Saturday, December 22, 2012

Do We Have the Correct View of God's Wrath?

Wrath seems to be a term that many modern theologians now smack their lips over. It is a word that they cannot keep from their lips when speaking or from their fingertips when typing. In today's popular theology, wrath has come to be understood as an almost insatiable appetite of the Most High, something that, at all cost, God must be appease.

There is an image being given of the Trinity in which the Son stands between the Father and the redeemed, defending us from His wrath. Where the Spirit is in all of this is not always fleshed out, which is another telling mark of today’s popular theology. In light of this view of Christ's grace, many talk about Christ's work as appeasing to God's appetite for wrath instead of a ransom paid for our sin, but what does this mean?
This is a question never really answered. Instead, ideas of God's wrath seem assumed or carelessly formed with no real theological consideration. Instead of seeking Scriptural understanding, ideas like the fact that a God of infinite love is also a God of infinite anger are assumed to be self-explanatory. Taking all this into consideration, what view of God is given by this popular theology?
Without giving qualification, it seems that God ends up being a very angry and divided being, simply waiting for a chance to deal his retribution upon an ungrateful people. The fact that wrath can be expressed from the Almighty can remain true, and yet, it might elicit a very different set of views of God if we take a step back and define our terms. Otherwise, we must join in with many of the more modern and popular theologians in defending a God that seems petty, vindictive, and retributive.
 It is natural to assume we know the meaning of simple terms like wrath, but I would argue that we have assumed the term to be much flatter than it actually is, and we have tarnished our vision of God's character in the process. While God is revealed in human terms, we must allow Him to redefine them when they are used of Him. Any term that is first understood from a purely humanistic standpoint cannot hold up to His divine character.
We must not begin to talk of God's wrath before we properly understand wrath. Let's go back to the popular expression: "A God of infinite love must also be a God of infinite anger." Even when we think of this anger as righteous anger, an anger forever beset against evil, sin, and death, it can be worrisome. Once again, with proper perspective, this might not be so troublesome. While the above statement seems logical enough, it often elicits an unwarranted conclusion: Contrary to the assumptions of popular theology, love and anger are not two equally powerful and separate expressions of God's character.
In other words, we are not warranted to suggest that if God is described as being loving and being angry at separate points in Scripture, then we too must say in the same breath with, "God is Love," that "God is anger." Imagining love and anger as being two separate feelings God forever emotes is too dualistic. It is the sad result of allowing too much Greek philosophy into our theology, which would be better viewed through a Hebraic lens. Unfortunately, much modern theology has been developed from more Greek perspectives than Hebraic, Augustine being a champion of such theology, and a hero to many of our modern writers.
 The truth of the matter is that the Bible says, "God is love." It does not say, "God is anger." However, this dualistic perspective in which all of God’s qualities are forever emoted is often the view of God's love and anger. One might want to delve into a bit of logical philosophy and argue that if God is ever angry in the course of human history, then he must be angry all of the time for God is unchanging. This, of course, being the inevitable question of Greek philosophy concerning “the perfect,” since Greek thought teaches that perfection is static and unchanging in any way.
If this were true, then we would also wish to affirm that God is forever disappointed, for there were times in which humanity obviously disappointed God. Of course we would not wish to think this of God, but if this is the sort of "logic" we use, then this is necessarily the case. This is too flat an understanding of emotions, and simply is not the Scriptural view of God, who is not simply a static perfection, but is a perfection that is also personal.
Simply put, God is love, and from that Character, he has the potential to express His love in various ways. Love expresses itself in various forms depending on the situation. If your child demonstrates great love by standing up for a friend, your love might express itself in praise. However, if your child demonstrates great selfishness by bullying another child, your love for your child might express itself with admonishment. The love for the child has not changed; it simply responds differently. In the case of where the child expresses good qualities that will be of benefit as he or she matures, love affirms, and, in the case where the child expresses self-destructive qualities that will damage him or her as he or she matures, love discourages.
So that which we often affirm as a positive expression of love is not separate from a negative expression of the same love, they are simply varying and appropriate expressions of that same love. To think that for God to have a characteristic it must forever be kinetic, in other words, it must be active, is too simplistic. Instead, we must understand that some abilities of God are potential, always existing as a capability, but only expressed at logical points in which they need to be expressed through personal response. To think of God as a static being, always and forever exuding certain expressions is a Greek view that has permeated Western Christian thought, and is problematic when imported into a more Judeo-Christian understanding of God. 
What does this mean? Quite simply, this means that anger is not a characteristic of God that is to be juxtaposed to love. They do not belong on the same plane. Moreover, this means that love is not simply a characteristic of God, but is the summation of His character. In short, anger is not an equal quality to love, but is an expression that love takes in its position against those things damaging to that which love directs its service. In other words, anger is a form of love as it relates to that which is evil.
Moreover, anger has to be understood in its highest sense. We cannot think of the anger that we often experience that makes us petty, retributive, and vindictive. God is none of these things. Even while God is angry at sin and evil, he is also a joy-filled God, happy in the knowledge that He has dealt with sin in an everlasting way through the atonement of Christ. Therefore, we must not import our common experiences of being angry that are often accompanied by emotional turmoil and fits of rage. From a human perspective, anger is often an uncontrollable feeling, but to God it is a very controlled response to sin, and wrath is only a response of anger when necessary.
Since God is love (I John 4:16), he cannot be slow to loving. Whatever He does, He does in love, for that is His very character. But, the Bible clearly states that God is slow to anger (Exodus 34:6). Moreover, while God's love can never be lessened by the actions of men, His anger can (Numbers 25:11). Clearly love and anger are not equal emotions or characteristics of God. Moreover, God is not divided by His love and His anger.
Christ does not stand in the way of a Father who wants nothing more than to lash out at us. This is an unfortunate idea of popular theology that must be discarded. If the Trinity teaches us anything about God, it teaches us the equality of the Father and the Son, as well as the Spirit. It teaches that each member is working hand-in-hand to accomplish the will of the Godhead. If Christ's love is demonstrated in the cross so that we come to understand that Jesus love is selfless, outward-focused, cruciform love, then we must understand that what is at the center of Christ's heart is also at the center of the Father's heart.
If the Son is selfless, the Father cannot be vindictive and retributive. Christ was not the only member of the Trinity to make a sacrifice for us. So, once again, God's wrath becomes a position that Holy Love (the Character of God) takes in light of evil. Love is the defining characteristic of God, not anger. Without evil, love need not be wrathful. Yet, until evil is fully dealt with, wrath will be expressed when needed.
What does all this mean? It means contrary to the assumptions of popular theology that God does not intrinsically need to appease an appetite for wrath. It means that He has not simply created subjects to punish as an expression of His character just as He has created subjects to love out of expression of His character. It means we were all created as an expression of God’s character, which the Bible tells us is love.
It also means that the Father and the Son are not in opposition when it comes to how they each wish to treat humanity. Finally, it means that love and anger are not equal, dualistic forces, but that anger is an expression of love. Just as we would be naturally angered at that which means harm towards the ones we love, the God of Love is moved to anger against that which is set out to harm that which He loves. Wrath is not simply about making sure God gets the glory He deserves; it is about taking on that which God selflessly loves.
Does this mean that the world can breath a sigh of relief since anger might not be as big a deal as popular theology has suggested? If this is a relief for Christians who, in light of this confused theology, could not fathom a God of wrath ever loving a sinner like them, then yes. However, this should not give relief to any human that gives his or her self over to evil. While this person was created as an expression of love, if this person gives him or her self over to evil, God will, in His patient timing, eventually exact wrath in order to stop evil.
God's wrath is directed towards that which is harmful to that which He loves, and placing yourself in the camp of evil is placing yourself in the wake of God's wrath, and we must understand the sheer determination of God when it comes to dealing with evil. He is so against evil that He would subject Himself to death on a cross in order to defeat it. If an all-powerful God would subject Himself to such, we must not be mistaken concerning the extent He will go in utterly destroying evil. Hell fire and brimstone is an utterly fitting discussion to have when considering our future states if left in sin. It is a warning to not give one’s self over to evil, but over to love. The saying: "A God of infinite love must also be a God of infinite anger," is very true in the sense that God's love is forever against evil.
We must be forever mindful to respect and uphold the character of God. Popular theology would agree with this by saying that God is most concerned with His glorification, more so than His concern for the salvation of humanity. This stems from this dualistic view of God's characteristics. God is not a glory monger who also happens to be merciful to some. He is concerned about His character namely because He loves us. When we misunderstand His character, we misunderstand our place in reality.

We are made to serve God, for being under Him is our protection. To place our selves outside His rule is to place our selves in harms way. His concern to right our misconception of His glory deserving character is an expression of His Love. Respecting God's character is much more about being good representatives of His character for the sake of others over being a benefit to the Almighty. If I misunderstand God, what does that do to diminish Him? It does nothing at all to diminish Him. He does not need me to do or understand anything in order to be complete in His joy. Instead, it is a detriment to me to misunderstand God, for if I do not take His glory seriously, I misalign myself from that which provides me life. Moreover, when I misrepresent God, I run the real risk of leading others astray. Such mistreatment of God's character is evil for it is a harm to those whom God loves, and this means I am in real danger of God's wrath which is set to make right those things that are perverted and bent out of shape and cause harm to the beings and things He loves.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

“I’m Just a Sinner Saved By Grace”…Really?

There is a big question floating around our nation right now, and it is highly theological. We don’t often get such questions asked like this any more, but in the midst of sorrow, we often are forced to ask the big questions. The big question right now is “Where is God?” Christians are poised to begin a great dialogue with the wider community, but we are often paralyzed by our own misunderstandings and theological biases.

If you were to ask a good Israelite during the Old Testament era, “Where is God?” he or she would, without hesitation, refer you to the Holy of Holies, whether that was in the Tabernacle or the Temple, depending on what point in time you were asking. During the time of the Gospels, after the disciples finally came to the realization of just what sort of man they were dealing with, if you would have asked them, “Where is God?” they would have pointed to Christ.

The question is not simply about the realm in which God exists, on what plane He resides, but is pointed, asking where He is in our own lives, and many Christians simply do not have adequate responses. The Temple has been destroyed, and Christ has ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father. So, where is He amongst His people today?

Like it or not, we are being asked, “Where was God?” and many Christians fumble for an answer, or we go on the defensive. However, we don’t need to search for the answer, nor do we need to come up with elaborative excuses for God’s absence. We can do as the Israelites and the disciples did; we can rely on the doctrine of tabernacling and point to the location in which God chooses to tabernacle amongst us today.  In the Old Testament, God dwelled in the Holy of Holies. In the Gospels, God was present in Christ Jesus, and now, where is He? Where does He tabernacle?

The New Testament is crystal clear about God’s tabernacle in the Church Age. God dwells in the hearts of His children. The answer to the big question is as simple as pointing to your heart. But, for some reason, we fumble for the right theology. We ignore the theology of God’s dwelling place. Why? Because it says something so profound about each of us that it is often too scary to face. Instead, we wish to deflect the issue away from our own responsibilities.

Instead of being the epiphainic presence of Christ, we overemphasize another theological truth, and we distort this truth so that it eclipses God’s presence in our lives and makes our human existence a bit easier to live, away from the scrutiny of the world. We lean on our own sin. We focus on the cliché: “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” Really? Is that really all God has for you? Is that really all God thinks of you? While there is truth in this statement, we, the very children of God, say it as if we are worthless and have nothing to show for being redeemed.

Have you heard a Christian say, “Don’t look to me for an example. I am merely a sinner, and I will disappoint you.” Let me say this. If this is your attitude, then you will be a disappointment, for you have allowed sin to have too big a place in your new life that is supposed to be hidden in Christ and led by His Holy Spirit. But, we are not to serve two masters. The idea that you do not represent something of God and His holy character as a Christian is bad theology. It is too small, too weak. Get rid of it. Unfortunately, it seems this is the theology of most in our nation. No wonder we now have to fight to be missional.

The Scripture's call upon our lives is much different and even in opposition to this more modern, nominal and domesticated “Christian” response. Instead of telling us that we are simply sinners covered by Christ, as if He is simply spiritual Febreze, the Bible tells us that we are made new: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (II Corinthians 5:17) The Bible does not simply tell us that one day, in the great beyond, we will be made different. We are different now. What we once were, the old, sinful self is dead. Therefore, we are not warranted to simply say, “I am just a sinner.” Again, that is bad theology. You are not just a sinner; you are a new creation. You are His child. You are worth so much more than you give yourself credit for.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (II Corinthians 5:14,15, 20,21)

Paul is sharing with us our true identity and the implications of being given such an identity. We are persons who have been purchased by Christ through His sacrifice. As such, we do not have the right to live as we wish. We have no excuse to give into our old self, for that old self died with Christ. We are now His, and He has given us a duty to carry the ministry of reconciliation. We are His ambassadors. We represent Him. Our plea to the world to not look at us as examples is antithetical to the very call of Christ and the reason He hung on the cross for your life.

The Bible tells us that we are His ambassadors, the very persons people are to look to when they want to know more about God and His character. Therefore, we cannot allow sin to have the place we have given it. We must be on guard. This newness of life is not simply a passive thing that is obtained and complete at the moment of salvation. It is something we have to work for, something Christians, who have been saved by the free gift of God by grace and through faith, are moving towards:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:10-16)
Paul is speaking of the life of Christian growth, also known as the doctrine of sanctification. We are called to be different, and we must always move forward. In some sense, as we saw in the passage from II Corinthians, we have been made new. So, Paul tells us to “live up to what we have already obtained.” In other words, do not make excuses for your sins. Live in newness of life. But, realize that God is not done. He has more to do in your life.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)
Again, we are called to leave behind our excuses and come to realize that we are to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
This is not the message of today’s church, and we are providing a terrible witness because of such. We struggle to find God ourselves, because we live in the sins that should have no real reign over our lives. We do this because we misunderstand the purposes of Christ’s gift. We often think He simply died so we do not have to die ourselves. But, He died for so much more. He died so that we could be His workmen. He died so that we could be made new and could bless the world by our being made in His image.
Personal reflection opportunity:
How have you viewed the place of sin in your life? Has it paralyzed your witness? Are you allowing God to make you new? Have you put off the old, sinful desires of the flesh and put on the new creation?
As you ask yourself these questions, read the words of Paul that I emphasized above and ask yourself, “Have I been listening to this part of the Scripture’s calling upon my life, or have I just bought into the domesticated church’s version of my worth?”
Balance the truths of our sinfulness and our newness. While we are not completely rid of the old self at the moment we accept Christ, it has no more power. It is dead. We only give it power when we do not live in His truth, in the newness of life. We must be on our guard not to fall into our old ways, but we do not need to allow our acknowledgment of the dangers of sin to keep us from moving forward and being His real presence to a lost and hurting world.
Here, for your convenience, are the emphasized portions of Scripture from Paul in II Corinthians 5, Philippians 3, and Ephesians 4:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here… Christ’s love compels us…we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us…in him we might become the righteousness of God…I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal… All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things… live up to what we have already attained… you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking… Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity… That, however, is not the way of life you learned… You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted… be made new in the attitude of your minds… put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thoughts on Reaching the Lost:

I apologize for any type-os about to board the plane and don't have time to proof... 

Right now I am sitting in the Durango Airport reflecting upon my long weekend on the Navajo Reservation. I came out here for our Christmas Mission and Pastor Training program. My main task was to teach for several hours on Saturday. The topic at hand: Repentance. Part of the reason Becky, the head evangelist at Pure Water Ministry, and I chose the topic of repentance was to stress the need for a change of heart, a want to allow God to make us different. Sometimes these churches do not see much need to evangelize to the lost, to preach, “Repent and believe,” and are instead more comfortable serving their own body. Can any of us relate? In light of the lack of outreach, it was our task, our calling, to go and share the news of God’s giving to us His ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Cor 5).

With the call to serve the lost on my mind, and not simply at a simmer mind you, I began to read Jesus’ three back-to-back parables about the lost in the Gospel of Luke (15:1-24). The whole reason Jesus is telling these parables is in response to those Pharisees and Scribes whom seem disgusted by the fact that Jesus would fraternize with the sinners, those these religious leaders perceive to have low moral standards.

As I read this, I am reminded of how easy it is for humans to fall into hidden hypocrisy. When reading Jesus’ attacks upon the religious leaders of the day, it is easy for us to try and tag team with Jesus. In our minds we say, “That’s right, Jesus. You get ‘em,” never seeing our own prejudices in the attitudes of the Pharisees. We see a little bit of the Pharisaical nature in others around us, but never in ourselves, and that, makes us really Pharisaical if you ask me.

In the spirit of repentance, let me confess something to you. I am Pharisaical at times, perhaps often. No, I am not the most legalistic person in the world, but the Pharisees were not simply the focus of Jesus anger for one reason, but many. Like the Pharisees, I find it easier to hang out with like-minded religious persons like me. I do not often enjoy hanging out with those persons who embody what it means to be lost. When I say hanging out, I do not simply mean being in the same vicinity as I serve them, but actually investing my life in them.

We often idealize the lost, and that is easy from afar. But, if you spend much time with a variety of unbelievers, which Jesus certainly did, you will most likely, like me, find yourself unnerved at times. Not all the lost are happy to be sought after. Like the Pharisees, I find it much easier to speak about my faith with those who already believe as I do, but Jesus had a different tactic. He sought to speak about His Father, not with the righteous, but with the lost. (A quick reminder: He did not do it alone. He did it with the twelve. We do not have to go on our own)

But, Jesus did not simply seek to preach to the lost. He was not content speaking at them, but wanted to speak with them. He did not simply (I stress simply) serve them at a programmed event. He was not content with having brief contact as the needy were shuffled through a line, but wanted to spend time with the lost. He was kind to them. He celebrated with them. He sat and had meals with them. While in our humanistic fear we might hear the call to preach to the lost, and we might begin to think of simple loopholes. Some might envision a ministry where the individual can simply  “preach at” the lost, a get in and get out sort of game. Again, that was not Christ’s example. He was kind. He spent real, meaningful time with the sinners. He did not simply buzz in with a quick word or a hand out (that is often our tactic to check off the “I spent time with the lost” check box).

As I sit here, my human side, my fearful side, cries out, “Jesus, why did you have to be so kind. Why can’t I just get in and get out.” I read through the parables to see if I could find an answer there, but it was not explicit. There are probably several angles my mind could have taken to find the proper answer to this, but I could not help but focus on the parable of the lost sheep. The sheep wonders from the fold, and the shepherd goes off to find the lost one. The parable began to expand in my mind.

I don’t know much about sheep. They might be extremely easy to lead back to the fold. But, I do know a few things. First, I do have experiential knowledge of trying to wrangle in a wondering animal. It is not always easy to get to the animal that is wondering away. Have you ever had a dog run away from you? Each time you get just within reach, the dog runs off (perhaps this is why a common Jewish term for gentiles during the time of Christ was “dogs.” Perhaps we are seen as stubborn—by the way, I know this isn’t really the case, but there is a parallel at times). Second, I know that the sheep in Jesus’ parable are representative of people, and people are very stubborn creatures. Finally, I know that just like yelling at a dog to come back is not the best solution most of the time (there are exceptions), being anything other than kind to the lost is going to be at detriment to our testimony.

Calling people to repentance through the ministry of reconciliation is our primary call, but, I have seen in my self, in churches at home, in churches on the reservation, a pattern that must be fairly universal: The fear of reaching out. It is not something we are often comfortable with. We hold seminars and workshops on reaching the lost. We preach on the importance of reaching out. We start initiatives to be more evangelical, but we often simply do not follow through.

First, we must realize that our comfort is beside the point. We are not our own. We are His to do with what He wills, and He wills that we carry the ministry of reconciliation out unto the world. Second, perhaps we simply need a better perspective. Christ did not have a step-by-step initiative or a program that he scheduled into His weekly or monthly, or bimonthly calendar. He simply befriended the lost, and He celebrated with them. He showed them that life with Christ is something to be celebrated, a reason to break bread in and of itself. Their invitation was personal and celebratory. It was not drudgery.

As I encourage others to reach out to the lost, God is renewing my heart and mind towards the ministry of reconciliation. Will you join me?