Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hardened Hearts and Human Choices - Part 2

As promised, here is part two. I've probably bitten off more than I can chew, but I'll try to offer a few edifying thoughts on the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. This is not a comprehensive treatment of the subject by any means, just a little excursion into the wonder of God's grace and mercy toward sinners, with Pharaoh as an illustration. Let's take a brief look at Romans 9:6-24 ...

The Question at Hand

In Romans 9, Paul begins a lengthy discussion concerning the salvation of God's elect nation, Israel. He has just written eight chapters decisively showing that Jesus Christ is God's one and only remedy for man's sin. Yet the leaders of Israel rejected that remedy. Doesn't this mean that God's promises to Israel failed to come true? Paul will show in many ways over the next three chapters that this is not the case, beginning with the statement, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants . . .” (Romans 9:6-7)

The Matter of Choosing

Paul shows that in Israel's history the chosen were divided from the unchosen according to God's sovereign choice (Romans 9:7-13):

Isaac and Ishmael were both sons of Abraham – but only Isaac was heir to the promises
Jacob and Esau were the twin sons of Isaac – but only Jacob was chosen to carry on the Jewish line

Significantly, in both examples the younger son was chosen, not the older. This reversal of tradition emphasizes God's sovereignty, since no one can say it was the “natural” choice that was made. It was SUPERnatural choice.

We have all had the opportunity to vote and cast our ballot for sin. Now God elects some of US? Welcome to paradox.

This picture has some bearing on the discussion, but don't take it the wrong way. Arminians would say that God chose first and now it is up to us. But Scripture teaches us that mankind universally chooses sin, that no one seeks God on his own, so it is GOD ALONE who can save us. Jesus Christ is the AUTHOR and the FINISHER of our faith.

In the passage we are examining (or is it examining us?), divine sovereignty is shown in the following phrases:

v. 5 “Christ ... who is over all
v. 11 “So that God's purpose according to His choice would stand ... because of Him who calls”
v. 16 “So then, it does not depend on the man ... but on God ...”
v. 20 God is referred to as “the molder and man as “the thing molded”
v. 21 God is referred to as the potter who has “a right over the clay ...”
v. 23 vessels of mercy are prepared beforehand for glory”

These verses proclaim that God is completely sovereign over His creatures, and therefore He can choose to do as He sees fit with them.

The Issue of Justice

At this point, Paul preempts the logical leap of the fallen human mind, which immediately accuses God of injustice by asking, “If God is that powerful, why does He choose one over the other, and not choose BOTH?” In our sinful way of thinking, we believe that if we were God, we would choose both. We THINK we are smarter than God.

Paul proposes a different question and offers a decisive reply: “What shall we say, then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” The reason for the final outcome – some saved, some lost – cannot be injustice on the part of God. So it must be rooted in something else.

In the court of justice, we don't have a chance apart from God's grace.
The main theme of the book of Romans is the justice of God (or “righteousness” of God – it's the same word in Greek). This justice is demonstrated in the Gospel, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, where God poured the wrath we deserve down upon on His own Son, Who lovingly offered Himself as our substitute. Thus, God's justice was fulfilled and we were saved by grace. We aren't getting what we deserve – Jesus got our punishment. Instead, we have received GRACE. The the righteousness of God has been vindicated in Christ, and sinners can be saved (see Romans 3:21f). But is God's sovereign choice of some and not others unjust? If it is, this will undo all that Paul has said in the first eight chapters. How can a God who goes to such great lengths to prove His justice be involved in an inherently unjust transaction? Paul has proven God's justice in saving sinners, now he must demonstrate the justice of God in His sovereign work of election. To accomplish this, Paul calls Pharaoh as a key witness.

For He (God) says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then, it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then, He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (Romans 9:15-18)

Notice Paul's theme in this paragraph: MERCY. With these words, the entire discussion is turned from a question of perceived injustice, in which some are not getting the chance they deserve, to a question of MERCY, in which we are receiving a salvation we most assuredly do NOT deserve.

This Wonderful Thing Called Mercy

Charles R. Erdman explains:

“The sovereignty of God is absolute; yet it is never exercised in condemning men who ought to be saved, but rather it has resulted in the salvation of men who deserved to be lost.” (Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 1925, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, pg. 109)

You and I have no place at all to call for justice for ourselves or to cry out for what we deserve. As sinners, the justice we deserve is death and hell. Early in the book of Romans, Paul lists a catalog of traits including full of envy ... gossips ... arrogant, boastful ... disobedient to parents ... untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful,” and then he declares “... those who practice such things are worthy of death ...” (Romans 1:29-32). That is the sentence passed by God in Eden, when He said, “you will surely die.” The sentence remains upon all of Adam's children. Each one of us is guilty enough to go into the fiery hell (Matthew 5:22). We have exercised a stubborn self-will in turning against God, disobeying His commands, discounting His advice, and going a way we believe is better than His way. Isaiah calls it “our own way ... the iniquity of us all.”

God's judgment against sinners is just. It is what we deserve, and since by our own choice we have rebelled against Him, it is in some sense giving us the very thing we WANT. Heaven would likely be far less comfortable than hell for an unredeemed soul who has rejected the grace of God. Hell itself may be one final mercy by which God spares sinners from having to suffer even more torment by dwelling IN HIS IMMEDIATE PRESENCE FOR ETERNITY. Instead, they go into the place prepared for the punishment of evil spirits, to outer darkness. No unrepentant sinner wants to live perpetually in the magnificent light of God's holy presence, in the shadow of an omnipotent being they do not trust. To the lost, hell would most likely be preferable to heaven (at least initially).

Mercy is not a matter of fairness, or justice, or deserving. If deserved, it would not be mercy. If merely just, it would not be amazing. If fair, no one could ever be saved. Mercy is undeserved kindness shown to depraved wretches who are headed headlong for hell.

What better way to say UNDESERVED than to call it a gift?
In His mercy, God does not allow all of fallen humanity to perish. He sovereignly selects those who will be saved, and this is His absolute right as Creator. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” In doing this, He leaves the lost to their choice and the justice they deserve. The saved are brought to a point of choosing Him, and often they do not realize until much later that they were first chosen by Him. This is pure irony: God chooses us, therefore we choose Him, but we cannot know He chooses us until after we have chosen Him.

A Hint of Explanation

In view of this undeserved mercy, no one can accuse God of injustice in election. But the relentless logic of the human mind jumps to another question: if God is absolutely sovereign and exercises His right to choose some while allowing others to perish, how can He condemn those He does not save? (Romans 9:19)

Paul has already called us to an exalted view of God. Now he calls us to a less exalted view of ourselves, answering once again with a question: WHO ARE YOU? Who are YOU to “talk back” to God, to answer your Creator to His face, as if you were His equal? (Romans 9:20). Paul is going to address the question that has been asked, but only after our pride has been confronted and our attitude adjusted. He skillfully combines the explanation with a brilliant rebuke and question wrapped together. What good is it be to be full of knowledge about the ways of God if that knowledge inflates our pride?

Another question follows: WHAT IF? What if God is showing His great patience in the way He deals with man's depravity? What if He is doing this in order to magnify the glory of His saving work on behalf of the elect? The question is designed to be humbling, to stop us in our tracks and get us thinking in a new direction. It gently and purposefully leads us to think about a possibility we may never have considered. The previous verses have shocked our man-centered sensibilities, but now we get a bit of the divine rationale to ponder and digest - now that we have been firmly reminded of our creaturely status.

Think you can go toe-to-toe with your Maker? He'll let you play the game, but you're GOING to lose.
By leaving the lost in their condition, God makes grace shine brighter and clearer on the redeemed. In Exodus, Pharaoh's hardened heart led to Israel's first Passover celebration, and mercy was wondrously revealed to the Hebrew people. In our day, a believer looks around and wonders, “Why me? Why did God save me and not leave me as I was? There are so many still in their sins, but I, a mocker and rebel, have been saved by His grace.” The gratitude and joy flowing from this realization can be overwhelming at times. It is not a pride or arrogance of being among the “elect” – rather it is a profound appreciation for the mercies God has rained down on a being who is utterly undeserving.

The lost are “prepared” for destruction. A.T. Robertson notes, “Paul does not say here that God did it or that they did it.” (Word Pictures In The New Testament, note on Romans 9:22). According to Robertson, the Greek word means “to equip” and refers to a “state of readiness.”Some would argue that God actively works against the lost, bringing them to reprobation, but that is unlike God and also unnecessary. The lost are already on the path to destruction, and God is actually delaying it for a time. Sin is inherently self-destructive. The lost are, through their rebellious choice, in a state of readiness to be destroyed. God's response is to “endure with much patience” rather than making His power known by swift, active judgment. This is further evidence of His mercy.

The saved are “prepared beforehand” for glory. A completely different word is used here than in the case of the lost, and God is clearly the active agent. Only He can prepare us BEFOREHAND. Although we have “fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), He has planned our restoration and He is working to bring it to pass. Blessed be His name! This is far more amazing than the fact that God allows some sinners to go their way and remain hardened against Him.

I will go no further. After considering just this first part of Paul's discourse, it is no wonder that the apostle of grace is overflowing with praise by the end of chapter 11. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33) His ways are unfathomable because they are laden with paradoxes too mysterious for human minds to fully grasp. In Paul's rather sharp mind, this was a good reason to worship the One Whose wisdom and knowledge vastly exceed our own. And a compelling motivation for humble service to his own people, Jews by birth, and also to Gentile "sinners" whom God has called out for faith in and obedience to His Son. All according to His great mercy!

Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be glory!


A few great books helped me with this post, most notably "Romans Verse By Verse" by William R. Newell and "Handbook On The Pentateuch" by Victor P. Hamilton. "IVP New Dictionary of Theology" also offered some helpful insight. In addition, my discussions with Tony Hayling at agonizomai concerning election and reprobation played a role.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Editor's UPDATE: When I first posted this, I didn't know much about Dr. Bob Utley. As it turns out, he describes himself as a "1 point Calvinist and a 4 part Arminian." He is the first paradox-embracing Arminian I have ever encountered (other than myself in the past), and he seems to be influenced strongly by the idea that Scripture contains dialectical pairs held in tension. Historically, this might indicate a leaning toward Neo-Orthodoxy, but Dr. Utley might simply be striving for balance. In any case, he serves as an interesting example of the application of theological paradox to the science of hermeneutics.

This quote comes from, where retired hermeneutics professor Dr. Bob Utley has presented some great insights about interpreting the Bible. Here's one that perfectly encapsulates the idea behind Theoparadox:

"Look for a possible paradoxical pair within your subject. Many biblical truths are presented in dialectical pairs; many denominational conflicts come from proof-texting half of a biblical tension. All of the Bible is inspired, and we must seek out its complete message in order to provide a Scriptural balance to our interpretation."

Amen to that!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hardened Hearts and Human Choices - Part 1

This post is a response to the issues raised here (see comments). My friend Jawara has made some great points in his comment, and I hope I can build on the sound Biblical thinking he has articulated.

Many have struggled with the account of Pharaoh's hardened heart, and especially with Paul's explanation of the phenomenon in Romans 9. Jawara has mentioned that some interpretations of this seem to imply double predestination (i.e., God specifically elected or predestined Pharaoh for destruction just as He elects and predestines believers for salvation), and some imply that God is the author of evil. In this first part, I'm going to examine these questions dealing only with the historical account found in Exodus. In part 2, the scope will be expanded to include Romans 9 and other relevant passages.

Making a golden statue of yourself - could this possibly be a sign of a wee bit of pride, maybe?

First, let's look at what Pharaoh was like BEFORE his heart was hardened. He was a rebel, a God-hater, a proud and selfish king ruling over an ancient empire. He was a cruel tormentor of the Jewish people and a worshiper of false gods. So, whatever God did in hardening Pharaoh's heart did not MAKE him a lost sinner. He was a lost sinner already, of his own choice and nature. God simply "strengthened" his heart in this condition because it suited God's purposes to do so. In no way did God violate Pharaoh's freedom of choice.

Second, let's talk about WHO hardened Pharaoh's heart. There are 20 references to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in the Exodus narrative. In 10 cases, God is the one who hardens Pharaoh's heart (although 2 of these are God stating prior to the showdown with Pharaoh that He intends to harden his heart). On 6 occasions, the condition of Pharaoh's heart is described without any indication of WHO did the hardening (e.g., “Pharaoh's heart was hardened.”). 4 times Pharaoh hardens his own heart.

When the confrontation between Moses and the Egyptian king begins, there is no indication that God directly hardened Pharaoh's heart until late in the game, the first instance being in Ex. 9:12. By this time Pharaoh has already hardened his own heart two times (Ex. 8:15, 8:32). So, both God and Pharaoh are given credit for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. It was evidently a cooperative effort, not something God imposed upon Pharaoh against his will.

Three different Hebrew words are used to describe the hardening of Pharaoh's heart:

  1. Kabed - to be heavy*

  2. Hazaq - to be strong, hard (“perhaps our closest English equivalent is 'bullheaded'”)

  3. Qasha – to be hard, difficult, severe*

When Pharaoh hardens his own heart, Kabed is used three times, Qasha once, and Hazaq never. When God hardens Pharaoh's heart, Hazaq is used 7 times, Kabed twice, and Qasha once. The implications of this are worth pondering, but I won't offer any theories here. Suffice it to say that Pharaoh's heart was hardened by both his own choice and by God's intervention.

I have not mentioned the verb tenses, but there are instructive details in them for those who have the time and resources to do a deeper study.

There is also an interesting play on words in Ex. 14:4 and 14:17 -- Pharaoh's heart is hardened (Kabed), but God is going to be honored (Kabed) from this! Kabed is the usual Old Testament word for “glory, honor” as well as “heaviness.” Someone like John Piper or Jonathan Edwards could write an entire series of books on this.

Third, let's look at HOW Pharaoh's heart was hardened. Pharaoh's heart was hardened as he saw the display of God's mercy toward Israel and rejected that mercy for himself and his people. Consider this insight from Rex Andrews**

"Two things were to happen. Exodus 6:7, "Ye shall KNOW that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians." Israel should know the Lord, as Redeemer, by His mercy. And, Exodus 7:5, "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them." The same circumstances were to issue in knowing the Lord. Israel to know Him as redeemer and deliverer. Egypt to know Him in His power to judge them and to break their power over Israel. Israel to RECEIVE the delivering mercy and to prosper; Egypt to RESIST the delivering mercy and be overthrown. The same Lord, and the same mercy. Two different reactions to Him and to it. Two opposite effects produced and results established: I will have compassion on Israel and do him mercy. I will harden Pharaoh's heart and destroy his power over Israel. Yet only ONE mercy. And, as we shall see, it was offered to both." (What the Bible Teaches About Mercy, Zion, IL: Zion Faith Homes, 1985, Page 40)

Pharaoh's choice to harden his heart was God's opportunity to display His glory. This was God's sovereign work, but Pharaoh was still responsible and culpable for his decisions. God offers His
own (authoritative) interpretation of these events in Exodus 9:15-17,

For if by now I had put forth my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go.”

To paraphrase: “I've allowed you to remain when I could have ended your life already. I'm going to use your stubbornness to accomplish something great, but you're the one responsible for your sin.”

So, God extended and strengthened Pharaoh's chosen disposition in order to accomplish His own purpose. Pharaoh could justly have been destroyed at any time during the process, but God patiently bore with him until the appointed time. Although Pharaoh could choose to resist God, he could not do so on his own terms. In His own way and in His own time, God would use Pharaoh's sinful decision to reveal His glory.

The Lord causes Pharaoh's heart to become hard (lit. “difficult”), not by implanting evil in it, but by giving it over to its evil direction without restraint. . . . God's judgment on Pharaoh issued in mercy to Israel, Egypt, and the nations as they saw His power to save.” (The Reformation Study Bible, Note on Ex. 7:3)

Fourth, let's glory in God's great mercy toward us! Why did God redeem Israel? Mercy. Why did He choose, and call, and purchase, and rescue, and forgive, and save us? MERCY.

Surely we have all been guilty of hardening our hearts against the Holy One. We have disobeyed, exalted ourselves, chosen our own way, accused God of injustice, persecuted His people, made light of His judgments and rejected His kindness times without number. Every one of us is as liable to judgment as Pharaoh was, and it is only by God's mercy that we do not share his final end.

The nation of Israel was no more deserving of God's mercy than Pharaoh. They questioned God's motives, challenged His representatives, and scarcely escaped from Egypt before complaining about it. Most of those who crossed the Red Sea with Moses died in the wilderness over the course of 40 years' wandering – cursed because of their unbelief. And yet God graciously met their needs, fed and clothed them, and remained with them until the day of their death. Then He took their children into the Promised Land with victory, in spite of the fact that this generation also sinned in various ways during the campaign in Canaan. Faithful mercies.

The plagues that brought judgment on Egypt were a mercy to Israel. God revealed His power to SAVE His people by defeating their oppressors. His mercy was shown to the Hebrews as they were preserved and protected during the course of the 10 plagues. This display of mercy reached its culmination in the Passover, an event which painted a vivid picture of the Gospel – and it continues to speak even to this day. Fathomless mercies.

Had Pharaoh relented, the Passover would not have been necessary. Israel would have departed from Egypt without passing through the blood-stained door posts and partaking of the sacrificed lamb, which are illustrations of Christ's work on the cross. And there is no greater revelation of mercy than that found in the cross. Supreme mercy.

So, Pharaoh's seemingly insane resistance to God, resulting from his hardened heart, led to a wondrous display of amazing grace that reaches even to us!

Finally, let's marvel at the awe-inspiring sovereignty of God over all things. In Moses' day, there was no man more sovereign than Pharaoh. A word from this king could move armies, end lives, build cities, oppress peoples, and free slaves. His authority was absolute and his decrees were binding. Yet Pharaoh was no match for God.

God had Pharaoh under complete control, even while He allowed him the freedom to make his own choices. Pharaoh's worst choice could not possibly thwart a single purpose of God. All creatures exercise their wills within the bounds of God's overarching plan. Sovereignty means "God limits, orders and controls all things for His glory and our good." That limiting, ordering and controlling includes you, me . . . and Pharaoh.
This is probably what Pharaoh looks like to God
I know your mind is probably protesting this because mine is protesting as well. But we are touching the fringe of a deep mystery. Walther Eichrodt insightfully points out the Old Testament's dual affirmation of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility:

The fundamental postulate of moral freedom is thus found in equal force alongside the religious conviction of God's effective action in all things; and no attempt is made to create a harmonizing adjustment between them. It is testimony to the compelling power of the Old testament experience of God that it was able to affirm both realities at once, and to endure the tension between them, without discounting anything of their unconditional validity.” (Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols., translated by J. Baker, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967, pp. 178-179)

Does your experience with God have this “compelling power” that is “able to affirm both realities at once?” If you've got God wrapped up tight in a theological hat box, you may have missed the point. Knowledge about God is not a hat to be worn. It is more like a fog-shrouded mountain city to be explored and wondered at with new discoveries and new applications and new mercies every day. The Word is our flashlight and also our map. It leads us to find God in His city. But like Moses, we can only see His back as He passes by and declares His Name: “The LORD, the LORD GOD, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy and truth . . .” (Ex. 34:6). Our response should be the same as that of Moses, who “made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.” (Ex. 34:8) If you're wearing your theology like a little crown, bear in mind that you're bound to bump into the REAL King and get humbled before long. Seek humility now!

The account of Pharaoh's hardened heart boldly reflects the paradox. It warns us to be wary of making choices that God might use for His own purposes in a way that would lead to our justly deserved destruction. It also calls us to lay hold of His offered mercies, seeing that He is fully able to deliver those who are His. Thus, belief in a sovereign God does not make our choices insignificant and meaningless. On the contrary, such belief makes our choices more weighty than they would or could otherwise be. Yet they are kept firmly within the bounds of His choice.

Have we solved the mystery? No, we have only examined it and stated it in Biblical terms. We are not called to solve these mysteries, but rather to adore the One who CAN solve them, and to affirm the truth He reveals: that His choices are sovereign, and ours are merely significant.


By asserting that the hardening was initiated by Pharaoh's own choice, we can remove any possible implication that God was the author of Pharaoh's sin. And by the same assertion, we can do away with the unbalanced idea of double predestination. At the same time, we are able to place strong emphasis on God's sovereignty without removing human responsibility. And since the mercy shown to Israel is according to God's choice, not their deserving or merit, the doctrine of election is preserved to the glory of His grace. In this way we have done no damage to the Scriptures or our faith. Rather we have upheld both.

There's more to say about this, but it will have to wait for part 2.

Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be glory!

*I am indebted to Victor P Hamilton's
Handbook On The Pentateuch for an excellent discussion of the Hebrew words and a scholarly treatment of the entire subject. Refer to pages 167-174 of this book for deeper study.
What The Bible Teaches About Mercy, by Rex B. Andrews, is a devotional study which traces the theme of God's mercy through the entire Bible. Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Although the chapter does not directly address the tension between God's sovereignty and human choice, it is nonetheless an illuminating and provoking study. Andrews was a Pentecostal minister at the Zion Faith Homes in Zion, Illinois. Among those he influenced was Leonard Ravenhill, who is said to have consulted him for advice on many occasions. Andrews' teaching on divine mercy ripped my legalistic mindset to shreds and helped to build the bridge that eventually led me from Pentecostalism to Reformed theology. I recommend What The Bible Teaches About Mercy to everyone, based not on the theological background of its author, but on the foundational concept it presents. It is packed with useful exegesis that will directly challenge the heart and draw the soul to Christ, regardless of one's doctrinal persuasion.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Resting Quietly in God

Existence as a fallen creature in a fallen world has its way of pressing in upon us. We worry about this and fret about that. Many real dangers, actual hurts and immanent threats surround us. But we must rest in the sovereign hands of God.

Perhaps you can identify? We all can, at times.
Too often we look to other people and expect to find satisfaction, security and solace in their words. Many times we walk away from such exchanges having only stirred up more worries and doubts, and perhaps we've added a bit of strife for all our trouble. Occasionally, a person will lead us to the Lord and provide real benefit. Perhaps we weren't looking for God's input, so we depart from potentially helpful fellowship with a feeling of emptiness or defensiveness. Man's words cannot satisfy our hearts - only "that which proceeds from the mouth of God" can.

Sometimes I simply talk to God about my fears. When I cast my cares upon Him, looking not to the creature but to the Creator, I find a strange and almost unbelievable peace that "passes understanding." It's like a little piece (or "peace") of heaven has been deposited in my soul. All is hushed, and God alone is present. My worries get wrapped up in His overarching goodness. Such moments come in unexpected times and places, not usually in church or religious gatherings. In a quieter place, in a moment of silence, God speaks loudest.

This is not to say we don't need fellowship with other believers, but the things we learn in godly fellowship often lie dormant and unapplied until we get alone with God and hear Him reiterate what He said to us in a group setting. The saints play their essential role, but God alone causes the Word to bear fruit in us.

Are you resting in Him, or are you looking to creatures who are just as tied up in knots as you are? People who are just as sinful and broken, just as destructive, just as damaged, just as dangerous.

The things that people did to us were filtered through the loving hand of God, but we must not blame Him for what He allowed. He designed those disappointments for our benefit, and the benefit of those who cross our path. If we take our hurts to Him, His healing grace becomes the medicine we share with others. Such empathy is the vein of gold that runs though the raw ore of our sufferings.

For a Christian, there is ALWAYS value in suffering
In holding onto our hurt, we blame both God and man for what was done. We accuse them both and make them both our enemy. We fail to see that God has been working all our lives to redeem us from our own sin. We miss the ways He used the sins of others to draw us, that He might reconcile us to Himself and also to one another. In distrust of God, we cling to the ore and cheapen the gold. It's a shameful waste of perfectly good sufferings.

Only when we look to a sorrowful Savior in His passion, agonizing for ALL the sins of the world, can we get enough perspective to forgive others, trust God, and rest. Only when we see what our sin did to Him can we appreciate grace. Then we accept our troubles as gifts from God, and bring them trustingly back to Him. We find our transgressions forgiven and love inundating our hearts. In quiet moments of discourse with God we can find such wonders as these.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Sin, Grace, and the Total Gospel

Here are a few thoughts from the notable 17th century mathematician, inventor & philosopher Blaise Pascal: I may be a mathematical genius, but I cannot talk about God without using paradoxes
There must be feelings of humility, not from nature, but from penitence, not to rest in them, but to go on to greatness. There must be feelings of greatness, not from merit, but from grace, and after having passed through humiliation. Pensees #524

The incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery by the greatness of the remedy which he required. Pensees #525

The knowledge of God without that of man’s misery causes pride. The knowledge of man’s misery without that of God causes despair. The knowledge of Jesus Christ constitutes the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our misery. Pensees #526

Man either hides his miseries, or, if he discloses them, glories in knowing them. Pensees #405

And here's one from his near contemporary, Fenelon:

The true method of profiting by the humiliation of our faults, is to behold them in all their deformity, without losing our hope in God, and without having any confidence in ourselves.
Francois de Fenelon, "Spiritual Progress"

In its simplest form, the Gospel can be reduced to these two broad concepts: the depravity of man (what Pascal calls "misery"), and the grace of God. These two parts must never be separated.

I have found that my faith struggle often lies in forgetfulness of one of these realities. For me, unbelief rarely manifests itself as an outright doubting of God's character, the truth of the Gospel, or the reliability of the Bible. It's much more insidious than that. It affirms one half of the Gospel without embracing the other, creating a dangerous state of imbalance.

We dare not speak of the grace of God until we have spoken of the utter sinfulness of man, for which grace is the remedy. And we must never speak of our sin without a sharply focused eye on grace. Sin without grace leaves us either despairingly enlightened about our condition and crying "woe is me," or it deep-freezes our smugly deceived hearts in their self-righteous complacency. The graceless way we view and treat others will reveal this. Grace without sin, on the other hand, leads us to a soft, fluffy version of Christianity which tells us we're basically okay and just need to try harder. Apart from a knowledge of what sin is and does, grace is never truly appreciated and clung to. The result is a "christianized" self-esteem teaching, the social gospel, and a merging of the church with the world.

Half a Gospel leaves man worse than he was without the Gospel. Imbalance in these matters can easily lead to frustration, ineffectiveness, complacency or heresy.

Recently, God seemed to say this to me: "You are more humbled by your own unfaithfulness than you are by MY FAITHFULNESS. You are more humbled by your depravity than you are by MY GLORY" Some of my virtues are half-baked. When I have only been living in the depravity side of the Gospel, my humility is truly felt, but it is too dependent on the knowledge of my weakness. It's a circular chain that only spirals downward. Real humility, like every other virtue, is grounded in a true apprehension of the complete Gospel - the Gospel of GRACE for SINNERS. True humility calls us to see not only what we are apart from God, but also Who He is in Himself.

Sometimes I am like a man who stands before the Grand Canyon, glances briefly at it, takes off his mirrored sunglasses to study his own reflection in them, and an hour later wistfully declares, "I'm so small and insignificant." This man misses the point altogether. And so do we, when we forget to keep the total Gospel balance of SIN and GRACE in perspective.

Isn't grace beautiful?

Grace is God's awe-inspiring display. It is divine activity which flies in the face of all our man-centered, legalistic ideas about justice and truth. Grace smashes our self-pity and makes us rightly ashamed of ourselves. It is designed to get - and keep - our attention throughout time and eternity. It is infused with a lasting glory, the glory of the infinite God. It seeps down into the lowlands of human depravity and raises those who cannot lift themselves. It carves through the bedrock of human sin, revealing what is there. But also removing great portions of that bedrock and redeeming the dry, accursed ground. For all eternity we and the angels will marvel at what God has done with sinful humanity by the working of His grace. We who have believed will forget ourselves and get lost in the abyss of this mercy. Angels will fall down adoring God, while demons and rebellious humanity agonize under a restless, grace-free existence.

Are you amazed by your inconsistency, your incessant bent toward sin, your ugly deceitful heart? You should be. But remember to lift your gaze to get stunned and captivated by God's response to your misery: a GREATER GRACE that mirrors your sinfulness in the opposite direction. Where sin abounds, grace does MUCH MORE abound. Mercy TRIUMPHS over judgment. And His lovingkindness PREVAILS over us.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Tony Hayling at Agonizomai for his assistance in defining the thoughts in this post, and for the Fenelon quote.