It is the age old problem – “How can a good God allow evil?” It is answered normally in two ways – either he is loving but unable to do anything to stop it (making him a benevolent but impotent being), or he is able to do something, but is unwilling to act (making him a malevolent dictator). This conundrum is not easily solved…if God really is as loving as he claims to be, then surely he would do more to stop the evil we see everywhere. If he is really as powerful as he claims to be then he could stop so much suffering instantly. We put ourselves in his shoes and see things so differently – we imagine what we would do if we were him.
Imagine for a moment you are the CEO of a large company. There are things in your company that are not good – people fighting, people getting emotionally hurt, people leaving in frustration. The situation really hurts the CEO because he or she cares about people and about their company. So what does he do? Does he have the power to sort things out? Obviously, he’s the boss. But is getting stuck in the best course of action? If he does nothing people will question whether he really cares about the hurt and pain they are experiencing. But if he intervenes in every case his employees will treat him as the police enforcement or judge to arbitrate even the smallest disagreements. They may also resent the fact that he is always interfering in things that are not his responsibility. Surely this is not the wisest thing for him to do either?
So, he comes up with a compromise – he decides to constantly lead by example and be the kind of leader he is looking for; he teaches his most senior leaders what it takes to be a good leader; he makes an example of some of the more serious grievances and he coaches people in private about how they should act in a given situation. There are some things that were set by his predecessor and he cannot change them easily (think of long term rental agreements) that are causing institutional pain, but eventually he will deal with these too.
Through these methods he slowly sees the company change, people becoming more what they could be, less what they shouldn’t be. All the time he has patiently waited and instructed, but not dictated the behaviours he expects from his staff. This is a good analogy of how God deals with the problem of evil….
1) He experiences our pain – rather than being a distant God, untouched by evil, he comes to earth to face it head on and feel the full force of corruption, jealousy, betrayal, greed, hatred, contempt and murder. In the life of Jesus God shows us how we should overcome evil with good, and learn how to not retaliate when we are reviled. Jesus was heartbroken by the death that took away his friend Lazarus, he is not immune to the pain caused by evil in this world.
2) He gives examples of a better way – the lives of the apostles and prophets give us ample examples of how to live in the midst of suffering and evil without succumbing to it. In the life of Job we learn how to suffer patiently and accept trial from God as well as blessing; in the life of Joseph we learn that what our brothers meant for evil God uses for good.
3) He shows us how seriously he takes evil – in the punishment dealt out to the rebellious Israelites in the Old Testament we have a vivid picture of how seriously God takes evil. Interestingly, these are the passages that people today use to try and argue that God is not loving – and yet it is his loving judgement on evil that shows us that he really does care enough about evil to do something about it.
4) He allows us room to learn – he does not intervene to stop every mistake we make. We do things that hurt ourselves and each other, we act selfishly and destructively, and he allows us to do it. Why? Because he wants us to grow in godliness through making our own choices, rather than restraining our freedom to act independently. We might wish he would stop people doing bad things, but would that apply to us as well when we act selfishly or self-centered or are proud?
5) He gives us his Spirit to teach us – if we are willing we can learn how to change the only evil we can control, the evil within our own hearts. We look at the world outside as the problem, but this problem is really inside of us. It is in our hearts where the darkness lies, and as we allow him into our lives he extinguishes the darkness with his light.
6) He is active to restrain it now and will ultimately remove it – just like the CEO, there are some things that are more structural than social. Unfortunately evil is a fundamental part of a corrupt and fallen world. While we may wish he would act now against evil, we should not take his patience for complacency. One day he will purge the world of evil, but if we would not be part of the problem on that day, we must come and submit to his rule in our lives in today. However, it is a mistake to think that he is distant from his creation and just waiting for the end, he acts in multitude of unseen ways to restrain evil everyday in the lives of his creation.
Maybe being a CEO isn’t that easy after all!
The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.
We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.
This has been a crazy week…if there was ever a time when my message impacted my life and my life spoke into my message this is it.
My faith has been severely tested and yet I have been blessed because of the free gift that God has given me. And he offers it to each of us. If you don’t have faith, can I encourage you to listen to this message? It’s just 34 minutes of your life…what harm could it do? God gave me the blessing of Psalm 46 for this time and I share it with you as a gift. For those at Carnoustie Community Church on Sunday thank you for a special day.
So, the fourth message in my series of Characteristics of A Genuine Faith: #4 “Indestructible Faith” from Psalm 46. You can download the mp3 file here.
Yesterday I spoke at my home church, Central Baptist Church, Dundee in my series of Postcards from the Prophets on Elijah at Mount Horeb from 1 Kings 19 titled “Running on Empty”. In it I sought to outline Elijah’s external persecution and internal despair along with his encounter with the whispering God. Through it all I sought to understand what Elijah’s experience can teach us in our trials and challenges in the UK today.
The slides are available here and sermon online here or to download here. During the service I also read out an article I wrote last year called “We need the tears of the prophets for a broken nation” – available here.
Revelation Study 5) Sardis – Sleepy Church (Chapter 3.1-6) word doc available here
This is the 5th church to receive a letter from Jesus. To their credit the church at Sardis had not given in to false teaching or sinful living as some of the other churches had, but Jesus still has a tough message for them – there were things that needed to be put right, and quickly.
- How would you describe the church in Sardis in your own words to someone who was a new Christian? What does the reference to chapter 1.16 at the start of the letter signify?
- Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but in reality was dead. If a reputation can be so misleading, should we strive to have a good reputation (compare 1 Timothy 3.7)? What are the danger signs that we are relying on our reputation rather than the Spirit?
- If being asleep is characterised by a lack of alertness and zeal for the things of God, do you think this a particular danger in our day? How can we guard against slowly drifting off to sleep and becoming comfortably numb?
- In v3 Jesus tells Sardis to remember, obey and repent. What things were they to remember? Compare chapter 2.5, 16 & 22. Why do you think repentance is so important to Jesus in these letters? Why is this spiritual discipline so unfashionable?
- In times of revival, history shows that they were preceded by steadfast prayer and spontaneous repentance. Is a lack of repentance hindering the movement of God’s reviving Spirit? Are we willing to take the pain of being woken up by God? Do you pray for revival in our day?
- V4 tells us that not all of Sardis was asleep – there were some who were awake. What things are promised to the obedient in verses 4 and 5? What is the significance of the white robes (compare Revelation 4.4, 6.11, 7.9 & 13-14, 19.14)?
- Read Revelation 14.14-20. How do you think Sardis and Thyatira would respond to such visions of judgement? Why do you think Jesus complements his warnings and admonitions with visions of the future?
The point of Jesus’ message to the church in Sardis is this – watch out and wake up! The application for us is not to take the place of Jesus, sitting in judgement of others we believe are sleeping, but rather to make sure this can never be said of us. We must avoid pride and a judgemental spirit, as much as spiritual apathy. May God grant that we would combine faithfulness with fervency, passion and purity, in the work of the Lord, and may He give us a heart that is burdened for the needs of the lost, the purity of the church and the glory of His name.
“Oh bless me Lord, bless me Lord”, you know it’s all I ever hear, no aches, no one bleeds, no one even sheds one tear, but he cries, he weeps, he bleeds and he cares for your needs, but you just lay back and keep soaking it in…The world is sleeping in the dark, that the church just can’t fight cause it’s asleep in the light. How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well fed? Jesus rose from the grave, and you, you can’t even get out of bed. Keith Green “Asleep in the Light”
Revelation Study 4) Thyatira: The Too Tolerant Church (Chapter 2.18-29) – word doc available here.
The church in Thyatira had become corrupted with false teaching. An influential leader, calling herself aprophetess, had led many of the church into sexual immorality and idolatry. In a powerful and scathingcritique of her true motivations and methods, Jesus calls back his wayward church to repentance and a deep-hearted commitment to his authority alone.
1. In Jim’s sermon he summarised Jesus’ message to this church as “hold on and look up” – what had they been given to hold onto? Why did they need to look up? How similar is our situation in 21st century Dundee to theirs?
2. What are the physical metaphors that Jesus uses to describe himself in v18? How does this compare with the description in chapter 1.14-15? Why do you think his eyes and feet are specifically mentioned? How does the fact that Jesus sees and knows all things make you feel?
3. What five characteristics does Jesus use to describe his examination of this church in v19? What does this say about how Jesus assesses the spiritual condition of a church and individual believer? Which of these five areas do we need to strengthen and how?
4. In v20 Jesus compares one of their false prophets to Jezebel. What were the sins of Jezebel? (1Kings 16.29-32, 18.4, 21.7-10)? How was she able to exert such an influence over Israel (1 Kings 21.25)? How is the “prophetess” in Thyatira similar to Jezebel?
5. What does v22 teach about the connection between sin and suffering? How does this verse compare with John 9.1-3 and 1 Corinthians 11.29-32? Given these verses, how do we avoid the false extremes of attributing all or none of our suffering to the consequences of our sin?
6. Jim reminded us that at the heart of the immorality at Thyatira was a misplaced allegiance. They were listening to the words of a false prophetess over Jesus’ words. What or who strives for our allegiance today? Who would Jesus name “Jezebel” in our day?
7. Not all the church had been deceived by the prophetess – what task is given to these believers? Why would what Jesus says in v26-28 encourage them to remain faithful?
The church is given a stark choice, repent and return or receive the punishment. It is a final warning to a wayward church. If this is how Jesus responded to a single corrupt church, how his heart must break when he looks at the state of the church in the UK today. Surely great judgement is awaiting many of our churches that have abandoned the truths they were given to hold on to. May we be found diligently defending and declaring the gospel that was handed down to us by our forefathers.
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” 2 Timothy 2.2
Book 3 Chapter 12 Section 1-8
For those of us in the UK the last few months have been dominated by one news story – the MP’s expenses scandal. A number of MPs have now stood down from office and some are potentially even facing charges for abusing the expenses system. While it seems that the rules allowed a certain degree of flexibility, when viewed in the cold light of day many of the legally-claimed expenses appear ridiculous. So, after much finger-pointing and public displays of contrition, there is to be a full review of the expenses process. The man leading this review, Sir Christopher Kelly, stated that “we must have complete transparency” in a recent interview, so that MPs can be held accountable for what they claim.
Transparency is a funny thing, its great when you are the detective investigating a crime, but not so great when the alleged criminal turns the tables and claims an illegitimate arrest. This happened last weekwhen the BBC had to respond to a Freedom of Information request asking for its expenses, as a publicly funded body. No doubt enjoying the irony (and the view from the moral high ground), Conservative MPs say the BBC should publish details of all salaries on the grounds of “transparency”.
Calvin is all for complete transparency. In fact he believes that if we are truly transparent with our own hearts we will be forced to see the futility of trying to be justified by works. In this chapter Calvin challenges us to “look to ourselves without flattery or blind self-love.” He believes that if we can see the heavenly tribunal that is awaiting all of us we will not be tempted to measure ourselves by human standards of perfection. “For if the stars which shine most brightly by night lose their brightness on the appearance of the sun, what think we will be the case with the highest purity of man when contrasted with the purity of God?”
A true understanding of our condition forces us to give up any hope of our own righteousness before our Creator. Outward appearances will count for nothing, the only thing that will count will be “the true intent of the will”. This is a greater level of righteousness than outward observance of the law, it has to do with the inner man – our thoughts, desires and intentions. External comparisons will count for nothing as each of us stands alone, our every thought exposed to the penetrating eye of our judge. Which of us then will have the nerve to claim we are not deserving of the just punishment of a holy God?
What is Calvin’s solution to this predicament? Therefore “if we would make way for the call of Christ, we must put far from us all arrogance and confidence.” For “when we have entirely discarded all self-confidence and trust solely in the certainty of his goodness, we are fit to apprehend and obtain the grace of God.”
Everybody loves a scandal, its sells papers and writes headlines. But in the hysteria that followed the recent expenses revelations we would do well to remember that one day all our secrets will be revealed and all our thoughts laid bare. It’s good to want transparency, but we need to be prepared for what it will reveal. Every action, thought and intention of every day of our lives will be completely transparent for all to see. Not just where we may have bent the rules a bit, but where we outright broke them, thought about breaking them, and lived in rebellion to God’s kindness.
But before we despair of hope we must remember that there is a solution. For our greatest danger is not that we are stand before our Maker exposed, shamed and guilty – our greatest danger is that we enter the dock before we recognise there is a remedy. For at that point it will be too late. There is a Saviour for sinners, may we run to Him for forgiveness while we still can.
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” 1 Timothy 1.15
Book 3 Chapter 5 Section 1-10
As we saw in the previous chapter, a misunderstanding of what repentance is leads to a misunderstanding of how the penalty of our sins was satisfied. As Calvin looks back at church history he comments that “the satisfactions placed on penitents were too severe to be borne, those who felt themselves burdened beyond measure by the penance imposed petitioned the church for relaxation. The remission so given was called indulgence.” In this chapter Calvin traces the origins of the practice of various indulgences:
- The treasury of the Church. This refers to the merits of Christ, the Apostles, and the Martrys. While the bible is clear that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1.7), the “indulgences make the blood of the martyrs an ablution of sins.” This is because they teach that “the martyrs, by their death, performed more to God, and merited more than was necessary for themselves, and they have a large surplus of merits which may be applied to others.”
- Purgatory. Calvin argues against those who believe that it is best to avoid what was such a divisive issue, rather Calvin insists that “when the expiation of sins is sought elsewhere than in the blood of Christ, and satisfaction is transferred to others, silence were most perilous.” Calvin calls this doctrine “a deadly device of Satan, that it makes void the cross of Christ.” Calvin deals with a couple of scriptural and apocryphal texts that are claimed to support the teaching, before also showing that it was not believed in the early church.
To think that we can make restitution for the offence we have caused God by buying indulgences or saying prayers for the dead directly contradicts the full and complete forgiveness that Christ purchased by His blood. To think that there is anything lacking in His sacrifice is to show we have not grasped the true extent of the grace and mercy of God. When Jesus cried “It is finished”, he wasn’t talking about His attempt to stay alive, but His work of redemption. He didn’t say “I am finished” but “IT is finished”. This was the work He had begun at His incarnation, carried on all through His perfect obedience in adult life and through to His sacrificial substitutionary death. There is nothing more to add for the forgiveness of sins, it has all been done.
Purgatory is a classic example of man-made religion. We really don’t like being excluded from the work of salvation, so we devise a way in which we are responsible for working our way up to God. But the glory of Christianity is that it is not man-made, but God-ordained. God was the initiator in seeking us out, God entered our world, God became man, God died for our sins, Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith – there is no room for us to add anything. There is no small print in the Book of Life, there are no hidden catches to God’s offer of salvation. This is why we call God’s grace Amazing!
“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous. Romans 5.18-19
Book 3 Chapter 4 Section 1-39
In seeking to understand the vital topic of forgiveness of sins, Calvin addresses two areas that he sharply disagrees with Rome in the next two chapters. The issue at stake is real forgiveness – firstly, how can one be sure that someone is really repentant? and, secondly, does the forgiveness of our sins require satisfaction (in particular regard to the teaching on indulgences and purgatory)?
The Catholic theologians had defined repentance in three parts: contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth and satisfaction of works.
- Contrition of the heart. They taught that forgiveness of sins is “merited by a full and complete contrition” for all sins committed. That is a recounting of all the sins we have committed. But they have no way of knowing when this has been done. Indeed, it is impossible to ever exhaust the depths of our corruption and provide a full account of our sinful ways. Calvin rightly points out that this can only lead to despair or pretended contrition. Moreover, Calvin argues “that repentance cannot be the cause of forgiveness of sins”, it is not the purity and depth of our repentance that enables forgiveness, but the blood of Christ covering all who look to Him, however feebly we may look.
- Confession of the mouth. Here Calvin addresses the teaching that every person must once a year confess his sins to his own priest. He quickly covers the history of the confessional within the Catholic church. He deals with the various passages put forward to support the practice and concludes that it is without scriptural authority or historical grounding. Calvin is all for private confession, and even, when appropriate, private confession to a pastor. But always with the aim of applying the remedy of Christ’s forgiveness to the individual circumstances of the repentant believer.
- Satisfaction of works. This is the subject of Chapter 5.
While Calvin recognises that the motivation of the Catholic church in imposing these rituals was to exhort penitents not to fall into sin, forgiveness for Calvin is not something that can be produced or monitored by the observance of religious ceremonies. It is an affair of the heart. We cannot remember all our faults and outward rituals only numb the conscience and give false confidence if not accompanied with an inward reality.
But isn’t there a danger of licentiousness in leaving this a personal matter for believers and God? Surely only those who are really penitent and serious about changing should be forgiven, surely the church should make sure that people keep their promises? Surely not monitoring the people will lead to them abusing His grace and forgiveness and taking it for granted? Perhaps so.
Is God too generous? Is He more willing to allow us greater freedom than we are comfortable with? The answer appears to be yes. The bible is full of examples of God’s extravagant grace & forgiveness and our inability to deal with it – witness Jonah’s exasperation at God’s forgiveness of the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4.11), or Judas’ bitterness at Jesus’ acceptance of a sinful woman (compare Mark 14.4 & 10) and the grumbling of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.12-15) at the landowner’s generosity.
Whether we like it or not, the truth is that God is more willing to forgive than we are. Our natural inclination is to try and control forgiveness and contain it within reasonable limits, so we can understand it. But God’s forgiveness is the real thing. He promises immediate, complete and free forgiveness and He delivers it – guaranteed! No strings attached. Then He tells us to go and live in the light of that forgiveness with a thankful, joyful heart and by His Spirit to walk in purity and holiness.
“What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6.1+2
Father, thank you for opening your heart to us and pouring your grace and forgiveness into our lives. How we need to learn to be as gracious as you are. We all too easily forgive ourselves anything but hold the least offence against our brother or sister. Transform us to be as self-giving and grace-filled as you are, Amen.