God’s Wrath And Mercy


Some years ago at a Christian writers’ conference a fairly well known Christian novelist spoke. One of the things he camped on was that truth in fiction was like a diamond—it shown brightest and best when displayed on a black background.

That analogy has been repeated many times as a rationale for writers to include the details of life in fiction, and not just the way we wish things were.

To put it in terms of Biblical visual art, Jesus ought not always be wearing a white robe and there shouldn’t always be a halo over His head. He shouldn’t have perfectly straight, white teeth, and his features ought to be a little less clean cut.

Same with our stories, contemporary or otherwise.

I understand the point, and I mostly agree. Not everyone does. I had a friend who said he wouldn’t read any more of a certain author because there was a near rape scene in one of that writer’s books.

In writing, this whole subject has become a lot more sticky as political correctness sweeps through our culture, taking books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with it.

But the analogy stands: diamonds do show their brilliance best against a black backdrop.

And what does that have to do with God?

First, God is holy. We imperfect, sinful humans don’t really understand what holiness is all about, but the other day I started thinking of it in terms A. W. Tozier used. He explained that all of God’s attributes are interlinked with His other attributes. Well, he didn’t say it in exactly that way.

But take God’s quality as an infinite being. That idea doesn’t just mean that He has no beginning or end, but rather also that there is no end to His goodness, to His mercy, and, yes, to His holiness.

So what connection can infinite goodness, infinite holiness have with the very thing that would bring an end to those qualities—evil? There simply is no place for the two residing together. Either holiness is apart from evil and infinite, or it is in contact with evil and limited.

Hence God’s wrath.

Yes, Scripture teaches that wrath is also a quality of God, one that identifies how He feels toward that which would spoil His holiness and the goodness He created.

Thinking in visual terms again, imagine God’s wrath as the backdrop for His mercy. Without His wrath, we actually have a lesser view of God’s mercy. We don’t see it as well without the stark contrast. We don’t know how radically different our lives would be if we experienced His wrath instead of His mercy.

I picture the veil of God’s wrath separating humankind from God’s holiness, but His mercy ripped that veil in two.

Romans 5 explains it this way: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (vv 8–9).

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that God saves us from Himself.

Of course that isn’t the whole picture because in Colossians He tells us we are “rescued from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (1:13). In other scriptures we learn that God frees us from the slavery of sin, breaks the chains of the Law, takes away our guilt.

But it kind of all starts with His wrath and the brilliance of His mercy that His wrath showcases. Well, maybe it really starts with His holiness. Or it could start with His infinitude. Regardless, by understanding God’s wrath better, and the rightness of it, the necessity of it, I understand His mercy more.

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God Is Not Benevolent


copOne of the “faults” atheists find with God, and apparently some professing Christians share this thinking, is that He shows Himself in the Old Testament to be wrathful. The first conversation I had with someone about this subject made me think we simply were not defining “wrathful” in the same way. She, I believed, meant that God was quick to anger, that he “flew off the handle” easily, and that He was capricious about when and why He “lost it.” I knew He wasn’t any of that.

Apparently I was wrong about her definition. She meant that God was wrong for punishing the unrighteous.

There are indeed those in the world who think God errors because He judges sin. His wrath, then, isn’t acceptable in any form. There simply isn’t room for a god who doesn’t bend his will toward making life better for the universe. Only if he did so, in this view, would he be a benevolent god.

And clearly, so these thinkers say, the God of the Old Testament is not benevolent.

I agree with this conclusion. The God of the Old Testament, who happens to be the same as the God of the New Testament, is not benevolent by those standards. The Oxford English Dictionary defines benevolent as “well meaning and kindly.” Ah, but as C. S. Lewis reminds us, God is good, not simply well meaning and kindly.

God does not “mean well” in the sense that He’s hoping for the best and trying to help and aiming for what’s good. NO! God is good, does good, brings about good. But good is defined on His terms.

I can say it would be good for me to sell my book for a million dollars. But my understanding of good is limited and finite. I don’t know if a million dollars would make me happy or angry at people who I perceive as trying to leech off me once I got some cash. I don’t know if a million dollars would change my perspective so much that I’d stop doing things of value like writing blog posts and doing freelance editing. I don’t know if a million dollars would make me more prideful, self-centered, and egotistical that I’d lose all my friends. And most importantly, I don’t know if a million dollars would become my idol, if I would worship it in God’s place.

God knows these things, however, and may, for my benefit here and now, in this life, prevent me from getting a million dollars. I also have no doubt that God could give me a million dollars if that were truly for my good—if it would bring me closer to Him, cause me to serve Him more truly, make me conform more closely to the image of His Son. What’s a million dollars to the Owner of the cosmos?

But He withholds what would harm His people in the same way that a good parent doesn’t give a three-year-old candy for breakfast just because she asks. God knows better than we do what is truly good.

God Himself is good, so we can conclude that His judgment is good as well. When He says, the wages of sin is death, that’s not an arbitrary judgment—that’s the testimony of an all knowing Creator. Much the way that a policeman might point to a sign and say, this is a handicap parking zone; you’ll get a ticket if you park here, God has made plain what disobeying His righteous standards will cost.

handicap parking signSomeone who didn’t know what the handicap parking sign meant would be grateful that the policeman told him. They wouldn’t rail against him because he didn’t tear the sign down and let them park in the specially marked spot, and they certainly wouldn’t ignore the warning and park there right under the watchful eye of the policeman.

But that’s what many people want of God—that He would ignore justice for them. Of course, few want Him to ignore justice for those they consider enemies, but they reserve their idea of His benevolence based on how He treats them.

Jesus told an interesting story about a man who thought much as these people do. He owed a debt so great he could never manage to pay it back in his life time–the equivalent would be millions of dollars. His creditor said all the man owned would have to be sold and he himself would go into servitude until he paid his debt. The man begged for more time. The creditor had compassion on him but instead of giving him more time to pay, which was really an impossibility, he forgave him the entire debt.

The man left and immediately ran into a fellow worker who owed him the equivalent of about ten thousand dollars. The man grabbed his co-worker and demanded that he pay up or he’d have to sell everything he owned and go into servitude himself until the debt was paid. The co-worker begged for more time, but the man refused.

A bunch of other workers saw what happened and told the man’s creditor. And this is how the story ends:

Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (Matt 18:32-34)

Was the creditor in the wrong because he didn’t treat the man in a benevolent way? Of course not. He had in fact canceled the man’s debt. It was the man himself who wasn’t benevolent, who didn’t understand what receiving a gift of forgiveness actually meant.

So, no, God is not benevolent in the way the people of today want Him to be. He doesn’t tear up the ticket we deserve. Rather, He paid it for us. The point isn’t to get us off so we can go pile up more debt. The point is to change our status from debtor, to adopted child; it is to give us an inheritance far richer than any we can imagine.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in June, 2013.

Published in: on May 7, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Revelation


The Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye attracted attention to eschatology—the “part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” (Oxford English Dictionary). They are by no means the first writers to depict the events cataloged in the book of Revelation and other passages of prophecy. Back in 1972 A Thief in the Night, the first of a series of four feature-length films, made it’s way into theaters.

There was also a badly written novel—the title escapes me—that encapsulated the entire story of The End . . . in about 250 pages. I’m sure there were others. Certainly there have been since Left Behind. In 2010 Scars: An amazing end-time prophecy novel came out. In 2011 an author announced he was beginning work on The Revelation: a new end-times novel as part of NaNoWriMo.

Years ago, before Revelation became a subject of fiction, churches favoring a dispensational view of Biblical history, held prophecy conferences, complete with charts and time lines.

All this to say, there has been a fascination with Revelation and what it says about the future. But of late, perhaps in reaction to the so popular Left Behind books, there’s been a bit of a backlash against end-time fiction. Some publishers, for example, state in their guidelines they do not want end-time stories. Some bloggers make repeated references to the “bad theology” of the Left Behind books.

I suppose the main struggle with the book of Revelation is to know what is symbolic and what is literal. In some instances, an angel tells John, and therefore us, what the visionary language means.

As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev. 1:20)

These passages are not nearly as common as the pictorial, symbolic language filling most of the book.

That we struggle today to know what John saw that was figurative and what, literal, should be no surprise. The disciples struggled to understand Jesus, too. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, He told them. Oh, no, the disciples said, we forgot to bring bread. I’m going up to Jerusalem to die, Jesus said. Who gets to sit on Your right hand and left hand when You take over, the disciples asked.

When was He talking in parables, when was He speaking plainly? If they couldn’t tell, it should be no shock that we struggle a bit with the same issues when it comes to the revelation Jesus gave to John.

But there are some things we can know. So what is good theology when it comes to the book of Revelation? What is this book recording John’s vision of angels and trumpets and bowls of wrath and seals and beasts and the harlot Babylon, all about?

As my former pastor said as part of his introduction to a sermon series over the book, the one clear truth is that Christ wins. That being said, I think there are some additional key themes that run through Revelation which, I believe, Christians on either side of the theological divide, agree upon.

First, Jesus Christ is the Lamb that was slain, making Him the only one qualified to open that which God has held secret from past ages and generations.

In addition, He will return as the Conqueror and the King, defeating Satan and assigning him eternal punishment.

Revelation also portrays divine judgment on those who follow Satan, who do not repent and give God glory.

Throughout, the book shows God as righteous in His acts, even those that come directly from His wrath. Here’s an example:

And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.” (Rev 16:5-7)

Another key theme is God’s provision of a new home—a new heaven and a new earth—for those whose names are written in the book of life.

One more, though undoubtedly there are others: there’s a clear warning to the churches to hold fast to the truth, to love God and obey Him, to resist false teaching or the lure of riches or complacency.

Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday. It shows us what He cares about and what His wrath looks like. It shows that He is worthy to be praised for His justice as well as for His redemption, for His majesty as well as for His righteousness. It shows that He is the Lamb who is Worthy.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2012.

Jesus Shared His Father’s Wrath


Jesus_and_Children019Progressive Christians dismiss the part of the Old Testament that reveals God’s wrath. For instance one writer at Pathoes, in explaining the views of Progressives says they do not believe God wrote the Bible and therefore do not see it as infallible or inerrant, which leads to this:

While we’re aware of the many inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible; and while we’re abhorred by, and reject, the various instances of horrible theology that appear here and there within the texts (e.g., passages that posit God as wrathful, vindictive, and condoning of slavery, and even “ordering” rape and genocide, etc.), they don’t cause us to reject the Bible, rather, they endear us to the Bible.

There’s so much error in that statement, but setting all else aside, I wonder in light of their rejection of God’s wrath what they do with Jesus Christ’s anger?

Sunday my pastor Mike Erre preached about Jesus’s anger. He started with the account of Jesus healing a man’s withered hand recorded in Luke 6, but he expanded to include Mark’s account which adds a key detail:

He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:1-5, emphasis added)

According to Pastor Mike, there are two words in the Greek that mean anger. The one used here is not the one that would equate with a sudden flare of emotion. Rather, according to Strong’s Concordance, this word, orgē, means

I. anger, the natural disposition, temper, character

II. movement or agitation of the soul, impulse, desire, any violent emotion, but esp. anger

III. anger, wrath, indignation

IV. anger exhibited in punishment, hence used for punishment itself

A. of punishments inflicted by magistrates

The King James Version translates the word wrath 31 of the 36 times it appears.

I admit, I’ve overlooked this instance of Jesus being angry. Yes, I knew He was pretty ticked off at the money changers and the people buying and selling in the temple those times He turned over tables and chased out those who didn’t belong, but I thought that was pretty much it in the anger department.

How silly.

Here Jesus became angry at the Pharisees because they would rather have seen Jesus honor their definition of work, which they’d made up, than heal the man who had a useless arm. They loved their religious pretense more than they loved the needy.

And this incident was not the only one of its kind.

Pastor Mike pointed out Christ’s “indignation” at His disciples for turning away the children instead of letting them come to Him (Mark 10:14).

And then there was His . . . scolding, I guess would be the best term, of the Pharisees. Some might call it an extended warning, and that seems right, but in the process, Jesus was calling them names: blind guides, sons of hell, hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, foolish ones. And He was accusing them of things they understood to be horrible: complicit in the death of the prophets, worse than those destroyed in Sodom and Gomorrah, full of robbery and wickedness and lawlessness.

Yes, I think this passage qualifies as an instance when Jesus was angry. And what prompted His reaction? A Pharisee had invited Him to eat at his house, but when Jesus sat down without going through the ceremonial cleansing the Pharisees had added onto the Law, His host was surprised. The rebuke was Jesus’s response.

In some ways it seems disproportionate to the offense, but not when we take into account the fact that Jesus was reflecting God’s heart. We see God’s attitude toward religious activity that is void of a heart of compassion in Isaiah 58. God tells the prophet to declare to the people their sins. They were fasting, He said, and crying to God, asking Him why He wasn’t paying attention to their spirituality. God says through Isaiah that they missed what He wanted:

“Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (vv 6-7)

Isaiah 1 gives another instance of God telling His people He doesn’t want their religious activity when they aren’t doing what He’s told them He wants:

What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”
Says the LORD.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
“When you come to appear before Me,
Who requires of you this trampling of My courts?
“Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to Me.
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
“I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.
“So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow. (vv 13-17)

Pastor Mike wrapped up the sermon in a powerful way. He pointed out two key things. God’s wrath is actually a positive. It is His declaration that there will come a time when He says enough to all that should not be: murder, envy, greed, abuse, illness, betrayal, fear, rape, self-righteousness, slander—all of it.

What’s more, God’s immense love which caused Him to send His Son into the world, collides at the cross with His wrath. Wrath meted out to stop sin, to say, the evil in this world isn’t going to win. Love given to satisfy His wrath.

Praise God for His love and for His wrath. Not, either-or, but both-and.

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 6:54 pm  Comments (4)  
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Revelation


The Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye have attracted attention to eschatology–the “part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” (Oxford English Dictionary). They are by no means the first writers to depict the events cataloged in the book of Revelation and other passages of prophecy. Back in 1972 A Thief in the Night, the first of a series of four feature-length films made it’s way into the theater.

There was also a badly written novel–the title escapes me–that encapsulated the entire story of The End in about 250 pages. I’m sure there were others. Certainly there are today. In 2010 Scars: An amazing end-time prophecy novel came out. In 2011 an author announced he was beginning work on The Revelation: a new end-times novel as part of NaNoWriMo.

In earlier days, before Revelation became a subject of fiction, churches favoring a dispensational view held prophecy conferences, complete with charts and time lines.

All this to say, there has been a fascination with Revelation and what it says about the future. But of late, perhaps in reaction to the so popular Left Behind books, there’s been a bit of a backlash against end-time fiction. Some publishers, for example, state in their guidelines they do not want end-time stories. Some bloggers make repeated references to the “bad theology” of the Left Behind books.

I suppose the main struggle with the book of Revelation is to know what is symbolic and what is literal. In some instances, an angel tells John, and therefore us, what the visionary language means.

As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev. 1:20)

These passages are not nearly as common as the pictorial, symbolic language of most of the book.

That we struggle today to know what John saw that was figurative and what literal, should be no surprise. The disciples struggled to understand Jesus too. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, He told them. Oh, no, the disciples said, we forgot to bring bread. I’m going up to Jerusalem to die, Jesus said. Who gets to sit on Your right hand and left hand when You take over, the disciples said.

When was He talking in parables, when was He speaking plainly? If they couldn’t tell, it should be no shock that we struggle a bit with the same issues when it comes to the revelation Jesus gave to John.

But there are some things we can know. So what is good theology when it comes to the book of Revelation? What is this book recording John’s vision of angels and trumpets and bowls of wrath and seals and beasts and the harlot Babylon, all about?

As my former pastor said as part of his introduction to a sermon series over the book, the one clear truth is that Christ wins. That being said, I think there are some additional key themes that run through Revelation which, I believe, Christians on either side of the theological divide, agree upon.

First, Jesus Christ is the Lamb that was slain, making Him the only one qualified to open that which God has held secret from past ages and generations.

In addition, He will return as the Conqueror and the King, defeating Satan and assigning him eternal punishment.

Revelation also portrays divine judgment on those who follow Satan, who do not repent and give God glory.

Throughout, the book shows God as righteous in his acts, even those that come directly from His wrath. Here’s an example:

And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.” (Rev 16:5-7)

Another key theme is God’s provision of a new home–a new heaven and a new earth for those whose names are written in the book of life.

One more, though undoubtedly there are others–there’s a clear warning to the churches to hold fast to the truth, to love God and obey Him, to resist false teaching or the lure of riches or complacency.

Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday. It shows us what He cares about and what His wrath looks like. It shows that He is worthy to be praised for His justice as well as for His redemption, for His majesty as well as for His righteousness. It shows that Worthy is the Lamb.

Published in: on August 16, 2012 at 6:53 pm  Comments Off on Revelation  
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Hand The Ball To The Referee


In football some coaches are stricter than others. They teach their players to win with dignity, to respect their opponent, and to keep their emotions in check. Consequently, after their players score a touchdown, they are to hand the football to the referee, not spike it into the ground or chuck it into the stands.

Interestingly, other coaches believe the sport is physical and the players will naturally get emotional about what’s happening on the field. Why not let them have a little fun? So what if they do a little dance in the end zone or taunt the other team with an exuberant celebration over top a sacked quarterback.

Using this familiar football backdrop, President Obama told the American people yesterday we were not going to spike the football in the face of al-Qaeda.

This made me think once again about the very sobering subject of our armed forces attacking and killing Osama bin Laden a week ago. I’ve heard some of the comments wrung out of people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks. In most cases it was some version of “they’re glad he’s dead.”

I have to admit, I have mixed emotions, and apparently so do many others. Essentially the man was a mass murderer and needed to be brought to justice. He also didn’t deserve the world stage his capture undoubtedly would have given him. But some are characterizing the actions of the American forces as an assassination. Others are regaling the servicemen as heroes.

My discomfort, though, is confounded by the spiritual implications. Unlike Rob Bell, I believe by killing a person steeped in idolatry we have closed the door on his last opportunity to repent. And heinous people in history have repented. Not many, to be sure, but some. Nebuchadnezzar comes to mind, as does the Jewish king, Manasseh.

God Himself says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked:

‘As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.’
– Exekiel 33:11a

On the other hand, God is the Judge, and He will bring the consequences of the wicked man’s ways down on his own head.

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy
– James 4:12a

He also says that vengeance is His:

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.
– Romans 12:19

All through the Old Testament the instrument of God’s wrath, if it wasn’t drought or famine, was assault by other nations. Who’s to say, then, that God did not use America as the instrument of judgment on this wicked man?

I guess this is the point where we have to trust that God does have the heart of the king in His hands, that the events of this world are under His sovereign direction.

I’m not going to rejoice that Osama bin Laden is dead. I’m more inclined to mourn that the man was deluded and did not believe Jesus Christ is the way to God.

Consequently, I’m quite happy President Obama made the decision not to spike the football. It’s the right call to hand the football to the Referee.

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 6:50 pm  Comments (7)  
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