Christianity 201

June 7, 2018

Is God a Cosmic Tyrant?

by Clarke Dixon

Is God a cosmic tyrant?
Is God in control of absolutely everything?
Are natural disasters a matter of his choice for the world?
Are your personal disasters a result of his decisions for your life?
Are our own decisions merely illusion, that in fact, God has foreordained even what we think we have decided, even when we choose actions that are sinful and cause incredible harm to ourselves and others?

Or perhaps God is not in control at all and just set everything going? All that happens is a matter of our free choice and what happens naturally.

The Bible pushes us toward belief in the sovereignty of God. Consider, for example Psalm 139 especially the latter part of verse 16:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

So then God is a cosmic tyrant? Our favourite prayer might become that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “yet not my will but yours” (Mark 14:36), prayed with a tone of resignation: “Whatever you come up with, Lord, I will put up with.”

There are problems with this line of thinking:

First; the Bible does not present the sovereignty of God as something to be resigned to, but something to be excited about and find encouragement in. If you were an actor tasked with portraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, how would you perform his prayer as he faces arrest and execution? Would it be with resignation, or with determination? Would you say the lines in a way that communicates “I think Your will is terrible, but I will if I must”, or “I know Your will is best, and yes, let’s do this”? Whatever the tone of Jesus as he prayed it, the hours that followed were not moments of resignation, but of determination and decisions that reflected his knowledge that good things were truly ahead. And good things did come! Jesus was raised from the dead and our sins were dealt with. Knowing that God’s will is good we can find encouragement that our future is not determined by chance, or even by our own poor choices, but by the good purposes of God:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

“All things” includes things that happen naturally within Creation and human decision. We can be excited about how God is shaping things that would otherwise cause fear and panic.

Second; The sovereignty of God is not a cold philosophical proposition, but rather a comforting reality. Sometimes we take something written for our encouragement and imagine it is written for our theological curiosity. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 is not a professor trying to work out the details of life from the comfort of a Lazyboy in preparation for a lecture. The Psalmist is someone going through real life struggles. We might summarize the whole of Psalm 139 like this: “I can hide nothing from you, nor flee from your presence. See that I am innocent, and the person threatening my life is not. I need justice to prevail and for you to reward the innocent party (me), not the guilty (them).” Perhaps we can relate to this Psalm. Yes, we all sin, but sometimes there really is nothing we have done to deserve this cancer, or that Parkinson’s, or that ill treatment from someone we thought was a friend. We can relate to the Psalmist and say something very similar, “Lord, I am your child, yet I am under siege by people or circumstances”. In those moments, we don’t need a theology textbook. We need God and we need the outcome to be in His hands.

Third: The sovereignty of God is not something we can fully grasp. Sometimes we take something that is true and try to turn in into something that is understandable. No professor or Bible teacher, no matter how smart and knowledgeable, could ever really understand everything there is to know about God anyway.

While we often might long for the “patience of Job”, the Book of Job is really about humility in the face of deep questions. After so many words were spilled on trying to make sense of Job’s suffering, God finally speaks near the end of the book. But in speaking he does not give answers. He only asks questions. And what was Job supposed to learn from that? That he, Job himself, is not God, neither are his friends, and that God’s ways may be beyond understanding.

We are not always going to have the answers. We learn to live with the questions. We learn to trust God despite our lack of understanding. God has the future in His hands, even if we cannot understand how.

So what do we mean by saying that God is sovereign? Has he already decided what all our decisions will be? I am reminded of the expression, “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you”. Or, does God in his sovereignty allow things to unfold, naturally, and as consequences of our decisions, but only according to his purposes. Let us consider Psalm 139:16 again:

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16 NRSV)

This verse does not tell us if what is written is prescriptive or descriptive, or somehow, both. Is God’s “book” a to do list as God unfolds history? Or, is it a book in which God writes down how history unfolds as he foresees it, as a historian might, but before the events rather than after?  Or does God in his omniscience and omnipotence see what unfolds, but makes the necessary adjustments to ensure the story turns out well?

We can think of a manager of a hockey team who might like the ability to see ahead of time which players will excel in the future, then being able to adjust the rosters based on that foreknowledge. The team could be massaged into a Stanley Cup win.

Perhaps sometimes we think of God as a thing to be studied and understood, rather than a Father, to be in relationship with and enjoyed. As parents, we sometimes allow our boys to experience the consequences of their own decisions. And sometimes we make the decisions that will help them flourish. None of this is done according to a formula, and our boys may never understand us. It is done in relationship, it is a matter of love.

So is God a tyrant? No, God is a loving Heavenly Father. But what if I cannot figure out how the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty squares with my experience of free-will? You can trust God in real life circumstances much sooner than you will be able to fully comprehend Him in a classroom. That is much better anyway!


Clarke Dixon is the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

Listen to the audio of the full sermon on which this based (35 minutes).

clarkedixon.wordpress.com

 

June 5, 2017

Election and Eternal Salvation (Part 2)

by Russell Young

Romans 8 brings clarity to the issue of election. In verses 29─30 Paul wrote: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Earlier teaching in Romans 8 addresses the means of meeting God’s righteous requirements through living according to the Spirit (v 4), of being led by the Spirit to be a son (v 14), of suffering for victory over temptations (v 17), and of attaining the redemption of the body for adoption (v 23). Following these presentations, Paul addresses the intervention of the Father and the Spirit (v 26─27) which helps in bringing understanding to God’s “foreknowledge.” Clearly, God’s knowledge of a person is required before their particular need (weakness) can be addressed for the fulfilment of his plan with the destiny of glory.

The psalmist sheds some light on our understanding of knowledge. The psalmist wrote: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps 34:18 NIV) And, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:17 NIV) It could be that knowledge of the heart is the “foreknowledge” upon which his selection is made…a heart that lacks pride but is humble and receptive to his sovereignty-a teachable or trainable heart. Both the psalmist and Jeremiah reveal that God searches the hearts of all people. “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jer 17:10 NIV) Psalm 139 elaborates on God’s knowledge of an individual. He uses that knowledge, foreknowledge, before he intervenes in a person’s life.

The Father searches hearts and it is he who gives the Spirit. (Jn 15:26; Gal 4:6; Lk 11:13) According to his mercy and grace the Father chooses or elects those whom he will bless with the Spirit so that his plan might be accomplished. Following this, he works with the Spirit in the lives of those whom he has elected. “In the same way (waiting patiently for the redemption of our bodies), the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts (the Father) knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Rom 8:26─27)

It is in this process that further knowledge is gained. Although those to whom he has given the Spirit were chosen for it, not all will respond obediently. Jesus said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk 6:46) Some will deny the Spirit, and others will quench or thwart the Spirit but those who are obedient, those who love him, who have been called according to hs purpose God knows and they are predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son because he is faithful and is committed to working with them. Without obedience a person cannot fulfil the plan of God and it is through its practice that the Lord said a person would remain in his love (Jn 15:10) and would find eternal salvation. (Heb 5:9) Those who live obediently to the Spirit will be known by God and will have been predestined through his plan to be justified and glorified. These will be the elect or selected.

All, except those whose hearts have been “hardened” for the achievement of a specific purpose have the same opportunity to obtain eternal salvation. The heavens declare his glory so “men are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20) “Whoever is thirsty, let him come.” (Rev 22:17) “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11) “God wants all men to be saved.” (1 Tim 2:4) All have opportunity to gain knowledge of him and of him and his majesty but not all will humble themselves and their pride will be their undoing.

 

June 4, 2017

Election and Eternal Salvation (Part 1)

by Russell Young

Election refers to the selection by God of a people for a specific purpose. Quite often it is accepted as the designation of a person to enjoy God’s eternal kingdom. Election has taken place from the earliest of times with Noah and Abraham. Some accept that all people who will dwell eternally with God had been elected his people from before the creation of the world and this often accepted as an act of God’s “sovereign grace.”

Whenever it takes place election or selection of an individual is God’s act of determination. In speaking of Jacob and Esau Paul wrote: “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad– in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls-she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” (Rom 9:11-12 NIV)

God’s practice of “election” has a purpose, as in “God’s purpose in election.” This might be easier to understand stated as, “God’s purpose through election.” That is, God elects for a reason or to accomplish his ends. He has a plan and it can only be accomplished through his handiwork and through the expression of his sovereignty. Lacking either a plan or his sovereign authority, only anarchy and chaos would result. Election must be recognized as a means by which God fulfills his plan.

To the Ephesians Paul wrote: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (Eph 1:11 NIV) According to Paul, God has a plan and is working it out. Those who will have been elected will have satisfied his plan since his plan was destined to accomplish his goal.

Election has two distinct applications so that “his will” might be accomplished. These might be seen from macro and micro perspectives. His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is an example of election’s macro application. Concerning Pharaoh, the LORD said, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’” (Rom 9:17 NIV) God’s purpose was to make a declaration for the benefit of his name and to all the earth. The selection or election of Israel as his special people is another example of a macro application.

Through Jacob’s election the Lord made clear his right of sovereignty over individual lives and human traditions. The traditional approach would have been to have God’s blessing rest on Rebekah’s elder son however, the LORD clarified that God’s purpose in the election of Jacob was so that his choosing would not, and could not, be based of the “work” of humankind but by determination of the one who calls…the LORD himself. The principle being revealed is that God is in charge! Later in Romans Paul recorded: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden,” (Rom 9:18) but this mercy and hardening of hearts is according to his purpose in or through election.

Ephesians 1:4-6 is often used as support for the thought that God elected his children before the beginning of time. Paul wrote: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (NIV) However these passages present several ideas and are really a presentation of God’s plan as is revealed in verse 11. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” God’s plan was that those “in him” would be holy and blameless in his sight” and would “be adopted as sons.” His plan was devised before the creation of the world, specific individuals were not elected at that time. The revelation of the specifics of his plan comprises much of the New Testament. In this instance Paul was specifically addressing the “faithful,” those who were adhering to his plan.

…continued tomorrow…