.
The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. Psalm 145: 9.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. Proverbs 15: 3.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared . . . Titus 3:4.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Luke 4: 18.
God is not only the source of all goodness, he alone makes sense of our goodness. God takes note of and rewards all goodness because he delights in it as the reflection of who he is. This is why he responds to it with blessing, not because we deserve it but because he delights in it. This means that it is always and everywhere right for us to do good, because to do good is to do the will of God, and to do the will of God is the highest good that we can know and do.
No Good Act Is Ever in Vain or Wasted
Because all goodness comes from God and returns to God, no good act is ever in vain nor is it ever wasted, unnoticed or unappreciated by God.
For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. Hebrews 6: 10.
“The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ ” Matthew 25: 34-40.
Because God is good, evil will not, indeed cannot, prevail because it is a denial of God and rebellion against the good. No matter how strong evil may appear it is not eternal and must therefore end. Only the good will last for it is eternal in its source and in its goal.
To trust God is to acknowledge that he is wise, that he knows and understands all things, that he knows what is the best thing to do in all situations to accomplish the good that he wills and desires. This is why no matter what happens to us as we trust God, . . . in all things God works together for good for those who love God . . . (Romans 8:28).
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GOD IS MERCIFUL, COMPASSIONATE, FAITHFUL, & PERSISTENT
God Is Merciful
Mercy is God’s goodness or love directed toward us in our pain, suffering, need, misery, and distress. It is his sympathetic concern and deep compassion for us which results in his desire to relieve our distress, to be long-suffering toward us in our sin, and to seek our salvation.
T. F. Torrance reminds us that,
In giving his beloved Son in atoning sacrifice for our sin, God has given himself to us in unreserved love, so that the cross is not only a revelation of the love of Christ but a revelation of the love of God. The cross was a window into the very heart of God, for in and behind the cross, it was God the Father himself who paid the cost of our salvation. And so through the shedding of the blood of Christ in atoning sacrifice for our sin the innermost nature of God the Father as holy compassionate love has been revealed to us. (T. F. Torrance, The Meditation of Christ, p. 109.)
God is constantly reminding us of his desire to extend his mercy to us because he is a compassionate God:
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon
him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return tot he Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:6-9.
The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” . . . Exodus 34:6.
Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. Nehemiah 9:31.
But you, O Lord, are you a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Psalm 86:15.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Psalm 103:8.
Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: “Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord; I will not be angry forever.” Jeremiah 3:12.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and bounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Joel 2:13.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved . . . Ephesians 2:4,5.
William Barclay, speaking of how God’s mercy is shown in the forgiveness of sins, tells us that,
In N.T. times documents were written on papyrus. The ink was made of soot, mixed with gum and diluted with water. The characteristic of this ink is that it has no acid in it and therefore does not bite into the paper. It will last a very long time and will retain its colour, but if, soon after it is written, a wet sponge was passed over the surface of the papyrus, the writing could be sponged over the surface of the papyrus, the writing could be sponged off as completely as writing might be sponged from a slate.
Now the interesting thing is this—a commoner word for canceling a certificate of debt was chiazein. Chiazein means to write the Greek letter chi, which was the same shape as a capital X, right across the document. So, after a trial in Egypt, the governor gives orders that bond should be cancelled (chazesthai), that is, ‘crossed out.’ But Paul does not say that Jesus Christ ‘crossed out’ (chiazein) the record of our debt; he says that He ‘wiped it out’ (exalephein). If you ‘cross a thing out,’ beneath the cross, the record still remains visible for anyone to read, but if you ‘wipe it out’ the record is torn, obliterated for ever. It is as if God, for Jesus sake, not only ‘crossed out’ our debt, but ‘wiped it out’ (William Barclay, A New Testament Word Book, pp. 47-48).
God Is Faithful: He Is Persistent
Because God is good, he is unalterably faithful. Johnson and
The Old Testament concept of God’s grace is bound up with the Hebrew word hesed (“faithfulness,” “covenant love,” “grace”). God’s grace (hesed) (Psalm 89: 14, 33) is evidenced in the creation of the world (Psalm 136:1-9), in the giving of the covenant (Psalm 89:1-4, 33; 136:21-22; Isaiah 55), and in the forgiveness of sin (Psalm 103:11-12); Micah 7:18-19). It is because of God’s faithfulness in his covenant love (hesed) that he can be trusted to keep his word (Johnson and Webber, What Christians Believe, p. 182).
The Word of God makes it clear that God is faithful to the end and that he is unchangeable in this regard:
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations. Deuteronomy 7:9.
The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he. Deuteronomy 32:4.
Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. Psalm 31:5.
When the Bible speaks of the unchangeableness of God it is not reflecting the Greek idea of God as immutable. The biblical understanding of creation as originating in and flowing from the love of God coupled with the doctrine of the incarnation reveals a God who is able to act and to bring into being that which is new, not only in itself but what is new to him. These two central revelations of scripture remind us that God is able to do what he has not done before and to become what he was not before.
The Reformed theologian, Hendrikus Berkhof, speaks of
“God’s changeable faithfulness.” He also says,
The creation of a world outside himself is the greatest change which God has made. But by making this change God also experienced it himself. From the time of creation God was changed. He had now become a creator and sustainer . . . changeableness is part of God’s association with his world . . . but in the Bible change is never connected with capriciousness but it is always an expression of God’s faithfulness. Hence everywhere in the Bible are sung the praises of God whose faithfulness endures forever. (Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, pp. 147-8).
When scripture speaks of God’s unchangeableness, it is speaking of his absolute faithfulness to his character and to his promises. He is truly immutable in that his faithfulness is absolute. He is neither capricious or unreliable; therefore, his purposes are unchanging, and his promises cannot fail. But the unchanging Creator God is creatively able to respond and adapt to new circumstances and to change his plans.
The immutable faithfulness of God is the ground our salvation and of our confidence. The word for mercy or loving kindness in the Bible means “fixed, determined, almost stubborn steadfastness,” “love unswerving,” “fidelity, firmness, truth,” “the strength, the firmness, and the persistence of God’s sure love.” And when the Bible speaks of the righteousness of God it is referring to God’s unswerving faithfulness to his covenant promises that brings about our salvation. God faithfully forgives our sins, never forsake us and guarantees a future for us.
This is what God says to us in Isaiah 55:6-9.
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Jesus is the guarantee of the absolute faithfulness of God and testimony to how far God will go to be true to his word.
The Apostle John writes, And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:14.
And the Apostle Paul declares,
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you . . . was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” For in him it is always “Yes.” For him in every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God. 2 Corinthians 1:19.
It is God’s faithfulness in the past that is the ground of our hope for the future because no matter what the world may look like now, it will some day be as God has promised. We have his word on it.
God’s promise to Israel in exile was, For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Jeremiah 29:11.
And the book of Revelation, which is the book of the fulfillment of God’s promise for the world’s and our future, declares,
Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True . . . Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who’s was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 19:11; 21:1-5.
While we rejoice in and take comfort and strength from the greatness and the goodness of God, we are nevertheless faced with a challenge to our faith when we confront the world. If God is as great and as good as we say, why is there evil in the world? Why is there so much suffering and pain? It is this problem which we will deal with next when we consider God’s grief.
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GOD’S GRIEF: THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
Evil and Suffering
Evil and suffering confront Christianity with its greatest challenge and, what is often overlooked, its greatest opportunity. Its greatest challenge because they call into question the greatness and goodness of God, fundamental claims of the Christian faith; its greatest opportunity because Christians, by the way the respond to their own suffering and by identifying with and ministering to others in their suffering, can powerfully demonstrate the truthfulness of the central claims of the Christian faith in a way no argument or explanation can.
Paul Ramsey relates this incident from Burma Diary by Paul Green:
Today we had to move the evacuee patients out of one hospital building into another. It was a filthy job because so many patients had dysentery. The man whom this foul disease clutches soon becomes unable to move or do anything for himself. He fouls his clothing, the bedding, the stretcher on which we have put him. There is no fresh clothing and bedding to change him. Piles of it lie all about the place all the day unwashed.
It rains every day and no one has the resolution to start the cleansing job since he could never get the things dry. Patients, soiled bedding, soiled clothing all join to send up a reeking stench like a burnt offering to some perverse devil.
Three of us stood surveying the preparations for moving; an American boy who had joined the British Army before we got into the war, his British soldier comrade and I. We saw that the patients had to be moved and that the sweepers who had been assigned to the task were not getting along very quickly with it. If the others were feeling, what I felt, we were all dreading to get on any more intimate terms with the stench and handle it.
The American turned to his British comrade and said, “I am very glad at this moment that I am agnostic.”
I do not know how seriously he intended this. However that is, the conclusion which he implied certainly held: Since he did not believe in the love of Christ he could leave the handling of these dysentery victims to the sweepers. Since his friend did believe in it, he was not free to stand by and watch. Nor was I. Get down in it! Pick the patients up! Soil yourself with this disease!
St. Francis kissed the beggars’ sores. However this ended in him, it must have begun as the practice of the only medicine he knew. There is no need to call this filthiness sweet, or to start enjoying it through a strange inversion. Only one this is necessary: for love’s sake it must be done (Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, pp. 183-184).
Suffering—An Unintended Consequence
The intellectual challenge that evil and suffering present to the Christian faith has been recognized and responded to throughout its history by some of its ablest minds. Christian thinkers have shown that the freedom with which God has endowed man, and which is necessary if man is to freely respond to God in love and enter into and maintain fellowship with God as God desires, makes moral evil possible.
Because God is love, he cannot be the author of evil or approve of evil. But if God did not grant us the ability to sin and bring about suffering to him and one another, we would not have the kind of free and autonomous existence that is necessary if we are to enter into a relation of love with God and with one another. All forms of evil and suffering are therefore contrary to the will of God, and are only permitted by God as the unintended consequences, the side effects, of the realization of God’s ultimate intentions.
Man’s Abuse of Freedom Made Evil Possible
God’s decision to create us as persons entailed his giving us freedom and risking the possibility that we would use our freedom against him. In creating us as persons for loving relationships with him, God became vulnerable.
It is our God-given freedom as persons that makes evil and suffering a possibility. And it is the decision of man to abuse this freedom to turn away from God, to reject his love and abandon his fellowship, that has made evil, with all of its terrible consequences for God, man and nature, a reality. And because evil is rooted in man’s misuse of his God-given freedom, it is neither natural nor necessary, nor can it be explained.
Christian thinkers have also demonstrated that for man to be able to act freely and develop moral character, there must be a world that operates according to its own God-given patterns of development and behavior. God does not will all the effects that occur as a result of the structural character of nature. But this structural character is necessary if nature is to be real and if life within it is to be possible. It is these structures that make great good and great evil possible. As part of a contingent and dependent nature, we can both affect it and be affected by it.
But by themselves these explanations of evil are inadequate, because for most people the problem of evil and suffering is not an intellectual dilemma to be solved, but an existential reality to be assuaged. Evil and suffering, either witnessed or experienced, do not simply call into question the existence or nature of God, for countless numbers of people they destroy the very fabric and meaning of life.
Atheism and the Problem of Evil
Atheism sees the problem of evil as counting decisively against the claims of Christianity.
It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question. The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death is not worthy to be called God at all . . . suffering is the rock of atheism, for it is on this rock that every theism runs aground which lives from the illusion of ‘an unscathed world’ (Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 47).
But atheism cannot provide an answer to the problem of evil; nor can it offer hope to a suffering world.
But can atheism hold its ground on this rock of suffering if it is only the indictment against God which turns suffering into pain, and makes of pain so flinty a rock? That is the other side of the experience of suffering. If it were not for their desire for life, the living would not suffer. If there were no love of justice, there would be no rebellion against innocent suffering. If there were no ‘longing for the Wholly Other,’ we should come to terms with the here and now, and accept the absence of what does not exist.
If there were no God, the world as it is would be all right. It is only the desire, the passion, the thirst for God which turns suffering into conscious pain and turns the consciousness of pain into a protest against suffering. But the atheism for which this world is all there is, runs aground on the rock of suffering too. For even the abolition of God does not explain suffering and does not assuage pain (Jurgen Moltmann,The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 48).
What is at stake in how Christians respond to evil and suffering, therefore, is not just the credibility of Christianity, but the hope of mankind that there is a life-affirming answer that resolves the problem fully and finally.
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THE PATHOS OF GOD
Questions for the Christian Worldview
The Christian worldview, like every worldview, must answer four basic questions: Who are we? Where are we? What is wrong? and What is the solution?
The Christian answer to the first question is that regardless of our race, sex, social or economic status, we are persons made in God’s image to be in relationship with him. The answer to the second question is that we are in a good world made by God. This means that we are not in an alien environment. We are made for the world and the world for us. It also means that while the world is good and we are to exercise wise stewardship over it, it is not God, and therefore we do not owe our allegiance to it, nor must we worship it.
The answer to the third question is that humanity has rebelled by using its God-given freedom to reject God’s loving purpose and to seek its own apart from him and against him, with tragic consequences for everyone and everything.
For classical Christian thought, therefore, evil arose within a good creation solely from the freedom involved in that relation. Since its seat is in freedom rather than essential structure, evil is historical rather than ontological in character. As a part of the structure of man, freedom is ontological, and its presence in human life is necessary if man is to be man. But as the voluntary use of that structure, evil is historical, and its presence is never necessary if man is to be man, Evil “happens” because of freedom, but it does not need to happen; it is voluntary and so not part of God’s creation.
It follows from this understanding of evil that for the Christian mind evil is a mystery and not to be fully resolved by an intellectual answer. It appears from “nowhere” in a creation whose totality came from and is dependent upon God. To find a rational explanation for evil would be to find a natural cause for it. But this would be to transform this whole Christian understanding of the nature of evil from a perversion into a necessity; and it would be to locate its source essentially within the necessary and impersonal structure of things rather than in the mystery of freedom. If sin is genuinely an act of freedom, then it is not subject to external determination, although it may be subject to external temptation (Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth, pp. 220, 221.)
God Is not Impassible
But the freedom that made it possible for us to turn away from God means that it is possible for us to return to God, who has not given up on the world. He not only created the world, he cares for it, is concerned about it, and has acted to redeem it.
The answer to the fourth worldview question is that God is not the impassible God of Greek philosophy, but the compassionate God of Scripture who so loves the world that he is willing to suffer because of it, to suffer with it, and ultimately to suffer for it in order to redeem it, and by suffering love overcome the power of evil.
What we see in Genesis 6:6 is that God grieves not just over the sin of man but over the judgment that must fall on man because of his sin. It is a very personal response that affects God, not the just the world. We are reminded of Jesus’s weep-
ing over Jerusalem as he contemplates the judgment that is coming because of its having rejected him (Luke 19: 41-44).
And yet God does not destroy mankind completely. He gives a promise that in spite of man’s sinfulness, he will allow creation to continue. Because of his love for man, God is willing to continue to endure the suffering that man’s sinfulness causes him. God is willing to continue suffering because of man rather than destroy him in order to redeem him.
Is It Legitimate to Speak of a Suffering God?
Are we not kept from doing so by the traditional doctrine of the divine impassibility? The Latin adjective impassibilis means “incapable of suffering” and therefore “devoid of emotion.” Its Greek equivalent apathes was applied by the philosophers to God, whom they declared to be above pleasure and pain, since these would interrupt his tranquility.
The Scottish New Testament scholar, William Barclay, writes,
According to the Stoics, and they were the highest thinkers of the age, the supreme and essential characteristic of God is apatheia. By apatheia they did not mean apathy, in the sense of indifference. They meant incapability of feeling. They argued in this way. If a man can feel sorrow or joy, it means that someone else can bring sorrow or joy to him. That is to say, it means that someone else can affect him.
Now if someone else can affect him, can alter his feelings, can make him happy or sad, it means that that person has power over him, and is therefore, for the moment at least, greater than he. If God could feel sorrow or joy at anything that happens to man, it would mean that man can affect God, that man has much power over God; but it is impossible that anyone should have any power over God, for no one can be greater than God; therefore God can have no feeling, he must be essentially without feeling; he must be, in the technical sense of the world, apathetic. The Greeks believed in a God who could not feel. To them a divine being who was moved with compassion was incredible (William Barclay, More New Testament Words, pp. 158, 159).
John Stott, an Anglican, comments,
The early Greek Fathers of the church took over this notion somewhat uncritically. In consequence, their teaching about God sounds more Greek than Hebrew (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 330.)
In contrast to the Greek understanding of God, the biblical God does not dwell in heaven in splendid isolation contemplating his own perfection, coolly indifferent to the suffering of the world. God is not one who simply thinks, God has a heart and feels.
As Keith Ward points out,
If God is to be a loving being, limiting himself in order to pursue new values of creativity and community, then he cannot remain, like the Aristotelian and Thomist God, satisfied with the eternal contemplation of his own perfection. The static Greek idea of perfection as necessarily changeless—since any change must be for the worse—is decisively replaced by the dynamic idea of perfection as creative, and therefore changing.
The central Christian affirmation that “God is love” (1 John 4: 16), and the revelation of the Divine character on the cross as self-giving, suffering and thereby achieving glory, both support this replacement. It is in fact extraordi- nary that Christian theologians should have been so mesmerized by Greek concepts of perfection that they have been unable to develop a truly Christian idea of the God who revealed nature is love (Keith Ward, Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, p. 85).
The great Jewish thinker, Abraham Heschel, writes in his monumental work on the nature, role and function of the Old Testament prophets,
To the prophet God does not reveal Himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; he also is moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world, in detachment. He reacts in an intimate and subjective manner, and thus determines the value of events.
Quite obviously in the biblical view, man’s deeds may move him, affect him, grieve him or on the other hand, gladden and please him. This notion that God can be intimately affected, that he possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God.
The God of the Philosophers is like the Greek “ananke,” unknown and indifferent to man; He thinks, but does not speak; He is conscious of
Himself, but oblivious of the world; while the God of Israel is a God who loves, a God who is known to, and concerned with, man. He not only rules in the majesty of his might and wisdom, but reacts intimately to the events of history. He does not judge men’s deeds impassively and with aloofness; His judgment is imbued with the attitude of One to Whom those actions are of the most intimate and profound concern. God does not stand outside the range of human suffering and sorrow. He is personally involved, even stirred by, the conduct and fate of man.
The idea of the divine pathos combining absolute selflessness with supreme concern for the poor and the exploited can hardly be regarded as the attribution of human characteristics. Where is the man who is endowed with such characteristics? Nowhere in the Bible is man characterized as merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in love and truth, keeping love to the thousandth generation. Pathos is a thought that bears resemblance to an aspect of divine reality as related to the world of man. As a theological category, it is a genuine insight into God’s relatedness to man, rather than a projection of human traits into divinity (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 11, pp. 3, 4, 51).
The Word of God abounds in references to God’s involvement in man’s life. It clearly shows a God who cares deeply for man and who has great compassion for him.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so that Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103:8-14.
Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut
your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past. Isaiah 26:20.
For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:7, 8.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people, no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. Isaiah 65:19.
I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. Jeremiah 32:41.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. Zephaniah 3:17.
While it is true that God created a world in which evil was a possibility and because of the misuse of human freedom has become an actuality, we must be clear in our minds that God is not the cause of evil nor is he isolated from or indifferent to it. Everything in the Bible after Genesis 3 is God’s response to the problem of evil. He has acted, is acting, and will act to deal with evil and restore his world.
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THE PRICE GOD HAS PAID
How Did God Answer Our Suffering?
God has answered our suffering, not by explaining it but by suffering with us and for us. God is not indifferent to human suffering because love cannot be indifferent to the suffering of the one who is loved. God knows that no explanation of suffering will satisfy the sufferer or serve to remove the suffering. It was God’s love that made suffering possible for God and us, and it was our rejection of his love that made it actual for God and for us.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8.
Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. Hebrews 2:18.
For to this you have been called, because Christ
also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21.
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 1 Peter 2:23.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit. 1 Peter 3:18.
God values our love so much he was willing to risk the possibility of suffering, to experience its reality and to pay the price of healing the breach that we caused. It is God who pays the price of our rejecting his love by coming to share in its consequences. He enters into our suffering, takes it into himself and deals with our sin, the cause of suffering, in the depths of his suffering love, and heals our broken sinful humanity. The cross is God’s answer to the suffering of the world.
We Need to Perceive God’s Heart of Passion
Thomas Torrance, a Scottish Presbyterian, reflecting on the horrors of the holocaust during a visit to the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, said to his Jewish hosts,
Speaking as a Christian I would say that ultimately the only answer to your terrible predicament is the Cross of Jesus which tells us that God has not held himself aloof from us in our wicked, abominable inhumanity, or from its violence and sin and guilt, but has come into the midst of its unappeasable hurt and agony and shame, and taken it all upon himself in order to forgive, and redeem and heal mankind at the very point where we human beings are at our worst, thus making our sins the bond by which in atoning sacrifice we are forever tied to God. (T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, p. 45.)
As he contemplates the suffering in the world, Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose son was killed in a mountain climbing accident, cries out in his book, Lament for a Son,
How is faith to endure O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
A new and more disturbing question now arises: Why do you permit yourself to suffer, O God? If the death of the devout costs you dear (Psalm 116: 15), why do you permit it ? Why do you not grasp joy?
For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I knew of the pathos of God, I knew of God’s response of delight and of his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never saw before.
God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is his splendor.
And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some might blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil.
Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.
But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world’s wounds.
What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I’m only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and the powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth’s closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with the soup tin in hand and bloated child at side.
Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him. If we believe this, then any understanding of the gospel that does not call us to suffering for and with a suffering world is woefully inadequate. It is untrue to God and the gospel (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, pp. 81-82).
In his book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann, a German scholar, writes,
When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of God,’ the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater that he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.
The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being (Jurgen Motmann, The Crucified God, p. 205).
Indian theologian, Ken Gnanakan writes,
One wonders whether the viewpoint we need to develop could more appropriately be termed a ‘theocardic’ viewpoint—one that will seek to look from the perspective of God’s heart. For, it is only when we can rightly perceive God’s heart of passion that we will capture the force of his real concern for man.
Missiology from God’s Kingdom concern must restore such a holistic theology where the heart of God is seen not only in terms of love and justice but also in terms of agony and suffering. This theocardic view of the Bible will open up a little more of God’s heart for us to recognize the intensity of the pain on God’s calling out to Adam—‘Where art thou?’
We will see it not merely as an academic enquiry but as a cry of despair because all his glorious plans for the glory of man have been thwarted by man’s rebellion. From then on it is a heart of suffering, like a father pitying his children, that continues to seek out man in order to save him (Ken Gnanakan, Kingdom Concerns, pp. 80-81).
God on the Cross
What to so many was unthinkable is what the gospel proclaims—God in human form suffered on the cross. He suffered for us because of our sin. It is there that we see the depth of God’s identification with us and his love for us in our sin and our suffering.
As John Stott contemplates the suffering of the world, he is constrained to write,
The cross of Christ is the proof of God’s solidary love, that is, of his personal, loving solidarity with us in our pain. For the real sting of suffering is not misfortune itself, nor even the pain of it or the injustice of it, but the apparent God-forsakeness of it. Pain is endurable, but the seeming indifference of God is not. Sometimes we picture him lounging, perhaps dozing, in some celestial deck-chair. We think of him as an armchair spectator, almost gloating over the world’s suffering, and enjoying his own isolation from it.
It is this terrible caricature of God which the cross smashes to smithereens. We are not to envisage him on a deck-chair, but on a cross. The God who allows us to suffer, once suffered himself in Christ, and continues to suffer with us, and for us today . . . God’s eternal holy love, which was uniquely exhibited in the sacrifice of the cross, continues to suffer with us in every situation in which it is called forth.
If God’s full and final self-revelation was given in Jesus, moreover, then his feelings and sufferings are an authentic reflection of the feelings and sufferings of God himself.
The best way to confront the traditional view of the impassibility of God, however, is to ask ‘what meaning can be in a love which is not costly to the lover.’ If love is self-giving, then it is inevitably vulnerable to pain, since it exposes itself to the possibility of rejection and insult.
I could myself never believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?
I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness.
That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ . . . is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 330-336).
Lesslie Newbigin writes,
The Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God, . . . it is impossible to give faithful witness to the gospel while being indifferent to the situation of the hungry, the sick, the victims of human inhumanity. (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 136).
Who Will Be Welcomed into God’s Kingdom?
Jesus said that those who will be welcomed into his kingdom at the end of the age are not those who have done what they consider to be mighty works in his name, but those who have served him here in the serving of the most vulnerable—the oppressed and suffering.
Jesus calls us to live and act in the present not on the basis of what is but in the light of what will be. By sacrificially serving the oppressed and the suffering, we demonstrate the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom, and testify to the hope and give meaning to the promise of the eschaton. In seeking to heal, to relieve pain, and to wipe away tears, we witness to the day that is coming, a day already begun, when God himself will wipe away every tear, and death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more.
When, in confronting evil, we are tempted to be overwhelmed by it, we must remember what God has done and what he will assuredly yet do. It is God, not evil, who will have the final word. John Wesley writes,
Let us praise him that he hath given us to see the deplorable state of all that are round about us; to see the wickedness that overflows the earth, and yet not to be borne away by the torrent! We see the general, the almost universal contagion; and yet it cannot approach to hurt us! Thanks be unto him ‘who had delivered us from so great a death,’ and ‘doth still deliver.’
And have we not further ground for thankfulness, yea, and strong consolation, in the blessed hope which God hath given us that the time is at hand when righteousness shall be universal as unrighteousness is now? Allowing ‘that the whole creation now groaneth together’ under the sin of man, our comfort is, it will not always groan: God will arise and maintain his own cause. And the whole creation shall then be delivered both from moral and natural corruption. Sin and its consequence, pain, shall be no more; holiness and happiness will cover the earth.
Then shall all the ends of the world see the salvation of our God. And the whole race of mankind shall know and love and serve God, and reign with him for ever and ever! (John Wesley, Works, 2: 469, 470).
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THE ESSENCE OF GOD'S GRACE
Grace Defines God’s Attitude to the World
If God were not a gracious God, the history of the world would have ended with the Flood. In the midst of the awfulness of the world’s rebellion against God, Noah found (grace) favor in the sight of the Lord. Genesis 6:8.
Grace does not describe some arbitrary actions of God toward the world; rather, grace defines God’s whole attitude toward the world because it defines the very nature of God. And while the grace of God is one of the most amazing revelations of scripture, it is, unfortunately, often either poorly understood or seriously misunderstood.
The Apostle Paul understood the wonder of God’s grace and wrote,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. Ephesians 1: 2-8.
Grace Is Utterly Personal
Some speak of grace as though it were a force that works on us or influences us irresistibly without the consent of our will; others speak of it as though it were a fluid that is imparted or injected into us surreptitiously below the level of our consciousness. By treating grace as something other than God and by denying our ability to freely respond to it or suggesting that we can be profoundly affected by it without being aware of it, both of these understandings depersonalize grace and us.
What we discover in the Bible is that grace is utterly personal. It is God himself entering into our situation, meeting us and treating us as persons in order to be to us what he alone can but need not be, and do for us what he alone can but need not do. God’s gracious purpose in all that he is to us and does for us is to restore us to the personal relationship with him for which we were made. Grace is nothing other than God’s holy love in action on our behalf, and it is therefore personal to the core.
Anglican scholar N. T. Wright, speaking of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, says,
Paul speaks in Acts (20:24) of ‘the gospel of the grace of God.’ But what is grace? Grace is not a ‘thing’–a heavenly gas, a pseudo-substance, which can be passed to and fro or pumped down pipelines. The word ‘grace’ is a shorthand way of speaking about God himself, the God who loves totally and unconditionally, whose love overflows in self-giving in creation, in redemption, in rooting out evil and sin and death from his world, in bringing to life that which was dead. Paul’s gospel reveals this God in all his grace, all his love (N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 61).
And Wesleyan theologian Mildred Wynkoop writes,
Every step in creation, in existence, in sin (as a violation of love), in the recovery from sin, in Christ’s work of redemption; every step required of man toward, and in, holiness is to be viewed through God’s eyes of love. This is intensely personal in that love seeks the inner response of the one loved. Each of the persons involved must elect from the core of the self to open itself to and reach out for the other (Mildred Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, p.44).
According to Romans 28: 31, grace means God is for us.
In John 1: 1, 14, we read . . . the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
Titus 2: 11 tells us, The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men . . .
Peter reminds us that God is . . . the God of all grace. 1 Peter 5: 10.
Because grace is nothing less than God’s saving presence in the world, it is not, and indeed cannot be, irresistible. God’s desire is to save us into a personal relationship of love with himself, and this cannot be achieved by force. It can only be entered into by the free decision of both God and us, and this is possible only by God’s grace.
Reformed theologian, Vincent Brummer makes this clear when he writes,
If salvation consists in having a personal relationship of mutual love with God, then there are three necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for salvation. Firstly, we must be persons, given that only persons can participate in a personal relationship. That we are persons is due to the fact that God has made us persons. He could have made us into ‘senseless stocks and blocks,’ but in his omnipotent love he chose not to do that. To him be all honour and glory!
Secondly, the fact that we are persons before God does not yet imply that we are able to enter into a relationship with God, and thus achieve our own salvation. Even if we wanted to we could not achieve this unless God make it possible for us by offering us his love. By definition we can neither compel or oblige God to offer us his love. For this condition for salvation we are therefore also dependent on the omnipotent grace of God. To him be all honour and glory!
The third necessary condition for achieving this relationship with God is that we have to choose to enter into it. In our sinful state we are neither aware that God loves us nor inclined to respond to his love. This can only be achieved if God reveals his love to us in Christ and inspires us by his Spirit to respond to it. God must himself convince us of the only valid reasons to respond to his love, namely the fact that he loved us first and revealed his love for us in Christ. It is the love of Christ that ‘constrains’ us (2 Corinthians 5:14). In this way the third necessary condition for our salvation is provided by God. To him be all honour and glory! (Vincent Brummer, Speaking of a Personal God, pp. 87, 88).
Also, because grace is fully personal, there are not different kinds of grace. Grace is as multifaceted as God and is able to meet us at every point of our need, as Paul discovered when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:8, 9, . . . the Lord
. . . said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness. And as Peter reminds us when he speaks of . . . the manifold grace of God . . .1 Peter 4:10.
H. D. McDonald declares eloquently,
Grace, is, then, the divine love in action, operating within a personal relationship. This is the truth about grace, fundamental in the biblical revelation to which Christian experience gives fullest attestation. That God treats the sinner graciously and forgives sin outright without insisting first on any guarantees of better conduct is the heart of the gospel. And in our being forgiven and brought into a new standing and status before God we come to experience the intensely personal nature of God’s grace and loving mercy (H. D. McDonald, Forgiveness and Atonement, p. 59).
Mildred Wynkoop says of grace,
Grace is not the irresistible power of God overcoming the will of man, but it is the loving hand of a Father enabling the child to use the resources given him in the first place by that Father. (Mildred Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, p. 155).
Grace is Always Prevenient
God always takes the initiative in all that he does, and we are always responding to what God has done or is doing. Because God is love, everything he does for us is a manifestation of grace. This is true of God’s acts of creation and redemption. He has freely chosen to create others like himself who can respond to and share his love and the joys of his eternal fellowship. And that same grace that God sovereignly manifested in creating us meets us in our sin and seeks to draw us out of it and into God’s love. God graciously meets us and offers us pardon for our sins and the privilege of sonship.
The Word of God declares, But God proves his love for us in
that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5: 8), and, For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8: 9).
John Wesley writes,
All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man, are of his mere grace, bounty, or favor; his free, undeserved favor, favor altogether undeserved; man having no claim of the least of his mercies. It was free grace that ‘formed man of dust of the ground, and breathed into him a living soul,’ and stamped on that soul the image of God, and ‘put all things under his feet.’
The same free grace continues to us, at this day, life and breath, and all things. For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand. ‘All our works, thou, oh God, has wrought in us.’ These, therefore, are so many more instances of free mercy; and, whatever righteousness may be found in man, this is also the gift of God. . . .
If, then, sinful men find favor with God, it is ‘grace upon upon grace’ . . . Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation. (John Wesley, Works, Vol. 7).
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THE EXTENT OF GOD'S GRACE
Grace Is Universal
God is gracious and God is everywhere, and everywhere the same, therefore grace is universal. The Word of God declares,
For I the Lord do not change . . . Malachi 3:6.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Psalm 86:15.
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. Psalm 145:8, 9.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16, 17.
And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood
of his cross. Colossians 1:20.
. . . God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be
saved . . . 1 Timothy 2:4.
Christ Jesus . . . gave himself a ransom for all . . .
1 Timothy 2:5, 6.
The Apostle John reminds us that the one who created everything is the same one who came to redeem everything. The universal creator is the universal Saviour who is . . . full of grace . . . John 1:14.
And in revealing the grace of God to us he shows us the true nature of God. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:18.
This is why H. D. McDonald writes,
It is in Jesus that we can see God. It is the Christian experience that Jesus is the place where God meets us in grace. The Christian finds in Jesus not simply the basis for a high doctrine of God or for an inspiring faith in God, but the very reality of God himself. In Christ he finds all that he looks for in God. Jesus Christ is all that God can be to us and does all that God can do for us. (H. D. McDonald, Forgiveness and Atonement, p. 65).
God’s desire is to do good to all of his creation; therefore there is no one who is not touched by or who is beyond the scope of the grace of God. While people may be beyond the reach of the gospel they are never beyond the radius of grace.
What God in Christ has done for us is to remove the barriers between man and God. Every man is born into a world of love—God’s love. God has anticipated every situation. No man need beg God to forgive him. This God has done. This God offers to all men through Christ.
No one needs to cry and plead for the Holy Spirit. He is pleading for us and crowding us and wooing us. We need to recognize this call and open the door to Him. The change of attitude needs to come from our side. We do not earn God’s favor by our crying and working. (Mildred Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, p. 144).
Grace Is Unconditional
Grace cannot be earned. It is given without merit or consideration of the worthiness of the recipients of it. We may respond to it, resist it or refuse it, but we have no claim upon it or right to it. God’s freely-made decision is to give us, at great cost to himself, what we do not deserve. And because grace is uncaused by anything outside of God, but flows from his loving nature, it cannot be changed or diminished by anything outside of God. This is made abundantly clear throughout God’s word.
. . . justified by his grace as a gift . . . Romans
. . . much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ abounded . . . Romans 5:15.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise it would no longer be grace. Romans 11:6.
. . . his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. Ephesians 1:6.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God . . . Ephesians 2:8.
Who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus . . . 2 Timothy 1:9.
Grace Is Unlimited
Grace cannot be exhausted. It is as limitless as God and as inexhaustible as the love of God. Grace could only cease to be if God ceased to be. Grace is not something that came into being because of our sin. It is grace that made us, it is grace that preserves us, it is grace that saves us, and it is grace that will keep us in God’s love for all eternity.
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Exodus 34:6.
. . . the riches of his grace . . . Ephesians 1:7.
. . . the immeasurable riches of his grace . . . Ephesians 2:7.
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we many receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:6.
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Psalm 45:6.
Grace is greater than the law which cannot save me, and it is greater than the sin of which the law justly condemns me.
So, the Apostle Paul tells us,
No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have to dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:13, 14.
Charles Wesley expressed his wonder at the grace of God in these words:
Come let us join our friends above,
The God of our salvation praise,
The God of everlasting love,
The God of universal grace.
’Tis not by works that we have done,
’Twas grace alone his heart inclined.
’Twas grace that gave his only Son
To taste of death for all mankind.
By Grace we draw our every breath,
By grace we live, and move, and are,
By grace we ’scape the second death,
By grace we now Thy grace declare.
From the first feeble thought of good
To when the perfect grace is given.
’Tis all of grace; by grace renew’d
From hell we pass through earth to heaven.
We need no reprobates to prove
That grace, free grace, is truly free;
Who cannot see that God is love,
Open your eyes and look on me.
On us, whom Jesus hath call’d forth
To assert that all His grace may have,
To vindicate His passion’s worth
Enough ten thousand worlds to save.
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THE EXPERIENCE OF GRACE
Grace Must Be Appropriated Individually
While the Bible clearly teaches the universality of God’s grace, it also makes abundantly clear that grace must beappropriated individually if we are to experience it savingly. The nature of grace is such that while it fills the earth, sustaining us in existence and in a savable state, it is not forced upon us.
Even in our sin, God still respects our freedom, which is intrinsic to our humanness and to his purpose for us, which is loving fellowship freely entered into in response to his love. God’s grace freely responded to makes salvation a wonderful possibility; but God’s grace freely and finally rejected makes Hell a terrible reality.
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart . . . Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love . . . Joel 2:12, 13.
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth . . . gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and per-haps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being . . . Acts 17:24-28.
Having been confronted by God about his prejudice against the Gentiles, and having experienced firsthand the grace of God among them in the house of Cornelius, the Apostle Peter declares, I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Acts 10:34-35.
While it may be true that some might be saved apart from the hearing of the gospel, it is certainly true that none can be saved apart from the grace of God.
Rapprochement by God
That none can be saved apart from the grace of God means that God has taken the initiative to heal the breach between us and him. We cannot return to God, so God has come to us.
. . . they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Matthew 1:23.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . . John 1:14.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:19, 20.
. . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself . . . 2 Corinthians 5:19.
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9, 10.
The saving work of God in Jesus is an accomplished work; nothing can be added to it. However, what God has done objectively in Jesus must be appropriated by us and applied savingly within us. It is to this end that the Holy Spirit has been sent into the world. It is he who draws us into the redeeming and reconciling power of the death and resurrection of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in our lives, two things happen.
We Are Made Aware of God’s Holiness
. . . Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? . . . 1 Samuel 6:20.
. . . for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst . . . Hosea 11:9.
. . . he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, You shall be holy, for I am holy. 1 Peter 1:15, 16.
In a sense, being made aware of God’s holiness is not so much something the Holy Spirit does in relationship to us as it is the effect that his presence has on us. This is why it is possible that some who are outside of the hearing of the gospel may yet come to faith because they are not outside the presence of the Holy Spirit. The gospel may not be preached everywhere, but the Holy Spirit is present everywhere and to everyone, and it is his presence, not ours, that makes faith possible.
We Are Awakened to Our Sinfulness
Conviction of sin is the effect of our becoming aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit’s speaking to us through his word, which results in a disclosure to ourselves of our true condition in the sight of God, and creating in us what has been called divine discomfort, a sense that we are not right with God, not fit to stand in his presence.
. . . I saw the Lord sitting on a throne . . . And one called to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory
And I said: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips . . . Isaiah 6:1-5.
Peter . . . fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man . . . Luke 5:8.
And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world wrong about (or convict) of sin . . . John 16:8.
This awareness of sin would lead to despair if it were only a word of judgment and not also a word of mercy. It is a call not only to acknowledge the depth of our sin, but to accept God’s offer of mercy and pardon, to hear God say,
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:6-9.`
Responding to God
Repentance and faith are the two necessary elements of our responding to God.
Conviction of sin is always accompanied by a call or summons to repentance.
Jesus came . . . proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. Mark 1:14, 15.
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive that gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38.
The Lord is . . . patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9.
Repentance is not simply emotional upheavel, nor is it the act of a moment. It is a deep change of mind and heart which leads to the forsaking of all known sin and the right to rule our lives independently of God. It is a returning to our rightful place before God, a giving up of all false allegiances and surrendering to our rightful Lord and King. Repentance, therefore, is attitude of life toward all sin at all times.
This is why Mildred Wynkoop says of repentance,
We do not graduate from this. The whole weight of moral life rests on this. When and if this is relaxed, the whole personal moral structure collapses from within. No work of grace subsequent in time can have meaning apart from the integrity of a repentant attitude that never ends. This increases moral sensitivity and humility and awareness of one’s moment-by-moment reliance on Christ, our Saviour. (Mildred Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, p. 345).
It is important, however, to emphasize that we do not repent in order to be forgiven, but because we are forgiven. It is not the depth of our repentance that saves us but the depth of God’s grace. It is grace that prepares us for repentance because God calls us through the Holy Spirit to receive the forgiveness he has already provided for us in Jesus.
Faith is our wholehearted, trusted and grateful response to
the grace of God.
. . . Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved . . . Acts 16: 31.
. . . justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. Romans 3:24, 25.
. . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. Romans 10:9,10.
For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . Ephesians 2:8.
Saving faith is the action of the whole person by which we renounce sin mentally, volitionally, and emotionally, and lay hold of God’s grace freely offered to us. Faith does not earn us salvation. Faith is not works. It is the antithesis of works because it is the acknowledgment of our helplessness to save ourselves. It is a receiving of that which is given freely to us and to which we have no right or claim. It is a response to what God has done for us, not what we do before or for God. Faith is the condition or the channel by which the grace of God reaches and saves us.
Faith is acceptance of and firm confidence in God’s truthfulness and faithfulness to his words; faith is obedience to God’s laws and directions; faith is trust in God’s goodness and provision; faith is repentance, a turning away by deliberate choice completely to God as Lord and away from false gods; faith is loyalty to the one true God and his covenants; and faith is discipline, the desire to draw near to God in personal communion and fellowship. Faith brings God’s public grace–salvation and forgiveness into our subjective experience.
What is important in any individual life is not its perfection, but its orientation and direction. Faith is the setting of the heart totally in the path of Christ. It is recognizing his lordship over our life. Faith is continual recommitment to letting Christ have his way in our experiences. (Johnson and Webber, What Christians Believe, pp. 284, 290).
Repentance and faith cannot be separated. Where there is one there will be the other.
Faith is also a permanent life attitude. Repentance is negative; faith is positive. Faith is a new direction of love and is as stable as the repentance that guards against a wrong center of affection.
These two elements of moral life are not simply the first steps in a series. They are foundation stones which support everything one builds into life. In fact this repentance-faith complex is the atmosphere in which all other elements of grace are unfolded. These are the elements essential to moral integrity always, everywhere in time and possibly in eternity. (Mildred Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, pp. 345-346).
Faith is not just the act of a moment, it is an attitude of life characterized by faithfulness to God. And just as repentance cannot be divorced from faith when one first comes to Christ, neither can obedience be divorced from faith in following Christ.
Johnson and Webber sum it up well when they speak of how we are to respond to the message of Jesus.
This response is the exercise of faith, understood as humble submission to and acceptance of God’s gift of grace. As a transforming faith it has social dimensions, creating loving acts in our lives such as the forgiveness of others, restitution for former wrongs done, and acts of caring compassion. It is faith as faithfulness and loyal identification with Jesus in his sufferings of death, and as repentance from every form of idolatrous belief and trust, including our own good works, and a turning to the God who is now redeeming his people from their sins.
This salvation is nowhere the result of human striving, but is totally accomplished by the free sovereign grace of God alone and is offered not only to Israel, but to the whole world to freely accept or refuse (Johnson and Webber, What Christians Believe, p. 292).
Receiving from God
God not only initiates the saving experience, it is he who brings it to completion. He calls forth faith from us and responds to that faith by giving us gifts of grace.
. . . they are now justified by his grace . . . Romans 3:4.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Romans 5:1, 2.
. . . those whom he called he also justified . . .
. . . justified by faith. Galatians 3:24.
Justification is the act of God by which he brings or places the believer into a new relationship with himself. Justification is our being made right with God as a result of his faithfulness to us in spite of our unfaithfulness to him. He has acted unilaterally on our behalf in spite of our rebellion in order that we might be made right with him. Justification is our being put back–restored–into the place we belong and the relationship for which we were made. It is not primarily about our being saved as individuals but about our being made part of the people who have been put right with God and who live in anticipation of the day when all things will be put right.
He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Ephesians 1:13.
Justification is the ground of our standing before God which makes all else God does in and through us possible. It is, in essence, the beginning of salvation. Justification enables God to do justly and wisely for, in, and through the sinner what he otherwise could not do.
We hold then, that “justification” in Paul’s thought is the reality that inaugurates the new transformed life of the believer by placing the sinner into a wholly new relationship to God—a relationship of forgiveness, reconciliation, and blessedness—and union with a people who are likewise saved. Justification for Paul is salvation in its initial stage. In holding this view it is also affirmed that the basis of such a saving experience is the pure grace of God and it has no relationship to law, works, or any other form of merit or achievement.
Furthermore, we hold that when God justifies sinners, no righteousness is imparted or infused, or imputed to them—that is, if righteousness is construed to be primarily a moral quality either of divine or human origin.
In saving us God does not first make us righteous or acquit us because of the imputed merits of Christ. Rather, he totally forgives us and through Christ’s work on our behalf accepts us fully into fellowship even though we are guilty sinners (Johnson and Webber, What Christians Believe, pp. 295-6).
Mildred Wynkoop says,
Justification is the open door of God’s heart receiving sinful man into his fellowship. Faith and repentance and glad obedience were man’s response to that invitation from God to him.
Something begins in justification that has no ceil-
ing. It ushers the new Christian into a relationship to Christ that entails a way of life. It opens up new depths and new vistas of meaning and new levels of personal relatedness to our Lord.
The newest Christian is not a second class citizen of heaven but a real member of Christ. Justification and sanctification are not two kinds of grace, but two dimensions of the experience of God’s love and grace. (Mildred Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, pp. 310-311).
The coming of the Spirit in regeneration is one of the great blessings of the new covenant. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us alive to God and makes the grace of God in Jesus effective in our lives. It is he who transforms our characters into Christlikeness.
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above . . . born of the Spirit.” John 3:3, 8.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God . . . When we cry, Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . . Romans 8:9, 14, 15.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 1 John 4:13.
The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is not only that of bringing about regeneration, but also moral transformation. The Holy Spirit not only witnesses to our being alive to God, he works to make us like Jesus.
. . . God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5:5.
. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25.
Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Ephesians 4:28.
Paul tells us that a thief is not truly converted until he has stopped stealing, begun working, and started giving. In other words, no one is truly saved until he has changed from being a taker to a giver, that is, until he has stopped living for himself and begun living for God and others.
This is the evidence of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit into whose lives “God’s love has been poured.”
Sonship is the end for which we were created and restoration to sonship is the object of our redemption.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. Romans 8:15.
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. Galatians 4:4-7.
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. Hebrews 2:10.
Adoption has both a present and future reality. The present has to do with the witness and work of the Spirit in our lives. We have a confident standing before God who has not only forgiven us but has restored us to his favor and given us the privilege of sonship.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:3-5.
The future has to do with the completion of the blessings of our adoption when redemption is complete and our bodies are fully redeemed.
. . . We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8: 23.
The Spirit is called the Spirit of Promise because he is the one whom Jesus promised to send, and because he comes to fulfill in us and in the world the promises of God made good in and through Jesus.
The presence of the Spirit in the world is God’s guarantee that he has not abandoned and will not abandon the world, and that he will accomplish all that he has intended from the beginning. It is the work of the Spirit to create in us a longing for the completion of what God has done for us and is doing in us, and to draw us forward into the future God has for us.
This is the future the Apostle John describes for us,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more, And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 21:1-4; 22: 1-5.
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