Appreciating the Love, Patience, & Mercy of God

Our God is a righteous God. His righteousness demands that sin be punished; it’s only “right,” “just,” and “fair” that each person is treated according to his deeds. Yet He is also a God of mercy, another aspect of His righteous character. The Cross is how God is able to be both just and merciful at the same time.

Some people emphasize God’s wrath over sin; others go in the opposite direction and see only mercy, thereby downplaying judgment.

I want to be balanced in my view of God’s character. From both my Biblical exegesis and my personal experience in relationship with God, here’s where I’ve arrived on the issue of balance.

God seeks to be merciful whenever He can; He judges when He has no other option in order to uphold His righteousness.

Why do I think this is the proper perspective? My study of Scripture has led me here. Let me explain.

While some think the Old Testament is just one long harangue against sin and God is eager to bring judgment, I disagree. He would have wiped out the entire human race, yet He was willing to start again with Noah. He would have cast away the children of Israel and restarted His plan with Moses, except Moses prayed He would not do so. God was willing, in answer to that prayer, to continue working with a disobedient people.

In Ezekiel 18:30-32, we get a glimpse into God’s heart when He says to His people,

“Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord GOD. “Therefore, repent and live.”

Does that sound like a God who is eager to bring judgment?

When we turn to the New Testament and see Jesus as the embodiment of the Godhead—the One through whom we understand better the heart of the Father—we see again a desire to show mercy. Only man’s rebellion stands in the way. As Jesus looks over the city of Jerusalem, we’re told in Luke 13:34-35,

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’”

Nearly everyone is familiar with John 3:16, which makes the point that “whoever believes” will have eternal life, but it’s the next verse that once more highlights the heart of God:

“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

Judgment wasn’t the inspiration for the coming of Jesus; salvation was.

And in 2 Peter 3:8-9, we see why the Second Coming hasn’t yet occurred, and the reason is God’s desire that as many as possible will be saved.

But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

He doesn’t want anyone to perish; He earnestly desires all to come to salvation and is providing as much time as He deems appropriate to bring more souls into His Kingdom.

So, yes, God judges. One day that judgment will be fierce, without mercy, total toward those who have stubbornly rejected His love and commands. But until then, He is the Shepherd who seeks the one lost sheep while maintaining the ninety-nine.

Personally, I am deeply grateful—let’s make that eternally grateful—that He showed mercy to me when He could just as easily have condemned me in my sins. He gave me time to come to my senses and repent.

He is a loving God.

If the World Hates You . . .

Christians are to be the leaven in society that permeates the whole. We are to be the salt that preserves the taste for God and His ways. We are to be lights that reflect the greater Light to show others the path to knowing the One who loves them and seeks to bridge the sin gap that separates.

We cannot do that, though, if we become just like the society and fit into the culture. We fail in our mission when we dilute God’s truth in order to be accepted by those who spurn His truth.

There is always the temptation to water down the straight gospel message because we don’t want to suffer. Most of us don’t want to be in the shoes of those who bake cakes and have to go all the way to the Supreme Court to maintain the civic right to hold to our Christian convictions. We don’t want to be that photographer who is being coerced into taking same-sex wedding photos.

Victories can be won in the Supreme Court, but what of the next attack from those with a cultural/political agenda?

Will we stand when we are told we must make a choice? Are we standing now even before that choice becomes so stark that it threatens our livelihood and liberty?

We have to get over the false idea that everyone will love us because we are Christians. In fact, throughout history, it’s been the opposite. Why? We call out the sin, and that’s not appreciated.

We call out the sin not because we don’t love others, but precisely because we do. We want them to know the love of God that comes through forgiveness and the grace of God that provides the strength to live a life free from the bondage of sin.

But it’s not often received in the same spirit in which we offer it.

Jesus told us this would happen, didn’t He?

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. –John 15: 18-21

We are not greater than Jesus, who never did harm to anyone, but instead revealed the heart of God. As He said to Nicodemus when that man came to inquire of Him,

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

We need to understand that people cling to their sins and don’t like having them exposed. They are blinded by the mini-god of this world, a mere fallen angel whose goal is to deceive.

There is a song whose lyrics have always made me think deeply about this. It’s called “There Is a Line,” and it begins with this thought:

It’s hard to tell just when the night becomes the day
That golden moment when the darkness rolls away
But there is a moment none the less

In the regions of the heart there is a place
A sacred charter that should not be erased
It is the marrow; the moral core that I cannot ignore

The second stanza continues the theme:

Ask the ocean where the water meets the land
He will tell you it depends on where you stand
And you’re neither right or wrong

But in the fathoms of the soul that won’t ring true
Cause truth is more than an imposing point of view
It rises above the changing tide
As sure as the morning sky

The chorus then zeroes in on the stance a Christian must take:

Within the scheme of things
Well I know where I stand
My convictions they define who I am
Some move the boundaries at any cost
But there is a line, I will not cross

No riding on the fence – no alibis
No building on the sands of compromise
I won’t be borrowed and I can’t be bought
There is a line, I will not cross

Those words resonate in my soul: my convictions define who I am; I won’t be borrowed and I can’t be bought.

There is a line I will not cross.

Find your moral core in Christ. Don’t be bought. There is a line we never should cross.

Here’s the song for those who would like to hear it and meditate further on the words.

https://youtu.be/KIGbgZbzvGw

The Real Church of Jesus Christ

The Church of Jesus Christ consists of all those who have received the truth about themselves and their relationship with God. It consists of those who have seen the awfulness of their sins, who have come to the Cross in repentance and faith for the forgiveness of those sins, and who have thereafter dedicated their lives to serving the One who gave His life for them.

Those who have done so are the actual Church, and that Church has only one real purpose, as explained succinctly by C. S. Lewis:

The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.

God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

We, the Church, divide ourselves into different segments, which we call denominations. All too often, we look down on those not of our particular segment and miss the true spirit of the Holy Spirit. Yet, those who are truly His recognize the essential unity we all share regardless of where we choose to worship.

We may have different ideas on specific doctrines, but, as Lewis reminds us, we have a lot more in common than we may realize:

It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion [denomination] is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine.

And this suggests at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.

In my lifetime thus far, I have been associated with the following denominations: Lutheran, Assemblies of God, Mennonite, Wesleyan, Nazarene, Episcopal, and an assortment of independent fellowships that claimed no specific denominational ties. In all of them I found sincere Christians who desired with all their heart and soul to glorify God in Christ.

“The Church,” Lewis says, “will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share His immortality.”

All of these thoughts today lead me back to one of my favorite Lewis quotes, taken from his wonderful sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” Near the end of it, he tells us what our attitude should be toward one another, how we should view one another in the light of immortality.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

If that is true, as I believe it is, it should be the very guideline we follow as we interact with one another, and all our interactions should be aimed, ultimately, at helping others to become one of those everlasting splendors God wants to fashion. For the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs.

It Is Finished

Today I’m participating in a Good Friday service that focuses on the seven statements of Jesus as He hung on the cross. The statement I was asked to speak on is “It is finished.” Here’s an excerpt from my homily. I hope it ministers to you.

What does that short declaration, “It is finished,” really mean? What’s behind that statement?

Philippians, chapter 2, contains one of the most astounding and wonderful passages in the entire Bible. In it, we glimpse the heart and attitude of Jesus in his voluntariness to lay aside all the privileges of His Godhood to take on human form. “And being found in appearance as a man,” we’re told, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.”

That passage deserves extended meditation. He didn’t have to do this. He chose to do it, despite what He would have to endure. He was looking to the end, to the finished task.

At the start of His earthly ministry, he went into the desert. He had nothing to eat for 40 days. Satan came to Him and offered him food, then power, then tempted Him to show off by throwing Himself down from the highest point of the temple and letting angels rescue Him. He resisted all those temptations by quoting the truths of Scripture.

The book of Hebrews informs us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet He did not sin.”

Jesus knew that He had to complete the ministry of reconciliation—the weakness of His human body didn’t keep Him from fulfilling His purpose.

The Garden of Gethsemane—the last opportunity to change His mind. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” He told His disciples. Then He prayed, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

The ultimate submission. He was close now to the end. He would see it through.

The scourging—the crown of thorns—the beatings—the carrying of the cross—the spikes through His hands and feet—the slow suffocation.

The Father turned His face away, leaving Jesus to go through the worst agony of all—a separation from the One with whom He had been united throughout all eternity. That separation meant that He now suffered what each human being would suffer if cast away from the presence of God. He literally experienced what hell would be like.

And then the words—“It is finished.”

Jesus had done all He could do to heal the breach between God and man. He successfully completed the task. Nothing more was needed on His end. God’s part in offering us salvation was done, but the work is not truly finished until we respond to what He did for us.

It’s not finished until we see the awfulness of our sins and understand that we, through our rebellion, put Jesus on that cross.

It’s not finished until we come to Him in abject repentance, sorrowful over our selfish, unloving ways.

It’s not finished until we receive by faith what He has accomplished on that cross. When we do all of these things, forgiveness from the heart of a loving God then flows into our lives.

That’s when it will truly be finished.

A Stunning “Paul, Apostle of Christ”

The apostle Paul has come alive to me now in a way he never did before. Yesterday, I saw the new film Paul, Apostle of Christ, and left the theater stunned at the power of cinema when used for God’s glory.

How do I begin to describe what I witnessed? I’ve seen many powerful films with messages from the heart of God, but none I’ve ever seen made me consider so deeply what it was really like for Christians facing intense persecution and the testing of their faith unto death.

Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, takes on the role of Luke, companion of Paul, who risks his own life to visit him in prison as he awaits execution. The Emperor Nero, to cover his own sin of setting fire to Rome, has accused the Christians of the act, and fingered Paul as the chief instigator.

James Faulkner, an actor I thought I’d never seen before, but have since discovered appeared in such dramas as Downton Abbey, is absolutely gripping as Paul. From now on, whenever I’m reading one of Paul’s letters, I will have the image of the Paul offered in this movie.

At the end, as Paul was beheaded and then awoke in eternal life to see all those he had persecuted before his salvation come to greet him, I couldn’t hold back tears. There are no over-the-top performances throughout this film; all are real and genuine.

Combined with an excellent supporting cast, superb cinematography, the truth of key Biblical passages, and a clear explanation of the Gospel, this film is of the highest quality.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, in an earlier time in American history, would be a candidate for many awards. Sadly, I believe the era of Ben Hur and Chariots of Fire may now be ended. Hollywood won’t want to reward, or even acknowledge, this positive portrayal of genuine Christianity.

But that’s okay. I’m convinced that Paul, Apostle of Christ, will be used by God for the ultimate reward—that of leading many people into relationship with Him. Helping sinners recognize their sin, showing them the meaning of repentance, and how the love of God has overcome the breach between God and man is a far greater accomplishment.

While a Best Film Oscar would be nice, faithfully proclaiming God’s truth is the ultimate reward.

False Assurances of Eternity

I’ve never read George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate, but in the anthology C. S. Lewis put together of MacDonald’s writings, one selection from that book stood out to me this morning. I think the nugget in this excerpt is worth noting.

It begins with MacDonald quoting someone who says, “I cannot see what harm would come of letting us know a little—as much at least as might serve to assure us that there was more of something on the other side.”

Don’t we hear that quite often today? People just want some kind of assurance that death isn’t final, that there is something that awaits hereafter. The problem is that they almost don’t care what that something is as long as it isn’t too bad.

MacDonald explains that “their fears allayed, their hopes encouraged from any lower quarter, men would (as usual) turn away from the Fountain, to the cistern of life.”

Mankind will accept any explanation of the afterlife that provides some assurance, yet they stubbornly resist the only Source of knowledge of what actually transpires upon death; they don’t turn to the “Fountain” where eternal life is found.

He then hits home with this insight:

That there are thousands who would forget God if they could but be assured of such a tolerable state of things beyond the grave as even this wherein we now live, is plainly to be anticipated from the fact that the doubts of so many in respect of religion concentrate themselves nowadays upon the question whether there is any life beyond the grave; a question which . . . does not immediately belong to religion at all.

What does he mean? People don’t really want to know the God who offers life beyond the grave; they simply want to know there is something. God is an afterthought.

Satisfy such people, if you can, that they shall live, and what have they gained? A little comfort perhaps—but a comfort not from the highest source, and possibly gained too soon for their well-being.

Does it bring them any nearer to God than they were before? Is He filling one cranny more of their hearts in consequence?

Simply coming to some kind of assurance that life goes on after one dies is not only insufficient—it is a delusion by itself. It ignores the stark Scriptural reality that there are two destinations after death, and only one is a state of eternal joy. Further, there is only one path to that joy:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

Hell is just as real as heaven, but most people don’t want to believe that. They want the assurance that all will go to the same blissful eternity. Yet, as Jesus warns,

For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Matthew 7:14

That’s not a popular message. It refuses to agree with the culture that assumes all roads lead to the same place.

Unfortunately, the message is not popular in many churches either. How many pastors teach this truth? How many are providing false assurances?

If we truly love others, we will want them to know the truth and not be misled. Warnings are essential in the proclamation of the Gospel. The Good News must be preceded by the bad news. That’s what makes the Good News good.

Lewis Found Treasures There . . . & So Do I

C. S. Lewis, as a young man, and before he was a Christian, read the novel Phantastes, written by a minister named George MacDonald. He was so taken by the novel that eventually, after his conversion, he delved into MacDonald’s sermons also. He found treasures there, so many that he edited them into an anthology for which he wrote an endearing preface.

I’ve recently begun working my way through this anthology—indeed, it’s now part of my morning devotions—and have found treasures as well. Just this morning, on pages facing one another, three separate pearls stood out to me, and I sensed that God wanted me to ponder them seriously.

Under the title “First Things First,” I was cautioned, as someone who seeks to explain who God is, that something else is even more important in my life:

Oh the folly of any mind that would explain God before obeying Him! That would map out the character of God instead of crying, Lord, what wouldst thou have me to do?

While the Lord does want me to explain Him to others, that explanation would be hollow if my life doesn’t match up to what I’m saying.

Another one, titled “The Author’s Fear,” mirrors my own concern as I attempt to write these blog posts and publish books:

If I mistake, He will forgive me. I do not fear Him: I fear only lest, able to see and write these things, I should fail of witnessing and myself be, after all, a castaway—no king but a talker; no disciple of Jesus, ready to go with Him to the death, but an arguer about the truth.

The possibility of being a castaway after all I’ve written over the years is a horror to my soul. I don’t want to be merely a talker/writer. I don’t wish to be only an arguer about the truth. I earnestly seek to be a real disciple of Jesus.

Then MacDonald truly hit home with this entry that Lewis called simply “Salvation”:

The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins is a false, mean, low notion. . . . Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; He was called Jesus because He should save His people from their sins.

Some people just want to escape the consequences of their sins, in this life and the next, rather than wanting to stop sinning entirely. That’s not real salvation. Only when we desire to cast all sin out of our lives are we at one with God.

We should abhor the sins themselves, not just seek to have sins forgiven and then continue in them. That is a false concept of salvation because it is not based on genuine repentance and a heart that wants a relationship with the One who made heaven and earth and our own souls.

I appreciate those reminders this morning. I needed all three.