Judgment, Grace, & Religion on Good Friday & Easter

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr of World War II, reflected on God’s grace and judgment in a sermon in 1928 as Easter and Good Friday approached,

Good Friday and Easter–the days of God’s overpowering acts in history, acts in which God’s judgment and grace were revealed to all the world–are just around the corner. Judgment in those hours in which Jesus Christ, our Lord, hung on the cross; grace in the hour in which death was swallowed up in victory. It was not human beings who accomplished anything here; no, God alone did it. He came to human beings in infinite love. He judged what is human. And he granted grace beyond any merit. [Meditations on the Cross, 20]

John Stott explains how what God accomplished at the cross by judgment and grace is different than what any other religion offers because it is no religion at all:

No other system, ideology or religion proclaims a free forgiveness and a new life to those who have done nothing to deserve it but a lot to deserve judgment instead. On the contrary, all other systems teach some form of self-salvation through good works of religion, righteousness or philanthropy. Christianity, by contrast, is not in its essence a religion at all; it is a gospel, the gospel, good news that God’s grace has turned away his wrath, that God’s Son has died our death and borne our judgment, that God has mercy on the undeserving, and that there is nothing left for us to do, or even contribute. Faith’s only function is to receive what grace offers.” [The Message of Romans, 118]

Religion itself has been crucified at the cross. The only thing human beings accomplished on Good Friday was demonstrating their own wickedness, while God accomplished the salvation of every wicked person who would simply receive his resurrected Son.

A Scholar’s Take on Miracles, Raising the Dead & The God of Elijah

Prolific New Testament scholar Craig Keener’s recent gargantuan work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, discusses the New Testament descriptions of miracles and also reports contemporary testimonies of healing and, in the following portion, dead-raising:

While writing this book I have come across claims of nearly three hundred raisings, from well over 150 different sources

Again, recall the accounts of raisings from the dead surveyed earlier, which I will recall but not elaborate again here. A number of claims date from the early twentieth century, but again I focus on the far more numerous more recent ones. These accounts also involve Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the West. A number of these accounts involve persons who have been dead for many hours or sometimes even more than a day. Some are from people I not only interviewed but also knew personally, or met through my wife’s family knowing them personally; where possible I cross-checked interviewees’ testimony with other witnesses. Witnesses range from those participating in the prayers to a person raised herself. While writing this book I have come across claims of nearly three hundred raisings, from well over 150 different sources…

These sources may vary in their reliability, but a high proportion reflect reports from eyewitnesses that one would normally deem reliable. I am particularly impressed with reports from individuals whose character I know and trust. I do not include in the count cases of which I was informed…yet not permitted by my sources to uses because of the security situation in their countries. [p. 749-750. Also, Keener details the claims and evidences of several supernatural healings experienced through testimony of those he personally knows in a chart on p. 752-756 ]

In Keener’s conclusion he describes what his study for the book and his own past experience as an an atheist and his present experience as a Christian academic have led him to:

When I started writing the book, I felt some competition between my theistic theological sympathies…and the intellectual skepticism and reservations characteristic of my academic training…My earlier background as an atheist who valued only naturalistic empiricism probably reinforced some of the latter predilections. Despite having witnessed some healings in conjunction with prayer, especially in earlier years, more recent disappointments and (in my academic work, especially recently) imbibing an Enlightenment hermeneutic of suspicion had me primed for a significant degree of skepticism…

As a Christian I believed in miracles in principle but wondered about the veracity of many claims today…My training makes it easier to evaluate critically than to trust, but at some point the intellectual honesty valued in my training also compelled me to go back and critically evaluate the reasons why I found it so much easier to exercise skepticism than to exercise faith, even in the face of enormous evidence in favor of faith…

People are hurting and in tremendous need. Like Elisha, I want to cry out, “Where is the God of Elijah?”

…as a Christian, I believe that the Jesus of the Gospels is alive and still has compassion for the suffering. I yearn to watch God touch the broken today.

People are hurting and in tremendous need. Like Elisha, I want to cry out, “Where is the God of Elijah?” The point of this book has been to demonstrate the plausibility of miracle claims in the Gospels and Acts, with a secondary purpose of suggesting that these claims need not all be explained solely by recourse to natural causation. But for me personally as a convert to the Christian faith, work on this book has also brought afresh to my attention the dramatic, moving character of human need, as well as the desire of a compassionate and living God to meet those needs. It has reminded me how the Gospel accounts’ emphasis on healings is consistent with a God of compassion who cares about real issues of human life and death, issues that theology, philosophy, and exegesis in their most academic forms sometimes forget. I know that miracles often do not happen and that not every prayer is answered affirmatively  But whether through using medicine, prayer, or both, I now long more than ever to see those desperate human needs met. [p. 766, 767, 768.]

The Most Important Verb in the Gospel of John

“that all might believe” (Jn. 1:7)

Frederick Dale Bruner writes,

This is the first appearance of the most important verb in the Gospel of John–“believe.” (Interestingly, the noun “belief” and its synonym “faith” never occur in this Gospel.) It is also significant that in the Gospel of John the verb “believe” (pisteuein) is never supplied with an adjective or adverb to intensify believing (like “deeply” or “entirely” or even “sincerely” believe), because adverbs and adjectives have unavoidable tendency to turn beleving into a good work that persons must perform. But, quite the contrary, believing is first the receiving, not the performing of a good work, and then it is a receiving that someone else constantly gives, and does.

Jesus did it all. Believing receives it all.

…Surely the Evangelist was tempted to add adjectives or adverbs to “believing” or even to add other verbs besides “believing,” but he resisted the temptation in his every use of the word. Believing says it all, does it all, receives all that is given, motivates all that issues from it, and is as simple and as concrete as the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who, like believing, needs no supplementation. Jesus did it all. Believing receives it all. This is the Gospel according to John. (Solus Christus, sola fide.) [The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Eerdmans, 2012), 21, 22.]

Christian, Stop Generalizing the Love of God

If a Christian is anything they are ones who are loved of God.

There is a general John 3:16-kind-of-sense in which God loves the whole world—every person, believer or unbeliever, without exception—but there is also a unique way in which God loves the Christian. When Paul writes to the Christians in Rome and calls them “beloved of God” (Ro. 1:7), he is not saying to them that God loves them just like he loves everyone else on the planet. He is making a distinction between them and other unbelieving Romans.

The fact that he addresses the letter specifically to Romans who are “beloved of God” and “called to be saints” (1:7) explicitly shows that he is not talking to everyone in the city. He is talking about Christians. He is writing to those who have received the good news of the gospel and trusted God’s Son, Jesus.

At the outset of the letter, Paul is identifying the believers in Rome and reminding them of who they are at the level of their identity. He is saying to them that God uniquely loves them. Please do not misunderstand. Certainly God loves all people, no matter what they might think of him, but not all men and women are the beloved of God. To put it another way, God loves everyone enough to invite them to the wedding, but not everyone is his Bride.

None of us emphasizes God’s magnificent love for everyone enough, but I am also convinced that because we tend to speak of the love of God in such a general way we underestimate the exceptional love God has for the believer. By speaking so much of all who are loved of God we minimize the inimitable beloved of God.

From what I gather (and I’m no Greek scholar), the background for this word “beloved” is revealing. It contains the following:

• Especially loved.
• Dearly loved. Or: even dearest love.
• A one-of-its-class kind of love.
• Particularly cherished.
• Something like loved squared. That is, love to the second, third, fourth, etc., power.

This same word Paul uses here for God’s people in Romans is used of Jesus at his baptism in the Matthew’s Gospel:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 3:17)

If we really believed this it would change everything about us. So much of our identity is caught up in so many other things, even good and important things, like construction worker or teacher or pastor or dad or mom. We often tie our identity to these significant things, but it is not the most important thing about us. God’s love is. We can even get used to biblical categories of identity like disciple or saint, but what safety, what endearment, what grace is found in being the beloved of God. To be loved eternally, no matter what, unleashes massive confidence and freedom. This should permeate all our other identities and inform their significance—not the other way around.

There is something about being loved by anyone that is overwhelmingly powerful to the human soul, but to be loved by the Creator of heaven and earth who gave himself for us and to us, though we often ignore, belittle, and reject him, is flabbergasting. If you know Jesus, stop thinking of God’s love for you in some general way, it is personal, elective, husband-like love.

The Nineteenth century evangelist D.L. Moody wrote,

I know of no truth in the whole Bible that ought to come home to us with such power and tenderness as that of the Love of God; and there is no truth in the Bible that Satan would so much like to blot out. (Source)

Satan and your own sin will try to get you to minimize and blot this out of your heart everyday. Fight with all your might against this. Stop generalizing the love of God as some impersonal category. Set as a seal upon your heart the marvelous reality that you come at each and every day—with all that you do, don’t do, and should have done—“wrapped in the love of God the Father” (Jude 1:1, NET).

God’s Justification of the Wicked: Loving Justice or an Abomination?

In the book of Proverbs, the Holy Spirit through the pen of Solomon says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15), yet in the book of Romans, the Holy Spirit through the pen of Paul says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (Ro. 4:5).

Is this a contradiction? Has God abominated himself for justifying the wicked?

No, it’s gospel truth.

God’s justification of wicked sinners through the suffering death of his own perfect Son is something he delights in not something he abominates. He can do this and maintain his righteousness because in it he is “just and the justifier of those who believe” (Ro. 3:26). God is not ignoring justice by justifying the ungodly but upholding it through substitution.

God is not ignoring justice by justifying the ungodly but upholding it through substitution.

In the act of substitution at the crucifixion of Christ the righteous takes the place of the wicked and love and justice are simultaneously on display. Here is the epitome of love because, as Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13), and here is fulfilled justice because the penalty is being paid—just not by the guilty sinner—but by Jesus himself. Therefore the guilty aren’t getting off scot-free without any payment for their sinful crimes. This would be abominable and unholy, and would be something that God could never do and remain just. But God has justly condemned sin by treating the Savior as if he was sinful even though he isn’t, and he has justly justified the wicked by treating sinners as if they were righteous even though they aren’t. As John Stott put it, “Christ became sin with our sins, in order that we might become righteous with God’s righteousness” (Romans, 127).

The new status that God’s justification brings to sinners who believe is not the kind of justification that he abominates in the Old Testament. Doug Moo explains,

What is involved, of course, is a new application of the word “justify.” The OT texts refer to the declaration or recognition of an existing situation. But Paul has in mind a creative act, whereby the believer is freely given a new “status.” What is highlighted by the phrase is the nature of God–loving, freely giving, and incapable of being put under obligation to any human being. [The Epistle to the Romans, p. 264]

This “new application” of justification is not disgraceful and offensive to God but it is to us. The reason why so many find this scandalous is that as sinners we are hell-bent on refusing a God like this. We want a god who does not view us as utterly dependent on his grace. We want a god we can work for and not just believe in. We want a way we can increase our status before God by working on our own, instead of the only way to a perfect status through receiving God’s Son by faith. We want to put some of our do in his done. This is because we are idolaters.

We want to put some of our do in his done.

Another translation for the “ungodly” ones that God justifies is “one who ‘refuses to worship’” (Moo, 264, fn 49). The scandalous and beautiful gospel announces that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, who deserves all worship, substitutes himself by taking the penalty of the ones who have refused to worship, and that Jesus’ perfectly righteous status is given to worship-refusers as their new status before God. What does this news do when it is received by faith? It transforms self-focused idolaters into Jesus-worshippers. Sin becomes abominable and Jesus becomes beautiful.

Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever you must renounce this tendency toward idolatry daily. The only kinds of sinners God justifies are believing ones not working ones. This offends us because it strips us of all bargaining power before God, but if received with humility becomes the best news one could ever hear.

No, God has not done something abominable through the work of Jesus. He has demonstrated astonishing grace and extravagant love: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro. 5:3).

Smart Aleck Theological Questions

Wisdom from Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece, Gilead, through the voice of the Reverend John Ames:

Nine-tenths of the time when some smart aleck starts in on theological questions he’s only trying to put me in a false position, and I’m just too old to see the joke in it anymore. [p. 152]

Clearly there is a difference between smart aleck theological questions and genuine theological questions.

If you’re the one being asked, learn to spot the difference between the two and then respond with the necessary sarcasm or seriousness.

And if you are the smart aleck, quit it. (Especially if you are a blogger or a blog commenter.)


The Goal of Life is Not to Be Liked

Here is an edited version of something I wrote on a previous blog.

Pop culture author extraordinaire, Chuck Klosterman, identifies our relentless desire to be “liked”:

“…being likable is the only thing that seems to matter to anyone. You see this everywhere. Parents don’t act like parents anymore, because they mainly want their kids to like them; they want their kids to see them as their two best friends. This is why modern kids act like animals. At some point, people confused being liked with being good. Those two qualities are not the same. It’s important to be a good person; it’s not important to be a well-liked person.” IV, 275

To make your personal mission being liked by everyone in the world sets you up for a life of frustration and depression. You will end up living your life based upon others expectations and your discernment on what is right and wrong will fly out the window as the litmus test of everything becomes what will and will not make this or that person happy.

The goal of life is not be liked.

The compulsion to be liked by anyone is actually the fear of man. Your sinful desire for likability is actually a revelation of your own fear. Humans were only made to fear one person–God. And when your value becomes defined by what other people think of you, you will not be “a good person” nor a “godly person”, but a narcissistic person who needs the praise of others for self-fulfillment. This will always disappoint.

Fearing God is what you were made for. His opinion of you is the only thing that matters and fulfills, and God’s good news for our culture is that his value-system does not fluctuate on your likability. Because he does not like–he loves. And the measure of his love is seen in the crucifixion of his Son for unlikable, no, rather, hell-deserving sinners.

The love of God on display here is not the like of God. God did not die to affirm you, but to save you. His love is never based on your good actions, but always based on the perfect work of Jesus. For those who trust Christ, God’s likeness of you never fluctuates because it is never mere likeness but is wrapped up in his eternal love for his own Son, Jesus.

God loves you with Jesus-sized love. Knowing and experiencing this love is human wholeness and brings radical freedom. It frees you from the desire to be liked, and imparts the experience of being loved by the Creator of the universe forever. It’s not that important to be well liked, but it is eternally important to be in the favor of God.

I doubt Klosterman would agree with my Christian perspective here, but it is the only ultimately satisfying remedy to the cultural problem that he sees. People act like animals not just because their not liked, but because as sinful human beings created in the image of God they have traded the glory of God for the idolatry of likability.

The Problem of a Fatherly God but not a Holy One

PT Forsyth’s diagnosis of liberalism speaks to a common evangelical problem,

We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or breathless gratitude.

Any conception of God which exalts His Fatherhood at the cost of His holiness, or to its neglect, unsettles the moral throne of the universe…The fatherly God of recent religious liberalism…is a conception which by itself tends to do less than justice even to God’s love. It tends to take the authority out of the Gospel, the sinew out of preaching, the insight out of faith, the stamina out of character, and discipline out of the home. Such a view of God is not in sufficient moral earnest…It does not pierce and destroy our self-satisfaction. It has not spiritual depth, real and sincere as the piety is of many of its advocates…what I describe is a view of mercy which does justice neither to the majesty of God, nor to the greatness of man…We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or breathless gratitude…We cannot deal to any purpose with the great sins or the great fearless transgressors, the exceeding sinfulness and deep damnation of the race…And the people hear, but do not. They hear but do not fear. They are enchanted, but unchanged. Moral taste takes the place of moral insight. Religious sensibility stands where evangelical faith should be. Education takes the place of conversion, a happy nature of the new nature. Love takes the place of faith, uneasiness of concern, regret of repentance, and criticism of judgment. Sin becomes a thing of short weight…Our salvation becomes a somewhat common thing, and glorious heavens or fiery hells die into the light of drab and drowsy day….It aims at adjusting the grace of God to the natural realm rather than interpreting it by our moral soul and our moral coil…It does not do much in the way of effectively restoring the actual living relation between God and the soul.” [Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 243-245].