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 Holy Books. Is the Bible evidence for the existence of God?

Does the existence and nature of the Bible point to the existence and nature of God? Some people just love the Bible. Others find reading it a head-scratching experience. Perhaps, of course, there is some selective reading involved. I suspect that many who love it, and are never driven to question their faith by it, stick to their favourite bits. Likewise, I suspect that those who question Christianity tend stick to their favourite tricky bits. We want to consider the Bible in its entirety as we ask whether it is a compelling aspect of Christianity. Does the existence and nature of the Bible actually point to the reality of God?

Our expectations of the Bible play a big role in how we respond to it and whether we will find it compelling or not. There are two expectations that people often have as they consider the Bible. Either it is written by God, or it is written by men. Let us consider how these expectations pan out.

If the Bible was written by God, and if it was simply downloaded to us as if God sent us an email, then it is not what we would expect. It is convoluted. There are obviously so many authors writing at different times, under different circumstances, writing for different reasons, using different genres which reflect the kinds of writing humans do. It is not simply a “Here are some messages from God with all humans, at all times, and in all situations in mind” kind of book. Indeed what we think of as one book is really many writings written and collected over a very long period of time. That much is obvious.

In addition, the Bible answers questions we are not asking today. Have you ever wondered who the great-great-gandson of Esau was? The Bible gives us the answer.  However, the Bible does not answer questions we are asking. What about the dinosaurs? Who did Cain marry? How do we ethically use all our advances in medicine? If the Bible is simply a direct message from God, would we not expect it to be a simple message that anticipates all the questions of humanity?

Therefore the Bible is not what we would expect it to be if it is simply a message written and sent by God.

However, if the Bible is purely written out of the imagination of humans then likewise, it is not what we would expect. There is an amazing consistency in the presentation of God, the nature of humanity, the human dilemma, and the relationship between God and humanity. Despise the number of writings, the differing authors from different centuries living under different conditions, there is an incredible sense of unity in the Bible. There is also an incredible storyline that spans the many, many, many generations that lived while the writings were being written. Each generation would have had trouble making up its own part in that overall story.

Therefore the Bible is not what we would expect it to be if it is simply a product of the human mind.

So what is the Bible, then, if the Bible is not what we would expect if God simply sent us a direct message, or if we made God up? The writings we find in the Bible are the kinds of writings we would expect, if God created humanity, then humanity rebelled, then God chose and called a specific people for the working out of His purposes, making covenant promises with them, rescuing them from Egypt, giving them the law at Sinai, establishing covenant promises and consequences, bringing them into a promised land where the people kept breaking the covenant, then God appointed leaders and prophets to get them back on track while continuing to reveal more of His purposes, then He came to us as a man, teaching, working miracles, was killed, then rose from the dead, appeared to many, gave the Holy Spirit, then the many people who saw him alive went about as witnesses telling others what they knew to be true, while God gave the Holy Spirit to people who were not from His specifically chosen people so they could be in relationship with Him also, while groups of believers gathered together in assemblies which sometimes needed instructions which was given through letters written by Paul and others, while the stories about, and teachings of, Jesus, were committed to writing by four men in what came to be known as the Gospels. If all these things happened and more, then the Bible is exactly the collection of writings we would expect.

The opposite is true. If these things did not happen, then why do the writings that make up the Bible exist, why do they take the shape they do, and why do they say the things they do?

The writings that make up the Bible are records of the ongoing relationship between God and humanity throughout many centuries in history until God finally revealed Himself most fully through Jesus:

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. 2 And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. 3 The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. Hebrews 1:1-3 (NLT)

So are these writings from God, and therefore to be considered “The Word of God,” or are  they simply what humans wrote? They are both. As the Bible says of the sacred writings, what we now call “The Bible,”

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV emphasis added)

The writings that make up the Bible are “God breathed.” That means they are not simply written by God and downloaded to us, nor are they simply written by men without God’s involvement. Both God and humans are involved. They absolutely passed through the minds of people, they were absolutely penned by people, but they absolutely have God’s blessing as expressing well what we need to know. God would not have a long, long history of relationship with humanity, culminating with His very coming to us to enable relationship with Him, without providing for an accurate representation to be written and collected for future generations. So the writings of the Bible are “God breathed,” which means they are neither “God written,” nor “human invented.” Both God and humans are involved. When the writings of the Bible seem to be from another time and place, we are not surprised. They were written by people in another time and place. When the writings of the Bible seem timeless we are not surprised. The creator of time, Who still relates to us in our time, was involved!

This being the nature of the Bible, we want to check our expectations. The Bible is described by Paul as being “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” and useful for “training in righteousness.” This means it is not a handbook to answer every question and satisfy our curiosity. Neither is it an idol to be worshipped. It does help us know God in Christ, Whom we do worship. Knowing about reconciliation in Jesus is infinitely better than knowing about the dinosaurs, or where Cain found a wife!

The Bible is not what we would expect if God simply sent us a direct message, nor if we made God up. However, it is what we would expect if God has had a long relationship with us, interacting with us throughout history. The Bible itself, in all its convoluted mess, in all its wonderful consistency and amazing storyline, is compelling evidence that God exists and that God loves us.

(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.)