A Compelling God. How the Justice and Mercy of God Point to the Reality of God.

Is the God we meet in the Bible a God of justice? In being gracious and merciful, does God turn a blind eye to sin and injustice, and say “I don’t care”? We often care about justice and have concern for those who experience injustice. Shouldn’t God? If a worldview or religion is to be compelling, then won’t it point to the importance of justice? Indeed a God that has no concern for justice is a God that does not love. If God is love, we will expect God to be perfect in his justice.

So is the God of the Bible a God of justice?

We are introduced to the theme of justice very early in the Bible;

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know, ” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Genesis 4:9-10 (NIV)

We can assume that the blood of Abel was crying out, metaphorically speaking, to God for justice. Not too further along in the Old Testament we hear another cry for justice;

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. Exodus 2:23-25

Someone has pointed out that the Hebrew for the last part simply says “God saw the Israelites. He knew.” He knew they were experiencing injustice. Justice for Israel meant judgement for Egypt. In the plagues the Egyptians found out what it was like to be picked on. The death of the firstborn males in the final plague mirrors the deaths of the Israelite male infants at the hands of the Egyptians. One is reminded of the Biblical “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Justice is held up as important.

We also find in the Book of Exodus a  concern for God’s people becoming a just society. The Book of Exodus moves at a very quick pace until the people reach Mount Sinai and everyone, and everything, comes to a stop. The fast paced action ends and suddenly we find ourselves reading about various legal matters, such as, what should happen if your ox gores someone. It is often said that as Christians, we are not under the old covenant, we are under the new covenant. This is true, but we should also point out that as Canadians we are not under the old covenant law, we are under Canadian law. So if your neighbour’s ox gores your friend, do not wave a Bible in their face, call the police! In these civic laws, given to a specific people at a specific time, God is ensuring that the people He just rescued from the injustices of Egypt can themselves become a just society. If those laws seem like a tedious read, try reading the Canadian law books! Both are important for the existence of a just society.

In many ways, the laws given to Israel signalled a step forward from other ancient societies with regards to justice. There were laws to ensure that no one goes hungry, that the vulnerable were taken care of, that foreigners were treated fairly, and that no child was sacrificed for religious purposes as was happening in surrounding societies. Indeed, the justice of God rings throughout the entire Bible.

While I originally planned on the title of this “Shrunk Sermon” to be  “Compelling Justice,” I had to go with “Compelling God” instead. Why? Because in Jesus the justice of God and the mercy of God come together in a beautiful and compelling way. Consider

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6 (NIV)

For God to be considered just, sin must be punished. Sin cannot simply be wafted away as being unimportant. Yet for God to be considered merciful, our sin must be lifted from us somehow, for no one is without sin. There can be no future in God’s presence for us without mercy. In Christ, God has taken away our sin and yet punished it at the same time. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Keeping in mind that Jesus is God the Son, God Himself has been both merciful and just by bearing the punishment we deserve.

In this bringing together of justice and mercy, Christianity is unique among all the religions of the world. As Peter points out in a sermon in Acts,

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12 (NIV)

Salvation is found in no one else because there is no one else who could bring justice and mercy together as God has done in Christ. There is no one else who could have done for us what God Himself has done for us.

God is consistent in his justice and mercy. The Old Testament is a record of people experiencing the justice and mercy of God. The New Testament is a record of people experiencing the justice and mercy of God. God will be experienced as a God of both perfect justice and mercy in the future.

What will be the focus in your future? Will you experience the justice of a merciful God? He will not force you to spend eternity with Him if that is not something you want. He will do the right thing, the just thing. No one will say “that is not fair” when He sends those who reject Him away from His presence. Of course, God is merciful and it does not need to end that way. Will you experience the mercy of a just God? On our own merit, we do not deserve to spend eternity with God. Yet “by his bruises we are healed.” God will do a really good thing. He will show mercy, yet it will be consistent with his just nature.

Any religion that presents God as either all justice, and no mercy, or all mercy and no justice, is not compelling. Any religion that presents God as either lacking justice, or lacking mercy, is not compelling. The God we meet in the Bible, in revealing Himself supremely  in Jesus, shows Himself to be the God of perfect justice and perfect mercy. This is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

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Compelling Grace. How the Love of God Points to the Reality of God.

Is the manner in which God relates to us compelling? That is, does the relationship offered by God make us go “wow, that makes sense and is is consistent with a good creator God.” Is it consistent with what the Bible teaches about God, namely that “God is love” (1 John 4:8)?

Many would answer, no. Their impression of Christianity is that you try to keep the rules, then you go to hell when you die because you couldn’t. If that is it, then no, it is not compelling! However, that is not it! Many religions are based on performance, that is, your relationship with God is dependent upon how well you keep the rules. Many people, including many Christians, think that Christianity is based on performance. That, however, is not Christianity.

What does Christianity teach? What does the Bible teach as to how God relates to us?

Let us first go to the Old Testament.

We might be quick to point to all the rules of the old covenant law and assume that relationship with God was, and is, based on performance. However, look closer. Long before the law was given at Sinai, God continued in relationship with humanity. Adam and Eve sinned, which introduced death and separation from God. However, God stayed in relationship with Adam and Eve, and with humanity. Israel was called to be a different kind of people, a people who followed God’s lead. They often stumbled, and yes, bore the consequences. However, despite their poor performance, God stayed in relationship with stumbling Israel, and with stumbling humanity.

In the Bible we have a long record of relationship between God and humanity. Within this, to use literary language by way of analogy, the old covenant is a sub-plot which is essential to the unfolding of the main story. Yes, in the sub-plot Israel’s performance was tied to Israel’s future. If they rebelled against God, they would be exiled. They did rebel. They were exiled. But God stood by them anyway! Through Israel God was working out his plan for relationship with all of us. That plan was not dependent on anyone’s performance, but on God’s grace.

The old covenant law was not the main story, even of the Old Testament. The main story, from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s relationship with humanity, not through our performance, but by His grace.

. . . . God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:8-10 (NRSV) 

Second, let us consider Jesus.

How do you begin your prayers? Is it “O all seeing, all knowing judge, who is ready to pounce on me for every sin”? Jesus, in teaching us to pray, taught us to begin with “Our Father.” The Lord’s prayer begins in away which reminds us that we belong. We begin prayer with a reminder that when we are praying in the presence of God, we are exactly where we ought to be. We belong, even when we are aware that belonging is not what we deserve. In teaching us to pray, Jesus reminds us that we relate to God, not through our performance, but by God’s grace.

Consider too, how Jesus related to people in the Gospels. We have Jesus being gracious to all, being known as a “friend of sinners” (see Matthew 11:19). Jesus did have harsh words, but he reserved his harshest criticism for the religious perfectionists who harped on performance of the law. Jesus modelled a grace-filled life. God relates to us in the same way people related to Jesus, not by our performance, but by his grace.

Consider too, the cross. We sinned; he died. He rose; we live. That is all grace. Eternal life is a gift made possible only by the grace of God.

Third, let us consider Paul, as an example of what the apostles taught.

Paul teaches about grace Ephesians 2:1-10;

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV emphasis mine)

Though we were in a mess, God rescued us. Paul himself, is an example of grace, since he messed up terribly in persecuting God’s people. If God’s grace can reach Paul, it can reach anyone.

So how does God relate to us?

The Bible teaches that God’s relationship with us is marked, not by the performance of perfect people, but by God’s grace for imperfect people. This is a compelling aspect of Christianity.

Grace provides a great atmosphere for our relationship with God. When a relationship is based on performance, it can be like sailing in a thunderstorm, scary. When a relationship is based on grace, it is like sailing with a good breeze on a sunny day. There can be adventure, enjoyment, and progress. Grace provides an atmosphere perfect for flourishing and growth. When we receive God’s grace, we do not come before Him like a distrusted employee before a cruel boss, or a hated criminal before a harsh judge. The Christian comes before God as a child welcomed into the presence of a good, good father. The Christian experience of grace is therefore consistent with how God would relate to us if “God is love.” The manner in which God relates to us is consistent with a good and loving God. Grace points to the reality of the God we meet in Jesus, God as revealed in the Bible.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)

Compelling Evil. How Suffering Points to a Loving God.

If the Bible is correct about God, that God is, and God is love, then why is the world in a mess? Why is there suffering? Yes, the Bible teaches that God is love, but the Bible also teaches that the world is, indeed, in a mess. First of, notice that humanity’s relationship with God is destroyed by sin. Adam and Eve were free to enjoy the Garden of Eden, except that there was one thing they ought not do:

“You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—17 except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.” Genesis 2:15-17 (NLT)

Of course they did that one thing and death became an eventuality. Sin separates us from God. However, the Bible tells us that human sin affects more than just humanity:

And to the man he said,
“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
Genesis 3:17 (NLT)

Adam is affected by his own sin, he will die, but so too is the ground affected. Sin messes up everything. We see this theme carried on in the very next story:

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? 7 You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”
8 One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him. Genesis 4:6-8 (NLT emphasis added)

Sin was “eager to control” Cain, but Abel, and Adam, and Eve, were the ones to suffer. Before there was ever a death by the natural consequence of one’s own sin, there was violent death from another’s. Sin makes a mess of everything! It still does. Consider a particularly cruel and selfish man whose attitudes and actions make life miserable for his family. He spreads the misery into his workplace like a bad virus. He then either gets fired, or his business runs down. Soon the money runs out, and the house falls into ruin also. Sin messes everything up for everyone and everything, not just the person who sins.

The Bible teaches that sin even makes a mess of creation:

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse [as a result of the sin of humanity]. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. Romans 8:19-21 (NLT)

Creation is not waiting for God to wipe out humanity, so it can flourish on its own, but to rescue humanity. Brokenness in all creation is tied to human sinfulness. Restoration of creation is tied to the healing of humanity’s sin problem.

So if the Bible is accurate, then we should expect to live in a world where relationship with God is destroyed, where death is the expected and normal end, and where everything is messed up. This is the world we live in! There is suffering because there is evil & sin, there is sin because there is freedom, there is freedom because God is love. It turns out that the world is exactly as we would expect if God is love. Therefore the presence of evil and suffering lends support to the Bible being accurate about the way things are.

But if God is love, would we not expect God to rescue us from evil and suffering? Indeed. The Bible teaches, from Genesis through to Revelation, that God is not content to leave humanity in a mess. God continued to work with humans. He did not just walk away.

God rescued a particular people from a messy situation, then gave them the law so that they would learn to not make a big mess of everything. For example, the Israelites were forbidden from practicing child-sacrifice. If they kept that law, there would be less evil and suffering in the world, for that practice was too common in that day. The law was given to lead God’s particular people out of evil so they could be an example to the other nations. However, they kept tripping on the way out.

All of this was part of a bigger plan for a bigger rescue. God sent his Son and Spirit to rescue us from sin. The two problems of sin are solved. First, we are personally, and individually, reconciled to God. Death, and separation from God is no longer our final end. Second, when it comes to sin making a mess of everything, we are enabled to be part of Spirit-led solutions rather than part of sin-wrecked problems.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)

Just think of how much less suffering and evil there would be in the world if all lives were marked by these “fruit” of the Holy Spirit! As people participate in God’s great rescue, our dark world gets brighter.

God’s rescue is not limited to the possibility of individuals being reconciled to God and making less mess along the way. God will rescue all of creation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” 6 And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. Revelation 21:1-7 (NLT)

Christianity provides a reasonable accounting of why evil and suffering exist in a world created by a loving God. There is suffering because there is sin, there is sin because there is freedom, there is freedom because God is love. Our sin messes up everything. God knows, and since God is love, He has a rescue underway. Christianity speaks of God’s revealed love solution to evil and suffering in Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a future with God. The presence of evil and suffering in the world does not prove God does not exist or does not care. It confirms what the Bible teaches. People sin, God is, and God is love.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)