I'm not much of a fiction reader, but I sampled the first in a series called Gods and Kings lately. The author tells the stories of Ahaz and then Hezekiah, kings of Judah at a really nasty time in history, basing her story on the Biblical account, weaving in the actual words of the contemporary prophets, Isaiah and Micah. I appreciate the job she's done because it brought me a fresh sense of the 'real-ness' of these people and the times they lived in-- and the urgency Hezekiah felt to see the people return to the worship of God. Their enemies were at their doorstep. Child-sacrifice was being introduced. Altars to false gods had invaded even the temple of Jehovah! Well, this isn't the place for a book review. I've posted that elsewhere. I mention this because it's sent me back to the Old Testament to look at the law of God, our God, our holy God and to marvel at His mercy and patience in our times.
It doesn't take much looking to realize that we live in a culture that has taken up the ways of other gods. The things God hates are commonplace, practiced even by people who have taken His name as their own. Stoning young people for having sexual relations before marriage seems like outrageous overkill. God obviously takes sex very seriously. It is more than we make of it. Abusing this sacred gift is in fact outrageous to God. (Deut.22:21) Or imagine marching your own son to the town hall with a report of his rebellious lifestyle, so that justice could be done. (Deut.21:18ff) Yes, he'd be stoned (and not in the way our culture defines it), but what effect might this have on his buddies? Might not honoring their parents take on a new value? I was particularly horrified at the idea of child sacrifice practiced by the Assyrians. Who would toss their own child in the fire, even to save their own skin? And yet, how different is that from what we do in North American culture? We even have innocuous sounding names for all these practices with new ones being invented all the time.
Would it be too harsh to say that we live in a pagan culture that has lost the fear of God and really doesn't care what He thinks? And that just maybe that loss of the fear of God has crept into the church as well?
If God, who is perfectly just and good calls these things we live with 'worthy of death' but for us they are a normal part of life, something's terribly wrong with our standard of 'normal'. And yet our lives go on in relative peace and prosperity, feeling somehow immune to the wrath of God, as though it were an old-fashioned concept, no longer in effect. God's holiness and justice and abhorrence of evil are… well, we just have no place for such realities. They are definitely out of vogue, both in and out of the church. Evil has been redefined according to what suits us. The law of God is an outdated document made much of by atheists decrying the 'Christian God', but made little of by the Church because after all, we are 'under grace', aren't we? Never mind that Jesus taught that the Law was here to stay and would be fulfilled in those who believe, not done away with! "For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom.8:3,4)
Could it be God’s moral laws are not arbitrary but actually our design specifications—the conditions under which we will have maximum life expectancy and operational success? Do we believe this? Do we display it to the watching world? When I look at the severity of some of the consequences of breaking God’s commandments, I am in awe of the mercy and grace of God. He hates these things. He hates their effects on His creatures and His creation. He is all powerful. But He waits, not willing that any should perish… Do we comprehend how offensive to God the practices common to our culture, and sometimes our church cultures, are? Not just in the arena of sexual immorality, but in any of the areas governed by the Big Ten—honesty, integrity, contentment, God-honoring speech, respect, putting God above all else in importance… And yet He extends an offer of grace contingent on confession of guilt and need of that grace! The glory of God is revealed in the Cross—God extending lovingkindness and faithfulness to those unworthy of it, providing for Himself a sin offering in the form of His own Son. This Jesus, full of grace and truth, came to die to satisfy the holy requirements of the law. "Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins". This is serious business. Jesus wouldn't have had to die if there were a simpler arrangement.
So it bothers me when the essence of the Gospel degenerates into teaching people that 'God is in a good mood' and wants to make you feel better too? The Gospel is good news, it's true. But it's only a half-truth to suggest that God is so crazy about you that He's willing to overlook your sin. Yes, Jesus has ushered in an era of God's unmerited favor, and as believers we stand uncondemned, accepted, loved, favored, blessed… But that's not the starting point. First we were God's enemies. Hopelessly enslaved to sin. Lost, condemned, worthy of death, deserving of judgment, without hope and without God in the world! There must be a starting point that acknowledges God is NOT pleased. He is NOT in a good mood about your sin. You are definitely NOT OK. The law is there to show us His holiness and justice. It's not going away and God's standards haven't changed. We have. People on their own steam are actual enemies of God. Unless we start with the assumption that we are sinners, there is no gospel.
I like the way C.S. Lewis puts it in a chapter of Mere Christianity titled: "We Have Cause to be Uneasy" (which is available online in written and audio format here).
"The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is "good" in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic. There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, of dangerous, or difficult it is to do. If God is like the Moral Law, then He is not soft… You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. That is the terrible fix we are in....God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger—according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.
"Christianity simply does not make sense until you have faced the sort of facts I have been describing. Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness…the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is not use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay….If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair." (Mere Christianity, p.38,39)
But does it really matter how we preach the gospel? What's wrong with an easy 'sell' that invites people to come based on their felt needs, promising them that Jesus will fix everything? He's there for their comfort and fulfillment. Just come, ask, 'accept' and believe He's got what you want… The results speak for themselves and are not unlike the condition of Judah in the times of Hezekiah and then Manasseh… A God not known, not revered, not feared, is a God easily abandoned when the culture around offers something more enticing. My felt needs become my God.
Genuine love for God that is willing to lay down its own life for His service is not born out of a Gospel catering to self-interest and devoid of the frank reality of my sinfulness. It is the one who knows he has been forgiven much that will love much. To bypass the issues of my sin and his forgiveness may yield a certain 'passion' for 'things of God' but only for as long as those things serve my interests—my felt needs for significance and purpose. Even the power, position and authority in Jesus' name available to a believer can be heady distractions from the main thing. When the seventy-two returned from their mission to announce the coming Kingdom they were stoked that demons listened to them. Jesus warned: "Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." We are never meant to outgrow the wonder of our salvation.
It is this theme, the wonder of the Gospel, that I had intended to write about here today. My own testimony is not one of dramatic transformation from being a derelict law-breaker to being a lover of God. I have listened in awe to such stories, but they are not mine. I have had to be intentional about asking God to reveal to me my sinfulness. How much could a child of ten have had on her record? And yet I too have been forgiven much. I am continually forgiven much. Sin is not just an act but a condition we are born into. Self-centeredness is tell-tale. The command to love God with all my heart and my neighbor as myself is enough to do me in. Yes, I too need the Gospel, not merely to make me feel whole and 'worthy' but to save me from the damnation that is inevitable to all who stand on their own righteousness.
I was blessed by an article I read earlier this week touching on some of the great mysteries of our faith—the things not yet revealed, not fully spelled out in Scripture. Midstream the writer stopped and reflected on what he called the greatest mystery of all—what we are now, the wonder that we should be called children of God. Quoting John he wrote:
'"How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God." Then, as if at a loss of saying anything more profound, John adds, "And that is what we are!" (I Jn.3:1) If you are not similarly dumbstruck, it is time to pause and let John's words sink in for a moment.'
And that's just what I did. The Gospel can become so familiar that we lose the significance and the wonder of it. Yet how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?! For a refresher on the old, old story listen in on Paul's talk in Acts 13 and let the reality of what God has done for us sink in…such love, such holiness, such a salvation!
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? Heb.2:1-3
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Acts 13:38,39
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. Heb.9:28
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…. Rev.1:5b,6,7
And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests… Rev.5:9,10
Amen and amen!