Thursday, May 28, 2009

Be Holy – Some thoughts on punishment vs. correction

Somewhere around nine months ago, and once or twice since then, I’ve offered to answer any reader’s question in the form of a post. So far, Adam has been the only one to ask anything. It turned out to be a pretty good post, although I might explain the point differently now while using the same metaphor. Well, Adam, ol’ buddy, you wanted to know if I thought God still punishes us for our sins. I’m glad you asked…

For anyone who has read my weblog over the past few months, you know how I feel about God’s sovereignty. He’s perfect, self-sufficient, and ultimate. I talked about His glory as the sum total of all His attributes. I’ve written on how these things relate to us. In order to talk about God’s justice, I’ll have to make clear what I believe defines His holiness. Where God’s glory is everything about Him, His holiness is the perfection of His presence.

Throughout the second half of Exodus, God talks of making the Hebrews a holy nation and a people unto Himself. He instructs the people on how to build and use the tabernacle so that His presence might dwell among them. The people could come near God’s presence to worship Him in the Holy Place and God’s presence resided in the inner room called the Holy of Holies. What made these things holy? His presence.

Before God came to dwell among His people, He made a covenant with them, a contract that set up the rules of their relationship. In order for God to give them His presence, they needed to observe His law because sin separates us from Him. This, in itself, shows God’s graciousness. Man had previously proven himself to break covenants when Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3. The covenant given to Moses, much like the one given to Adam, essentially says “Obedience to the Law will bring life, disobedience will bring death.”

Some might object to the logic of this covenant because our relativistic society finds offense with anything so rigid. But for those who accept God’s perfection and self-sufficiency, its necessity becomes clear. Since He is perfect, His ways are perfect. Anyone who denies God’s law and goes his own way has challenged God and denied His sovereignty. They have given themselves over to idolatry not realizing how their idols will fail.

So, after God comes to dwell among the Hebrews, they continue to sin and break the covenant. God sometimes held back His anger in mercy, other times He punished their disobedience. But the people seemed to sin persistently. Even as God gave Moses the law (everyone clearly agreed to follow and obey God in Exodus 19), the people made an idol to worship. Moses told the people in Deuteronomy 9:8, “Even at Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath, and the LORD was so angry with you that He would have destroyed you.” God loves His people and they continued to treat Him with contempt. According to the covenant, this brought death. Ezra 5:12 says about the sins of Israel, “But because our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon.” Why would God send an invading army to kill and destroy His own people? Because for Him to overlook sin would be the same as an earthly judge releasing a known rapist without penalty. It would be injustice for Him not to punish a lawbreaker. Paul writes in Romans 4:15, “for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.” It seems no one escapes this responsibility. Romans 1:18-19 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.”

History shows how man, on his own, will sin. We are incapable of true righteousness apart from God. And God knew this. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham symbolically promising to take responsibility for the sin of him and his descendants. This covenant was fulfilled in Jesus, who never sinned and lived in perfect obedience to God. Yet He died in our place, sparing us the punishment demanded for sin (Romans 6:23).

Now the rules have changed. A person can be justified through faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Romans 3 explains this. The gift of salvation is given, not earned, through our faith in Jesus. But, as Wayne Grudem says in Systematic Theology, it isn’t enough for us to have the slate wiped clean in a legal sense. Adam had that advantage and blew it. Eventually, we would most certainly blow it. Nobody’s perfect, right? Then God did something so beautiful. He placed us “in Christ”, or as Colossians 3:3 says, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Paul made this statement to support what he told the Colossians in chapter 1 verses 21-22. “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.”

The question was, “does God still punish us for sin?” In the case of those who have accepted Jesus, I ask, “how can God make us pay a penalty for sin when Jesus took our punishment on the cross?” The answer is, “He can’t, but better yet, He won’t. We’re hidden in Jesus and God sees us as perfect, blameless, and beyond reproach.”

However, this doesn’t mean life’s a gas from here on. Hebrews 12 describes God disciplining us as sons. Think about it, a good father doesn’t punish for the sake of rules. He disciplines in order to train his son to do good and avoid evil. The father does this out of love for his son. Again, in Revelation 3:19, God says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” Another word for “discipline” is “correct”. Correction means taking something wrong and make it right. Proverbs 22:15 says that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, and the theme of proverbs revolves around a loving parent talking to a son. God has used hard situations to reveal areas of anger, unbelief, etc in my life. As one of His foolish children, I need this correction.

Now, hardship isn’t limited to either punishment or correction. Sometimes it’s accusation or condemnation from the enemy. Revelation 12 says that Satan accuses us day and night. Certainly he wants us to believe that God’s correction is punishment. To agree with such a thought would deny the completion of Christ’s work on the cross.

More importantly, I think we need to see that Jesus never eliminated the law of sowing and reaping found in Galatians 6:7-8. There were a lot of mornings that I reaped hangovers after a night of heavy drinking. Would you call that punishment or the fruit of a seed? God set this in place to help us recognize the consequence of sin and encourage us to reap the benefits of righteous living.

There are Christians who think God changes how He feels based on their behavior. Consider this: if your behavior didn’t save you, does behavior un-save you? According to Scripture, we’re kept by God’s power, hidden in Jesus, where nothing can separate us from the Father’s love (Romans 8:39). Romans 8:1 is very clear that God does not condemn us, and we even have His promise of renewal in 2 Corinthians 5:17. Going back to the old covenant, God gave a command in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Think about that in terms of God’s presence and, as Graham Cooke says, it begins to sound more like a blessing than a stern rule. Through Jesus, God gave us the presence of His Holy Spirit, thus making us holy.

Fruit is important. What fruit comes out of the trials you face? If you are a believer who struggles with addiction, depression, impure thoughts, and so on, seek God’s correction knowing His love for you. Learn the difference between the accusing voice of Satan and the (mostly) gentle conviction of the Holy Spirit. One produces despair and a feeling of hopelessness, but godly sorrow is always meant to lead us to repentance and life.

Friday, May 15, 2009

We Are Mirrors - Thoughts on our relationship to God's glory.

School’s out, friends. While that might mean water parks and popsicles and bike rides for some people, for me it means the end of my systematic theology group. September seems so far away it almost hurts. Who will talk with me about God’s providence or His incommunicable attributes? Ontology? Eschatology? I’ll probably spend my Monday nights this summer sitting on the couch missing my friends, thanks.

I had fun studying this year and I learned so much about God through biblical teaching. You’d think with prickly topics like atonement and the gifts of the Spirit that our discussions would have easily gone the way of arguments and board game tantrums. (Actually, the only tantrums seemed to happen during game night). Most of us worried about one topic, though. What would happen to our happy little group when we talked about predestination? The “P” word. For some people, the mere mention of the word recalls embarrassing holy wars. Monday night came around and we all put off the opening prayer with small talk. After a few minutes, we knew we had to start or admit that we feared the discussion. One of us prayed and asked, “So what did you all think of the chapter?”

Then Dale walked in late. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing,” the discussion leader answered. “We just asked the ‘what did you all think’ question. Since you’re standing there, why don’t you start?”
“Well,” Dale said, “I appreciated how the focus of the chapter stayed on God’s glory. Like, God’s purpose is to glorify God. So when I read the verses and Grudem’s explanation, I could ask myself if this gave glory to God. It took away any fight I may have had in me on the subject.”

Dale probably didn’t know it at the time, but his reminder of God’s glory set the tone for the whole night. When it was all over, nobody raised their voice or interrupted or even shot cold looks to the other camp because, hey, we all found ourselves in the same camp. It took the focus off of us and put it on God, where it belongs.

God’s glory is His own, and why not? He’s ultimate. He’s totally sovereign. In case you’re wondering what “Glory” means, it means the fullness and significance of God. Glory is everything in and about God. There’s nothing in existence that could ever compare to Him. Satan tried. He got screwed. Then Satan convinced Adam and Eve to try comparing themselves to God, screwing mankind. God is above any comparison. Anything else is idolatry. Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.”

His very presence is His glory. Moses asked to see it in Exodus 33:18. God said, “Tell you what, how about I show you my goodness? The fullness of just one attribute. I’m telling you, if you saw my face it would kill you.” Imagine seeing God and His awesomeness making your brain blow up like a firecracker.

So if God’s attributes add up to make His glory, then I want to talk a little about some of them. In John Piper’s landmark book, Desiring God, he often mentions Psalm 115:3. “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Nothing surprises or frustrates God because everything works for His glory. He has dominion over everything. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD'S, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” But what about sin? Didn’t sin surprise God? Then why in Ephesians 3:11 does Paul say, “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord”?

And remember that eternity is more than an unending continuation of time. God, who is eternal, exists outside of time. Scholars have said God’s eternity enables Him to see all of time, from beginning to end, at once. This news brings comfort because we can know that God sees Jesus on the cross at the same moment that He sees our sin. That means that from the very beginning, God intended to reveal himself through the work of Jesus, His death and resurrection. God revealed Himself in this way and made it possible for us to have a relationship with Him. But God doesn’t answer to time. Orbits and seasons don’t bind him. Cornelius Van Til said for God to depend on a temporal series of events would mean He denied His eternity. Nowhere does scripture make any such claim of this denial.

Okay, retraction time. For the first time in the brief history of the Press, I’m going to say that I was wrong in a previous post. That’s what happens when a person continues to learn about a God too big to comprehend. A while ago, I wrote a post about free will. In it I said that God, out of love, willfully set aside the fullness of His omniscience regarding our salvation. But where did I get that idea? Its absence from scripture should have been a big red flag. No, I think I had come to a place where I assumed I understood God enough to make unscriptural claims on His behalf. As I write this, I can hardly believe I’d do such a thing, but that’s the result of a person trying to base their understanding of God on themselves. Yep, Xerox copies.

God is not beholden to any law of creation. To place God within the bounds of creation would be to diminish Himself; to place mathematics, science, or time as a standard of authority higher than God. This would eliminate His sovereignty. Why would He do such a thing? To say “because He loves us” would imply that we are equals worthy of God’s service, but this sounds much like the sin of Adam and Eve. I wonder if God would tell us what He said in Isaiah 46:5. “To whom would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we would be alike?”

This sort of stuff could depress you. “What about my dignity? What about my individuality?” What about it? Listen, apart from God, we’re undignified sinners like everyone else. But in relation to God, we have dignity as people who bear His image and He loved us enough to send Jesus. He’s the one who knew you before you were born, who knows your name and the number of hairs on your head. Is it really so bad that we can only reflect God’s glory?

Think of it this way. We are mirrors. Any good in us comes from God, whether by common or particular grace. The book of James says that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father. When people see good in us, or we see it in ourselves, it would do us well to recognize God as the only source of that good. Like Jesus said in Mark 10:18, no one is good except God alone. It couldn’t have come from us. The book of Romans states pretty clearly that before we came to know Jesus, we were dead to sin. I mean, totally enslaved to sin, completely unable to do good. Only the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to do anything righteous because of what Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

As believers, we need to recognize that any autonomy we may have claimed should have died with Jesus when we accepted Him as our Lord and Savior. What of ourselves do we now have to show? We are only mirrors. Where we were once made ugly by sin, now we reflect a God so wonderful that David proclaimed in Psalm 40:5, “Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders which You have done, and Your thoughts toward us; there is none to compare with You. If I would declare and speak of them, they would be too numerous to count.”

I like the idea of recognizing my relationship to God’s glory. For one, it can make sharing the Gospel so easy. Everything can be brought around to glorify the Father, to tell of Jesus who best revealed and glorified the Father. For another, understanding the dynamic of my relationship to God’s glory helps me to understand my purpose. I am here to bear witness.