11. The Most High Rules
The Babylonian Empire was the greatest power in the world of its day, and its king, Nebuchadnezzar, had no equal. But the great king had not been sleeping well. Whenever he tried to go to sleep troubling thoughts from a recent dream flooded his mind and he was terrified. He tried to get help from his magicians, astrologers, and diviners, but to no avail.
Finally he turned to Daniel, remembering that it was Daniel who had helped him with a frightening dream earlier in his reign. He carefully described his nightmare. It was about a huge tree that grew to the sky and continued to provide food and shelter for all until suddenly a holy messenger from Heaven declared that the tree would be cut down. The messenger added,
This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers, And the decision is a command of the holy ones, In order that the living may know That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, And sets over it the lowliest men (Daniel 4:17).
Whatever dramatic event that dream anticipated, its purpose would be to convince the inhabitants of the earth that the Most High God rules the affairs of men. We call that great truth the sovereignty of God. It was essential that Nebuchadnezzar understand it, so important, in fact, that God let him lose his mind, grovel in the fields like an animal, and eat grass like an ox until he was willing to admit it. And he finally did. After recuperating from his ordeal, he praised and honored the Most High God who lives forever, and said:
For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, What hast Thou done? (Daniel 4:34-35)
That is one of the clearest statements of God’s sovereignty found anywhere in the Bible. Nebuchadnezzar learned the doctrine well and it is just as important for us to understand it.
The Meaning of God’s Sovereignty
The dictionaries tell us that sovereign means chief or highest, supreme in power, superior in position, independent of and unlimited by anyone else. Some theologians insist that sovereignty is not technically an attribute of God, but rather a prerogative that issues from the perfections of His nature. That makes little difference. We still need to know Him as the sovereign God, and there is probably no more comforting truth about Him that we will ever learn. To know the sovereign God is to find peace in the problems and pressures of daily living.
God is truly and perfectly sovereign. That means He is the highest and greatest being there is, He controls everything, His will is absolute, and He does whatever He pleases. When we hear that stated, we can understand it reasonably well, and we can usually handle it until God allows something that we do not like. Then our normal reaction is to resist the doctrine of His sovereignty. Rather than finding comfort in it, we find that it gets us upset with God. If He can do whatever He pleases, why does He allow us to suffer? Our problem is a misunderstanding of the doctrine and an inadequate knowledge of God. If we can explore what sovereignty involves, then we can truly get to know our sovereign God.
It should not be any problem for us to admit that God is the highest and greatest being there is. If He is the eternal, self-existent, self-sufficient, unchanging Spirit, all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere, it is obvious that He stands alone, above all. No one can equal Him. If anyone existed before Him or is more powerful than He is or knows more than He knows, if He needs anyone else to complete Him, then that one would be God rather than the One we know as God. But that idea is ridiculous. There is only one true and living God, and in order for Him to be God He must be the highest and greatest. The very name by which he revealed Himself to Nebuchadnezzar shows that He is. He called Himself the Most High God, that is, the exalted One, lifted far above all gods and men.
Other passages concur. Isaiah said:
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel And his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me” (Isaiah 44:6).
The writer to the Hebrews put it succinctly: “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Hebrews 6:13). Who else could He call on to establish that solemn oath? He is the greatest and highest being there is (cf. also Exodus 18:11; Deuteronomy 4:39; Psalm 95:3; 135:5; Isaiah 40:12-15,18,22,25; 45:5; 1 Timothy 6:15).
This still may not convince us that God can do anything He pleases. We then need to go back to the beginning of God’s creative activity. If God made everything and sustains everything by His power, then He obviously owns everything and has a right to rule what is His and do what He pleases with it. Did He make everything? There is no question about that. Speaking of God the Son, Paul said, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16). Not only did He create all things, but He created them for Himself, for His own glory. Solomon went so far as to say, “The LORD hath made all things for Himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4 KJV). That sounds rather shocking at first. But we need to realize that He did not cause them to be wicked. He made them, they subsequently practiced evil of their own volition, yet somehow He is going to use them to fulfill His own eternal purposes.
Furthermore, what He made for Himself He is presently holding together. Paul went on to say, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). God the Son keeps the particles of the universe from flying apart. All things cohere in Him.
If God created everything and now takes the necessary steps to make it all stick together, He must consider it all to be His. That is exactly what Scripture teaches. In a great prayer of thanksgiving King David declared, “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11 NIV). To this, all Scripture agrees. For example, “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1 KJV; cf. also Genesis 14:19; Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 50:10-12).
If God made everything and owns everything, then He has the right to rule everything. That is what He taught Nebuchadnezzar during his harrowing experience (Daniel 4:17,25,34-35). Actually, David had said it years before. In that same prayer of thanksgiving he went on to declare, “Thou dost rule over all” (1 Chronicles 29:12). Passages in both the Old and New Testaments verify this truth. For example, “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19 NIV). “He rules by His might forever” (Psalm 66:7). “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Revelation 19:6 KJV). His omnipotence provides the strength to do what His sovereignty gives Him the right to do. Nothing is outside the scope of His sovereignty—absolutely nothing.
A godly king named Jehoshaphat found great encouragement in knowing the sovereign God of the universe who rules everything, when he faced a fearsome coalition of invading enemy armies. “Then Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the LORD before the new court, and he said, ‘O LORD, the God of our fathers, art Thou not God in the heavens? And art Thou not ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations? Power and might are in Thy hand so that no one can stand against Thee’” (2 Chronicles 20:5-6). God proved that He ruled the nations by giving Jehoshaphat and his people a miraculous victory that day. When trials invade our lives, we too can find great comfort in knowing the God who rules everything. He loves to give His people victory (cf. also Psalm 47:2-3,7-8; Psalm 93:1-2; Proverbs 21:1; Matthew 28:18; Acts 17:26; Revelation 19:6).
Since God is infinite, His sovereignty must be absolute. His rule must involve total control of everything in His domain—every circumstance, every situation, every event. God claims responsibility for establishing and removing human rulers, however acceptable or unacceptable we may consider them to be (Daniel 2:20–21). The Psalmist said that God controls the weather (Psalm 147:16-18; 148:8). Sometimes we don’t like it, but we learn to accept it from the One who rules everything.
He even holds the life of every creature in His hand (Job 12:10). Everyone in my family is convinced that God led a collie named Levi to our door. His name was engraved on the tag hanging around his neck when he arrived. Can you imagine a dog named Levi finding the Strauss house? Our youngest son had been praying for a dog for nearly three years, but we had laid down some stringent requirements. He had to be housebroken. He had to be obedient. And he had to be a gentle, people-dog in order to live in a pastor’s home where visitors come and go regularly.
When my wife returned the dog to its owner, whose address was also engraved on the tag, she said kiddingly, “If you ever want to get rid of this dog, please let us know.” The surprising reply was, “I do. I’m looking for a good home for him right now.” My wife asked if we could think about it overnight. To our delight, Levi got out of his house and found his way to our residence again the next morning. This time we decided he could stay. When the owner brought us his papers, we learned that he had been conceived at the approximate time our son began to pray for a dog, that he was born on my wife’s birthday, and that he was an honor graduate of obedience school. No one will ever convince us that Levi’s coming was anything other than the gracious work of our sovereign God. Incidentally, he did meet the other require meets as well.
God’s sovereignty means that He either directly causes or consciously permits everything that happens in human history. Paul said to the Romans, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36). He taught the Ephesians that God works “all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
We may be shocked to learn that God even admits to causing adversity and calamity.
The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these (Isaiah 45:7).
Think of that. God may on occasion purposely build problems into our lives, little problems like the flat tire on a deserted road, or big problems like the undiagnosed illness that lingers on interminably and disrupts our lives. While on other occasions He may merely allow events to take their normal course, it is obvious that He controls every circumstance in our lives (Proverbs 16:33; Lamentations 3:37-38).
It looks as though we have reached the summit of God’s sovereignty. He has the right to do anything He pleases. Through the prophet Isaiah, He boldly declared:
Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
The Psalmist agreed.
But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).
Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps (Psalm 135:6).
That was the lesson Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way, as did a suffering believer named Job. He was sitting on an ash heap feeling sorry for himself, bearing excruciating pain, enduring intense grief over the loss of his family and all his material goods, blaming God for being unfair, when God began to reveal Himself in His sovereign power and glory. Getting to know a sovereign God caused Job’s problems to pale by comparison. He was able to relax when he finally concluded,
I know that Thou canst do all things,
And that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted (Job 42:2).
Jesus taught the same lesson to His disciples by means of a parable, the story of the laborers in the vineyard. Some were hired very early in the morning, others at various times throughout the day. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman to call them together and pay them all the same amount. Those who had worked through the heat of the day grumbled because they received only the same as those who were hired shortly before quitting time. The landowner replied, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?” (Matthew 20:15) That landowner pictures God. He has a right to do as He pleases with what is His, without asking permission from anyone. Isaiah warned years before, “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker” (Isaiah 45:9).
The Apostle Paul took up the same theme: “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?” (Romans 9:18-21) If God is sovereign, then we have no right to argue with Him about what He allows to happen to us (cf. also Job 23:13; 33:12-13; Jeremiah 27:5).
The Message of God’s Sovereignty
By this time some are probably saying, “Where is the comfort in all of this? If God controls everything, why does He allow human tragedy and pain?” It is important to understand that, while God controls everything, He does not manipulate people like puppets on a string or program them like computerized robots. He gives them the freedom to make decisions and He holds them responsible for their choices. All human suffering is ultimately linked in some way to man’s volition. But just as God’s omniscience assures us that He knew what man’s choices would be, so His sovereignty assures us that He consciously allowed those choices as the best possible means of displaying His own glory, that He has complete control of them at every moment, and that He will overrule them to accomplish His own perfect purposes. The Psalmist made that last point clear when he said, “For the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10). He can even use man’s belligerent opposition against Him to bring praise to Himself.
The Bible is filled with illustrations. For example, God overruled the evil designs of Joseph’s brothers when they sold him into slavery. He used that painful experience in Joseph’s life to keep Jacob’s family alive through a devastating famine so that the line through which the Messiah was to come could be preserved. When Joseph was reunited with his brothers many years later, he said, “And as for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).
God also overruled the murderous designs of the Jewish religious leaders who plotted the death of His Son, by laying on Him the guilt and penalty of the world’s sins and so providing forgiveness for the human race. He overruled the persecution suffered by the early Church in Jerusalem and used it to spread the gospel to places it might never have gone otherwise (Acts 8:1-4). He causes man’s actions to serve His own purposes.
His purposes are always perfect. David assured us that God never makes mistakes. “As for God, His way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30 KJV). Jeremiah, through a letter to the discouraged Jewish captives in Babylon, revealed that God has our well being at heart in all His aims and goals. “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). We cannot always understand how His actions will work out perfectly for our welfare, but He does not expect us to understand. He just wants us to trust Him. What seems like calamity will work for the best.
Abraham did not always understand God’s purposes, yet he trusted Him. When God told him He was about to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham feared for the lives of his nephew Lot and family, so he pleaded with God to spare the city. But behind his request was a settled assurance that God would do what was best: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25 KJV) He trusted God to do what was best.
Yes, God does have the right to do with us anything He pleases because we belong to Him, and we have no right to argue. He controls all our circumstances, and as bleak as they may appear to us, He is already at work to use every one of them for the accomplishment of His good ends. No circumstance is excepted. David said, “My times are in Thy hand” (Psalm 31:15). He was referring to all the situations and circumstances of daily living. They are all of God’s appointment.
The steps of a man are established by the LORD;
And He delights in his way (Psalm 37:23).
The course of life, all that befalls a believer, is established, fixed, and settled by the Lord. Things may be out of our control, but God has them in His total control at every moment (cf. also Proverbs 20:24; Ecclesiastes 9:1). And He always does what is best. “Trust Me,” He says. “There is no reason to worry, fret, complain, or argue. Just trust Me to accomplish My own perfect purposes.”
One of His purposes is to teach us important lessons that He wants us to learn. He allows trials as tools to bring us to maturity and completeness in Him (cf. James 1:2-4). Rather than asking, “Lord, why did this have to happen to me?” it might be advantageous to ask, “Lord, what Christlike quality of spiritual maturity do you want to build into my life through this experience?”
There is something to be learned in every situation. For example, when someone is unloving to us we can learn what it means to love unselfishly and unconditionally. When someone hurts us deeply we can learn to forgive. When we are experiencing conflict with someone in authority over us we can learn to cultivate a submissive spirit. When we face financial difficulties we can learn to be good stewards. When temptations entice us we can learn to claim God’s power to overcome them. When we become bored and discouraged with our lot in life we can learn to be faithful. When we suffer an extended illness we can learn to rejoice in the Lord. When we lose a precious loved one we can learn to find our satisfaction in the Lord alone.
God may be allowing some tragedy to invade your life right now. As an omniscient God, He knows about it. As an omnipotent God, He could have stepped in supernaturally and changed that circumstance and so protected you from it. But He did not do that. Instead, He allowed it to remain. So we must conclude that He wants it to be there and that He has some perfect purpose to accomplish through it. Trust Him to fulfill that purpose.
A godly woman in my first pastorate taught me the application of God’s sovereignty to human experience. She was in the hospital dying of cancer, suffering great pain, but still mustering the strength to read her Bible every day. She was eagerly anticipating my visit one particular day because she wanted to tell me what God had shown her that morning. She asked me to open my Bible to Psalm 119 and to read verses 67 and 68. I read aloud,
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Thy word.
Thou art good and doest good; Teach me Thy statutes.”
“Now read verse 71,” she said. So I read again,
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Thy statutes.”
“And one more,” she added. “Read verse 75.” I continued,
“I know, O LORD, that Thy judgments are righteous,
And that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me.”
When I finished, she looked up at me and smiled.
“You know, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world,” she said. “I’m right where God wants me to be, and it’s good.”
That is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty put into practice. The bottom line is yieldedness to His sovereign will. He has a right to do with us as He pleases. He can allow our best-laid vacation plans to fall through at the last minute if He so chooses. He can let the boss blame us for somebody else’s mistake if He so chooses. He can let the bride get the measles on the day before the wedding if He so chooses. He can let our whole world fall apart around us if He so chooses. We can react in one of two ways. We can resist Him, grumble, complain, accuse Him of being unfair or unkind, and end up with a tension headache, a knot in the pit of the stomach, and possibly an ulcer or a heart attack. Or we can believe that He will use our circumstances to fulfill His perfect purposes, then willingly yield to His sovereign will and find inner peace and rest. The choice is ours.
Action To Take
Think of something in your life at the present time that disturbs you deeply, over which you have no control. Now consciously bow to God’s sovereignty in that area of your life and ask Him what Christlike qualities He wants to build into your life through that situation.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
12. The Holy One
There is something about holiness that scares us, and something about a person who claims to be holy that threatens us. People like that make us feel uncomfortable, inferior, unworthy, guilty, and condemned. The less holy we think we are, the farther away from them we want to run.
That is the way some people feel about God. The thought of His holiness makes them want to hide. That is an understandable response for the unbeliever. He has good reason to hide from an infinitely holy God who must punish sin. But sometimes people whose sins have been forgiven, and who have been clothed with divine righteousness, also draw back from Him and that is probably due to a faulty understanding of His holiness. Satan enjoys perverting this doctrine and using it to drive a wedge between believers and their Lord.
Holiness is clearly out of style in our day, and the opinions of the day have a definite influence on the Christian’s mind. The prevailing viewpoint seems to be that nice guys finish last, that honest people never get ahead, and that clean-living people never have any fun. We have been conditioned to accept a lack of holiness as the normal pattern of life. We expect people to be immoral, dishonest, selfish, and greedy. Books are available that teach people how to get rich by cheating others. That’s the way life is, and some of us have decided that we might as well get our share. So we accept the philosophy of the world and begin doing unto others before they do unto us. We may even consider anybody who wants to be genuinely holy as being out of touch with reality.
One professing Christian challenged me to name anybody who had succeeded in business after consecrating his life to Jesus Christ. I was able to name some, but his challenge was revealing. If our highest priority in life is to succeed in business, and we do not think we can be successful as committed Christians, we will never desire to be holy or ever yield our lives to Jesus Christ. We may even ridicule anybody who wants to be holy, and we will certainly not want to hear anything about God’s holiness. If, on the other hand, our highest priority in life is to do God’s will and to bring glory to Him, then we will have much to gain from an understanding of His holiness. Assuming that this is our desire, let’s meet the Holy One.
The Meaning of God’s Holiness
King Sennacherib of Assyria had no time for the God of Israel. He laughed at the suggestion that Jehovah could protect the Jews against his mighty military machine, and he instructed his personal representative to stand before the walls of Jerusalem and shout blasphemies against Him. When he sent a personal letter to King Hezekiah defying the Lord, Hezekiah took that letter to the temple, spread it out before the Lord, and prayed. God assured him through the prophet Isaiah that Sennacherib had gone too far with his blasphemy.
Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? And against whom have you raised your voice, And haughtily lifted up your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel! (2 Kings 19:22)
He had insulted the Holy One and had to learn that there was no God like Him. Because of his impudence and audacity, his armies were defeated and he lost his life by an assassin’s sword.
That encouraging message from Isaiah to King Hezekiah introduces us to a name—the Holy One. It is one of the most glorious names of our great God. The basic idea in both the Old and New Testament words for holy is “separation.” God is the separated One. But separate from what? There are two basic answers to that question. First, God is separate from His creatures. He is exalted high above them in infinite glory and transcendent majesty. Isaiah emphasized this aspect of God’s holiness when he declared,
For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place” (Isaiah 57:15).
His holiness is associated with His elevated position. It sets Him apart, above all His creation (cf. also Exodus 15:11 and 1 Samuel 2:2).
Holiness has an ethical connotation as well, a sense in which God is separated from all evil. He cannot sin, He will not tempt anyone else to sin, and He can have no association with sin of any kind. He is untainted with the slightest trace of iniquity.
As Elihu put it to Job,
Far be it from God to do wickedness, And from the Almighty to do wrong (Job 34:10).
The prophet Habakkuk insisted that God is so pure, He will not even look at sin (Habakkuk 1:13). The Psalmist assured us that no evil dwells with Him (Psalm 5:4). Other passages affirm that He hates sin (e.g., Proverbs 6:16-19; Hebrews 1:9). Our holy God is totally separated from sin.
The Apostle John described God’s holiness as light: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). There is not much in this world that is pure enough to illustrate the intensity of God’s holiness, but John chose one of the purest things we know—light. There is not even a hint of anything sinful in God, no darkness at all, no shadow of sin. He is morally perfect.
When Isaiah saw a vision of the glory of the Lord, the seraphim were magnifying Him by saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3). This is the only attribute of God that is ever repeated three times in succession. It emphasizes the absoluteness and completeness of His holiness. Our God is infinitely holy.
As a matter of fact, there are probably more references to God’s holiness in Scripture than to any other attribute. If there is one thing God wants us to know about Himself, above all else, it is that He is infinitely holy. We may find it to be one of the most difficult of all His attributes to accept, but for some reason He finds it one of the most important for us to comprehend. He wants us to know Him as the infinitely Holy One.
This same holiness was seen in the earthly life of God the Son. Peter said that He committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22). John said that there was no sin in Him (1 John 3:5). Paul said that He knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). The writer to the Hebrews said He was “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26). We are not surprised to hear Peter refer to Him in his sermon at the gate of the temple as the Holy One, the very same exalted name applied to the Father (Acts 3:14).
Jesus Christ was truly holy. That is one reason why the self-seeking, self-righteous religious rulers of the day hated Him and wanted to destroy Him. They stood condemned in His presence. That is why demons trembled before Him and feared for their very existence. In the synagogue at Capernaum, one of them cried out, “What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) The Holy One of God! Sinful men feared Him and fallen angels fled from His presence. His holiness is awesome.
The Beauty of God’s Holiness
While it repulses the unbeliever, threatens the carnal Christian, and inspires awe in everyone who acknowledges it, there is something in God’s holiness that attracts the person who loves Him. The godly king, Jehoshaphat, revealed what attracts us when he organized his armies and appointed a choir to lead them into battle. They were to sing unto the Lord and “praise the beauty of holiness” (2 Chronicles 20:21 KJV). There are few things uglier than self-righteousness and hypocritical holiness, but true holiness is beautiful to behold.
That should be easy to understand. We seldom consider soiled things to be beautiful. A beauty contest winner is never in a soiled, wrinkled dress. When “grease monkeys” climb out of the pits under cars, or coal miners emerge from the mines, nobody raves about their beauty. Beauty is usually associated with what is clean and pure, not what is dirty and defiled. A babbling brook loses some of its beauty when we learn that its water is polluted. A beautiful woman loses some of her attractiveness when we learn of her immoral involvements. But the perfect purity of our holy God is beautiful.
We have seen that God is light, and light is also a thing of beauty. I doubt that anyone ever praised the beauty of a totally dark room. The beauty of the night is seen in the sparkling lights that God has placed in the sky. The beauty of the sunrise is the splash of colorful light painted on the canvas of the heavens by the sun. In the physical realm, beauty is associated with light, not darkness. The radiantly pure light of our holy God is beautiful.
David longed to behold the beauty of the Lord (Psalm 27:4). He wanted to understand and appreciate God’s perfect purity, His infinite holiness, His absolute freedom from anything sinful. We cannot even imagine God being soiled or spotted or lurking in dark shadows. He is brilliant, beautiful, unblemished light. He is lovely to contemplate right now, and He will be exciting to behold in glory.
That is one of the reasons why we are so attracted to the Lord Jesus. He is without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:19)—perfectly pure. The unbeliever finds no beauty in Him and has no desire for Him (Isaiah 53:2-3). But His face, even marred by thorns and twisted with pain, is beautiful to us who believe, because it is the face of God’s sinless Son who gave Himself for our eternal salvation. The Psalmist was looking through the corridors of time to Him when he said,
Thou art fairer than the sons of men; Grace is poured upon Thy lips;
Therefore God has blessed Thee forever (Psalm 45:2).
It is so easy for us to be affected by the world’s values and develop a distorted view of beauty. We actually begin to think that beauty has to do solely with the outer layer of skin or what is pleasing to the eye. God wants us to get to know Him, and then we shall understand that genuine beauty is found in a holy life.
The Challenge of God’s Holiness
This challenge was first issued to God’s ancient people Israel, then repeated to the church of Jesus Christ. Look at it first in the Old Testament. The Lord had just delivered His people from their Egyptian bondage and was directing them to their promised land. Along the way He paused to give them some laws, and He advised them that it would be to their benefit to obey them. Then He issued the challenge: “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45). Since God is holy, the people who are rightly related to Him must also be holy. A holy God requires a holy people.
The Apostle Peter took up the same theme when he encouraged believers not to be conformed to the sinful desires they had before they met Christ: “But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16 NIV). Here is where some Christians begin to back away. “If God wants me to be as holy as He is, I’m in big trouble. There’s no way that I can ever live up to that.” So some decide they will not even try. It seems to be more tolerable to live with the guilt of ignoring God than the guilt of trying to be holy but consistently failing.
But they misunderstand this exhortation completely. God never told us to be as holy as He is. That is impossible, and God knows it better than we do. He told us to be holy because He is holy, and there is a difference. Our holiness at best looks pathetic next to His. But we can grow in holiness, and He has made available to us everything we need to accomplish that. We can be separated from sin and set apart to God for His use and for His glory. Because He is holy and offers us all the assistance we need to be holy, He has a right to expect us to be holy. Some of us probably will admit that we are so far from any significant degree of holiness that we do not even know where to begin.
Maybe Isaiah can help us. Let’s go back to his experience. It began when he got a glimpse of God’s absolute and complete holiness. And that is where we must begin. That is why we need to study this attribute. There is little hope for us to be holy until we contemplate the Holy One Himself— infinitely holy, perfectly pure, totally separate from sin. We must see Him as the seraphim described Him: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
Don’t miss what happened to Isaiah when he grasped the reality of God’s holiness.
Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).
Isaiah’s understanding of God’s holiness brought an overwhelming sense of his own uncleanness, his own guilt and shame. That is when most of us want to run. It’s unpleasant. It strikes at the very heart of our self-esteem and self-worth. We feel threatened, insecure, rejected, and condemned. So in a desperate attempt to protect our fragile egos, we cry out, “Don’t tell me any more about God’s holiness. I don’t want to hear it.” Then we settle back into a comfortable substitute for real Christian living. We go through the forms, use the right language, and do the bare minimum of what we think is expected of us. We talk about God’s love, which is vital to an understanding of His person. But we seldom ever mention His holiness or think about what it means for us to be holy.
Isaiah did not try to run and hide from God’s holiness. It exposed his sin and that was not very pleasant, but he did not turn away. Neither did he try to excuse himself by blaming his parents or his spouse or his poor circumstances in life. He admitted it and accepted the responsibility for it. The only way he could ever be holy was to see himself as God saw him, acknowledge his sin, and admit that he deserved divine judgment. “Woe is me!” he cried.
If that were the end of the story, we would be destined to live our lives under a continuous cloud of guilt. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven’” (Isaiah 6:6-7). That does not sound any more pleasant than facing up to his sin, but remember, this occurred in a vision. Nobody actually scorched Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal. The action of the angel in the vision was symbolic of purging. God took the initiative and cleansed Isaiah’s sins. Nothing brings greater relief or more joyous freedom than the assurance that God has forgiven and cleansed us. The pressing burden of guilt is gone.
God’s provision for our cleansing is the cross of Jesus Christ. He does not put hot coals on our lips. Instead, He placed the judgment for our sin on His own sinless Son.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:5-6).
When we confront God’s holiness, it does expose our sinfulness. But the solution is not to run and hide, nor is it to ridicule the whole idea of holiness. It is to acknowledge our sin and to accept the forgiveness He has offered us in His Son. Then God shares His own holiness with us in the person of His Son. He washes away every sinful stain, then actually allows Jesus Christ to become our holiness (1 Corinthians 1:30),1 accepting us because of our relationship to Him. That is real worth. Confronting God’s holiness does not destroy our self-worth if we respond properly. It enhances it. To know we are children of the living God, sinful though we are, is to possess an inestimable sense of real worth.
But that is not the end of the matter. Christians still sin, and their sin often lays on them a new sense of guilt, makes them hesitant to enter the presence of God, or offer themselves to serve Him. But the same sacrifice that provided for our initial cleansing also provides for our daily cleansing. The blood of Jesus Christ keeps on cleansing us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
We still have an obligation, however, and that again is to acknowledge our sin. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). When we see ourselves as God sees us and admit our sin, it brings us a fresh realization of cleansing. That is what happened to Isaiah, and it was that cleansing which qualified him for fruitful service. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8). Nothing can bring us more satisfaction, more fulfillment, or a greater sense of personal worth than the assurance that God can use us.
In the normal Christian life this process just keeps going on and on. We learn a little more about God’s holiness and consequently a little more about our own sinfulness. Then we acknowledge the sin, enjoy a renewed sense of God’s cleansing, yield that area of our lives to His control, and so grow a little more in His holy likeness. This is what Paul was referring to when he encouraged the Corinthians to move on and perfect holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 7:1). As we grow in His image we become progressively set apart unto Him.
Sometimes our heavenly Father helps us along through discipline. That is what most earthly fathers try to do, but some usually do it rather poorly. “For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). His loving discipline helps us partake more fully of His holiness, which will in turn make our lives more productive and satisfying.
Christian, don’t run from God’s holiness. Explore it more deeply. Get to know God as the Holy One. There are few things we could ever possibly do to bring greater joy and blessedness to living.
Action to Take
Have you trusted Jesus Christ as your own personal Saviour from the guilt and penalty of sin? If so, thank God for cleansing you and imparting to you Christ’s holiness.
Are there still sins in your daily life as a Christian? Confess them to God and trust His power for victory over them. Be in your daily practice what you are by virtue of your eternal position in Christ.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
13. Justice for All
“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The pledge of allegiance to the flag claims that ours is a nation where every human being, regardless of race, color, creed, sex, or social standing, receives fair and equal treatment. One of the purposes for the United States Constitution, as stated in its preamble is to “establish justice”; that is, to provide every individual with equal rights before the law, without partiality or favoritism.
Some people in this country feel that we have failed to achieve that goal. They point to blatant instances of inequity, such as people with money, power, or position securing more favored treatment under the law than the poor, the friendless, or the obscure. They enumerate examples of discrimination against minorities or against women which demonstrate to their satisfaction that injustice persists in our society.
Most of us believe that we have been treated unfairly at some time or other. We have been blamed for things we have not done, denied things we feel we deserve, overlooked when we should have been recognized, treated in an inferior manner, or have otherwise suffered without just cause. Some have lost their jobs, their savings, their homes, their friends, their spouses, and even their lives unjustly. Some have languished in prisons for crimes they never committed. Others have endured the poverty, squalor, and disease of slums through no fault of their own. Where is the justice in all of that?
We believe in a sovereign God who controls all things. On one occasion He said, “There is no God else beside Me; a just God and a Saviour” (Isaiah 45:21 KJV). How can a just God allow injustices to exist? We learn from the Bible that people who have not trusted Christ as Saviour from sin are condemned to eternal separation from God, even if they have never heard the message of salvation. Some may protest rather indignantly, “How can a just God allow that?” Maybe we need to find out what God’s justice involves.
The Meaning of God’s Justice
While the most common Old Testament word for just means “straight,” and the New Testament word means “equal,” in a moral sense they both mean “right.” When we say that God is just, we are saying that He always does what is right, what should be done, and that He does it consistently, without partiality or prejudice. The word just and the word righteous are identical in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Sometimes the translators render the original word “just” and other times “righteous” with no apparent reason (cf. Nehemiah 9:8 and 9:33 where the same word is used). But whichever word they use, it means essentially the same thing. It has to do with God’s actions. They are always right and fair.
God’s righteousness (or justice) is the natural expression of His holiness. If He is infinitely pure, then He must be opposed to all sin, and that opposition to sin must be demonstrated in His treatment of His creatures. When we read that God is righteous or just, we are being assured that His actions toward us are in perfect agreement with His holy nature.
Because God is righteous and just, He has established moral government in the world, laid down principles which are holy and good, then added consequences which are just and fair for violating those principles. Furthermore, He is totally impartial in administering His government. He does not condemn innocent people or let guilty people go free. Peter says He is a God “who impartially judges according to each man’s work” (1 Peter 1:17). His treatment is never harsher than the crime demands.
For example, when Ezra the scribe returned to Israel after the Babylonian captivity, he was distressed to find that the people had intermarried with the unbelieving inhabitants of the land. He was appalled at their sin and proceeded to lead them in a prayer of confession in which he enumerated the discipline they had experienced. He concluded his prayer with these words: “O LORD God of Israel, Thou art righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before Thee in our guilt, for no one can stand before Thee because of this” (Ezra 9:15). God is fair. His discipline is never more severe than our sin deserves. He allowed those disobedient Jews to remain as an escaped remnant in spite of their sin and guilt.
Daniel ministered during Israel’s exile in Babylon. He knew from Jeremiah’s prophecy (25:11) that the captivity was to last seventy years, but he was concerned lest the nation’s disobedience prolong it. He, like Ezra, offered a great prayer of confession to God, and in it he made this statement: “Therefore, the LORD has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the LORD our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice” (Daniel 9:14). Their captivity was the perfectly just discipline for their sin. All calamity is not necessarily discipline for sin, but we can be sure that if it is, it will be uniquely tailored to our particular situation by an infinitely wise God to teach us the lessons we need to learn. It will be perfectly fair. What God does is always right. As the psalmist put it,
The LORD is righteous in all His ways And kind in all His deeds (Psalm 145:17).
We can never accuse Him of injustice. Everything He does is fair.
The Requirements of God’s Justice
If God is truly just and always acts in harmony with His holy nature, then He must show His displeasure with sin by opposing it and punishing it wherever it exists. He cannot enact a holy law, threaten a penalty, then take no action when His law is broken. Scripture makes that quite clear. God “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:7). “The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil” (Romans 2:9). Since the violation of God’s infinitely holy nature demands an infinite punishment, eternal condemnation can be the only just penalty for sin. Jesus said, “And these will go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).
God takes no pleasure in punishing the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). But it is the only response which is consistent with His holy nature. However, God loves sinners and since He finds no delight in punishing them, He has devised a plan by which they can be delivered from the just penalty of their sin.
Justice allows for one person to substitute for another, so long as no injustice is done to the rights of any person involved. So God provided a substitute. When His Son voluntarily offered Himself to die in our place, our sin was punished and God’s justice was forever satisfied. The Apostle Paul explained how God publicly displayed Jesus Christ as a propitiation and thus demonstrated His righteousness (Romans 3:25). A propitiation is a sacrifice that satisfies a justly pronounced sentence. Christ’s death on the cross completely satisfied God’s just judgment against our sin. The penalty has been paid. Now God can forgive the sins of those who will accept His payment, and still maintain His own justice. He can at the same time be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
Justice also demands that when the penalty has been paid by one, it never needs to be paid by another who has accepted that payment. There can never be any condemnation for the person who has trusted Jesus Christ as Saviour from sin (Romans 8:1).
My children used to listen to a recorded story about a wise and just king who ruled over a nation of wicked people. In order to curtail their wickedness, the king decided that anyone breaking the law of the land would have his eyes put out. A young man was apprehended for violating the law, and when he was brought in the king was dismayed to discover that the lawbreaker was his own son. What could he do? If he were merely a just king, he could exact the punishment and forget about the incident. If he were merely a loving father, he could overlook the crime and let his son go free. But he was both a just king and a loving father. So he said, “You have broken the law, and the punishment is the forfeiture of two eyes. That is what it shall be—one of yours and one of mine.” From that day on, the appearance of both the king and his son reminded the people of the king’s justice and his love.
That is essentially what God did. However, instead of making us pay part of the penalty, He paid it all. The death of His sinless Son was sufficient to pay for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Now those who accept His payment can go free. Who then can accuse God of injustice for condemning people to hell? He would be just if He assigned everyone to hell. Yet He satisfied His own justice and provided forgiveness for all. Those who refuse His forgiveness choose His wrath of their own volition. They have expressed their desire to live apart from God and He simply confirms them in their choice. That hardly can be labeled injustice.
What about those who have never heard? The Apostle Paul assured us that God has not left Himself without a witness in the world (Acts 14:17), and that lost men have willfully rejected His witness (Romans 1:18, 32). But whether or not we can explain every problem and answer every objection, we accept God’s revelation of Himself as a just God, and we believe Him when He says He will not act wickedly or pervert justice (Job 34:12).
The Expression of God’s Justice
It should be obvious by now that God’s justice has little relationship to the suffering we observe in the world around us. That suffering is the natural consequence of the sin which Satan introduced into God’s creation. In a sinful world, where sinful men have the will to choose their own sinful ways, injustices are going to exist.
There is coming a day when the infinitely just Son of God will physically return to the earth and will rule it with a rod of iron. No sin will be tolerated in that day. Zechariah predicted that the King will be just (Zechariah 9:9). Jeremiah assured us that He will execute justice on the earth (Jeremiah 23:5). We can expect no injustices to exist in that day (cf. Isaiah 11:3-5). But for now we can count on many inequities to exist. However, God wants us to do what we can to reduce them. He shows a concern for social justice throughout Scripture—fair treatment of the poor, the orphans, the widows, the hungry, the needy, foreigners, and underprivileged of all kinds. He encourages us to share His concern. The needs of other people should move our hearts to compassion and motivate us to make some personal sacrifices for their good. That is a major evidence of true faith in Christ (cf. 1 John 3:17-19). But try as we will, we are not going to eliminate all injustice from the earth. It is the natural by-product of living in a sinful world.
God’s justice relates not so much to the suffering in the world as to His attitude toward and treatment of the sin that causes suffering. He will deal with all sin with perfect justice, without a trace of partiality or favoritism. He says that He “will render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6). That almost sounds like salvation by works, although actually it has nothing to do with salvation. It establishes again the principle of God’s justice. Entrance into Heaven is dependent solely upon faith in Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. But God is going to treat every person in accord with the quality of his life—believers and unbelievers alike. Unbelievers will be punished in hell on the basis of their works and believers will be rewarded in Heaven on the basis of their works.
Scripture clearly teaches degrees of punishment for unbelievers: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you” (Matthew 11:21-24). If it will be more tolerable, more bearable, or more endurable for some than for others, then there are obviously degrees of suffering. The issue on which they are judged seems to be the light they received. Those who saw the greater demonstration of God’s power and rejected it will experience greater punishment than those who saw less of God’s power and rejected it.
Some of our Lord’s most scathing denunciations were reserved for the scribes and Pharisees, men who enjoyed some of the greatest spiritual privileges yet exhibited some of the least of God’s love. They “devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40). Greater condemnation can mean nothing less than degrees of punishment.
To illustrate this truth, Jesus told a story in which he contrasted two servants—one who knew his master’s will and did not do it, and one who did not know it. “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:47-48).
Again, we have a clear reference to degrees of punishment—many stripes and few stripes. And again, the issue is their response to the knowledge they had.
A native in the jungle who has never heard the gospel does not have the same degree of responsibility as an American who can hear the gospel any day of the week. Therefore that native will not receive the same degree of punishment. A person who was raised in a secular home and taught to be nonreligious may not have the same degree of responsibility as a person who was raised in a Christian home and taught the truth of God’s Word yet rejected it. That less privileged person will not receive the same degree of punishment (cf. also 2 Peter 2:20-21).
When unbelievers stand before the great white throne, they will be consigned to the lake of fire because their names are missing from the book of life. But at the same time they will be judged “according to their deeds” (Revelation 20:12-13). That makes very little sense unless those works make some difference in the degree of their punishment. We do not know what the difference will be, but the justice of God will be expressed by different levels of punishment. There finally will be justice for all.
On the other hand, believers will be rewarded in Heaven on the basis of their works. Works will have nothing to do with their entrance into Heaven. That is based solely on their acceptance of the merits of Jesus Christ and His provision of eternal life. But believers’ works will be tested by fire at the judgment seat of Christ to determine their quality. “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
Everybody knows the difference externally between gold and hay, but the fire reveals something the eye cannot see—motivation and enablement. Were the works performed for the glory of God or to fulfill some personal ambition? Were they performed by the power of the Holy Spirit or in the energy of the flesh? Those done for the glory of the Lord and by the power of the Holy Spirit will become the basis for reward. So it seems likely that everyone’s reward will be different.
We are not told here what the rewards will be, but several things are mentioned in other passages. The New Testament speaks of crowns that are cast before the throne of God (Revelation 4:10), a probable reference to our capacity to glorify Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Timothy 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10). Nothing will bring us greater satisfaction in eternity than our ability to exalt the Lord Jesus.
In addition to crowns, Biblical writers refer to the ability to shine (cf. Matthew 13:43; Daniel 12:3), a probable reference to our capacity to reflect the glory and radiance of our Lord, another source of great pleasure in eternity. Some have likened it to a great chandelier containing some twenty-five-watt bulbs, some fifty, some seventy five, and some one hundred, each shining to the peak of his ability, but all magnifying the Lord.
Jesus told a parable that implied different levels of governmental authority in God’s kingdom. A nobleman leaving for a far country entrusted the same amount of money to each of ten servants, and they were to invest it for his benefit. When he returned he called them into account. The first gained ten times the original amount and was commended by his master: “because you have been faithful in a very little thing, be in authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17). The second gained five times the original amount and was likewise commended by his master: “And you are to be over five cities” (Luke 19:19). Our rewards will not be trophies to put on a shelf, but greater responsibilities and greater authority.
There will be no jealousy between us, but clearly there will be differences—a different number of crowns, a different capacity to shine, a different level of authority. God’s justice does not require Him to reward us. Everything worthwhile we ever accomplish is by His power and through His grace, so at best we deserve nothing, and He does not owe us anything. The rewards He gives us will be out of His store house of grace. But since He has decided to reward us, He will do it with perfect justice in accord with our works—not just what shows on the outside, but what is in our hearts! Not just what we did, but how and why we did it! There will be justice for all.
Action To Take
Are you engaged in some Christian service? Honestly and prayerfully examine your motives. Could there be some desire to be seen by others or to have power over others or to be well thought of in the Christian community? Ask God to help you purify your motives so that you serve Him for His glory alone.
Now examine the power by which you serve Him. Do you rely predominately upon your own natural abilities and personality? Ask Him to help you rely on Him alone.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
14. God Is Love
One of our greatest needs as human beings is to be loved. We all need love. We need to know that we are important to somebody, that somebody truly cares about us, wants us, and accepts us unconditionally. When we doubt that we are loved, we may develop unacceptable behavior patterns to compensate for it.
For example, we may act irresponsibly in a desperate attempt to get attention. Attention is a poor substitute for love but it seems better than nothing at all. We may develop physical symptoms that bring us sympathy and concern. The symptoms cause us genuine pain, but the pain of sickness is more bearable than the pain of admitting that nobody cares. We may angrily lash out at those whom we think should care or we may try to run away from them and hide, but in either case, we are trying to protect ourselves from the hurt they are causing us by their lack of concern. We all need to know that somebody loves us.
The good news from God’s Word is that somebody does. To know Him is to find release from the crippling effects of feeling unloved. Twice the Apostle John categorically stated that God is love (1 John 4:8,16). Love is one of the warmest words in the English language, and that God is love is one of the most sublime, uplifting, and reassuring truths known to mankind. Love is His nature. It is not merely a friendly attitude He projects. It is the essence of His being. He is always going to act toward us in love because He cannot do otherwise. Love is the way He is.
No one attribute of God is any more important than any other, and all His attributes are expressed in conjunction with each other. Yet some believe that love may be the most powerful motivating force in all of God’s being. It deeply affects everything else God is and all that He does. Knowing God’s love could well be the believer’s key to a well-balanced, satisfying life of peace, productivity, and power. It would be rather presumptuous to assume that we can exhaust the subject of God’s love in one brief chapter, but let us try to scratch the surface and begin to explore this fathomless truth. Here are eight characteristics of God’s love.
God’s Love Is Self-Giving
Love involves action. It is expressed in the giving of oneself for the good of another, so it always demands an object. Whenever we talk about love we are suggesting that there is more than one person involved. There must be at least two—the one who loves and the one who is loved. If God has always been love and love demands an object, we may wonder how God demonstrated His love before He created angels or men. Jesus answered that question. He revealed that there was a love relationship between the persons of the triune Godhead from eternity past, when He said to His Father, “Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). We have seen that God is complete and sufficient in and of Himself. He has no needs which must be met by others outside Himself. He did not need to create other beings in order to express His love. It was perfectly expressed between the persons of the Trinity from all eternity.
Yet He did create. Why? He wanted so much to manifest His love that He first created the angelic hosts and later the human race so that he might communicate Himself to them, give of Himself for them, and bestow His very best on them for their benefit and blessing. Our love is often selfish and demanding. God’s love is pure. Because He is love, He loves to give. Jesus said He gives good things to those who ask Him (Matthew 7:11). James went so far as to say that every good gift finds its source in Him (James 1:17). Since God is love, we can expect Him to give of Himself.
Knowing the God of love can help to make us more loving and giving persons. Not only will getting to know Him more intimately cause us to become more like Him, but resting secure in the assurance that He loves us will keep us from making demands of others and free us to reach out unselfishly and minister to them for their benefit alone. It is vitally important that we understand how much God loves us.
God’s Love Is Sacrificial
Not only does God’s love motivate Him to give, but it motivates Him to give when it costs Him dearly. That too is different from our love. We hesitate to do anything for others that will cost us too much or inconvenience us too greatly. But God’s love cost Him the very best that He had—His only Son. That is the message of the greatest love text in the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s giving His Son involved more than merely allowing Him to leave Heaven’s glory and enter earth’s history. It meant allowing Him to die in our place and pay the awful debt of our sins. God proved His love conclusively and irrefutably by sending His Son to the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:9-10). That is sacrificial love.
It was no less of a sacrifice for God the Son than it was for God the Father. His willingness to offer Himself was the summit of sacrificial love. Paul called Him “the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). When the same apostle outlined God’s principles for harmonious marital relationships, he said, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Jesus Christ made the supreme sacrifice for us when He died in our place. He was falsely accused, beaten, spit on, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and left to die the most excruciating death known to man. The infinite curse of sin’s penalty, the Father’s just punishment for the whole world’s guilt, was laid on Him as He hung on that cross. He possessed the power to walk away from it unscathed, yet He voluntarily stayed there and bore that suffering for us. There simply is no greater love (John 15:13).
Whenever we are tempted to think that nobody loves us, we need to think of the cross. Jesus bore that shame and suffering because He loves us. He values us so highly that He was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to secure for us eternal joy. That is the epitome of love. Knowing Him intimately will motivate us to make some sacrifices for the good of others—for our spouses, our children, and other members of the body of Christ. It will help us give up what we want in order to minister to their needs.
God’s Love Is Unconditional
One of the most amazing things about God’s love is that it is extended to us when we do not deserve it and continues steadfast and strong even when we do not respond to it. In other words, His love is unconditional. That certainly is different from our love. We have a tendency to show more love to the people who obviously love us and less love to the ones who do not. We express our love to our spouses and our children when they perform to our expectations and we withhold it from them when they displease us. We shower affection on the lovable children and avoid the belligerent little rascals who look as if they might want to kick us in the shins. I find it easy to express my love to my wife when she tells me what a wonderful husband I am, but not quite so easy when she scolds me for not taking out the trash. I find it easier to be loving toward my children when they are obeying me willingly, but not quite so easy when they are resisting me.
God is not like that. The best-loved verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world,” that is, the whole world. That does not refer to the materials out of which our planet is constructed, but to the world of people. It does not mean the whole mass of humanity generally; it refers to each individual sinful person. The Bible categorizes all of them as God’s enemies, people who have willfully set themselves against Him (cf. Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21). God even loves His enemies—all of them.
There is not one good thing in any of us that merits God’s love. He does not love us because we are so lovable or because we can somehow make ourselves worthy of His love. We are totally unworthy, yet He prizes us highly and showers His very best on us. It is His love for us that gives us our worth. God finds great delight and receives great glory when we respond to His love, enter His fellowship, and do His will. In fact, He made us for that purpose. But whether or not we ever return His love, He keeps on extending it to us. There is nothing we can do to make Him love us any more, and nothing we ever do will cause Him to love us any less. He loves us perfectly and completely regardless of how we perform. His love is unconditional.
So many of us are performance oriented. We have felt approved and accepted when we have performed to someone else’s satisfaction, and disapproved and rejected when we have failed to live up to their standards. Consequently, we treat others the same way. If they please us, we treat them kindly and considerately. If they displease us, we feel justified in treating them unkindly and unlovingly. Knowing God intimately will help us express love to others when they do not perform to our expectations.
There is a great Biblical illustration of God’s unconditional love in His relationship with the nation Israel. “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Can we see what He is implying? There is no human reason for His love for Israel. They were a rebellious, stiff-necked people. But He loved them simply because He loved them.
That is how it is with you and me. He loves us just because He loves us. Nothing we ever did made Him love us, so nothing we ever do will make Him stop loving us. He loves us when we’re grouchy just as much as when we’re glad. He loves us when we sin just as much as when we don’t. He loves us when we open our mouths and say things we know we shouldn’t have said. He loves us when our wives or husbands or parents or children are not treating us as though they love us. He loves us when we’re feeling as though nobody in the whole world loves us. He loves us even when we don’t like ourselves. He never stops loving us.
God’s Love Is Eternal
This message also was given originally to the nation Israel, but its application is for every true child of God.
The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying,
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness (Jeremiah 31:3).
That everlasting love reaches into eternity past. He knew us and loved us before He made us, when we were but a thought in His mind. And He will love us for eternity to come, for, as Paul assured us, nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39). The love of an eternal God must be an eternal love.
If anybody ever deserved to forfeit the love of Christ it was His earthly disciples. They were men of inestimable spiritual privileges, yet they displayed an amazingly small degree of spiritual insight. Witness their behavior on the evening of the last Passover. The impending ordeal of bearing the world’s sins was weighing heavily on the Lord’s heart and He longed for their prayerful support. But Luke informs us that they were more interested in arguing about which one of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24).
None of them even extended the common social courtesy of the day by washing the others’ feet when they entered the room for dinner. They probably were too busy competing for the seats of honor near the Lord. Later three of them fell asleep when they were supposed to be praying, all of them deserted the Lord when He was taken captive, one of them denied Him, and another one later doubted Him. Notice how this upper room episode began: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). To the end of what? Who can really say? He will love us to the end of our waywardness and wanderings. He will love us to the end of our deepest need. He will love us to the end of our lives, to the end of time, to the farthest extremity of eternity. He will love us forever. His love is eternal.
How can we ever exhaust the love of God! The love of an infinite God must be infinite love. Paul called it a love that “surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19), far greater than our finite minds can grasp. He also called it a “great love” (Ephesians 2:4). He referred to its breadth, its length, its depth, and its height (Ephesians 3:18), but it is obvious that he was speaking of dimensions that defy measurement: breadth and length which encompass the whole world, a depth which reaches to the lowest sinner, a height which exalts us to the loftiest Heaven. God’s love has no limit. It is described in F. M. Lehman’s gospel song:
Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above, Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.
I read somewhere that those words were penciled on the wall of a narrow room in an asylum by a man who supposedly was demented, and they were discovered after his death. He was not demented at all. He had learned one of the most precious truths of all time, that God’s love is infinite. We can no more exhaust it than we can empty the ocean with a bucket. And we are invited to keep drawing from His inexhaustible supply. To do so will enable us to keep extending love to those around us even when our love is not returned.
God’s Love Is Holy
When some people hear that God’s love is self-giving, sacrificial, unconditional, eternal, and infinite, they get the idea that it is merely soft, sloppy sentimentality, that God is an indulgent Father who gives us everything we want and conveniently turns His head the other way when we sin. But that is not the case. Everything God does is done in the totality of His being, so His love must always be consistent with His other attributes. Since God is holy, then His love must be a holy love that encourages holiness in those loved. The evidence is overwhelming! For example, in the same context in which Paul explains that we in love were predestined unto the adoption of sons, he states God’s purpose for choosing us. It is “that we should be holy and without blame before Him” (Ephesians 1:4). Love and obedience consistently go together in Scripture: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3; cf. also John 14:15; 15:10).
God will use every loving means at His disposal to encourage our obedience. He does that because He loves us. We discussed discipline when we studied God’s holiness, but we cannot overlook it here. The writer to the Hebrews encouraged us not to regard God’s discipline lightly. It is the evidence of His love for us (Hebrews 12:5-6). He knows that obedience to His Word will be for our greatest happiness, so He takes steps to help us want to obey Him. If He did not love us, He would not care about our happiness.
What kind of loving parents would we be if we let our children do anything they pleased, such as put their hands in the fire, ride their tricycles on the freeway, or play superman on the roof of the house? The authorities would probably declare us to be unfit parents. Our love constrains us to discipline in order to insure the kind of behavior that will bring our children future happiness. And that is exactly what our loving heavenly Father does.
He does not enjoy inflicting pain any more than we do. Before my father spanked me as a child, he used to say, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” That was difficult for me to believe at the time, and I never understood it until I became a parent myself. Then it became all too clear. It wasn’t my hand that hurt; it was my heart. God says the same thing. Concerning His people Israel we read, “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9). He feels our pain because He loves us. Don’t chafe under His disciplinary hand. He knows best what we need, and He always administers it in love for our best interests. We can respond to His holy love by bringing our lives into conformity to His Word.
God’s Love Is Comforting
Some children would give everything they have for someone who loves them and cares enough for them to set limits on their behavior and administer loving discipline when they violate those limits. That would mean more to them than all the material things in the world because it is the evidence of true love, and true love brings security and comfort. They know that someone who loves them enough to endure the unpleasantness of administering discipline will do everything in his power to take care of them, and that brings them genuine consolation. When we grasp the reality of God’s love, we will no longer seek our security in jobs, bank accounts, investments, houses, husbands, wives, friends, or health. We will rest in the Lord, free from all fear, secure in the assurance that He is going to provide all that we need and protect us from everything that will not be for our good.
Listen to the Apostle John again: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). God never punishes His children. He laid all the punishment for our sins on His Son. He disciplines us in love for our benefit, but even that is nothing to be afraid of. Understanding God’s love eliminates all fear—fear of God’s discipline, fear of what tomorrow holds, fear of losing a loved one, fear of losing a job, fear of natural catastrophies, fear of global war, fear of suffering, fear of death, fear of being alone, fear of rejection. God loves us! There is nothing to fear. His love is comforting.
God’s Love is Life-Changing
Most of us long to be loving people, able to give love to our spouses, our children, our fellow believers, our unsaved acquaintances, and, most of all, to the Lord Himself. But we find it so difficult. It is nearly impossible for us to love others unless we are genuinely convinced that we ourselves are loved. Some of us are hard, callused, insensitive, and unloving people because we are not convinced we are really loved. We are saying unconsciously, “Why should I be loving to others when nobody shows me any love?” God’s love can change that. We can find all the acceptance and affection we crave in Him; then with the confidence that we ourselves are loved, we can extend love to others. “We love,” said the Apostle John, “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
It really is true—God loves us. Jesus said it plainly: “For the Father Himself loves you” (John 16:27). It is to our advantage to know and believe the love that He has for us (1 John 4:16). We may never be able to grasp it fully with our human understanding alone, but God is ready to make it real to us if our hearts are open and receptive to His Word. Then, secure in His love, we shall be able to reach out in love to others, unselfishly, sacrificially, unconditionally, and inexhaustibly. It will profoundly influence our relationships with those around us.
A world-renowned theologian was asked by a student what he considered to be the most significant theological truth he ever learned. His answer was, “Jesus loves me. This I know; for the Bible tells me so.” Believe it, Christian. God loves you!
Action To Take
Look for evidences of God’s love for you all throughout the day, and remind yourself often that you are the object of His endless love.
Tell several others during the day that God loves them.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
15. The God of All Grace
Moses was a man who truly longed to know God. We have heard him cry out to God earnestly, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” (Exodus 33:18) That heartfelt longing led to an exciting encounter with the Lord. It was early the next morning when he cut two new tablets of stone to replace the ones he had broken in anger; then, tablets in hand and all alone, he climbed Mount Sinai and waited.
Scripture says, “And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth’” (Exodus 34:5-6). Moses did not see God’s face on that occasion, but God did assume some visible form which allowed His seeking servant a limited glimpse of His radiant glory, a privilege afforded very few people in all of human history. What God revealed about Himself on such an extraordinary occasion is extremely important. The second thing He claimed about Himself in that list of His attributes was that He is gracious.
What do you think about when you hear the word grace? Maybe you conjure up the mental image of a charming hostess with good taste and a pleasant personality, gliding around the room with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Or possibly you think of a person who is kind and courteous, agreeable, easy to get along with. Or you may envision somebody who has great tact and diplomacy in dealing with other people. Gracious could mean any of those things when applied to human beings. But how do you picture God who says He is gracious? What do you think came to Moses’ mind when God made that statement on Mount Sinai that day?
Grace Is the Essence of God’s Being
God was explaining to Moses exactly what He is like, the essence of His being, and He used a word derived from a root which means “to bend or stoop.” It expresses His willingness to reach down with affection to people who can never deserve it, and to do good things freely and unconditionally for people who can make no claim to His favor. He is even willing to forgive guilty people their sins and deliver them from the punishment they deserve when they are totally unworthy of such kindness. He mentions that specific aspect of His graciousness in the next verse: “who forgives iniquity, transgressing, and sin” (Exodus 34:7). More amazing still is that He loves to give these rich benefits to undeserving people without demanding any compensation in return. True grace is both unearnable and unrepayable.
The New Testament establishes the same truth about God. Peter called Him “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10). All grace! That means He has an inexhaustible supply of good gifts which are adequate for every conceivable need and which are available to all who will receive them, regardless of their performance. The New Testament word for grace originally referred to something attractive and charming that brings delight and pleasure, but it soon came to have the same connotation as its Old Testament equivalent, that of showing kindness and goodwill to the undeserving. Our God loves to give. He gives freely, without obligation and without ulterior motives. He does not need to give. He does not give to get something in return. He is totally self-sufficient so He does not need anything from anybody. He gives simply for the joy and happiness of the ones who receive His benefits.
Grace is a difficult concept for us to understand because it is so unlike the way we human beings operate. Our most magnanimous acts are often colored by some selfish motive. Several years ago my wife cracked a bone in her wrist and was required to wear a cast to protect it. Naturally I volunteered to do some of the household chores for her. As I prepared to wash the dishes one evening, she nudged me away from the sink and said, “I’ll do them tonight. I just bought a large rubber glove to fit over my cast so I won’t get it wet.” When I protested, she said, “But there’s no reason for you to wash them now.” My reply was, “I don’t need a reason. I just want to wash them for you because I love you.”
Had my motives been absolutely pure, that would have been a great illustration of grace, but I’m afraid they were not entirely untainted. For one thing, I was looking for an illustration of grace to use in the following Sunday’s sermon and I thought my answer would be just the thing. Secondly, I didn’t want to put up with the taunts of my friends: “You let your wife wash the dishes with a broken arm!?” Very seldom are our gracious deeds perfectly pure. If it is nothing more than to project our image as a gracious person, which image may be very important to us, we usually have some additional intent in mind.
God made us to glorify Himself, so He is pleased when we fulfill His purpose for our creation. Furthermore, He wants the whole universe to see the glory of His grace. Yet His aim in giving us good things is not to get anything for Himself. He gives because we desperately need what He has to offer. Our external well-being depends on it.
One of the first things we learn about the eternal Word who became flesh and dwelled among us is that He is full of grace (John 1:14). His ministry was marked by favor freely extended to guilty and undeserving people, to people whose best efforts were still not enough to make them worthy of His kindness. We could expect nothing less from a God who is full to overflowing with an innate fondness for giving, for showing kindness to those who have no merit in themselves. That is the way He is.
Grace Is the Basis of God’s Actions
The way God is always affects the way He acts, so His grace causes Him to seek undeserving subjects to whom He can give and toward whom He can act graciously. He does not have to look very far to find them. His world is filled with sinful rebels who have turned their backs on Him, resisted His will, defied His authority, and deserve nothing from Him but eternal punishment.
The nation Israel was among them. But Moses understood the implications of God’s grace: “And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. And he said, ‘If now I have found favor [literally, grace] in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession’” (Exodus 34:8-9). He is saying, “God, if you really are a God of grace, then be with us even though we are a stubborn and sinful people. Let us be your own special possession even though we deserve to be cast off and destroyed.” He was asking his gracious God to act in a gracious manner. And He did.
How can He afford to do that? How can a holy God freely forgive people who deserve to be condemned? We need to remember that none of God’s attributes operates in isolation. All are beautifully interwoven and intertwined so that He acts in the totality of His being. His holiness does not operate apart from His love. When the unconditional love of a holy God is expressed toward worthless, undeserving sinners, that is grace. Grace is the bridge between God’s holiness and His love. It allows a holy God to act in loving ways toward guilty people.
God’s grace is expressed in numerous ways, foremost of which is in securing our salvation. It was grace that allowed Him to relinquish Heaven’s riches and enter earth’s history in poverty to provide hopeless sinners with the riches of eternal salvation. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). It was grace that led Him to Calvary, where He offered Himself as a sacrifice in our place and where He shed His life’s blood so that we might be forgiven of sin’s guilt and delivered from sin’s penalty. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
It is God’s grace that makes salvation available to every sinful person: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). It is His grace that applies salvation to the hearts and lives of those who believe. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is His grace which will someday usher us into glory: “Through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). It is all of His unmerited favor.
These concepts are not very popular among most people today, if indeed they are even understood. In order to grasp the reality of God’s grace we must first understand the reality of our own sinfulness. If we are convinced that in spite of the little vices which we all have, we are basically good people deserving of God’s favor, then we shall see no need for His grace. If we believe that God is obligated to let us enter Heaven because we have tried to keep His laws and done the best we can, then grace is totally unnecessary. The whole concept will appear absurd. But if we accept God’s assessment of our lives—that we are unrighteous, deceitful, desperately wicked, guilty, condemned sinners, incapable of measuring up to God’s standard and unworthy of His acceptance—then a deep appreciation for His grace will begin to dawn on our sin-dulled minds. We will get to know the God of all grace.
We learn a valuable lesson about grace from observing God’s gracious actions toward us in salvation. Just as the root meaning of the New Testament word involves joy and pleasantness, so we notice that God’s grace has an uncanny way of transforming the unpleasant into the pleasant. He takes an unbeliever, chained to his wretchedness and sin and bound for the bitterness of an eternal hell, freely gives him the lovely garments of Christ’s righteousness, then assures him of Heaven’s glory and beauty. What a transformation! That is God’s grace for salvation.
Then He continues to act toward us in grace. Not only does He bring delight to our drab existence by giving us the gift of eternal life, but He keeps on giving us good things to meet our needs and brighten our lives. For example, He gives us the resources to build us up and set us apart more fully to Himself, progressively replacing the ugliness of our daily sin with the attractiveness of holy living. That was Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). That is grace for sanctification.
Sanctification is not slavishly submitting in the energy of the flesh to somebody’s man-made list of do’s and don’ts in order to enhance our own reputation or earn points with God. It is laying hold of God’s gracious assistance to become more like Christ for His glory and praise. Grace delivers us from bondage to laws and frees us to enjoy God in an enriching and satisfying relationship. We will be motivated to please Him from within rather than pressured from without. We delight in pleasing someone who never stops giving good things to us.
God also provides grace for Christian service. We have a tendency to get carried away with our own abilities, and we begin to think that God is rather fortunate to have us on His team to do His work. We may feel that He is obligated to prosper us when we do serve Him. Those attitudes often lead to failure. The Apostle Paul admitted without shame that he was unworthy to serve Christ: “I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power” (Ephesians 3:7; cf. also 2 Corinthians 8:1-2).
We do not deserve to have the pleasure of serving the eternal God, but He has bestowed that privilege on us by His grace. We serve Him not to obtain His favor, but because we already have it. Any success we may enjoy will be the gift of His grace. He freely gives us the abilities and strength we need to serve Him. He transforms our feeble, bungling, embarrassing, unpleasant efforts into an effective, satisfying, and rewarding ministry that brings glory to Him. It is all part of His gracious actions toward us.
Then there is also grace for suffering. Most of our suffering is simply the result of living in a sinful world. Some of it is the result of our own foolish and sinful choices. In either case, God certainly has no obligation to help us through it. But He does. When the Apostle Paul faced a painful, physical disability, the God of all grace was there to meet him. “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God’s grace can transform the unpleasantness of suffering into the pleasantness of knowing Christ’s power.
His grace is available for every need. Peter described it as “manifold grace” (1 Peter 4:10). The word “manifold” was used in secular Greek to mean “many-colored.” That is an interesting concept to consider. For every shade of human need God has a matching shade of divine grace. If we are blue with despondency, God’s grace is sufficient to cheer us. If we are yellow with fear, God’s grace is sufficient to encourage us. Whether we are enjoying the golden joys of good health and success, or encountering the blackness of pain or failure, God’s grace is sufficient to sustain us. When temptations assail us, such as the tendency to be red with anger or green with envy, God’s grace is sufficient to resist them. His many colored grace is sufficient for every color of need.
So He invites us to come boldly to His throne of grace, the reservoir of His never-ending supply, and there find grace to help, whatever our need might be (Hebrews 4:16). His grace is available for the taking. As the Apostle John put it, “For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace” (John 1:16). He just keeps pouring it on, filling the believer’s life with grace, piling one gracious provision on top of another, transforming one unpleasant circumstance after another into joy and delight.
Grace Is the Aim of God’s Children
Getting to know the God of all grace and becoming the receptacles into which He keeps pouring His grace will obviously have an effect on our lives. We are going to become more like Him, more gracious, giving people, people with true charisma. We are all familiar with that term. It comes from the Greek word for grace. When we hear it we usually visualize someone with the personal magnetism of leadership, someone who excites loyalty and enthusiasm. But we misunderstand charisma as God views it.
We may be like the little boy in the cartoon who was surrounded by a group of admiring girls. Off to the side, two jealous little friends were evaluating the situation. One said to the other, “He hasn’t got charisma. He’s just got a bag of jelly beans.” The world has a poor imitation of the real thing, a mere bag of jelly beans. True charisma is grace, and only the believer who is enjoying the reality of God’s grace in his life can exemplify it. We gain true charisma as God transforms us from the unpleasant people we were into the pleasing image of His Son. And that will affect some surprising areas of our lives.
For one thing, it will put a song in our hearts: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness [literally, grace] in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). To know that our eternal salvation depends not on us, but on the grace of God, keeps us singing all day long. To have divine assistance for sanctification, service, and suffering keeps us singing when others have long since stopped. To believe that our gracious God is working every detail of our lives together for good can keep us singing in the darkest hour of affliction.
Paul and Silas knew about that. They sat in a Philippian jail cell, beaten and bleeding, wracked with pain, and locked firmly in stocks, yet they were singing praises to God (Acts 16:25). Incredible? Not for someone who has gotten to know the God of all grace. His grace can transform the most miserable of circumstances into an opportunity for rejoicing. I talked recently to a man who was defrauded in a business investment. He faced the possibility of losing everything he owned including his home—a total of nearly two million dollars in assets. He said, “I have more peace and more joy than I’ve ever known. Those material things for which I once lived don’t own me anymore. God’s grace really is sufficient.” The experience of God’s grace in our hearts gives us true joy.
God’s grace will also affect our speech. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). The word grace is rich with meaning, and in this context most all of it seems to be applicable. It is easy to let harsh, cutting, critical, complaining, and gossiping words come tumbling out of our mouths. But God wants our words to be saturated with grace, not sugarcoated and sickeningly sweet, but genuinely attractive, kind, considerate, pleasing, favorable, beneficial, and thankful. All of that is involved in grace. That is true charisma.
God wants His grace to govern our speech always. Do not miss that! Courtesy and kindness are especially important when speaking to unbelievers (cf. Colossians 4:5), but a good dose of God’s grace will affect everything we say to everyone in our lives—our wives, our husbands, our children, our parents, our friends, even those who do not seem to like us very much. It may even help us bridge the gulf that may exist between us.
Many of us are quick to speak brusquely to people who displease us or offend us. We usually feel justified in accusing them, blaming them, criticizing them, or expressing anger toward them. Knowing the God of all grace, whose attitude toward us is never affected by our performance, will help us act kindly and speak graciously even to people who have wronged us. God’s grace operating through us will minister grace to them (Ephesians 4:29), and will transform the unpleasantness of tension and friction into the pleasantness of harmony and fellowship.
God’s grace also will help us know when not to talk. Peter writes, “For this finds favor [literally, for this is grace], if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). It is an evidence of God’s grace in our lives when we are willing to suffer for doing what is right without arguing or retaliating. “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” Again, literally, this is grace with God (1 Peter 2:20). God’s grace at work in us allows us to control our tongues, to return good for evil, and so it can transform an explosive situation into one that gives glory to God.
Most of us would be willing to admit that we could use a great deal more of God’s grace. We understand that there is a never-ending supply and that it is available for the taking. We know that receiving it does not depend on how well we have performed or whether we deserve it. But some of us are still not sure how to get it. Solomon made an interesting comment in Proverbs that both Peter and James quoted in their Epistles: “But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE” (James 4:6). The humble are those who see themselves as God sees them and are willing to admit their needs. If we do not see any need for change in our lives, then obviously we will not be open to receiving God’s grace. The flow of grace begins when we admit our weaknesses, our shortcomings, our failures, and our sins—when we acknowledge our needs.
But there is a second step. We hear much in ecclesiastical circles about the means of grace, that is, the way God ministers grace to our lives. Scripture clearly defines only one means, and that is faith. We see it in several passages. “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). “We have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2).
Whether it is grace for salvation, grace for sanctification, grace for service, grace for suffering, grace to keep us singing, grace to govern our speech, or grace for any other need, we experience it by believing God, believing that we need His grace, that He has enough available to help us, that He is willing to share it with us, and that it will be adequate to transform our burdens into blessings. When we truly believe, all that remains is to open our hearts to the God of all grace and receive what He has to offer. “Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Action To Take
List some of the evidences of God’s grace in your life, some of the things He has done for you which you know you did not deserve, and thank Him for them.
Now list some of the areas of your life where you need to lay hold of His grace, some areas in need of change, and ask Him in faith to help you make those changes.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
16. Rich In Mercy
Nearly all of us are familiar with “Murphy’s law,” and some of us may even believe it: “Nothing is as easy as it looks. Everything takes longer than you expect. And if anything can go wrong, it will . . . at the worst possible moment.” Murphy seems to have suggested some corollaries to his law. One is that everything you decide to do costs more than first estimated. Another is that if you improve or tinker with something long enough, eventually it will break. Still another—the light at the end of the tunnel will probably turn out to be the headlamp of an approaching freight train. If you were to boil down the essence of Murphy’s law and all its corollaries into one terse statement it would probably be this: “Life is miserable and nothing is going to turn out right.”
Joseph L Felix wrote a humorous exposition of Murphy’s law from a spiritual perspective and called it, Lord, Have Murphy!2 The title is appropriate because it makes us think about a cry heard from the lips of miserable people all through the gospel records, “Lord, have mercy!” Mercy has a direct relationship to misery. Nobody seems to know exactly who Murphy was, but whoever he was, he did not seem to know much about God’s mercy.
Murphy is not alone. Few people understand mercy. What is it? I have asked that question of a number of people and the most common response I get is a blank stare. The word is used literally hundreds of times in the Bible, and most of us have read it over and over again. But it is one of those concepts that we find difficult to put into words. The Psalmist said, “Our God is merciful” (Psalm 116:5 KJV). What did He mean? What is God’s mercy?
His Relief for the Miserable
Nowhere is the essence of mercy unveiled for us any more clearly than in our Lord’s parable of the good Samaritan. The victim in that story was miserable. He had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite in the story showed no concern for him whatsoever. “But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion” (Luke 10:33). The word most often translated “mercy” in the King James Version conveys strong feelings of pity, sympathy, compassion, and affection. The Old Testament word is sometimes translated “lovingkindness” in the King James, and nearly always so in the New American Standard, and that describes one important aspect of mercy. When God looks at suffering people, He feels love, tenderness, and kindness toward them in their need.
When we read that God is merciful or that He has mercy, we may be assured that He is feeling our misery just as intensely as we are. As the writer to the Hebrews taught us, the reason we can come boldly to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need is because the occupant of that throne is a merciful high priest who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15-16). Those feelings are the foundation of His mercy.
But mercy does not stop with tender feelings. It acts to relieve the misery. In our Lord’s parable, the Samaritan “came to [the victim], and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you’” (Luke 10:34-35). The Samaritan’s compassionate feelings led him to a practical demonstration of kindness, concrete actions which were intended to relieve the man’s misery and distress.3 When Jesus asked which one of the three passersby was the true neighbor to the victim, the lawyer to whom He was speaking answered immediately, “The one who showed mercy toward him” (verse 37). He used that term mercy to sum up those feelings of steadfast love which were followed by helpful acts of kindness.
Because God is full of mercy, He acts to relieve our distress. Psalm 136 is a good place to see some of the merciful things He does. The whole psalm magnifies God’s mercy. Every one of its twenty-six verses tells us something about God, then concludes, “for His mercy endureth for ever” (KJV). First His goodness is mentioned, then His acts of creation, then His relationship with His people Israel. He delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors (verses 10-12). He took them safely through the Red Sea (verses 13-15). He led them through the wilderness (verse 16). He gave them victory over powerful kings who threatened to destroy them (verses 17-20). He brought them at last into their promised land (verses 21 22). But the Psalmist gets to the heart of God’s mercy in the next two verses. God remembered them in their low estate, in their miserable and humiliating condition, and He delivered them (verses 23-24). Mercy is God’s tender compassion toward us in our distress that causes Him to act on our behalf and relieve our suffering, at the time and in the manner which He knows will be best.
It might be profitable for us to compare grace and mercy since they are such closely related terms. Both offer us help, but grace emphasizes assistance for the undeserving while mercy emphasizes relief for the unfortunate. Grace describes God’s attitude toward guilty lawbreakers and rebels, while mercy describes His attitude toward those who are suffering and distressed. The first letter of each word helps us remember the distinction: grace for the guilty, mercy for the miserable.
The same sins that make us guilty, however, also cause us most of our misery. So God must deal with our sin problem before He can relieve our distress. That is why we find both His grace and His mercy involved in providing our salvation: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5). Mercy comes first in the mind of God. He loved us so much and cared about us so intensely in our miserable condition that in grace He sent His Son to die in our place. Mercy motivates His actions. But in the application of salvation to our lives the order is reversed. Only after we receive God’s gracious gift of salvation does He begin to alleviate the misery which our sin has caused us. We receive His grace, then we enjoy His mercy. That explains why grace precedes mercy in every one of the apostolic salutations where both words appear (cf. 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; 2 John 3).
One reason we can enjoy forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life is because our God is rich in mercy. The Apostle Paul put it, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5). We are called vessels of mercy (Romans 9:23), containers into which God has poured His mercy. And now that God has saved us, He continues to extend to us His mercy. Jeremiah said His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). Even better than waking up to the delectable aroma of fresh pastries hot out of the oven, accompanied by the tantalizing smell of fresh coffee brewing, we wake up to a fresh supply of God’s mercy when we open our eyes to greet each new day. He is there to meet us and to help us through our difficult times.
Unfortunately we do not always recognize God’s mercies. Somehow it seems easier to focus on our misery and misfortune than on God’s mercy. The people of Israel had that problem. God had promised David in a solemn covenant that His mercy would never depart from David’s family (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Solomon referred to that promise shortly after he became king (1 Kings 3:6; 2 Chronicles 1:8), and again in his prayer dedicating the temple (2 Chronicles 6:42). The promise is the subject of Psalm 89, where mercy is mentioned seven times. In the last mention of the word, the Psalmist asks,
Where are Thy former lovingkindnesses, O Lord,
Which Thou didst swear to David in Thy faithfulness? (Psalm 89:49)
We all feel that way at times: “Lord, where are all the mercies You promised me? All I can see are the problems.” I must admit, there are weeks when I am personally convinced that Murphy was right after all, nothing is going to turn out right. When we feel like that, we need to turn to a passage like Psalm 103 and begin to count our blessings.
Bless the LORD, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities; Who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit; Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; Who satisfies your years with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle. The LORD performs righteous deeds, And judgments for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel (Psalm 103:1-7).
These multiplied benefits are the evidences of God’s loving kindness (verse 4), that is, His mercy. If we cannot relate to anything else in the psalm, we can certainly appreciate the aspect of God’s mercy which the Psalmist describes in the next few verses.
His Restraint Toward the Blameworthy
It has been said that God’s grace gives us the favor that we do not deserve, while His mercy holds back the judgment that we do deserve. That may not be the major difference between the two terms, but there does seem to be an element of truth in it.
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness (Psalm 103:8).
The subject here again is God’s super-abounding supply of mercy. Notice how it causes Him to act toward us:
He will not always strive with us;
Nor will He keep his anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities (verses 9-10).
God’s mercy restrains Him from giving us what our sins deserve.
This concept is found in other passages of Scripture as well. When Moses pleaded with God to forgive the people rather than destroy them after their exhibition of unbelief at Kadesh-barnea, he made that request on the basis of God’s great mercy (Numbers 14:19). When Daniel prayed for forgiveness for his people, it was on the basis of God’s mercy (Daniel 9:4,9). Jeremiah probably made it clearer than anyone else when he boldly declared, “It is [because] of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed” (Lamentations 3:22 KJV).
Some people say, “I don’t want any favors from God. I just want what I deserve.” People like that really do not understand what they are saying. The human heart is filled with maliciousness, covetousness, selfishness, pride, envy, strife, adulteries, lies, blasphemies, and every form of wickedness. If we got what we deserved we would feel the fury and sting of all God’s righteous wrath against sin. It is not justice we need, but mercy—the compassion that shows forbearance when justice demands punishment. If a criminal is found guilty, justice calls for a sentence to be pronounced. The best the convicted felon can hope for is that the judge will suspend the sentence, hold back the penalty he deserves.
God does exactly that. We have been judged guilty. Yet, the Psalmist reveals:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:11-12).
What magnificent mercy! God looks on us hell-deserving sinners with compassion, sympathizes with us in our plight, then proceeds to remove our transgressions from us as far as our minds can imagine.
Some may protest, “Well, if God’s mercy is so great, why doesn’t He save everybody?” His mercy is reserved for those who fear Him (verse 11), a term that signifies reverential trust. He will not force His mercy on us any more than He will force His grace on us. If we choose to resist Him and spurn His offer of mercy, He will permit us to have justice instead. He asks us to acknowledge our need, then cast ourselves in simple faith upon the divine court for mercy.
For those people who have become the special objects of His mercy, to whom He has extended His merciful salvation, whose debt of sin He has canceled, and upon whom He showers His daily mercies, His mercy takes on yet another dimension.
His Requirement for the Believer
This truth is revealed in Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant. He owed his master the sum of ten million dollars. We are not told how he incurred a debt of such magnitude, but it is obvious that on a servant’s salary of a few cents a day he could never repay it. He was in a miserable predicament. Yet, foolish as it seems, he thought he could somehow pay back the debt, and so he begged for an extension of time: “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything” (Matthew 18:26). Jesus went on to say, “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt” (verse 27). That was mercy. First there was the intense feeling of sympathy, followed by an unprecedented act of kindness in which the master held back the punishment he could have exacted and forgave the servant the entire debt, more than he ever could have expected. What a beautiful illustration of mercy!
Yet the poor servant never seemed to grasp the significance of what had happened to him. In fact, it seems as though he never even heard that his debt was wiped out. He went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a mere twenty dollars, took him by the throat and demanded payment. When the fellow servant could not pay, he required the full extent of the law and had him thrown in jail. When the master heard what his servant had done, he was incensed. “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33)
The lesson is clear. We as believers have received an enormous measure of God’s mercy. We have been forgiven a debt of sin we could never repay and we have been blessed with daily mercies we can never number. Now God wants us to show the same kind of mercy to others, to have the same tender feelings of sympathy toward them in their misery, the same eagerness to minister to them and help them in their times of distress, the same willingness to hold back retribution and to forgive them when they wrong us. To do anything less reveals that we have little understanding of the immense debt of sin from which we have been released. To be stern and exacting, or to insist on getting even with those who have injured us, exposes a heart that has no concept of its own degradation. When we understand the depths of our own sin and the enormity of God’s mercy in forgiving us, we will freely forgive every evil committed against us, great or small.
The prophet Micah reminded God’s Old Testament people of this responsibility. He extolled God’s mercy when he said, “Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18 KJV). But he also made the application to the lives of the people. “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8 KJV) People who know a merciful God should love mercy. Do we love mercy? Do the needs of other people move us to compassion? Do we have a desire to help relieve human suffering?
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day sadly failed the mercy test. Jesus accused them of insisting on every intricate detail of the law while ignoring the more important matter of mercy (cf. Matthew 12:7; 23:23). That could describe some of us as well. We may have long lists of precise rules we try to live by and sometimes force others to observe, yet be unmoved by the misery of other people. Those who have truly experienced God’s mercy want to show mercy to others.
I read of a woman at the check-out counter who had groceries which totaled four dollars more than she had in her purse. A stranger behind her relieved her embarrassment by motioning to the clerk to put the amount on his bill. He refused to give her his name so she could pay him back. A few days later the local newspaper reported that a charity had received a check for four dollars with a note which read: “This check is for the man who helped me out of a tight spot. I’m giving it to you as a ‘thank you’ to him.” When we understand what has been done for us, we want to reach out and do the same for others, just as that woman did.
God’s merciful heart aches over the misery which man’s sin has brought to the world. And when we get to know Him intimately, our hearts will ache as well. Not only will our hearts ache, but our arms will reach out, our homes will open up, our wallets will unfold, and we will find great joy in relieving some of the misery in this world. Our God is called “the Father of mercies” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Meditate on His mercy, and as you grow in His likeness, mercy will become an increasingly significant part of your daily life style. Then the beautiful shepherd psalm will take on new meaning for you: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (Psalm 23:6 KJV).
Action To Take
Describe what it means to you personally that God is merciful.
List some specific things you can do to show mercy to others. Now begin to do at least one of them today.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
17. Slow to Anger
When was the last time you felt at the end of your tolerance level with people? “If he says that one more time, I’m going to scream.” “If she does that to me again, I’m going to walk right out that door.” “If you kids don’t quiet down by the time I count to three, I’m going to wale the tar out of you.” “If that telephone rings one more time, I’m going to pull it out of the wall.” We may not carry through with our threats, but the fact remains, our nerves are frazzled, our patience is exhausted, and we feel we are about to have a nervous breakdown.
Our breaking point probably varies from day to day, and on any given day everybody’s breaking point is slightly different. But there is one person whose endurance level is always supremely higher than ours. It is part of God’s nature to be slow to anger. We call it His long-suffering.
The Meaning of God’s Long-Suffering
If we want to understand God’s long-suffering we must go back to His relationship with His Old Testament people Israel. They were about as exasperating as anybody could be, and it was never more evident than when Moses lingered on Mount Sinai, receiving the law from God’s hand. Because it took him a little longer than they anticipated, they got edgy and demanded that Aaron fashion them new gods to lead them to their promised land.
It was inexcusable! God had performed one miracle after another to deliver them from their bondage and bring them to this place, yet they turned their backs on Him when He did not meet their expectations. That would be enough to try anyone’s patience, and it sorely tried God’s. “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation’” (Exodus 32:9-10). God said that they were obstinate, or more literally, that they had hard necks, necks that would not bow to His will in spite of His goodness to them.
That offer to Moses presented him with a serious test. Which was more important to him, the preservation of the existing nation or the personal honor of becoming the founder of a new nation? He passed the test beautifully and prayed for God to stay His hand of judgment. God answered his prayer. Those people deserved to be punished, but God delayed the application of His righteous indignation against them; that is the essence of long-suffering. The word itself appears for the first time in the Bible just a little later, when Moses returned to the mount to get a firsthand glimpse of God’s glory. “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6 KJV).
Long-suffering is actually two Hebrew words, the first meaning “long” or “slow,” and the second meaning “nostril,” “nose,” “face,” or “anger.” Obviously, long-suffering does not refer to a long nose. But it is interesting that the Hebrew uses the same word to mean either nose, face, or anger. Maybe that was because anger is clearly seen on the face and is sometimes expressed by snorting or wheezing through the nose. But anger is the foremost idea in this expression. It means literally “slow to anger” and is so translated in the New American Standard Bible, as well as in several passages of the King James Version (e.g. Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Proverbs 14:29; 15:18; 16:32; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). It takes a long-suffering person a long time to get heated up with anger.
The same concept appears in the New Testament as one Greek word, and it conveys exactly the same idea as the Old Testament expression. It means “long tempered,” or “slow to express wrath.” God’s long-suffering has to do with His wrath. He can get angry, as we shall see in the next chapter, but it takes Him an extremely long time to do so. His nature is to delay the expression of His wrath. He is of long endurance. Those obstinate Jews deserved to be destroyed immediately for their rebelliousness and disobedience. They would have driven anybody else to quick retaliation. But God postponed the execution of His judgment because He is a long-suffering God.
Is there a difference between God’s mercy and His long-suffering? His mercy involves His restraint toward the blame-worthy, and long-suffering means essentially the same thing. They are related terms which often appear together in the Old Testament. But there is a distinction. While both involve restraint toward sinful people, mercy emphasizes the misery which our sin causes us, while long-suffering emphasizes the sin which causes us our misery. Long-suffering bears patiently with us in our sin, waiting and longing for us to repent.
Our sin is a horrible offense to God’s holy nature, and His justice cries out for its punishment. But at the same time, His love is longing to forgive us, His grace is making it possible for Him to forgive us even though we do not deserve it, His mercy is reaching out to us in compassion over the consequences which our sin has caused us, and His long-suffering is delaying the punishment we deserve, giving us the opportunity to repent and trust His grace. What a magnificent God!
There is another related word in the New Testament which must also be distinguished from long-suffering, a word which means literally “to abide under,” and which is usually translated in the King James Version “patience.”4 That word refers to patience in difficult circumstances, while long-suffering refers to patience with difficult people. It is never applied to God (Romans 15:5 means He gives patience, not that He has it.) He does not need patience with circumstances because He controls them. They cannot resist Him. But He made people with wills of their own. They can resist Him, and they do. They wrong Him, offend Him, sin against Him, tempt Him, and endeavor to provoke Him to wrath. But He is not easily provoked. He does not quickly explode into a blaze of anger. He is long-suffering.
God’s long-suffering is the attribute which allows Him patiently to endure our offenses and call us to repentance rather than promptly punish us. It is His self-restraint in the face of provocation which delays the expression of His wrath. As we all know, it takes a great deal of power to show restraint when people are provoking us. Think about the pressure you feel when your boss criticizes everything you do although you try desperately to please him, or when your neighbor blasts his stereo next to your bedroom window long into the night although you have asked him not to. Sometimes we feel as though we may not have the power to restrain ourselves. But God has that power. The prophet Nahum put the two together when he said, “The LORD is slow to anger, and great in power” (Nahum 1:3).
The Demonstration of God’s Long-Suffering
The nation Israel never did stop provoking God. In fact, God counted ten different occasions, from their exodus from Egypt through the period of their encampment at Kadesh-barnea, when they refused to take Him at His Word and do what He told them (cf. Numbers 14:22). It all came to a head when the spies returned from checking out the land and the majority gave a pessimistic report. “Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! And why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt’” (Numbers 14:14).
God’s patience was just about exhausted. He again expressed His inclination to destroy them and He repeated His offer to make Moses the founder of a new and greater nation. And again Moses prayed, “But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as Thou hast declared, ‘The LORD is slow to anger’” (Numbers 14:17-18). Moses appealed to God once more to stay His hand of judgment, and the appeal was made on the basis of God’s own self-revelation of His long-suffering character. Again God answered his prayer. It was another display of Moses’ total unselfishness and of God’s amazing long-suffering.
But there was no end to the abuse God suffered from His people. Paul, in his sermon in the synagogue at Antioch, remarked that God put up with their disgusting behavior for forty years in the wilderness (Acts 13:18). When they finally did reach their promised land, they repeatedly turned away from the Lord and worshiped the gods of the Canaanites. He chastened them for their sin by delivering them into the hands of surrounding nations, but He did not utterly destroy them. Instead, He raised up judges to lead them out of their servitude and misery, and He did it over and over again.
Later in their history, during the period of the kings, several times God delayed His judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. After the Babylonian captivity, when the restored nation rejected His Son and nailed Him to a cross, He waited yet another forty years before allowing the Romans to level Israel’s capital city and disperse them to the ends of the earth. His restraint in exercising His wrath against sin went far beyond what we would have expected.
The demonstration of God’s long-suffering has not been limited to the nation Israel. There are other dramatic illustrations of it in Scripture; for example, His evaluation of the entire human race in the days of Noah. “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:5,11-12). Yet He waited another one hundred twenty years before He destroyed the population of the earth with a flood, and during that time He had Noah on the earth preaching to them the message of righteousness (cf. 2 Peter 2:5; Genesis 6:3). The Apostle Peter identified that as long-suffering. He referred to that generation as the people who were disobedient, when “the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20 KJV).
Look at another illustration. God warned Abraham that his descendants would be sojourners in a strange land, but that in the fourth generation they would come out with many possessions and return to their promised land. Then He told him the reason for the delay: “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). Their cup of iniquity was filling up, but it was not yet full. God gave them time to turn from their wickedness, but they refused. In fact, it got worse. Idolatry, child sacrifice, religious prostitution, and every conceivable abomination multiplied with each succeeding generation until their cup was full and God commanded the people of Israel to destroy them. But He had patiently waited, delaying the application of wrath. It is His nature to restrain Himself.
The Apostle Paul said that God “endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (Romans 9:22 KJV). There are some people who can be categorized only as vessels of wrath. God has been good to them, yet they have resisted His grace, chosen to defy Him, and immersed their lives in every variety of wickedness. They are worthy of nothing but His wrath, equipped only for eternal ruin. Yet God patiently puts up with them with much long-suffering.
We wonder why He doesn’t do something. Why doesn’t He oblige the insolent atheist who shouts, “If there’s a God, let Him strike me dead right now?” Why didn’t He shut the mouth of the brazen Soviet cosmonaut who insisted that God does not exist because He was nowhere to be found a few hundred miles from earth? Why doesn’t He strike people with lightning who blaspheme His holy name? It is His nature to be long-suffering. We see it demonstrated all around us every day. Not only does He refrain from punishing them, He gives them rain from Heaven and fruitful seasons, and provides them with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). That is like sending provisions to the enemy who has invaded the land and seeks to destroy it. It makes some wonder whether God really is concerned about sin. But we need not wonder long.
The Challenge of God’s Long-Suffering
There is challenge in this doctrine for both the unbeliever and the believer. Think first of the challenge to the unbeliever. The very fact that long-suffering is defined as a delay in the expression of God’s wrath implies that eventually His long-suffering will terminate and His wrath will be displayed. This highlights another difference between long-suffering and mercy. Scripture says God’s mercy is everlasting (Psalm 100:5). It endures forever (Psalm 106:1). That is never said about His long-suffering. Long-suffering has a terminus point. There comes a time when God’s patience with willful, rebellious sinners will run out and He will exhibit His wrath. Solomon wrote,
A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy (Proverbs 29:1).
We do not know when that will be, but we do know that it will be. We can count on it. We cannot trifle with God’s long-suffering or try to take advantage of Him.
Because God delays His judgment, sinners may begin to think that He is not aware of their sin, or that He does not care about it, or possibly that He has forgotten it. So they go on sinning without fear of the consequences. After all, if they have gotten away with it this long, who is to say that they will not get away with it forever? Solomon warned us of that attitude: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Does God ignore sin? Look again at the Old Testament references to His long-suffering. Right after the golden calf incident and the revelation of God’s long-suffering, He immediately adds that He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 34:7). After that gross exhibition of unbelief at Kadesh-barnea, He repeated it again: “He will by no means clear the guilty” (Numbers 14:18). The prophet Nahum assured us that God is slow to anger and of great power, but he immediately added, “And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Nahum 1:3).
Some human judges may be accused of softness toward sin and leniency toward sinners, but the divine Judge will ultimately punish every unrepentant sinner. He may postpone His judgment for awhile, but He does not forget the sin. Paul reminded the Athenian philosophers of that: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31 NIV). A day of judgment is coming when God’s wrath will be revealed.
The message of judgment is not any more popular today than it was in Paul’s day. It does not calm troubled minds or soothe frazzled nerves. It will not win friends or ingratiate us with people, but it is true. The person who has never turned from his sin or trusted Jesus Christ as his Saviour must not be misled by God’s long-suffering. It is not a license to go on sinning. It is the evidence of God’s love for sinners and His desire to save them from eternal punishment. He is patiently waiting, holding back His wrath against their sin. It would be wise for them to avail themselves of His gracious delay. God’s long-suffering and forbearance are designed to lead them to repentance and eternal salvation (Romans 2:4).
There is in this doctrine a challenge for the believer also. It is, first of all, a challenge to pray for those who deserve God’s judgment, even as Moses prayed for his people. On two occasions, God restrained His wrath because Moses asked Him to, demonstrating that this is something God is pleased to do in answer to our prayers. Are you longing to see a loved one come to know Christ? Ask God to delay His judgment and to use that demonstration of long-suffering to lead that person to repentance.
Secondly, it is a challenge to proclaim the message of God’s long-suffering. The world needs to hear that God is patiently waiting, but that the day of His patience will eventually end. Our nation needs to hear that God is graciously restraining His wrath against sin, but that one day the cup of iniquity will be full and He will restrain Himself no longer. As unpopular as the message may be, it must be proclaimed. It is a matter of eternal life and eternal death. If we knew that a dam had cracked and that a great torrent of water would soon sweep through the valley below, destroying everything in its path, we would be quick to warn the inhabitants of that valley. We do know that God’s long-suffering may soon give out and that a great torrent of judgment will be poured out on the inhabitants of this earth. Should we be any less quick to warn them?
Finally, it is a challenge to be long-suffering in our own personal relationships with others. The Apostle Paul encouraged us to be long-suffering with one another, bearing with one another in love and forgiving one another (cf. Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 1:11; 3:12-13). People often get on our nerves. They irritate us, exasperate us, slight us, provoke us, gossip about us, wrong us, offend us. Our patience wears thin and we want to strike back in anger. God wants us to be long-suffering, to bear those injuries patiently, and to forgive.
Solomon wrote several proverbs extolling the person who has learned this important lesson. They are worth some prayerful meditation.
He who is slow to anger has great understanding,
But he who is quick-tempered exalts folly (Proverbs 14:29).
A hot tempered man stirs up strife,
But the slow to anger pacifies contention (Proverbs 15:13).
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city (Proverbs 16:32).
Being long-suffering with people who exasperate us is not easy, and it is certainly something we cannot do consistently in our own strength. Long-suffering is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is produced in us by the Spirit of God as we occupy our minds with Him, grow in our knowledge of Him, and yield ourselves to His control. How can we refuse to do that when we consider His long-suffering with us, His interminable patience with our stubbornness, self-will, and rebelliousness?
The world may not consider long-suffering to be a very important trait, but the believer who has demonstrated it to others will tell you it has brought harmony to his relationships. It helps him to get along with his spouse, to handle his children, to put up with his boss, to deal with his employees, to enjoy his in-laws, and to show his neighbors that the gospel of Jesus Christ makes a difference in his life. As we grow in the likeness of our long-suffering God, we shall show the world that He is real and so bring glory to Him.
Action To Take
List some specific unbelievers whom you would like to see trust Christ as Saviour. Then begin to pray that God will give them a sense of His long-suffering and use it to bring them to Himself.
Think of some recent occasions when you have been short-tempered with people. Go to them personally, ask their forgiveness, and express to them your desire to become more long-suffering.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
18. The Grapes of Wrath
The Lord Jesus was a great storyteller. One of His stories was about a fig tree growing in a vineyard. As we might expect, the owner of the property kept coming to look for figs from his tree, but he never found any. Finally he said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” (Luke 13:7) The keeper of the vineyard requested a little more time, at least another year to dig around the tree and fertilize it. There was nothing to lose. If it bore fruit, everyone would be happy. If not, he could cut it down then.
Jesus told that story to illustrate God’s long-suffering with sinners. He delays His judgment and gives them one privilege after another, one revelation of Himself after another, one opportunity to repent after another. Then, as we might expect, He looks for the fruit of a changed life that provides the evidence of eternal salvation. But He does not wait forever. If people go on disregarding His patient and gracious offer of salvation, eventually the ax falls. “Cut it down,” He says. “Let the full force of My anger be directed against these unrepentant sinners.”
That sounds rather severe. And it is! God can be severe. “Behold then the kindness and severity of God,” warned the Apostle Paul (Romans 11:22). We all like to talk about God’s kindness, His love, His grace, His mercy, and His long-suffering, but most of us choose not to say very much about His severity. That word means literally “a cutting off.” It has to do with retribution—strictly exacting the full penalty of the law, righteously judging sin with perfect justice. It introduces us to another inescapable side of God’s character, what Scripture calls His wrath.
The first thing that usually comes to mind when we hear the term wrath is violent anger and temper, and somehow that does not sound very becoming for a loving God. We get a little embarrassed for Him when he says to the nation Israel, “And My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword” (Exodus 22:24); or “So it will be a reproach, a reviling, a warning and an object of horror to the nations who surround you, when I execute judgments against you in anger, wrath, and raging rebukes” (Ezekiel 5:15). Some of us have a secret desire to get rid of those passages and somehow hide the fact that God gets angry. But God does not try to hide it. He is not ashamed of it. He is perfectly willing to make His wrath known (Romans 9:22). In fact, He says more about His wrath than He does about His love.
The Explanation of God’s Wrath
Attempts have been made to dilute the Biblical doctrine of wrath, but a study of the Scriptural words that are used for wrath hardly permits us to do that. The most common word is the one that makes up half of the word long-suffering, the word that means nose, face, or anger. God’s anger is pictured symbolically as smoke pouring from His nostrils. The Psalmist wrote,
Then the earth shook and quaked; And the foundations of the mountains were trembling And were shaken, because He was angry. Smoke went up out of His nostrils, And fire from His mouth devoured; Coals were kindled by it (Psalm 18:7-8).
That sounds rather foreboding. Other words for wrath in the Old Testament portray the idea of fire, heat, burning, fury, and rage. Again the Psalmist wrote,
Therefore the LORD heard and was full of wrath, And a fire was kindled against Jacob, And anger also mounted against Israel (Psalm 78:21).
That does not sound like something we can explain away as a mild slap on the wrist accompanied by a timid rebuke, “I really would rather you didn’t do that.” God can actually get heated up, and if we want to know Him in truth, we need to understand this side of His nature.
God’s wrath is not something limited to the Old Testament. There are two primary New Testament words for wrath. Paul applied one of them to God (orge) when he warned the Ephesians that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 5:6). The word he used referred originally to any passion or impulse, but it came to mean especially anger, the most powerful of all the emotions, an intense feeling of displeasure. A second word for wrath (thumos) is used of God only in the book of the Revelation (14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1,19; 19:15). It refers to a sudden passionate outburst in contrast to the settled and lingering frame of mind. But the point is, both words are used of God; the passionate eruption as well as the settled feelings. The New Testament does not hesitate to expose this side of God’s character.
Is it wrong for God to get angry like that? On the contrary, it is as much a part of His glory and perfection as is His holiness, His justice, or His love. In fact, it is required by all three. Sin is an outrage against God’s holiness; His justice requires that He punish it. And His love for His people demands that He destroy sin because it threatens their well-being. Wrath is God acting in love to destroy sin, to purge His universe of what is detrimental to its best interests. God cannot love what is good without hating what is evil and moving decisively against it, any more than a parent can love his child without acting quickly and ruthlessly to destroy a wild animal that threatens the life of that child. God’s wrath is the perfect response of His perfect being to that which poses a danger to His children.
One of the reasons we have such a problem accepting God’s wrath is because we liken it to our own. When we lose our temper and shout at our spouse or our children, we know it is sin. We feel remorse and shame over it after we have cooled down. So how then can a holy God be angry and still maintain His sinlessness? God’s wrath is much different from ours.
For one thing, His wrath is not selfish like ours. We usually get angry and bitter at people because they attack our self-esteem, frustrate our attempts to reach some personal goal, threaten us with some personal loss, inconvenience us, treat us unjustly, or fail to meet our needs. God is sovereign, omnipotent, totally self-sufficient; He does what He pleases and has all things in His control. Nobody can frustrate His goals or threaten His well being, so He has no reason to become selfishly angry and no reason to get bitter or resentful. Our anger is usually expressed for our own benefit—to let off steam, to let everybody know how much we have been hurt, to assert our rights, or to get our own way. God is perfect love and so acts for the good of others. His wrath never is selfishly motivated.
Another major difference between God’s wrath and ours is that His is always in perfect control. While He acts firmly and decisively, He never acts with unbridled or unrestrained emotion. He does not lose His temper, rant and rave, say foolish things, throw pots and pans, put His fist through walls, or do any of the other senseless things we may do when we get angry. While from man’s point of view it may look as though His actions are sudden and unpredictable, He is unchangeable. Every expression of His wrath was known from eternity past and is part of His perfect plan. Though it may seem to be violent from man’s perspective, it is actually the settled opposition of His holiness to sin, and the judicial administration of His justice toward sinners. It may be described as hot, fiery, fierce, and furious. But, unlike ours, it is never out of control.
The major reason we try to cover up God’s wrath is probably because we have little understanding of the absolute, awesome holiness of His nature and, consequently, have little consciousness of the contemptible, despicable character of our own sin. We see no need for God to get angry. The prevailing opinion of the day seems to be, “So what’s a little sin? Why should God get so heated up about that?” A knowledge of His holiness would help us understand the significance and the necessity of His wrath. An old graying dress shirt may look white enough until it is placed beside a brand-new one. Then it may look so grubby and grimy that we decide it must be relegated to the rag bag. Just so, our sin may seem acceptable until we get a glimpse of God’s perfect holiness. Then we begin to understand why He finds it necessary to take such drastic action. But against what does He take that action? Against what, specifically, is His wrath revealed?
The Revelation of God’s Wrath
The Apostle Paul went straight to the heart of this issue when he said, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). God does not hide His wrath. He reveals it, that is, He discloses it, brings it to light, makes it known. He expresses it, not in violent, uncontrolled explosions as we have already seen, but nevertheless by definite, observable acts. Whenever it is expressed, it is always against ungodliness and unrighteousness. Ungodliness involves irreverence, impiety, and blatant disregard for His will. Unrighteousness involves any kind of wickedness, wrongdoing, or injustice. In other words, God’s wrath, unlike ours, is always expressed against sin, and particularly the sin of those who suppress His truth by willful wickedness and so do moral damage to others.
When we read through the Old Testament we see some of the ways God revealed His wrath—pestilence, death, exile, the destruction of cities and nations, and the denial of privileges. The Psalmist described the hardhearted Israelites who provoked God in the wilderness and were denied entrance into the Promised Land. He quoted God as saying,
Therefore I swore in My anger,
Truly they shall not enter into My rest (Psalm 95:11).
It was God’s anger or wrath revealed against their stubborn, willful disbelief that kept them from enjoying what they might have had. To allow them to enter the land with their rebellious attitudes would probably have brought them more unhappiness than wandering in the wilderness brought them, so even in wrath His mercy was evident. Just so, those who refuse to accept God’s offer of Heaven by faith in the death of His Son will suffer eternal wrath. The holiness of Heaven would be agony for them in their unregenerate state.
Another way we see God’s wrath revealed is by observing the earthly life of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ. There were occasions when He was clearly angry. The first one was at the outset of His public ministry. He had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and found the temple of God invaded by profiteers who were taking advantage of the people and exploiting the things of God for personal gain. So He made a scourge of cords and drove them out of the temple, along with their sheep and oxen, pouring out the coins of the moneychangers and overturning their tables (John 2:15-16). It was an unmistakable expression of anger, as His disciples themselves testified. They reflected on a passage in the psalms about the zeal of God’s house consuming Him (John 2:17; cf. Psalm 69:9). That word zeal is a word of passion and indignation. God gets angry when people use spiritual things for personal profit, whether it be the businessman who uses his church affiliation to fatten his bank account or the preacher who uses his position to enhance his image. Eventually God does something about it.
Jesus got angry on another occasion as well, this time in the synagogue at Capernaum. A man was there with a paralyzed hand, and the Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus would heal on the sabbath day so they could find some excuse to condemn Him. “And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:5). Jesus was angry because of their spiritual insensitivity and utter lack of concern about the man’s need. This kind of pharisaism probably angers God as much as anything else—maintaining the outward traditions of religion, clinging tenaciously to religious rules and regulations, but lacking a life-changing faith that shows itself in compassion toward people in need. Eventually He does something about it. This unbelieving nation was removed from its privileged position and scattered to the ends of the earth. “Cut it down,” God said, revealing His wrath.
The revelation of God’s wrath has been observed throughout human history in a myriad of ways, but Scripture indicates that we have not yet seen the worst. God is still restraining His wrath to a large degree, giving men an opportunity to trust Him. But the day is coming when He will restrain it no longer.
The Culmination of God’s Wrath
Several passages in Scripture speak of “the wrath to come.” John the Baptist used that phrase when he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7) Evidently a day is coming when God’s wrath is going to be revealed in an unparalleled way.
Paul also spoke of a future day of wrath: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5). People with hard and impenitent hearts are accumulating wrath against themselves for that day. It sounds as though there is a storehouse where all the wrath that sin deserves is piling up. God’s long-suffering is presently restraining it, but someday the storehouse will be full, the doors will burst open, and all that accumulated wrath will pour out. It is as though a great dam is holding back the angry waters of retribution. But a day of wrath is coming when the dam will break and the waters will be released.
When will that day be? It seems significant that when the seals of judgment are opened, in the book of the Revelation, the inhabitants of the earth cry out to the rocks and mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:16-17). That time, known in the Old Testament as the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7 KJV), called by Jesus a time of great tribulation (Matthew 24:21), is here described as the great day of God’s wrath. The meek and mild Lamb of God, who willingly submitted Himself to the abuse and humiliation of men at His first coming, is going to become the instrument of God’s wrath. The wrath of the Lamb will be so fierce that men will endeavor to flee from His presence and seek death rather than face Him.
The chapters that follow in the Revelation describe unprecedented wrath. The great majority of the earth’s population is killed in calamities such as the world has never seen. And references to the wrath of God keep turning up in this account (e.g. 11:18; 14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1,19).Then the Son of God Himself appears as John described in prophetic vision: “And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15). The cup of iniquity is full, the grapes of wrath are ripe, and now God crushes them in awesome judgment. Those who have rejected His grace feel the terror of His wrath.
But the end is not yet. The scene changes to a great white throne where the unbelieving dead of all the ages have been raised to stand before God for judgment. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). The lake of fire, where there shall be torment day and night for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10), is the ultimate expression of God’s wrath. Some have wondered how God can be glorified through people suffering in the lake of fire for eternity. We cannot deny that it will display the glory of His holiness, His righteousness, and His justice.
Punishment in the lake of fire seems to be much more severe than most human crimes deserve, however. We cringe at the thought of it. Yet the violation of God’s infinitely holy nature demands an infinite penalty. Beyond that, Scripture assures us that eternal wrath is something men choose for themselves. They have expressed their preference for living apart from God by rejecting the light He has given them. As we have seen, God allows them to have what they prefer. But there is no reason why anyone should have to suffer God’s wrath. Deliverance is available.
The Salvation from God’s Wrath
In perfect, infinite, unselfish love, God has laid the curse of His offended holiness on His own Son who willingly bore it for us (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). He provided the sacrifice by which His holiness could be satisfied and His wrath avoided. The Apostle Paul explained it: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Romans 5:8-9). Because the infinitely holy Son of God died in our place and paid for our sins, we may be forgiven, declared righteous, and made acceptable to God. We can be delivered from the awful wrath that has been stored up because of our sin. That is the essence of the gospel.
When the Thessalonians heard Paul preach that message, they received it and were delivered from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:6,10). God is willing to do the same for us. Those who acknowledge their sin and put their trust in Christ’s death for forgiveness are no longer destined for wrath, “but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). There is no wrath for the child of God—only for those who reject His Son. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
Some are certain they have nothing to worry about since they have escaped God’s wrath thus far. They are sure that God, if there is a God, does not care about their sin, and they can live as they please without fear of wrath. But that is a dangerous delusion. Donald Grey Barnhouse told the story of some godly farmers who, when they drove up to their little country church one summer Sunday morning, observed the owner of the farm acres across the road busily plowing his field. He was careful to plow the portion immediately adjacent to the church during services, flaunting his disregard for God. After the harvest he wrote a letter to the editor of the local weekly newspaper boasting that he had the highest yield per acre of any farm in the county even though he had done most of his work on Sundays. He asked the editor how the Christians could explain that. The editor answered with one brief but incisive comment: “God does not settle His accounts in the month of October.”
Do not mistake God’s long-suffering for lenience with your sin. He patiently waits for you to repent of your sins and turn to Him in faith. If you refuse, you will one day experience His wrath. The choice is yours.
Action To Take
If you are a believer, thank God right now for laying on His Son all the wrath which your sin deserves.
Determine that by God’s grace you will take advantage of every opportunity you can to share His message of salvation, so that others as well may be delivered from the wrath to come.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
19. He Will Abundantly Pardon
Counselors are convinced that the overwhelming majority of troubled people who walk into their offices for help are suffering from some degree of guilt which has contributed significantly to their problem, be it a spiritual, emotional, or interpersonal problem. Guilt has a way of dominating our lives and disrupting our relationships. It preys on our minds, fills us with anxiety and fear, makes us defensive, irritable, and judgmental, drives us to punish ourselves in various ways, and may even make us physically sick. It is one of life’s most destructive emotions.
Not all guilt is true guilt. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish feelings of inferiority, failure, shame, or poor self-image from real guilt. They all register on our minds in much the same way and cause us to say much the same things, such as, “I never do anything right; I make a mess of everything I put my hand to; I can’t get along with anybody; I’ll never amount to anything; I’m just no good.”
Feelings like that usually find their roots in our upbringing, particularly our efforts to please a parent who was difficult to satisfy, one who seldom gave encouragement or commendation, but rather condemned, blamed, and accused excessively, and conditioned our acceptance and approval on our performance. That kind of environment produces false guilt, a feeling of blame over things that do not violate any principle in God’s Word and for which we may not even know the cause.
People with false guilt usually view God as a mean old man who will be nice to them if they measure up to His standards, but nasty to them if they don’t. They see His standards as impossibly high and the potential for pleasing Him practically hopeless, so they have resigned themselves to living in His disfavor. They do not like it, but they see no other way. Bible-centered counsel may help them learn to accept themselves and to relate positively to God.
But there is also real guilt. We may feel guilty because we are guilty. We have broken God’s laws and we know it. The Bible says that the whole world is guilty before Him (Romans 3:10-20). We have all fallen short of His standard (Romans 3:23), and because we are guilty we deserve to be punished (Romans 6:23). An infinitely holy God must express His wrath against sin. God’s critics will be quick to attack Him at this point. “See, God is a rigid, demanding, intolerant, perfectionist judge who refuses to accept us if we fail to live up to His expectations.” The critics are right to a degree. God cannot condone sin or allow it to enter His presence. He must judge it. But what they fail to see is that He is also loving, gracious, merciful, and kind, and that those traits motivate Him to forgive us.
The God which men have created in their own image is harsh, vindictive, and punitive. But the true God who has revealed Himself in His Word is forgiving and accepting. When He passed by Moses on the mount and made His glory known, He proclaimed it for all to understand: He is the God “who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exodus 34:7). David reiterated it plainly in a beautiful prayer of worship: “For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive” (Psalm 86:5). God is forgiving by nature. Forgiveness is the essence of His being. That is about the best news we guilty human beings could ever hear. God is not set on punishing us. He wants to forgive us and accept us warmly and freely.
Forgiveness is a most misunderstood concept. Some people have the notion that forgiving means simply overlooking a wrong. They say, “Everybody does things they don’t mean in moments of stress. So I’ll just pretend that I didn’t see it, and act as if it didn’t happen.” Nothing could be further from true forgiveness, which is neither passive nor indifferent, but decisive and dynamic. We learn what it involves by watching our forgiving God in action. There are at least five essential elements to His forgiveness.
The Removal of the Sin
Nowhere do we see a more graphic picture of God’s forgiveness than on Israel’s day of atonement, the day God dealt with the nation’s sins for another year. After the high priest offered a sacrifice for his own sins, he secured two goats, one to be sacrificed as a sin offering and the other to be used as a scapegoat. Then he slaughtered the sin-offering goat, brought its blood inside the veil of the tabernacle and sprinkled it on and in front of the mercy seat to “make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel, and because of their transgressions” (Leviticus 16:16). The word translated “make atonement” is also translated “forgive” in the Old Testament (e.g. in Psalm 78:38). It means, basically, “to cover.” The blood of that goat was not actually the basis for the Israelites’ forgiveness, but it dramatically pictured the important fact that God would cover their sins.
Under the mercy seat, in the ark of the covenant, were the symbols of Israel’s sin—the manna about which they murmured and complained, the tables of the law which they broke, and Aaron’s rod that budded when they rebelled against their divinely appointed leaders. But all those sins were covered by the blood of the goat. In like manner, when God forgives our sins, He covers them with the blood of His Son; He hides them from view. Micah said, it is as though He casts them into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). What a relief to know that the sins which have haunted us, burdened us, and grieved us are permanently removed from view, perfectly covered. David expressed that relief when he exclaimed,
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered! (Psalm 82:1)
But that is not all God did on the day of atonement. When the high priest finished making an atonement in the holy place, he laid both of his hands on the head of the live goat and confessed over it the sins of the nation, then sent it away into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22). As he placed his hands on the goat’s head, it was as though he were lifting the sins of the people and placing those sins on a substitute. Then as he let the goat go into the wilderness, it was as though those sins were being removed far away. He lifted them up, then he let them go.
Two Sides of Forgiveness
It is interesting that of the two major words translated “forgiveness” in the Old Testament, one means literally “to lift up” and the other “to let go.” The most common New Testament word for forgiveness likewise means “to let go” or “to send away.” When God forgives us, He lifts our sins from us and sends them far away. David said,
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).
He chose an analogy that describes a place infinitely beyond which anybody could ever find our sins. While we know where north stops and south begins, nobody can determine precisely where east stops and west begins. Why should we bear a burden of guilt any longer when God has taken the trouble to remove our sins that far from us and cover them so thoroughly? The first great blessing of knowing a God who forgives is the complete removal of our sin from us.
The Remission of the Debt
When somebody wrongs us, we usually consider him to be indebted to us. He owes it to us to right the wrong, or he owes us an apology. If we commit a crime and are apprehended, tried, and convicted, we must pay our debt to society. We understand that principle clearly; it permeates our culture—sin incurs a debt. When we sin against the God who made us and gave us life, we are indebted to Him. If He wants to forgive us, He must cancel that debt.
This facet of forgiveness is beautifully illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant, the man who owed his king ten thousand talents, the equivalent of approximately ten million dollars in our money (Matthew 18:21-35). It is inconceivable that a servant could accumulate a debt of that magnitude, but Jesus chose such an extraordinary figure to emphasize how much we owe God because of our sin. Furthermore, there was no way a servant could possibly repay such a debt on a meager salary of a few pennies a day, and that too is part of the point Jesus made. We can never repay the debt we owe God. An eternity of torment in hell will not even begin to satisfy the extent of His offended holiness.
Like the servant in the story, some of us think we can repay God what we owe Him. We say as he said, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything” (Matthew 18:26). We think that given enough time we can do enough good works and keep enough of His commandments to compensate God for all the debt of our sin. That attitude displays our gross failure to grasp the awesomeness of His holiness and the awfulness of our sin. God knows it can never be done. So in the story, the master took pity on his servant and canceled his debt for him. That is exactly what God does for us. He cancels the debt of our sin, and that is an essential element of forgiveness.
But how can God do that? His infinite holiness has been violated and His justice demands that the debt be paid. He cannot simply ignore it. Who will pay it? In infinite love and grace, He decided to pay it Himself. In the story, it cost the king ten million dollars that was rightfully his in order to forgive his servant. We often overlook the inescapable fact that forgiveness always costs somebody something. If an offense has been committed, somebody has to pay. When justice is served, the one who has committed the offense pays. When forgiveness is granted, the one who has been offended pays. Guilt cannot be transferred to a third party. The Psalmist said,
No man can by any means redeem his brother,
Or give to God a ransom for him (Psalm 49:7).
Sometimes we think we have forgiven a person who has wronged us, but yet we are subconsciously looking for some way to reclaim from him what we have lost, whether it be our reputation, our money, our pride, or whatever else he might have taken from us. We are looking for a way to make him pay; and that is not forgiveness. When we forgive him, we pay in full for his wrong. Since God is forgiving by nature, He pays in full for our sins. That is what Jesus Christ was doing on that cross. He was not a third party trying to get God and man together. He was the offended One, God in flesh, who came to earth to pay for man’s forgiveness. As the Apostle Paul put it, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). When He bowed His head and voluntarily dismissed His Spirit, He cried, “It is finished.” That statement is one word in the Greek text, a word that was used in business transactions meaning “paid in full.” The obligation which our sins incurred was paid in full at Calvary’s cross. God took our place and paid our debt as our substitute.
Did you ever have a debt canceled? What a happy experience it is! When I was a seminary student, my wife and I scraped and scrounged to get the money together for my tuition one semester. I approached the business office to pay my bill, but when the girl behind the counter found my record she happily announced, “We don’t need your money. Your bill has already been paid.” I have never found out who paid that money, but I am still grateful to that unknown person. We were able to continue eating for awhile, much to our delight. As wonderful as that experience was, it is still infinitely greater to know that the eternal debt of our sin has been canceled. When God forgives, He not only takes away our sin, He also cancels our debt. But there is still more to His forgiveness.
The Repeal of the Penalty
The debt of a broken law is called a penalty, so if the debt is canceled, it is obvious that the penalty must also be revoked. While the two are related, it is essential that we understand both aspects of forgiveness. As we have seen, on the day of atonement one of the goats was killed as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. It pictured the punishment of a substitute. The goat’s blood could not in itself pay for Israel’s sins (cf. Hebrews 10:4), but blood did have to be shed nevertheless. The penalty for sin is death, and only death could satisfy that requirement (cf. Hebrews 9:22). The death of that goat portrayed to the people of Israel that God Himself would suffer the penalty of their sin.
That is exactly what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross. Isaiah predicted that He would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, that the penalty of our sins would fall on Him (Isaiah 53:5-6). Peter described how it happened: “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). He died for our sins, “the just for the unjust” (1 Peter 3:18). The basis for our eternal forgiveness is the blood of Jesus Christ, and nothing could be clearer in Scripture (cf. Ephesians 1:7). Jesus Himself declared, “For this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
Believers never again need to fear punishment from God. The penalty for our sins has been assessed and fully satisfied by God’s Son. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). No punishment! No penalty! No eternal judgment! The penalty has been paid. The case is settled and will never come up for review. There is no possibility of appeal to any higher court. We as God’s children are free from sin’s penalty, free from all fear of punishment. He may lovingly discipline us to help us grow in Him and so experience greater satisfaction and joy in living, but we never need to fear His retribution.
Some professing Christians find that difficult to believe. They are still afraid that God is going to punish them. They live much like the child who has been promised a spanking after school. It ruins his whole day. He is tense and irritable, he does poorly in his school work, he feels a strain with his friends, he dreads coming home. When he finally does come home, there is no communication with his parents, no freedom to grow in his relationship with them, just apprehension and latent hostility—until the ordeal is over. He may decide to run away because he cannot face them, but that only compounds his problem. Some professing Christians are trying to hide from God because they are afraid that He has not really rescinded sin’s penalty, that eventually He is going to punish them. Believe it, Christian! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The penalty has been repealed.
The Release From Guilt
Fear of punishment can be damaging to our emotional and spiritual well being, but our greatest danger probably comes from guilt. Guilt can be constructive, one of the tools God uses to help us see our need for forgiveness and acknowledge our sin. But after we have seen it and have received His forgiveness by faith, the guilt is gone forever. We never need to struggle with its venomous effect again.
“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD,
“Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
Guilt is viewed as a red stain. That would be most appropriate if the crime were murder, as Shakespeare’s character Macbeth could well attest. But it may also be a fitting description of any sin against God’s holiness. It is a blot, a blemish, a taint, a flaw, a stigma, a red stain that dirties our lives and contaminates our relationships. God’s forgiveness washes that ugly stain as white as snow. Before the days of air pollution, there was nothing purer or cleaner than fresh fallen snow. That is how clean we are when God forgives us. The blood of Jesus Christ washes us and cleanses us (1 John 1:7). It leaves us pure and blameless. What a relief! “Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him” (Psalm 32:2 NIV). His nagging guilt is gone.
We read that and we really may believe it. But somehow when our minds are occupied with our sins, we tend to forget it and we still feel guilty. Satan works very hard at making us feel guilty, accusing us, and condemning us, trying to convince us that God could never forgive the awful things we have done. He knows that when we wallow in guilt, we become discouraged and defeated and are of little use to God. We may begin to say things like, “I’m no good. I never will get victory over this sin, so I might as well go ahead and enjoy it.” And our spiritual power plummets to new lows.
Satan also knows that when we fail to accept God’s forgiveness, we will not be able to forgive ourselves. And when we do not forgive ourselves, we will not be able to forgive others. We will be harsh, demanding, overbearing, intolerant, and punitive in our relationships. Remember Christ’s parable of the unmerciful servant. Because the servant never grasped the reality of his forgiveness, he grabbed one of his fellow slaves by the throat and tried to choke him, demanding payment for the mere twenty dollars he was owed (Matthew 18:28-30). There have been some fierce battles precipitated by professing believers who have never learned to enjoy their freedom from guilt. Satan’s advantage is to hold us in that bondage to guilt. Do not let him do it. God has forgiven you. Accept His forgiveness, and then forgive yourself. It will help you forgive others who have wronged you and treat them with kindness, patience, and tolerance. People who know a forgiving God will forgive others. If you have been experiencing conflicts, your new attitude will help to bring peace to your relationships.
The Restoration To Fellowship
It is difficult to look people in the eye when we know that we have wronged them. We wonder if they know what we have done, whether or not they are holding it against us, or what they might try to do to get back at us. But if we are sure they have forgiven us, the barriers are gone and we are free to enjoy an open and cordial relationship with them once again.
In like manner, sin builds a barrier that hinders our fellowship with God. Isaiah said to the people of his day, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2). He likens those sins to a thick cloud that blocks the rays of the sun. But just as a cloud can be dispelled by the sun or the wind, so God dispels our cloud of sin when he forgives us.
I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud,
And your sins like a heavy mist.
Return to Me, for I have redeemed you (Isaiah 44:22).
With the cloud of sin removed, the debt canceled, the penalty satisfied, and the guilt gone, we are free to come boldly into His presence and enthusiastically enjoy His fellowship.
And it will ever be so. God assures us that when He forgives our sins, He remembers them no more (cf. Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17). He will never allow them to come between us again. Why then should we? The child of God stands forgiven for all time. Paul says we have been forgiven of all our trespasses, and that includes sins that are past, present, and future (Colossians 2:13; cf. also Psalm 103:3). When we believe that, we can come joyfully and confidently into His presence.
Remember that while our forgiving God has provided for our eternal forgiveness, He still reserves the right to establish the condition by which we may experience that forgiveness. Peter mentioned the condition as he preached in the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. He was speaking about the Lord Jesus when he said, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43). Belief in Christ—that is the condition. Forgiveness is offered to all, but it is only experienced by those who will turn from their sin and place their personal trust in Jesus Christ as the One who can deliver them from its guilt and penalty.
Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him;
And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7).
Abundant pardon is pardon that is multiplied over and over, pardon that has no limit. It is ours for the believing. If you have never done so before, avail yourself by faith of God’s offer.
Action To Take
If you have trusted Christ as your Saviour, thank God right now for your total forgiveness. Whenever Satan tries to make you feel guilty over some past sin, remind yourself that you have been fully forgiven.
Now think about someone who has wronged you and forgive him for what he has done; that is, decide that you will pay for his offenses in full. And remember to treat him as fully forgiven.
20. God Is So Good
Jesus was on the road, making His final journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This time He Himself would be the Passover Lamb, slain for the sins of the world. As He walked along with His disciples, a young man ran up to Him, knelt down in front of Him and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
“Good Teacher”—that was an unusual form of address. In all of Jewish religious literature, no rabbi was ever called good. Only God and His law were considered to be good. Was this a case of empty flattery, or had this young man become convinced of something that the rest of the religious establishment had refused to admit—that Jesus Christ was actually God in flesh?
“Why do you call Me good?” Jesus asked. “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). His comment was not a denial of His deity, as some have suggested, but rather an opportunity for the rich young ruler to confess his faith in Christ’s divine person. That confession never came, indicating the man’s lack of spiritual understanding. But Christ’s statement tells us something about God that we need to consider if we ever hope to know Him intimately. God is good, and beyond that, He is the only one who can rightfully be called good.
The Nature of God’s Goodness
The word for good which Jesus used refers to what is excellent in its character or constitution and beneficial or useful in its effect. The Old Testament equivalent means pleasant, agreeable, excellent, valuable, benevolent, and kind. Two separate ideas begin to surface as we examine these words that describe God’s goodness. One has to do with the perfections of His person and the other with the kindness of His acts.
Both ideas occur together in one verse in the Psalms: “Thou art good and doest good” (Psalm 119:68). First of all, God Himself is good; that is, He is everything that God should be—the ideal person, the sum total of all perfection. There are no defects or contradictions in Him, and nothing can be added to His nature to make Him any better. He is excellence to an infinite degree, possessing every desirable quality, and therefore of inestimable value. God is good.
Because God is Himself the highest and greatest good, He is also the source and fountain of all other good. He does good things. He extends His goodness to others. It is His nature to be kind, generous, and benevolent, to demonstrate good will toward men, and to take great pleasure in making them happy. Because God is good, He wants us to have what we need for our happiness and He sees that it is available to us. Every good thing we now enjoy or ever hope to enjoy flows from Him, and no good thing has ever existed or ever will exist that does not come from His good hand.
That is why Jesus could say to the rich young ruler, “No one is good except God alone.” No other being is infinitely and innately and immutably good. All goodness that exists outside of Him finds its source in Him. Even a man as godly as the Apostle Paul had to admit that in his natural being there was no good thing (Romans 7:18), and we have to admit it too. If there is any good to be found in us, it had to come from God, for we are incapable of producing it ourselves.
In addition, everything God does is good—specially tailored for our benefit. Asaph began Psalm 73 by stating quite literally, “Only God is good to Israel.” In other words, God is nothing but good. He can do nothing but what is absolutely best.
A little fellow was heard praying at bedtime, “Help me to be a good boy—but you be a good God too.” But there is no need to remind God to be good. He cannot possibly be otherwise.
If everything God does is good and all His acts are the outflowing of His goodness, it would seem that this attribute embraces all His other attributes. There is some Biblical evidence for that. God promised Moses that He would make all His goodness pass before him (Exodus 33:19). When God did pass before him the next morning on Mount Sinai, He revealed His compassion, His graciousness, His long-suffering, His mercy, His truth, and His forgiveness (Exodus 34:5-7). Evidently all those attributes were summed up in His goodness.
We readily can see the relationship between goodness and some of God’s other attributes. For example, when His goodness gives of itself unconditionally and sacrificially, it is love. When it shows favor to the guilty and undeserving, it is grace. When it reaches out to relieve the miserable and distressed, it is mercy. When it shows patience toward those who deserve punishment, it is long-suffering. When it reveals to us the way things are, it is truth. When it bears the offense of our sin and absolves us of our guilt, it is forgiveness. When the Bible says that God is good, it is referring to all these qualities and more.
Praise the LORD, for the LORD is good;
Sing praises to His name, for it is lovely (Psalm 135:3).
The Expression of God’s Goodness
Although God’s goodness is unfolded in all that He is and all that He does, the Bible reveals some specific expressions of it. For one, it is demonstrated in His creation. Seven times in Genesis God said that what He made was good (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31). The final statement sums it up: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). No one can observe the grandeur of God’s handiwork and deny that it is good. Even though man has managed to mar it considerably, it was good the way God made it and it still reflects that goodness: blue skies studded with fluffy white clouds by day and spangled with sparkling bright stars at night; glistening snow-covered mountain peaks; fields and trees with infinitely varied shades of green and gold; brilliant, multicolored flowers with lovely fragrances. There is no end to the goodness we enjoy in God’s creation: “the earth is full of the goodness of the LORD” (Psalm 33:5 KJV). The beauty of God’s earth reminds us of His goodness.
Then there is man, the zenith of God’s creative genius. God made him with eyes to behold the beauty of nature, ears to hear its lovely sounds, nostrils to enjoy its pleasant aromas, taste buds to relish its infinite variety of eatable delights, a sense of touch to help communicate love to someone precious to him, and a mind to comprehend the meaning of it all, to name just a few evidences of God’s goodness. He affords us no end of good things: the warmth of sunlight, the joy of loving family and friends, the satisfaction of productive labor, the exhilaration of physical exercise and recreation, the refreshment of a good night’s sleep, provision for our daily needs, and so many others that enrich our lives. These blessings turn our minds to Him in adoration and gratitude.
These “good things” are blessings God bestows on all mankind. They are not reserved for believers alone. King David wrote:
The LORD is good to all,
And His mercies are over all His works (Psalm 145:9).
The eyes of all look to Thee, And Thou dost give them their food in due time.
Thou dost open Thy hand, And dost satisfy the desire of every living thing (15-16).
Jesus said He makes the sun rise on the evil as well as on the good, and sends the rain on the unrighteous as well as on the righteous (Matthew 5:45). He deals bountifully and kindly even with ungrateful and wicked men (Luke 6:35). Paul said in a message to a group of unbelievers at Lystra, “He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with good and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
Unbelievers have a tendency to take God’s goodness for granted and exploit it for their own ends. But the person who knows Him personally, who understands and appreciates His goodness, will not only enjoy His blessings fully, but use them thankfully and unselfishly, giving glory to Him. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude” (1 Timothy 4:4).
Along with the general benefits which God has bestowed on all people, the believer has additional good things to enjoy. For example, he has in his possession the Word of God which is described as good (Hebrews 6:5). He can know and do the will of God which is called good (Romans 12:2). He has the assurance that his good God will work every detail of his life together for good (Romans 8:28), the minor annoyances as well as the major crises. The expressions of God’s goodness to His children are endless.
How great is Thy goodness,
Which Thou hast stored up for those who fear Thee,
Which Thou hast wrought for those who take refuge in Thee,
Before the sons of men! (Psalm 31:19)
The Psalmist goes further: “No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
Our family has seen innumerable evidences of God’s goodness through the years. One small but unforgetable incident occurred when our youngest son was about five years old. We were spending the week at a Bible conference and Tim had gained a new friend named Peter. One evening we overheard him say, “Peter, let’s pray that we will find a treasure on the beach tomorrow.”
My wife and I thought that maybe we ought to plant something in the sand for him to find, in order to help God out a little and bolster our young son’s budding faith, but we completely forgot about it. As we relaxed on the beach the next afternoon we heard Tim suddenly exclaim, “I found it! I found a treasure!” He had dug a nickel out of the sand, and as an added bonus it had been minted in the year of his birth. It was just a little thing—but another evidence that a good God loves to do good things for His own.
The Objections To God’s Goodness
Of course, not everybody agrees that God is good, and it should be no surprise that His goodness is being called into question today. It was probably the first attribute of God to be attacked in human history. When Satan met Eve in the garden, he implied that God was less than good for denying her the luscious fruit of that one forbidden tree (cf. Genesis 3:1-5). Men have been challenging God’s goodness ever since. How can a good God allow evil to exist in His world? How can He permit disease, pain, suffering, poverty, hunger, prejudice, greed, exploitation, crime, violence, war, bloodshed, catastrophe, and destruction? They argue, either He is not very good or He does not have the power to stop it.
It is difficult for us to understand how these human tragedies can possibly be good, and quite frankly, we may never fully understand it. God tells us that His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9), therefore we cannot expect to understand everything. We do know, however, that God is not the author of sin (Habakkuk 1:13; James 1:13; 1 John 1:5). We also know that God in His sovereign good pleasure created man with volition—the ability to choose good or evil. The first man chose evil of his own will, and his sin affected all of God’s creation. All of the heartache and suffering in this world today are the direct result of that choice, the consequence of living in a world affected by sin.
In addition, our suffering is intensified by repeated sinful choices; not only our own, but those of individuals and nations around us. We may suffer when a drug addict decides to secure the money he needs for his next fix or when the leaders of some nation decide to enlarge their sphere of influence. The only way to remove all suffering from the world would be to deny everyone all of their freedom, to make them all automatons. None of us would opt for that.
God knew before He created him that man would choose evil, but He also knew that creating him was the best way to demonstrate the greatness of His person and the perfections of His nature—in other words, to show who He really is and to bring glory to Himself. He even has the power to overrule man’s sin to accomplish that good purpose. In fact, He promises to overrule all things for good: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). That is so difficult to accept in times of great trial, even for true Christians. “If God is so good, why did He let my mate get cancer, or why did He allow my child to be taken away from me, or why did He let my marriage fall apart, or why did He let me lose my job, or why did He let me lose my life savings? I’m not guilty of any great sin.”
The cause of our dilemma is our failure to understand what is truly good for us. We may have the notion that our ultimate good would be to have things go smoothly for us all the time, to do anything we please, knowing that everything we do will turn out for our happiness, comfort, convenience, health, affluence, and success. But God in His omniscience knows that the choices we make in our human wisdom and with our sinful natures will not always make us truly happy in the end.
God’s good goal for us is to make us like His Son. We should never separate verse 28 from the great promise of Romans 8:29: “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren.” Our highest good is conformity to the model of humanity that Jesus presented to us. That will bring us maximum happiness. We can be growing toward that goal daily; any choice we make that fails to contribute to that goal is going to increase our unhappiness. In other words, we do not always know what is best for us.
Parents especially understand that. Children think they know what will make them happy, but since parents have lived a few more years and know a little more about life, they know better what produces true happiness. So they insist on what they know will be for their children’s good, because they love them. Sometimes parents even have to make life unpleasant for them so they will learn to do what is best. To do less than that would be inconsiderate and neglectful.
When I was sixteen years old I wanted to buy a motorcycle. I pleaded with my dad for permission, but he refused to grant it. As I look back, I know his decision was best. With the lack of responsibility I had at that age, I probably would have killed myself on a motorcycle. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but now I know that what he did was good and has worked out for my benefit.
Let me illustrate it from the world of medicine. Medical studies have determined that the disease known as Hansen’s disease or leprosy does not damage the limbs and make the fingers and toes drop off as people historically have believed. It attacks the nervous system and destroys the victim’s ability to feel pain. As a result, lepers damage their own limbs by such careless practices as grasping things too tightly, cutting themselves seriously and not treating the wound, or putting their hands in a fire to pluck something out. On some occasions their limbs have actually been chewed off by rats while they slept, and they never felt a thing.
Medical technicians have experimented with devices that inflict an electric shock whenever a vulnerable part of the patients’ bodies is being abused. But the patients would switch off the current whenever they anticipated doing anything that might produce an unpleasant sensation, so the device did them no good. The only way a patient could be protected from destroying his own body and thus adding to his misery was to put the signal out of his reach. The pain of that electric shock, as unpleasant as it might have been for the moment, proved to be good and contributed to his ultimate happiness.5
Most of us would like God to turn off the current, to turn down the heat, to get us out from under our burdens. But that would not necessarily be good. It might be inconsiderate and neglectful. If we had an on/off switch, we could take care of it ourselves, but that would not be very smart. True happiness can be found only when we get to know God and grow in the likeness of His Son. Nothing reminds us of that more dramatically or encourages us to grow in Him more effectively than pain and suffering. Without it we might drift away, live our lives apart from Him, and never know true happiness. Suffering does not cast doubt on God’s goodness; it demonstrates it. The Psalmist saw it clearly:
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
That I may learn Thy statutes (Psalm 119:71).
Not only do we learn the truthfulness of His Word, we also learn firsthand the joy of His presence and the reality of His grace. It is often through suffering that we begin to appreciate God’s goodness as never before.
Our Response To God’ Goodness
When we become aware of God’s goodness, it should elicit a certain kind of response from us. We see the proper response in a group of weary exiles who had made their way back to their promised land after seventy years of Babylonian captivity. Their goal was to rebuild the temple of God. Progress was slow, but in the second year of their restoration the foundation was finally completed. Those who had lived long enough to see Solomon’s temple knew that this one would not begin to compare with it in size or beauty. But that made little difference to them. They were back in their land, and their temple was under way. “And they sang, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, saying, ‘For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid” (Ezra 3:11). God’s goodness prompted songs of praise and thanksgiving. And that is exactly what it should do for us.
Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalm 106:1).
(Cf. also Psalm 100; 107:1; 118:1,29; 135:3; 136:1; 1 Chronicles 16:34; 2 Chronicles 5:13.)
The word praise comes from a root that means “to be boastful.” When we praise God, we are boasting in the good things He has done, not necessarily because He has done them for us (as though we deserved anything), but simply because they demonstrate who He is. People who know a good God have no cause to grumble and complain. Praise becomes a way of life for them.
Our response to God’s goodness is not only praise, but also thanksgiving. If we take a few minutes each day to do nothing but thank God for some of the good things He has done, we may never get depressed again. So take a thanksgiving break! Thanksgiving is like a tonic that brightens the entire complexion of our lives. Learn to practice it. It may require discipline at first, but soon it will become a joyful and satisfying way of life. There is no better way to get it flowing than to rehearse the evidence of God’s goodness.
God is so good! If you have not yet discovered it, heed the exhortation of the Psalmist:
O taste and see that the LORD is good;
How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! (Psalm 34:8)
Action To Take
Sit down with someone close to you and rehearse some of the good things God has done for you through the years. Then respond to Him with thanksgiving and praise. If you are presently facing some trial, think of some of the good things God could be teaching you through it.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)