Wrestling with the Sovereignty of God

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been wrestling with a tough issue of late – the sovereignty of God.

This began a while ago, when after a comment in a previous post, someone challenged my view of what sovereignty means. I am determined not to shy away from such challenges, even if uncomfortable, as it can only lead to growth of understanding to review one’s position. You either confirm what you already thought, or learn something new which changes your perspective.

In this case, I am certainly reviewing my previous view.

What does “Sovereignty” mean?

This, I think, is part of the problem. We all have a slightly different understanding of what we mean by the term “Sovereignty”.

One definition is simply that God being sovereign means He is the Supreme Being, Ultimate and without equal. I hope that no Christian can take argument with such a definition.

Going further though, some take sovereignty to mean that God controls every aspect of our lives here on Earth. Nothing happens by chance and everything happens according to God’s will.

This definition I struggled with. Like all who have faced this subject, the obvious question is “If God controls everything, then how come a) bad things happen, and b) how can anyone be held responsible for their actions?”

I previously did not hold to this view. I did not believe that God’s Sovereignty meant that He controlled every little thing in life, and that our very decisions were ordained on high by Him.

I could be wrong…

Two texts

There were two main Bible texts which challenged my view. I should clarify that I mean two main texts which I examined, rather that the big two.

The first is Ephesians 1:4-5, which says:

just as [in His love] He chose us in Christ [actually selected us for Himself as His own] before the foundation of the world, so that we would be holy [that is, consecrated, set apart for Him, purpose-driven] and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined and lovingly planned for us to be adopted to Himself as [His own] children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the kind intention and good pleasure of His will

Ephesians 1:4-5 (Amp)

This idea of being chosen by God opens up the heart of the sovereignty issue for me. Did God choose me first, or did I choose Him? Did He choose me, knowing that I would choose Him? If this doesn’t make your mind tilt, then you’re a wiser person than I!

The key here is to look to when God made the choice. “When” is a difficult one to apply to God, as He is outside of time. We think linearly, there is a start, a middle and an end, but we can’t think that way with God. He has no beginning, middle or end, and He just is.

What does the verse say? “Before the foundation of the world…” This means, put simply, before the Creation. If this is true, and as it is Scripture, it is, then it means that before you and I were born, before we did anything right or wrong – then God had chosen us.

The next obvious question is – on what basis did He make this choice? If it was before we did or said or thought anything, then it cannot be on our performance and behaviour. God did not choose you because you were “good” or “bad”, rather it was an act of His will.

We want to understand how and why God made His choice because we want to understand something fundamental. Why me and not them? A scant understanding of the Gospel should tell us that it is nothing to do with us – not our performance or how well we did or didn’t do, but completely and totally on the finished work of Christ.

The second text is from Romans 9:18-20

Therefore, God has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. 19 You may ask me, “Then why does God still find fault with anybody? For who can resist his will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?”

Romans 9:18-20 (ISV)

Here, Paul addresses what is at the very heart of this issue. Indeed, verse 19 asks the precise question we hope to answer. “If God controls everything, then how can anyone be held responsible for their wrongdoing?”

What is his answer? And I warn you, it may not satisfy…

who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?

Who are we to ask such a question of the Sovereign God? We are trying to wrap our limited minds around an unlimited concept. Human thinking cannot comprehend the sovereignty of God. Who are we to question Him in this matter?

If, like me, you feel somewhat unsatisfied by this, then I understand.

I want to give you a “better” answer here. I want to be able to explain this to you in such a way as to enable you to accept and understand it. I tried. Then it dawned on me that if the great apostle Paul can only give the above answer, then how can I expect to come up with something better?

One author suggested we approach this issue in the same way that we approach the Trinity. That is, we approach it knowing that it is true and having no human understanding of how it can be so.

I sigh at this point, realising that theologians have considered this for centuries and no “good” answer exists. God is God, and we are not. His ways are higher than ours, and this is one of those (few) occasions where we cannot explain or understand Him.

We can do nothing except humbly accept it.

Conclusion?

Hardly! I can’t hope to conclude such a topic in a few simple lines here. Like many who have gone before me, we can only walk this road our own way. At each step we must try to see the Bible as a whole in a systematic way. There will always be things, this side of heaven, that we do not comprehend.

Does it make God any less? No, if anything it highlights how “Sovereign” He is.

Does it somehow weaken our faith? It should not.

I’ve asked God the big questions as I’ve begun to examine this subject. It can only weaken our faith if we allow ourselves to engage in pride. “I should be able to understand this” or “How can God choose some and not others?” This betrays an attempt by us to somehow reach God’s level. When we question His ways, we are on some level suggesting that we know better. Such thinking is not only futile, it’s comical.

My journey has not come to an end here. I began this post by saying it had led to me to review my way of thinking about God’s Sovereignty. This is true, but I’ve not completed it yet (and I suspect I never will!)

I have questions, and I’m guessing you do too.

If what I’ve shared above from Ephesians and Romans holds true (and it does), then I prayerfully wonder how the following Scriptures fit with this. It’s a heavenly jigsaw puzzle if you will, and I’m quite certain all the pieces fit. It may simply be that only God can see the big picture.

Abraham negotiates with God

In Genesis 18, we read a story where Abraham (very respectfully) negotiates with God. God sets out His intention to inspect Sodom and Gemorah (verse 21) with a view to destroying it, and yet Abraham appeals to Him.

This is relevant to our discussion because it seems contradictory. What was God’s will in this matter? Was it to destroy Sodom and Gemorah without any regard for any righteous people living there? Was it always God’s will to save the righteous before He destroyed it? A close reading may suggest that God never intended to destroy it while even one righteous person was there.

Although Abraham very cautiously “talks God down” to withholding the city’s destruction if only ten righteous are found there, in the end we see that it only took one. Indeed, the Angel of the Lord “could not” destroy the city while Lot was still within its limits.

Hurry and take refuge there, for I cannot do anything [to punish Sodom] until you arrive there.” For this reason the town was named Zoar (few, small).

Genesis 19:22 (Amp)

So how do we determine God’s Sovereign will in this matter? The destroying angel could not do a thing until Lot was safe, meaning God had given His Word that the city would not fall while Lot remained.

What does that mean for what God had discussed with Abraham right at the beginning? – did Abraham’s intercession somehow restrict God’s will, or rather his prayers cause God to give grace to Lot who dwelt in Sodom?

It is God’s will that everyone be saved?

Likewise, these are key passages for me that suggest God does not always get His way. If He does, and He does indeed control everything as we have expounded above, then how can we reconcile these verses?

who wishes all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge and recognition of the [divine] truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 (Amp)

The Lord does not delay [as though He were unable to act] and is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is [extraordinarily] patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (Amp)

We can clearly see that it is God’s will that everyone be saved. And yet, they are not. How can we place these verses alongside the verse from Ephesians 1 (discussed above) and fit them together?

If God wants all to be saved, then why only choose some?

One way to fit them together  (and it is completely flawed) is the idea that God chose everyone, and that means all will be saved. Indeed, some teach that God will have mercy on everyone irrespective of what they did with Christ on the Earth, and therefore both verses can be true. This is false.

Such teaching does not take a serious view of Scripture and indeed cheapens the sacrifice of Christ. If all are saved irrespective of Christ’s sacrifice, then Christ had no need to come at all. Clearly this is not the case.

There must therefore be another way that these verses fit together.

Your will be done (the Lord’s Prayer)

Finally, we look to the Lord’s prayer. While it is my belief that this is a template for prayer, rather than something we should repeat over and over, one of the points is rather clear.

“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Given what we have said above about God being in ultimate control of every aspect of life, why should we pray for His will to be done? Surely His will being done is a given?

Extending this thought, why pray at all? Indeed, if God’s mind is already made up and His will already established, how can we expect to change anything with our act of prayer?

The Bible makes it absolutely clear that indeed we should pray. Moreover, that our prayers make a tremendous difference on the earth.

And finally…

We could go on. We could cite Scriptures about God controlling the weather from Isaiah, or hardening Pharoah’s heart in the Exodus, or sending a great fish to swallow the reluctant prophet Jonah. Equally, we could look to Deuteronomy 30:19 where life and death, blessings and curses are set before us, and God encourages us to choose life!

Is it God, or man, who makes such choices?

We could go on…

I can’t hope to bring answers to all of these questions here. I also do not want this to come across as a crisis of faith – far from it. If anything, my conviction about the absolute supremacy and infallibility of Scripture is even stronger. I do not doubt His kindness or love, nor do I question His intentions.

I hope this makes you think if nothing else, and it certainly helps me to lay out my thoughts before you. Thanks for reading!

I say again that I can do no better than the apostle Paul who said, “who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God?

Indeed, I am not God, but I worship the One who is.

Out with the New

Whatever has happened, will happen again; whatever has been done, will be done again. There is nothing new on earth.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 (ISV)

A few years ago, we bought a new car. It was wonderful! Shiny, clean, modern, and full of the latest features. It was a real upgrade on our previous vehicle. While my wife and I are not especially interested in cars, it was fun and exciting to have a brand new one. With four “free-range” children however, and a couple of years on, it’s not as shiny as it once was!

There is something amazing about new things, we all love to get something new! And I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that. However, I think our expectation has now stretched into the church world also. If it’s not new or exciting, then we are perhaps not as interested as we ought to be.

Every Sunday we turn up to church and expect something new. A new worship song. A new cutting edge Bible message. A new sound system or lights or fog machine. A new children’s worker or youth ministry. A new experience. A new “move of God”. Just a new way of doing things.

Some even demand a new Gospel. One that doesn’t challenge or interfere. One that presents all the blessings with none of the commitment.

In this context, I’m convinced that “new” is not all that good at all.

Someone was once asked if they worried about the parts of the Bible they didn’t understand? Their response was telling. No, they said, I don’t worry about the bits I don’t understand, but the parts I do understand but don’t do.

How often are we seeking something new to learn, when we have not yet mastered what we’ve already been told?

A new minister started at a church and preached a wonderful message on the gospel of grace. People very much enjoyed it and congratulated him. The following week, he preached almost an identical message. One or two muttered to themselves – isn’t this what he said last week? Third week, the same again, preached an almost identical message. A few more noticed and complained among themselves. The fourth week, again he preached the same message on the gospel of grace. Finally the leadership team approached him and said – “Why are you preaching the same message over and over again? The people want something different!” He replied – “Once they understand and apply this message, I can move on to something else.”

Isn’t that true? Most of us can’t remember what last week’s sermon was about, yet we now want something new and improved. Wouldn’t it be better to master last week’s topic before moving on to something else?

Whatever we need, there’s a good chance we’ll need to hear it more than once. If you are anything like me, then God will need to draw you back to the same truth a number of times before it sinks in. To be honest, there are still some things God spoke to me about years ago that i am still dealing with today.

New is of course exciting and wonderful and fresh, but sometimes we need to dig into things we have heard multiple times before to really see change in our lives.

Going to church on a Sunday should not be about getting goosebumps and being entertained. Fun though it may be, what good will it do you later that week when facing a crisis? We need solid Biblical truths that will last, wisdom found in Scripture which will show us how to live and have a real positive impact.

Solomon, in Ecclesiastes quoted above, shows us that there is nothing new under the Sun. Whatever has been done, has been done before. This search for something new is indeed futile. God’s grace is sufficient!

Am I saying church should be dull? Far from it! Have you ever met the Holy Spirit? He’s the most exciting Person I’ve ever known! Just being around Him is exciting and energising.

Church should not be a place for us to catch up on our sleep, but nor should it be blown and tossed by every wind of popular culture.

When we seek to entertain, rather than sustain, we water down the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s communicate in different ways of course, but let us never hide or distort Christ for the sake of people having a good time.

Everything is a balance, and I don’t want you to think I’m saying the church should never change. We do need to reach our younger generation for they are the church of tomorrow. But we cannot do so by thinning out the truth.

If you currently find yourself bored with church, then seek the Lord and check your motivations. Are you bored because God has finished with you there and is leading you to move on? Or is it because you are looking to be entertained?

Not everything that is new is good. Seek God this week and ask Him what you really need. Perhaps a little of the old and faithful is just what you need.

The Next Generation

I had the immense privilege to become a godparent again a few weeks ago. It really is a privilege to be a godparent at a child’s baptism, and it’s my honour to pray for and support Abigail (who is far too young to read this!).

As well as being godparent, I was also asked to share a reading with the church. I didn’t choose it myself, but what a fantastic reading it was (the text I mean, not my delivery!).

I want to share it with you here, and point out a few key points.

It was from Psalm 78.

A psalm of Asaph.

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders.
For he issued his laws to Jacob;
    he gave his instructions to Israel.
He commanded our ancestors
    to teach them to their children,
so the next generation might know them—
    even the children not yet born—
    and they in turn will teach their own children.
So each generation should set its hope anew on God,
    not forgetting his glorious miracles
    and obeying his commands.
Then they will not be like their ancestors—
    stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful,
    refusing to give their hearts to God.

Psalm 78:1-8 (NLT)

The psalmist, in this case Asaph and not David, begins by encouraging us to listen to what he has to say. Perhaps there’s no great revelation in this, but how often do we not listen to important things said to us?

I will speak to you in a parable

In verse two, he uses the phrase “I will speak to you in a parable” which is an echo of Christ in the future. Jesus taught using parables, and there came a time when he would only speak to the crowds in these illustrative stories.

 His disciples came and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?”

11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. 12 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. 13 That is why I use these parables,

For they look, but they don’t really see.
    They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand.

Matthew 13:10-13 (NLT)

So we see that parables are a way to share truths, but only to those whom understanding is given.

Truths from our past

Asaph goes on to explain the importance of sharing stories from our past. He says that these stories, which were passed down orally from generation to generation, will not be forgotten.

When our daughters were born, we got them a 100-year diary. It’s a diary intended to cover a lifetime (although i’m believing they live well past 100!). As well as recording key events in life, there are sections for family members to record things – such as grandparents. This gives them (the grandparents) to share important things or just to share what life was like for them.

Imagine what will be contained in those pages after a lifetime. I imagine that diary being passed down to my children’s children so that they too will know what life was like for the generations that went before them.

It is so important that we do not lose lessons that were learned in the past. We see from history time and time again that lessons are not learned, and the same mistakes are repeated over and over.

Life does not have to be that way. We can learn from those who went before us, and more importantly have the guidance of God in our lives. We don’t have to learn by trial and error, we can seek the Holy Spirit who will show us things to come (John 16:13).

Whether parents or grandparents or neither, we have a responsibility to teach the next generation about the wonders of God

You may not have children yourself, but I don’t believe that absolves us of responsibility. We all have a responsibility to teach the next generation about the things of God. Whether that is in our own homes, with friends or family, or in our church.

In the UK, it used to be the norm that everyone went to church on a Sunday. The next generation heard the truths of God. But not so anymore. It is now the exception if you go to church on a Sunday (or any other day) and so many children now know nothing of God or his wonderous works.

Today’s Sunday schools ought to be filled with tomorrow’s church

I can’t pass over verse six without picking up that almost throwaway point about – the children not yet born. Here, Asaph is speaking of the future generations, those children who would come in the future and hopefully be taught about God and His ways.

The Bible makes many references to children not yet born, or those being knit together in their mother’s womb. Clearly  the Bible values those not yet born into the world.

This part of the psalm closes with Asaph encouraging the hearers to teach their children so that they would not be like their ancestors. As I said above, he is telling them not to make the same mistakes their forefathers made.

Because their ancestors did not learn the lessons of the past, they became stubborn, rebellious and unfaithful, and ultimately refused to give their hearts to God.

Sadly, this is true for us in the modern world. So many have not been taught the Word of God or His ways, and now many are rebellious against God altogether. Very few now give their heart willingly to Jesus.

But it’s not too late.

The result of not sharing these truths with our children is that they don’t know God. It hasn’t taken many generations for this to happen, but the good news is it only takes one generation to put things right.

As the church of Christ, each one of us can begin to share the truth of God with the children in our lives. I’m not suggesting you go up and preach to every child you see, as your authority does not extend that far. However, you can be a witness to Jesus in every situation.

For those children in your care, you can tell them how great God is. You can tell them the stories written down in the Bible and show them how they can live to please God.

If you are a Christian parent or grandparent trying to share your faith with the children in your life, or if you are a leader in a Sunday school or junior church – can I say a huge thank you! God is watching what you are doing and He is so pleased you are spending time and effort to share with the next generation. May He bless you in your work!

I hope what I have said has made you think, and encouraged you if you are working with young people. I leave you with Asaph opening words:

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,

Psalm 78:1 (NLT)

Compassion, Love, Eternity and Covenant

All the Benefits of Believing (ATBOB) #9

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. 17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, 18 to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.

Psalm 103:13-18 (ESV)

We take a larger chunk of Psalm 103 today, not only to pick up the pace a little, but because these verses fit together so nicely. It would make little sense to split them up and cover them in separate posts, so I’ll try to cover them all here.

The section starts by thinking about God’s compassion. David uses the comparison of a father to his children, to illustrate God’s compassion for those who fear Him. This, in an ideal world, is the perfect comparison. God is our Father, and indeed loves us as dear children.

I understand however that for those who never had a father figure in their lives, or those who had one who did not treat them well, this comparison may not bring the impact it ought to. That’s not an easy thing to deal with. But let me assure you, any and every thing you missed out on with your earthly father, is more than made up by your Heavenly One.

God’s compassion (His love) is without end, and we will consider this more in a moment.

But who does He direct this compassion towards?

Those who fear Him.

The word “fear” here is yare’, and it means “reverent fear”. It is not about being frightened of God, and being scared to approach Him. Instead, it is about having a reverence for God. Reverence goes further than mere respect, and is that sense of presence of the Almighty that makes us bow the knee to Him.

God knows and recognises that we are “dust”. This means that we are physical, limited beings who dwell on the Earth for a little while. All of us will face death, and our bodies will return to the ground from which they came.

This is not a thought to pass over quickly. The psalmist compares the human life to grass or flowers, which fade after only a short time. Don’t misunderstand, this is not limiting us to a short life, but rather pointing out that life on this Earth is indeed short in comparison to eternity.

The older I get (and I’m not old by any stretch!), the more I realise that life truly is short. As the years move by, they seem to speed up in a way they never did when I was a child.

We must make the most of every single day, and live life to the full.

David does not say all of this just to get us down! His point is emphasised in verse 17. Human life is indeed short – in comparison to God’s everlasting love! Again, we find the phrase “steadfast love” – the idea that God’s love does not move or change with the wind, but is fixed, set and eternal.

There’s another little phrase here that I don’t want to skip over – “his righteousness to children’s children.” God’s love does not just extend to us who believe in Him, but also to the generations that follow. It is my belief that not only do I receive the blessings of God, but that they come to my children and theirs also.

 How might your actions affect not only you, but your children’s children also?

So far, so good. We’ve read about God’s great compassion and His unending, everlasting love – but again, who does it apply to? Verse 18 brings in a strong condition.

To:

  • Those who keep His covenant, and
  • Those who do His commands.

If your heart has sunk a little after reading these conditions, then please stick with me a while longer!

Perhaps you are not entirely sure if you have kept His covenant? Perhaps you are more sure that you have NOT done all of His commands? So does this exclude you from the compassion and love David has been praising God for?

Not at all!

David wrote these words while living under the Old Covenant (I think we touched on this in an earlier blog post). This Old Covenant required God’s people to keep His law and obey His commands in order to qualify. This led to very strict legalism (see the Pharisees in Jesus’ day) and even worse, those who saw themselves as “religiously righteous” looking down on those they considered “sinners”.

What many in Israel failed to realise was that they could not keep the Law. The Law was and is perfect, setting out God’s standards for humanity. The problem was not with the Law, but with us. We are not perfect, and so cannot keep God’s perfect Law. And so… we need a Saviour!

Jesus came and lived a perfect human life, fulfilling the entire Law in every respect. Despite never being tainted by sin, He was executed like a sinner deserves, and took on the punishment that you and I deserve. Death could not hold Him however, and He was raised to new life!

That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and it is the New Covenant, the covenant that you and I now live under.

We no longer need to fulfil the covenant, instead we put our trust in the One who did!

Does that mean we can do whatever we like, and break God’s laws whenever we feel like it? Certainly not! Sin is still sin, and even though dealt with, still has consequences. If you steal or murder, then you will likely face criminal charges. You could be forgiven, but still in prison!

Equally we have an enemy (the devil) who is looking for someone whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). Sin very much opens the door for the enemy to work in our lives.

Grace is not a licence to commit sin, but a safety net to catch you when you fall.

Even for the born again Christian, it would be impossible to never sin again or to obey every command of God. While we are new creatures in Christ, we are also subject to the whims of the flesh, the ways of the world and the temptation of the devil.

We qualify for all the benefits the psalmist sets out here not because we deserve it, but because Christ made it possible through His obedience. You need to put your trust and faith in Him.

For more details about the Gospel, read my Resurrection Sunday blog post here, or else listen to the accompanying sermon (mp3) here.

Audio Blog: Prayers of the Righteous

I’m introducing something new today – audio blogs. Rather than a full length sermon, these are short talks about a particular verse or topic. I hope you enjoy listening to them.

 

The Lord is far from the wicked but he hers the prayers of the righteous.

Proverbs 15:29 (ESV)

One Way

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6 (ESV)

We take another little break from the ATBOB series to think about something I feel is important for us to discuss.

The other evening, I caught an episode of a Netflix show called “The Good Place.” It’s set in the afterlife, where after an administrative mix up, a woman named Elenor is mistakenly let into the Good Place (heaven).

The program makes no mention of God, and in fact states that all of the major religions on Earth are only about 2% correct.

How do you get into the Good Place? Well, according to the show, every action you take on Earth is scored and recorded. “Good” actions lead to a higher score, and only those with the highest of scores end up in the Good Place. Everyone else ends up in the Bad Place.

Similarly, when I was younger, I remember a TV show where the main character died and found himself at the pearly gates. He met St Peter, who then evaluated his life. Peter had a set of scales and every good action – represented by a white ball – was placed on one side, and every bad action – represented by a black ball – was put on the other side. If the scales tipped to the good, you were allowed into heaven.

I’m not sure where these sort of myths originated, but there are still many who essentially believe that if you lead a generally good life, then you will get into heaven.

But what is “good”? Or rather, what is good enough?

I can see why such thinking is popular. If there’s no standard of good, then we can just compare ourselves to others and grade on a curve. “I may not be the best, but i’m better than that guy…” Thus we justify being good enough.

Let me say categorically that none of this thinking is biblical.

Imagine this for a moment – you are on one side of a chasm, and heaven is on the other. You must jump across to reach heaven. The problem is that the chasm is a mile wide. It doesn’t matter if you jump ten feet or twenty, you’re still going to fall. It makes no sense to say, “At least I jumped further than them!” Because neither of you will make it.

The standard is not set by how we measure up against each other, but how we measure up against God.

God sets out His perfect standard in His Word. The Israelites lived under the Law of Moses, and that Law was given to show them how they ought to live. They misunderstood. They thought they could follow every command and fulfil every aspect of the Law. Wrong! The Law was intended to show them that they couldn’t fulfil it, and that they needed saving!

Here in the 21st century, we are no better off. Most people don’t even recognise God’s Word as a standard anymore, let alone try to fulfil every aspect of it. Likewise, we too need a Saviour!

While some believe living “good enough” will get them into heaven, others believe that there are many roads to heaven. This is another deception.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)

Being better than other people won’t get you into heaven. Following the teachings of Buddha or other “holy” person won’t get you there. Worshiping a false god won’t work, nor will earning a fortune and giving it all away. You can sit in church every week for your entire lifetime, and that won’t do it either.

Sitting in a church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in a garage would make you a car (I think Joyce Meyer said that…).

There is only one way to heaven. And that Way is Jesus Christ.

I know this is not a popular view, and many consider it closed minded and not diverse. Some may think me arrogant, saying “What makes him think he’s right over all of the other religions?” The only answer I can give is – it’s true.

Jesus is the only way to get to heaven. If I were to say anything else to you today, I would be deceiving you. I appreciate you must come to that decision on your own, and I completely respect anyone who disagrees or comes to a different decision. But I believe it is my responsibility to tell you the truth. And, on the off chance that I’m right, I want to give you every opportunity to come to Jesus right now.

As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

Galatians 1:9 (NIV)

When you die (not wishing to be morbid), you will stand before God and give an account for your life. It won’t be about what “good” you did or didn’t do, and it won’t be about anyone else. It will be about what you did with Jesus – God’s Only Son.

The Bible teaches that one day, Jesus will return. Irrespective of what you believe about that, none of us will live forever on this Earth, and will one day have to face our mortality. When that time comes, I want you to be prepared. Don’t put it off. Don’t wait. Make a choice for Christ TODAY.

Many may say it’s one way or another to heaven, but it’s not. It’s only One Way. And His name is Jesus.

 

If you are ready to make that choice today, have a read of my blog from Resurrection Sunday or listen to the accompanying talk. In there, I set out the Gospel – or Good News – about Jesus. You can believe in Him right now, and pray that Jesus will come and be the Lord and Saviour of your life. If you do, please contact me as I’d love to celebrate with you.

East Never Meets West

All the Benefits of Believing (ATBOB) #8

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:11-12 (ESV)

 

When I began this series, I wasn’t certain how long it would take to work through this spectacular psalm. We are now on part eight, and reach verses 11 and 12. There is so much to enjoy and appreciate in this one passage (the entire psalm I mean) and I do hope you are still getting a lot from it.

These verses tell us two things; how much God loves us, and how far He has removed our sins from us.

As high as the heavens are above the Earth

The word translated as “heavens” here is the Hebrew word shamayim referring primarily to the sky or abode of the stars. It is the same word used in Genesis 1:1 when God created the “heavens and the Earth”. For David writing this, he would have had little distinction between the sky and Space beyond, whereas we distinguish between the two. Irrespective of this, the point is clear.

David is comparing the greatness or size of the love of God to the unmeasurable expanse between the Earth itself and the sky or heavens above. It was perhaps the largest, most enormous thing he could think of to which to compare God’s love to.

Paul prays in Ephesians 3:

…that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:17b-19 (ESV, emphasis added)

That –

  • Believers would be rooted and grounded in love.
  • They would comprehend the dimensions of Christ’s love.
  • That they would know (or experience) Christ’s love which surpasses (head) knowledge.

David is praising the Lord for the enormity of His love, and Paul is praying that the church would know that same love through Christ. God’s love for His people is so crucial to our understanding of faith that we must not only study it, but experience it for ourselves.

Notice the phrase “steadfast love” again in these verses. It is not a love built on shifting sands or moving goalposts. It is stable, steady and cannot be increased or detracted from.

God’s love towards those who fear Him

Who is this love directed towards? Those who fear Him. This “fear” here is reverence. God directs His love towards those who revere Him,; those who recognise Him as Sovereign God. We may consider ourselves as on the receiving end of this tremendous love.

East Never Meets West

David goes on to express the idea that as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us. Similarly to the previous verse, he is trying to express an immeasurable distance – that’s how far God has taken away our transgressions.

One of the reasons this is so wonderful is that for King David, he did not experience personally the saving work of Jesus, dealing with sin once and for all. He could only look forward to a time when that would be true.

In another psalm, he says:

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity…

Psalm 32:2a (ESV)

For us as New Testament believers, we can rejoice in the fact that God, through the shed blood of Christ, has removed our sins from us once and for all time. He has not just dealt with the individual “sins” we commit, but sin itself. Sin is certainly not dead in the world we live in, yet we are dead to it (Romans 6:11).

Not only has sin been dealt with, and its effect taken away – but it has been forgotten as well.

For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

Hebrews 8:12 (ESV)

How does an omniscient God forget anything? Because He chooses to.

Spend some time today rejoicing that God’s love is without measure, and that He has taken your sin away. Whatever else is happening in your life today, these are great reasons to worship God.

All the Characteristics of a Gracious God

All the Benefits of Believing (ATBOB) #7

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

Psalm 103:8-10 (ESV)

I’m reflecting on whether “All the Benefits of Believing” is the right title for this series of posts. When we read verses like the ones above, perhaps a better title would be “All the Characteristics of a Gracious God.” Not sure if it’s catchy though…

The reality is that we believers experience these wonderful benefits of a relationship with God because He is so loving and kind. Any benefit we experience is because God is so good to us.

Merciful and gracious

This psalm tells us that God is both merciful and gracious to us. But what are mercy and grace?

There are a number of definitions of course, but to me these are two different sides of the same coin.

Mercy means we don’t get what we do deserve, whereas grace means we do get what we don’t deserve!

Put simply, God’s mercy means we don’t receive the punishment for our sin. That punishment fell on Christ. And a heavy punishment it was too!

Likewise, God’s grace means we receive all the benefits of a relationship with God, which we did not and could not earn ourselves.

We get all the good we don’t deserve, and none of the bad we do deserve. What an awesome God!

Verse ten expresses this idea of grace and mercy perfectly. God does not deal with us according to our sins. If He did, we would all be in trouble! Instead, He extends mercy and grace to us so that we might receive the benefits of believing which we have not earned.

Slow to Anger

The psalm goes on to highlight that God is slow to anger. This means that He is not irritable, grumpy or snappy as we so often are. Instead, He is patient and gentle. While the way we act at times could warrant a little righteous anger, God does not inflict that anger upon us.

David wrote this psalm under the Old Covenant, which was a time before Christ came to the Earth. God’s people lived under the Law and its curses. It meant that their relationship with God was essentially conditional on them obeying the requirements of the Law of Moses.

However, we see time and time again in the Old Testament examples of God’s people going astray and yet God withholding His anger towards them. Of course a time came when enough was enough, and the people of Israel were led off into captivity but God held off that punishment for so long. And even as they went, the prophets of old spoke of a time when they would return to the land.

Unlike them, we don’t have to fear God’s anger. We live under the New (and Better) Covenant, where the righteous anger of God was spent on His Son Jesus Christ. We don’t face that anger ourselves, as Jesus took our place. There will be a time in the future when God’s anger is poured out on the Earth, and the day of judgement will come. But we need not fear it, as we are covered by the Blood of the Lamb.

Verse nine, quoted above, talks of a time when God will no longer chide, and that His anger will not last forever. This is an extension of the point above, that He is slow to anger, but also that it lasts only a short time. It may burn hot, if you like, but burns out quickly.

Verse nine could also be a reference to the time of Christ. A time when God no longer needs to chide His people, because He will have dealt with their sin and poured out His wrath on Jesus. This is not to say we no longer commit sins, of course we do not have perfect behaviour. Instead of the Law and its threat of punishment, we are now led by God’s Spirit who shows us right from wrong.

Abounding in steadfast love

Why is God so merciful? Why does He pour out His grace on us? Why is He so slow to anger? Because of His steadfast love.

God is love (1 John 4:8). It is not just something He likes to do, it is Who He is. God cannot help but love. He can’t choose to not love, as that would be denying Himself. Love is the very definition of God, and He directs it to us – His people.

God’s love is steadfast – meaning it is unchanging. It is anchored, cemented and locked down. He will not change His mind, or blow hot and cold. God’s love remains.

Due to all of this, His love is demonstrated through mercy, grace, and slowness to anger (amongst other things!).

If you take nothing else from today’s post, understand this – God is love, and He loves you.

Praise the Lord for all of His awesome Characteristics!

Justice for all

All the Benefits of Believing (ATBOB) #5

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6 (ESV)

We pick up at verse six of this stunning psalm. Our focus now turns to righteousness and justice. Righteousness here is not moral correctness, or even right standing with God, but is a perfect pairing with justice. It refers to God’s righteous judgement. That may sound a difficult thing to face, but simply means God making things right.

The word translated as “works” here could also be translated as “executes”. We can therefore read this verse as saying “The Lord executes righteousness and justice for all the oppressed”.

Justice is an important theme throughout the Bible. God’s justice, His sense of right and wrong, are of paramount importance for us to understand – both in terms of the Gospel and how we ought to live.

Fairness is often something we struggle with. We occasionally get a sense that life is unfair, especially when hard times come. Something inside of us tells us that when something bad occurs, it just is not right! We get that sense of right and wrong, fairness and justice, from our Heavenly Father. It’s built into all of us.

While morality seems a flexible concept for some, each of us has a built in consciousness of right and wrong. That may be warped at times, but across the world there are certain things that nearly all agree are “wrong”. For instance, murder is generally outlawed, as is stealing or physical abuse.

We know these things are wrong instinctively because God made us that way.

The Gospel

God’s interactions with humanity is all about making wrong things right. The pinnacle of this effort was in dealing with sin once and for all in Jesus Christ. The Gospel therefore is the ultimate expression of justice. Sin was punished. Every wrong thing done against God and man was placed on the shoulders of Jesus, Who bore it on our behalf.

Justice demands action against wrongdoing. God, loving us as He does, did not want us to face the eternal consequences of sin. He fulfilled His requirements of justice by putting the Righteous One in our place. Jesus is our Substitute so we no longer face those consequences.

Justice in our everyday lives

But what about the wrong done to you? When is God going to put that right?

This is not easy to answer. If you have been mistreated, falsely accused or abused in some way, then you might be wondering what God’s justice means for you. What about the person who hurt you? They look to have gotten away with it, and you feel left behind and in pain.

Hurting people hurt people, and while that is no excuse, it does at least explain why some treat others the way they do.

God is a healer, and I believe He can heal you from the pain of your past. It may take a long time, and it will certainly be a difficult journey, but He can get you through.

God’s justice is not instantaneous and rarely is it quick. We must begin to take an eternal view of our lives. Perhaps, on this side of heaven, the hurt caused you may not be resolved, but I can assure you that God will wipe away every tear from your eye.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Revelation 21:4 (ISV)

God is a just God, and everything will come right in the end. Our part is to trust Him, which can be very tough at times. God cares about the oppressed, and those who have been hurt. He knows how it feels also – as Jesus Himself faced it all.

Take your pain to the Righteous Judge, Who will do right by you.

 

The Berean Approach

I don’t want you to just take my word for it…

We take a little break from our current series on Psalm 103 to discuss something important.

It is an immense privilege to share God’s Word with you through this blog, and I take that responsibility very seriously. But you, the reader, have a responsibility also.

If you follow this blog for any length of time, then I can probably promise you two things:

  1. You will not agree with everything I say all of the time, and
  2. There’s a good chance I will get something wrong from time to time.

I think both of these are “OK” within reason. Truth be told, any Bible teacher you follow (and I very much include myself in this) will not get everything right 100% of the time. We are all learning and growing, and not one of us has perfect understanding of the Scripture.

Likewise, there are different views of what the Scripture teaches on particular subjects, and different ways people approach worship. We have many diverse kinds of churches for this reason. There are certain fundamental doctrines – beliefs – that all Christian churches should hold but others where we may disagree – yet still have a Christian perspective and fellowship as brothers and sisters in Christ.

So, I ask two things of you:

  1. Be open minded, and
  2. Don’t take my word for it!
Be Open-minded

As we approach the Bible, we do so from our own experience. Often we read a familiar passage and assume we “know” all about it. God’s Word is so deep however, that new truths can be revealed to us by the Holy Spirit from even the most familiar of passages. Be cautiously and prayerfully open minded. Make sure your beliefs are founded on Scripture, not on tradition or society’s expectations.

Don’t just take my word for it

Perhaps more importantly, please do not just take my word for it. If I teach something through this blog or a sermon, I will do my best to evidence that point from the Bible. If I cannot demonstrate it from the text, then it is only my opinion. Test what you hear and read – not just from me, but from all sources.

The Berean Approach

You, the reader, must take “The Berean Approach.”

Now these people were more noble and open-minded than those in Thessalonica, so they received the message [of salvation through faith in the Christ] with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Acts 17:11 (AMP)

“These people” here refers to the Berean Jews. They heard the message and were keen to understand it, but they searched the Scriptures to make sure that what they were being taught held up.

We must be like them. We must not just accept the newest fad teachings from the most fashionable Bible teacher, without testing it first. Similarly, we should not just swallow the teaching of our favourite teacher just because they are our “favourite”.

I know it may sound like work – checking and praying and testing – but it is worth it. There is great danger in just accepting what someone says. The Bible is so large and complex that one can take a selection of Scriptures out of their proper context and make them say whatever they want.

Context is critical in understanding what any portion of the Bible says

Guarding ourselves against deception is important. Biblical truth is wonderful and freeing, but if we get caught up in false teaching, it can warp our view of not just the Bible, but of God Himself. False teaching can lead us astray.

It is often not the outright lies that catch us, but the subtle falsities mixed with kernels of truth. We must be on our guard, and ever vigilant. We must be life-long students of the Word.

I encourage you to be a Berean!

Trusting the Unseen

All the Benefits of Believing (ATBOB) #3

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,

Psalm 103:1-3 (ESV)

I’ve included the text from verses one to three here, but our focus today is just on verse three. So far in this Psalm we have thought a little about praise and worship, and also about using our minds and memories. The psalmist – David – begins to list out some of the benefits of believing, and he starts with two of the most amazing ones.

Who forgives all of your sins

From the very moment Adam and Eve fell in the Garden of Eden, God put into action His plan of salvation. So many times in the Old Testament do we see imagery or typology of the future Christ Who would come to die for the sins of the world. Indeed in that very garden, God clothed Adam and Eve with the skins/furs of animals. Blood had to have been shed for those animals to give up theirs skins, and the principle of the shedding of blood to “cover” sins was begun.

David knew as he praised God with these words, that He is a forgiving God. Of all the characteristics of God David could have pointed to, he chose first to highlight His forgiveness. Even in Old Testament times, before Christ came to deal with sin, we see God’s patience with His people lengthened time and time again.

And how many of our sins does God forgive? All of them!

So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Hebrews 9:28 (ESV)

God, through His Son, dealt with every single one of our sins now and forever. The idea that God has forgiven all of our sins sometimes makes my head spin. When I think back over my life, I can recall the times when I’ve let God down. Sometimes it was out of ignorance, but if I’m honest, there have also been times when I’ve done or said something which I knew I shouldn’t – but did anyway. I feel unworthy and even now I can barely comprehend that I can walk right up to God as my loving heavenly Father and know that I’ll be welcomed!

It’s almost too good to be true! I just don’t deserve it – and that’s what makes it so good! That’s grace!

I hope you are still with me up to this point, and that you too are humbled and full of praise to God for forgiving you of all of your sins. But the third verse doesn’t end there…

Who heals all of your diseases

This is where it may get more difficult. If I asked a typical church if God had forgiven their sins, I’d get at least 99% of the hands in the room go up. If I then asked if God had also healed all of their diseases, I’m not sure I’d get more than one or two hands if any.

I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t believe the first part of verse three, about being forgiven. But I’ve met many who don’t believe the second part.

Why is that? The same God who forgives our sins, also heals our diseases right? If He forgives all of our sins, then it follows (according to this verse) that He also heals all of our diseases. We cannot separate the two. If we accept the former, then we have to accept the latter also.

The difference is that we cannot see the evidence of forgiveness, and have no option but to trust that God has done it. You can’t see a sin, forgiven or otherwise, so we have to operate out of faith.

When it comes to our bodies, we look and see, and if we still see sickness, then we wrongly conclude that this verse isn’t true. Perhaps we wouldn’t admit that we think it isn’t true, and instead look for other interpretations of the Scripture.

Jesus faced a similar problem with the paralysed man in Mark 2. His faithful friends lowered him down on a mat before Jesus, but instead of healing the man, Jesus told him his “sins were forgiven”. This probably wasn’t what he wanted to hear! It certainly wasn’t what the teachers of the law were expecting. In fact, they thought it was a blasphemous thing to say – who is He to forgive sins! – they thought.

That was Jesus’ point. He essentially proved that He could forgive sins by healing the man. He proved the thing that could not be seen (the forgiveness) by doing the thing that could be seen (the healing).

When we see symptoms in our bodies, it is easy to conclude that we’re still sick. Yet this verse clearly states that God heals all of our diseases. So which is true? We have the same choice that Adam and Eve had. We can choose to believe what God says, or listen to an alternative voice. In this case, our symptoms.

To be honest with you, I have a problem with my eyesight. It is a long-standing issue, and one I have prayed about many times. I have yet to receive my healing. With a sight problem, the symptoms are always before you. And I’ve “trained” myself to believe in the symptom more than in the Word of God. So I am not writing this from the perspective of someone who has it all figured out! I have much to learn myself. And we are all on a journey.

Healing is not a straightforward issue, and there are many reasons why we might not be healed when we ask for it. But we have to start from the premise that this verse is true. God is a healer. Jesus, the perfect representation of God, spent the majority of His ministry healing people. God is the same today, yesterday and forever. If He was a healer in Jesus’s day, He is a healer now.

This post is long already, so I don’t want to spend too much more time on this subject. Perhaps it is a subject for a future series. For now though, if you accept that God forgives all of your sins (something unseen), at least consider that He also heals all of your diseases. Pray over this verse, talk to God about it, and begin to trust the unseen more than the seen.

Resurrection Sunday

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (ESV)

May I wish you a very happy… Easter? I hesitate over the word because actually “Easter” doesn’t appear in the Bible. While I realise some translations include the term, it actually isn’t a biblical word at all. Easter probably comes from the pre-Christian celebration of the goddess “Eostre” which occurred at the beginning of spring. At some point in history, our celebration of the Resurrection of Christ took over the name of the festival.

I much prefer the term – Resurrection Sunday, rather than Easter Sunday therefore – but I digress…

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time of year when we remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was perhaps the most important moment in human history, alongside the Creation, as it marks the time when God dealt with sin once and for all. From that time on, whenever someone puts their trust in Jesus, they become “dead to sin but alive in Christ”. They receive eternal life and are born again into God’s family.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15 quoted above, gives us a concise and clear explanation of the Gospel – the good news about Jesus.

The Gospel is:

  • Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
  • he was buried, and
  • he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared… to many
Christ died

Jesus lived a perfect life, fulfilling every aspect of the Law of Moses. He was never tainted by iniquity, and so was the perfect sacrifice for our sin. He died the death of a sinner on our behalf. He was tortured and crucified so that you and I might go free.

Christ was buried.

They put His body into a tomb carved from the rock. It was a tomb where no one had been laid before. According to the Scriptures, He would stay there for three whole days.

But which Scriptures? Where does it say that Christ would spend three days in the grave?

In Genesis 22, we read the account of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his only son – Isaac. If we’ve been paying attention, we’ll realise that Abraham had more than one son, and so something else must be going on here. In fact, the whole account is Abraham acting out a prophecy of what God the Father would one day do with His Only Son.

Nearer to Father’s Day, i’ll upload a sermon about this…

From the moment Abraham was given the command to sacrifice Isaac, until he arrived at the place God chose, was exactly three days. In Abraham’s mind, his son was dead from the moment the command was given and so, to Abraham, Isaac had been dead for three days when the stay of execution was granted.

Likewise, when Jonah was swallowed by the great fish/whale, he was in its belly for three days and nights before he was “vomited” onto the beach! No one said resurrection wouldn’t be messy!.

Christ was resurrected

Often when we share the gospel, we say something like… Jesus lived a perfect life and died for our sins on a cross. Therefore, if you put your trust in Him, your sins are forgiven.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask, and it’s pretty much what you’ve said above?

We somehow forget the Resurrection. The Gospel does not end with the cross.

We must never omit the resurrection from our Gospel preaching. If the cross enables God’s justice and our forgiveness, then the resurrection enables our new life in Christ. Without being born again, we are stuck forever with our sinful, fleshy nature and have no hope of changing our lives. The cross deals with our sin, but the resurrection enables us to be new creatures in Christ.

I conclude with these words from John’s Gospel. It includes perhaps the most famous verse of them all, “for God so loved the world…” It also includes Jesus’ teaching on being born again. We must, each one of us, be born into eternal life – new life in Christ.

I hope you enjoy this season celebrating the Resurrection!

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

John 3:3-5 (ESV)


16 “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

John 3:16-18 (ESV)