*Sorry, no audio.*
Have you ever read the book of Malachi? It’s the last book of the Old Testament and sort of has the qualities of a sunrise. You’ve heard that phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and this little book reads like that. It starts off super dark but ends with a glimmer of light on the horizon. Those who heard it first really needed that glimmer because even though they thought things were bleak, they were about to get darker.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and helped Israel restart their worship practices, but things were still pretty rough. The generation that had returned to Judah did okay, but as usual, it didn’t last long. The prophets told them that if they rebuilt their temple and turned their hearts back to God, then they would receive the promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, and peace – all that good stuff that meant God was with His people.
But after a hundred years they were feeling pretty disillusioned. The Promised Land didn’t look anything like it was supposed to. Sure, they were no longer slaves in a foreign land, but the glory days of peace, prosperity, popularity, and power that they had under King David and King Solomon were long gone. Now, though they were being mostly left alone, they were still the least important territory in Prussia, ruled by a the pagan king Artaxerxes. They were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, were constantly fighting with their neighbours, and couldn’t even get along with themselves.
Actually, it wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them most. What troubled Israel more was the spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt and the sacrificial system was working, but the temple was much smaller and inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. Everyone knew that God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple, that first drop of blood spilt on the altar, that the miracles would start automatically raining down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
But was God gone? Had God abandoned His people? Had He broken his promise to be faithful to them? Of course not. Look at Malachi 3:13-15,
“Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Do you hear what they are saying? It is not that God left His people, is it? Instead what we see here are a people who are upset that God isn’t giving them what they want, so they have given up. God says, “Your words have been hard against me!” That means they haven’t just been grumbling, but actually accusing God of being unfair, unjust, unkind. Maybe they didn’t say it aloud – that would be pretty unjewish – but this is what they said in their hearts and their actions show it. They thought, “What’s the point of keeping the faith if there is no profit to it?” So their worship was lethargic and passionless. Their prayers were lists of complaints about God’s lack of love, about how He was unjust in His dealings, and full of bargaining to try to get something out of Him. They even withheld their tithes and offerings because they didn’t think God would take care of them and were worried they wouldn’t have enough.
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? I have. You read the Bible, see the promises, do what you’re supposed to do, and things seem to get worse? That’s the kind of month I’ve had. I try to do things right, and things get worse. The spiritual attacks are relentless, the voices in my head are terrible, the circumstances add up, the suffering around me grows, and I get more and more bad news and I spend my time confused, angry, sad, and afraid. I try to pray, to read my Bible, to call a friend – but I can’t sleep, don’t eat, and feel miserable. I honestly feel like I’ve aged 50 years in the past 2. My tinnitus screams in my ears, I can barely hear sometimes. Some days my whole body hurts and I can hardly get upstairs. I spontaneously burst into tears in front of random people now. It happened the other day when I asked the optometrist at Costco to adjust my glasses. I literally choked up.
Have you ever had a rough patch in your life where nothing seems to go right and you start to ask yourself, what’s the point in following God? Where’s the “profit” in following God’s rules, doing things His way, saying prayers, reading his word, doing what we’re supposed to, denying ourselves pleasures – which almost always makes life more difficult? But you stick to it, believe God’s way is right, try to do things His way, but things seem to just get worse? You wonder where God is? Where’s all that “peace that passes understanding” and “joy in the midst” you’re supposed to be feeling?
And then you look around, read some stories online, or hear from others that things seem upside down. The Christians you know are all going through tough times, but the God-hating, hedonistic, non-believers are prospering. People who are outright committing evil, lying through their teeth, spreading gossip, killing babies, mocking God to His face, are not only getting away with it but are being praised and rewarded for it! Hypocrites are adulated and the faithful mistreated. One starts to think, “Where is God in this? What’s the point in doing things God’s way if it never seems to make our lives any better?”
That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. I know I’m not alone in this. Israel was tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God but fighting amongst themselves and then losing every other battle to the enemies that they used to be able to defeat easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi isn’t a book of complaints and accusations. In this book God reminds His people that He is more than happy to bless them, stands ready to help them, but there’s a problem. Malachi reminds the people that God hasn’t abandoned them. It was God who chose Israel and God who stayed faithful, even demonstrating great love when they had completely turned their backs on Him. He even restored them back to their land and saved them from their enemies when they hadn’t done anything to deserve it. He demonstrated his willingness to bless them.
But what was their response to God’s amazing grace? Was it to worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? It was for a short time, but not for long. It wasn’t long before they forgot the agony of being slaves in Babylon and started to grumble and complain that things weren’t good enough. They wanted more comfort, more prosperity, more gifts from God – and faster. But when God didn’t come on His magic sleigh with His eight tiny reindeer to deliver presents to everyone, it wasn’t long until they got upset with Him, so they started to dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings to the temple, holding back the good stuff to themselves. Then they started to withhold their worship, love, and obedience, saying that they would only do what God wanted if He would start doing what He was told. Then, when God didn’t fulfil their demand for more worldly pleasures, they decided to do it themselves. They committed sexual sin, divorced each other, married unbelievers, took advantage of each other, and refused to help the needy. But they still wanted to be called “Holy” and “Believers” and “God’s people”, so they kept doing their religious activities.
So God tells them that the reason they aren’t feeling His presence right now, the reason they aren’t connected with Him right now is that their hearts and lives are a mess. That’s what the whole first part of Malachi is about.
God told them they were treating Him like a sugar-daddy. They proved they didn’t want a loving relationship with Him but just wanted to use Him to get nice things. And when the nice things stopped, they dropped Him like a hot-potato. That’s not love.
But here’s the revelation for us today, certainly for me, but maybe for you to. I can’t just point fingers at Israel in this because I know I’ve done this too.
It starts to feel like God only does nice things for people who love Him enough. That He’s always trying to get away and we are the ones who need to hold tight to Him. That God has lots of blessings to share but He’s giving them to the wrong people. But is that true? Is it true that if we loved and obeyed God enough, tried hard enough, worshipped good enough, served and tithed and sang enough – that things would be easy? Is it true that all the hard things in life are just God being mad at us for not trying hard enough?
The wisest man to ever live struggled with this. In Ecclesiastes 8 Solomon puzzles about how the world works. It all seems upside down. In Ecclesiastes 8:14 he says,
“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous…”
A few verses before, in 8:10–11 he says,
“Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”
He felt it too. He feels like the world is topsy-turvy, that evil is rewarded and good is punished, and God isn’t showing up fast enough – and so our hearts start to think that maybe it would be better to do evil because it seems to work.
We wonder why doing bad things seems to easy and good things so hard, don’t we? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. The rest of the world is another thing. I don’t understand what the government is doing. Corporations are getting more powerful and sometimes eviler. People seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have scientists doing all sorts of insane things like creating and destroying human embryos and messing with their genes, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
And when all the difficulty hits, Christians fall on our knees and cry out to God, but nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, give some money, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for a bit, feel some peace when we read a psalm or our eyes are closed, but the troubles invariably come crashing back when we get up and get back into life.
It’s easy to slip into that Malachi mindset. Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little back because we are worried about the budget. We skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries because there’s lots of work to be done elsewhere and church stuff hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises. We start to indulge more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – because it gives us that little rush we were trying to get from God, but He wouldn’t provide. Sure, it produces shame… but if we keep at it we know that will eventually go away.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music because it just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either more miserable or better off – and we don’t want to hear from either one of those people. We head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution and they prescribe something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.
Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it doesn’t help. We rarely pray except to complain about how unfair life is or say that if He’d just fix things then we’d start doing what we’re supposed to. But nothing changes, and we start to wonder if God even exists at all.
It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. Sure, it goes against everything we think we believe, but by that point, oblivious seems like a better option than constant pain, sadness, and disappointment, right?
That feeling, by definition, is hopelessness, and it’s not only where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi, but something felt by a lot of people today. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, 400 years later, except for a few exceptions, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the entire nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? Where do we find that Romans 5:5 “Hope that does not disappoint”. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Look at Malachi 3:16. Here we see something special. After the complaining, faithless, disobedient and hopeless have had had their say against God, another group emerges: “Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
Pause there a second. In the first part of Malachi, we see God listening to the conversations and blasphemies of the first group – the complainers. Now, we see God listening into the conversations of another group – the faithful. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God there was one group that was still faithful, still hopeful, still hadn’t bowed their knee to another god, still hadn’t turned to sin, but had remained obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How? Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”.
I’m sure most of you have had a campfire. Some of you even have fireplaces in your homes. And you know how it goes, right? You can’t just stick one log in at the beginning of winter and let it go until you don’t need it in the spring. Sure, you start with a nice fire, but as time wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be left with only a few charred, little blocks with a few tiny, flickering, little flames, surrounded by some orange glow and grey ash. So what do you do? When the flames are dying down, and the heat is dying out, what do you need to do to make sure the flame doesn’t go out altogether? You bring those embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.
In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should draw together. One of Satan’s main tactics is to get us alone, to tell us all the reasons to stay home, stay alone, not share our thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and temptations with people. He wants to divide and conquer. But to keep the flames of faith alive we must draw together.
Above my monitor, I have two cards that were given to me at just the right time with just the right message. The first has a quote from Isaiah 46:4 that says, “I have made you and will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” They remind me of God’s love.
The other one simply says, “We’ve got your back!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at that card, reminding myself that my church has my back. Let me tell you that I’ve had some dark times lately, some dark thoughts, and Satan has been non-stop trying to tell me some very evil lies, trying to make me feel alone and forgotten. But I look at that card and remember that my church loves me, my church cares for me, my Christian friends have my back, and it gives me the strength to send a text to a friend, an e-mail to the elders, and ask for help and prayer. It reminds that when I am too weak to pray for myself, too sad to read anything, that I can draw closer to God by leaning on His people.
And what do God’s people do when they get together? They “spoke with one another.” Hebrews 10:23-25 was given to believers in a very similar situation to Malachi’s. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says to believers, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” I would imagine that God’s people of Israel in Malachi’s time and God’s people when Hebrews was written, and all of God’s people who have come after, speak the same things, right?
They confessed their hope to one another. They spoke God’s word to each other, reminded each other of the truth about of God, combatting the evil lies that were in their heads. They asked each other what brought them hope that week? They told stories about how they saw God that week. They remembered God’s promises and told stories of his faithfulness.
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. Christians stopping their lives to come to one another and simply say, “How have you been this week? How can I help you? How can I serve you? Did you know that so-and-so needs something? Can we work together to help them? Tell me about how you’ve struggled with sin and temptation this week, and let me help you. How are you doing with guilt and forgiveness? Do you know that God has forgiven you?”
What else do Christians speak about to generate hope? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but let me remind you how far you’ve come. I know you feel lonely right now, but you’re not. God’s here and I’m here too. I know you feel like your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I see answers that you’re not seeing. Let me tell you about them. I know you feel worthless but I want you to know that I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it even though you don’t. Don’t give up on God or yourself.”
Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21,
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”
He’s saying the same thing. Don’t go to sin to try to get the things that only the Spirit of God can provide. But look what he says next because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
“…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? How do we keep the fire of faith from going out in our heart? How do we feel better when we feel like God and the whole world are against us? Satan will tell you to get alone, turn away from God, from friends, from prayer, from church, from your spouse and children, to get alone and get selfish. What does God say? Connect with God by connecting to other believers. He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, communicate and get together with His people. How do you resurrect dying coals? Gather them together and then blow on them! So how do we encourage ourselves when our spirit is dying? By connecting with other believers and letting the wind of God’s Spirit blow on us.
This whole section of Malachi is leading up to the prophecy about the coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. It’s an advent scripture. Advent means “arrival”, but the Season of Advent is the waiting for that arrival. As even the faithful people of Israel groaned in frustration, but kept the faith, so Christians participate in advent as a time of waiting, of groaning, of knowing things aren’t right with the world, but anticipating that God’s plan will come to fruition, that He will make things right, that He is victorious, and that all of His promises in Jesus are true.
Christmas time is such a mixed bag, isn’t it? I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you look forward to and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know for others, there is so much going on in your life and heart that you wish Christmas would be cancelled. Both of those feelings are necessary to understand Advent and the Christian faith.
So my encouragement to both of you, whichever side you are on, is to do the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses to get together and invite people from outside your usual circles so more people are encouraged.
And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear some space in your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, to find ways to talk and sing with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, into temptation, being sucked into the dark, or call text another believer and tell them. Ask them to pray for you. I have been rescued from the dark so many times by doing that because it’s what I’m supposed to do. It works because gathering with other believers is the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?
 The Lexham Bible Dictionary & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.
I’ve decided that I don’t want to be stuck in Day 8 anymore, so we are going to do one more attribute and then move on. But before I do that I want to give you a few tools for you to use at home to better explain what we are going through on Sunday mornings here, which will explain these attributes and even more, likely far better than I can.
The first are two books on the holiness of God that I want to recommend to you. Holiness is an important concept that I simply cannot cover in one sermon, and understanding it will radically improve your relationship with God. They are modern classics, written in contemporary language, that you can get for a pretty good deal. The first is “Holiness” by JC Ryle and the second is “The Holiness of God” by RC Sproul. The Ryle book you can get free on Monergism.com and the Sproul one you can get from Amazon, but it’s also presented as a video series on RightNow. Matt Chandler has one too, and I’m sure it’s great.
In fact, if you go to the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media, I recently created a playlist called “Heidelberg Helps” that covers in much greater detail a lot of the topics that I’m going through right now. You can use them in small groups or in your private study time.
If you’d also like a couple of books that are great summaries of Christian Theology, then I recommend getting either (or both of) “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” by RC Sproul, “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” by Mark Driscoll, or the newest one, “Pilgrim Theology” by Michael Horton. Those get progressively longer, by the way. Essential Truths has 300 pages while Pilgrim Theology has 450. Or, if you want a good challenge, you can read one of my new favourite books, an abridged version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by Only Lane and Hilary Osborne. They took a 1000 page book and condensed it to less than 300 pages.
God in Relation to Man: Righteousness
Ok, let’s finish off Day 8. God’s Holiness in relation to man meant that God was set apart from us, different, special, pure, without any spot or stain, perfectly good. But where Holiness speaks of quality, Righteousness speaks of activity. Psalm 145:17 says, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” Holiness is who God is, Righteousness is what God does – His “ways”. The Hebrews word is the same as “road” or “direction”. God always goes the right way.
To be holy means God is perfect in who He is. To be righteous means God does right things. He cannot do wrong. To do wrong is counter to His nature. If God does it, it must be righteous because he can do no other. And because God is always righteous and right means He is also just. He cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness. He cannot allow injustice to go unchecked in His universe. Therefore wrong actions, lawbreakers, moral failures, injustice, must be perfectly dealt with. It is contrary to God’s nature to allow wrong things, sinful actions, or sinful inactions, to go on forever without dealing with them. He must make the wrong things right. Certainly, God can choose to be patient with unrighteousness and evil, He can choose not to punish it immediately, but because He is righteous He must punish and correct evil. And conversely, righteousness and goodness must be blessed. (Ezekiel 18:20; 1 Peter 3:14). Galatians 6:7 says it this way, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
Condemned in Our Unrighteousness
That’s a warning to us, an admonition: That our deeds are judged by God and our sin provokes His righteous anger. Knowing this, therefore, should compel us to seek after righteousness. Part of fearing God is fearing God’s wrath, judgement, and discipline. It means recognizing that sin is another way we are separated from God. So, as humans, our problem is not only are we stained by unholiness and therefore cannot stand in the presence of God, but we have also willfully done wrong things that God the Righteous Judge must punish.
The term “Righteous” is actually a legal one, usually, used by God towards people rather than the other way around. To be righteous means to be on the right side of the law, to be unrighteous a lawbreaker. If you’re following along, then you’ll know that this is what the whole first section of Romans is all about.
Turn to Romans 2:6-11. It says
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
God is not partial to anyone. There is no race or gender or social status that he prefers. Because God is righteous His concern is whether or not you are holy or unholy, righteous or unrighteous, guilty or not guilty. But, as we learn in Romans, the problem is that everyone is guilty, right? Go a little forward to Romans 3:10-12,
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
When we read the Law of God, as in the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the rest of scripture, we realize that we are lawbreakers and stand condemned. That’s what verse 19 says,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
No one can read the Bible and not think that they are a sinner. And, as we already learned when we talked about General Revelation, even without the Bible, our own conscience condemns us. We know we are unrighteous.
Made Righteous by Grace Through Faith
So what are we to do? If the warning is that we ought to fear God because we stand guilty before the One who must punish lawbreakers, then we’re in trouble. How can we get right before this righteous Judge?
Some might think that they can just start obeying the law and be ok? But that’s not how it works, right? If I steal something or murder someone I can’t just say, “Ok, I got it out of my system. I’m good now. It’ll never happen again.” No, I need to face the consequences of my actions. Justice demands that I pay for my crime. It would be morally wrong for a judge to let me get away with murder or not pay back when I’ve stolen because I promised not to do it again.
That means that no matter how much I obey from this point on, I’m still condemned. All those Bible rules we spend so much time talking about have no power to save — only to condemn. Look at verse 20,
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
All the Law can do is show me where I’ve gone wrong and teach me what I’m supposed to do right. But it can’t save me from what I’ve already done wrong. Following rules can’t fix my unholiness or my unrighteousness.
How can someone be made righteous then? How can a sinner go from guilty to not-guilty without having to face the punishment for their lawbreaking? How can God be a righteous judge who doesn’t let anyone get away with evil, who punishes wrong, who defends the defenceless, who comes to the aid of those who are wronged, who makes everything right in the end… without sending every human being to Hell to pay for what they’ve done?
This is what almost drove Martin Luther mad. As a good catholic, a good monk, he knew that God was Holy, Righteous, Perfect, and Good. He knew that God must punish evil. And he knew that he was a sinner. The church was telling him that if he did enough good things – confession, confirmation, penance, visiting relics, prayers, service, tithing – that God would forgive him. And there’s a lot of religious today who teach the same thing. If you believe hard enough, do enough religious things, be nice, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t litter, recycle your bottles, eat your veggies, give some money to people who need it – then God will be impressed and bless your life and let you into heaven. They see faith in God as transactional – I do something good for God, God does something good for me. And if I do enough good things, then I can kind of erase the bad things and God will just overlook them.
But here’s the problem that stuck in Martin Luther’s head. What if he didn’t balance it out properly? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he forgot to confess something? What if he was supposed to do something but didn’t realize it? What if his confessions weren’t because he was really sorry for his sin, but because he was scared of being punished? Didn’t that disqualify them from even being confessions? What if he wasn’t sorry enough? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he didn’t suffer enough? What if he enjoyed something too much? When he was a monk, Luther fasted and prayed so much that he weighed almost nothing and basically destroyed his innards for the rest of his life. Even the Augustinian monks who were known for being a very serious group– even the leader of the monastery – was telling him to chill out.
He would spend hours and hours in confession every day, pouring out everything he could think of, and then go out and do as many religious things as possible, and then come back and confess more. He never felt that he was good enough for God could ever look upon with any kind of grace or love.
But there is comfort. That Jesus Christ, through His work on the cross, has fully satisfied God’s requirements for righteousness and justice, and through faith in Him we can become righteous before God. What does that mean?
Keep reading in Romans 3:20–25,
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
That section is so critical to understanding how we can go from unrighteous to righteous in the eyes of God. If doing a bunch of good deeds cannot save us and the Law of God only has the power to shows us our guilt and unrighteousness, then what can be done? God is the perfection of righteousness, perfect in all He does, cannot do wrong, and is the source of all right and wrong. He, therefore, cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness, lawlessness, moral failure. It is contrary to His nature to allow wrong things to continue and not be dealt with, to allow sin to go unpunished, to allow a wrong to go unrighted. He must make things right. That’s why the Bible says that righteousness comes from God.
So, here is God’s plan, and what saved Martin Luther’s soul. Humanity stood condemned in our unrighteousness with no way out. Then, God put Jesus Christ “forward as a propitiation”. In other words, God laid the punishment for our unrighteousness on Jesus. Something had to be done to pay for the sins. The fine needed to be paid. The jail time had to be done. The electric chair had to be sat in. Justice demands it. Every lie, theft, murder, rape, disobedience, disrespect, blasphemy, and everything else had to be made right. God’s perfect justice demands that the perfect punishment for sin must be handed out.
But who could do it? No human being could do it because every person has their own sin. The only one who could stand in the place of sinners would be one who could stand before the judge as not-guilty. So, God, Himself came. God sent His Son Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, to be born in human flesh, to live a perfectly righteous human life, to be perfectly obedient to God’s Law – but then to be unjustly tried as guilty, betrayed by humanity, nailed to a cross, and executed as a sinner for things He’d never done. On that cross, he not only faced the wrath of Rome and Israel but the full might of God’s wrath. Then, once He had paid the fine, done the time, he offered to trade himself for anyone who would believe in Him – regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done – “for there is no distinction”. There’s no sin that cannot be forgiven by God because of Jesus. All one must do is believe they are sinners and accept that Jesus took their punishment, died on the cross, then rose again in victory.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says it this way:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
There is no work to do, no Law to follow – just a person to believe. So, how do you know you are saved? I ask you: Do you believe that Jesus was sacrificed on your behalf, facing the justice of God, taking the punishment you deserved, paying for the sins you have committed? Do you believe Jesus did everything necessary, that “it is finished”, and there is nothing you can do to save yourself? If so, then by that faith you are declared righteous. God places your sins on Jesus, counts them as paid for, and then sees and treats you as though you had lived the same perfect life Jesus did. In God’s eyes we become as righteous as Jesus. God is just and also the justifier.
Abraham Saved by Faith
Turn to Romans 4 and I want to read what is going on there. The question that Paul is answering here is “How was Abraham, who lived before Moses and the Law, before Jesus and the Cross, saved from his sins? Was it different back then? We know Abraham wasn’t perfect, he sinned just like anyone else, so was everyone before Jesus condemned? Or did God make allowances for sin because Moses hadn’t written the law yet? If salvation comes only by faith in Jesus, then how could anyone have be saved before He came?”
The answer for Abraham is the same as for us. Abraham was justified, made righteous, by His faith in the Word of God. Start in verse 20 where it speaks of Abraham’s faith:
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
So, the Old Testament way of salvation was the same as the New Testament way: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to God’s Word alone. Abraham was an unrighteous sinner like everyone else, yet in His grace, God chose to save him (Remember, Abraham did not choose God.) Abraham then responded to God’s invitation in faith, leaving his homeland to do what God told him to do. Throughout his life Abraham struggled with sin, making bad decisions and disobeyed God sometimes, but he always kept his faith and grew deeper with God as the years went by. It eventually culminated in his ultimate act of faith on Mount Moriah, when he believed God’s promise so much that he was willing to sacrifice the only human who could have fulfilled the promise, his son Isaac. It was an act of supreme faith.
Just as God chooses Christians out of the world, so he did with Abraham. Just as Christians cannot be justified or made righteous by obeying the law, neither was Abraham. Just as we believe in God’s Word and demonstrate that belief through obedience, so did Abraham. But what did Abraham believe?
Move back up to Romans 4:1-5,
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”
He simply believed what God had told him. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh (John 1) and Abraham had faith in the Word of God. Abraham didn’t know the name Jesus Christ, but his salvation required a faith like ours. He was not justified by anything he did, not by works, otherwise he could have bragged that he saved himself. No, just like us, Abraham believed God’s Word, trusted that God would save Him, that God would provide, that God would bring forth the salvation of the world through his family line, and then demonstrated that faith by living a life that reflected those beliefs. He was the father of our faith.
Let me conclude with this. The admonition here is that we always keep in mind that God is right in all He does, meaning not only that He is trustworthy, but that He will make everything that has gone wrong right. He will punish sinners and fix everything that has gone wrong. It also means that for their own good, God will discipline any of his people that are headed toward sin. Therefore, we ought to take sin very seriously. We ought to pursue righteousness because Jesus said that God blesses those who do. (Matt 6:33)
But we also need to remember that even though God’s standard is absolute perfection, we cannot save ourselves by mere obedience or religious practice. The only way to be right with God is to believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. If you don’t believe that, then you are still in trouble, but if you do, that means that for believers, the pressure is gone. The pressure to perform has been taken away. The fear of whether or not we are good enough to get to heaven has been taken away. The worry as to whether or not God is punishing us for our sins is gone because we know Jesus took that punishment. It means knowing that you if you’ve asked forgiveness and believe in Jesus, no matter what you’ve done, how messed up you think you are, you are right with God. You have been declared righteous by God, and who has the power to reverse His decrees? No one. Jesus has done everything we need in order that you can be saved and made part of God’s kingdom, and there is nothing you can do to lose that (Rom 8).
The only question you must ask yourself when you feel like God is against you, when you feel unworthy of His love, when you are tempted to do something in order to impress Him enough to listen to you, is this: Do you believe that Jesus has done enough make you righteous before God? If the answer is yes, then rest in that, come before your Heavenly Father with confidence, and trust that Jesus work is enough.
If you’ve been following along, you know that we’re a little stuck in Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism and that a bunch of the sermons I’ve preached over the past while are actually one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. It started with a quick review of the Heidelberg and the importance of theology and doctrine to our relationship with God, then moved on to talking about the attributes of God. We started with the most complicated, that being that God is Triune, and then moved into a discussion of what theologians call “General Revelation”, which is how we can know there is a God if we don’t have a Bible or prophets or anyone else to tell us – and that is through Creation and our Conscience.
That brought us to the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and showed us that General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and stand condemned before God. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that God did not leave us condemned. Instead, God gave us not only General Revelation, but “Special Revelation”, more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and how He is going to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to prophets, gave people visions, performed miracles, and inspired others to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, the most important of the Special Revelations is that we get to see who God is in the person of Jesus Christ.
Over the past couple sermons, we’ve been working through some of the attributes of God that God has presented in the Special Revelation of scripture. If you recall, we are breaking these attributes down into three sections. First, God in relation to the whole world. Second, God in relation to mankind. And third, God in relation to Himself.
We’ve already covered “God in relation to the world” where we talked about His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and his Omnipresence – or that He is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Ever-Present. Today we are going to move on to talking about “God in relation to mankind”.
But, as I said before, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list a bunch of attributes and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to further divide the discussion into more helpful categories. That way we not only see what God has said about Himself but what it means to us as an admonition (or warning), how that brings us comfort, and how we see that attribute in the life of Jesus.
I apologize for this super-quick review, but if you want to catch up, I encourage you to read or listen to the other sermons. Also, stay around for Overtime after service and ask any questions you want. My hope here is to not only give you information to help you understand God but to inspire you to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with your Heavenly Father, and for that, as I said last week, it’ll mean some homework for you.
God in Relation to Man: Holiness
The first of God’s attributes in relation to mankind is His holiness. This is such a critical attribute because it helps us understand a lot about who God is and how He works. Some theologians and commentaries even call this the “chief attribute of God”. More important knowing that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, or even that God is love, is that God is holy. This is an attribute we see repeated hundreds and hundreds of times in scripture.
In scripture, we hear the host of heaven saying, “Holy, holy, holy” of God in the Old Testament (Isa 6:3) and Jesus in the New (Rev 4:8). The primary meaning of the word “Holy” is to be separate, special, different, set apart. God is totally different than man, totally separate from man, because God has no sin, no spot, no stain, no darkness. He is perfect in his moral purity and completely separate from His creation. We see glimpses of His holiness in this world, but they are only reflections of Him, like seeing the sun through the clouds, or light seen from around a corner.
But occasionally in the Bible, God chooses something out from His creation and comes near to it – and that place is called “Holy”. It becomes holy because it has come in proximity to the Holy God.
Holy by Proximity
When God was creating the world, he rested on the seventh day and “made it holy” (Gen 2:3). When Moses came near the burning bush he had to remove his sandals because was now on “holy ground” (Exo 3:5). The High Priests robes and jewelry became “holy garments” because they were only used in the “Holy place”, the temple (Exodus 28). When Joshua and Israel crossed the Jordan River, they “consecrated themselves” or “made themselves holy” before they went into the “holy land” (Josh 3:5, Psalm 78:54). When David was hungry in 2 Samuel 21, the only thing he found to eat was the “bread of the Presence” or 12 loaves of “holy bread” which were only for the priests to eat (1 Sam 21:4-6). Jerusalem is called the “holy city” (Neh 11:1; Rev 21:10).
In Jerusalem was the “holy temple” (Ps 5:7) and inside the “holy temple”, separated by a huge, heavy drape in royal colours and embroidered with pictures of angels, so no one could see inside, was “most holy place” or the “holy of holies” where sat the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the very throne room of God on earth (Exodus 26:31-33).
The veil wasn’t just to make the room separate though, it was a form of protection. It was in the Holy of Holies that God would appear, and even then he was clouded because anyone who would see the holiness of God would die. Therefore there was a veil and the only person allowed in this holy room was the High Priest, and he could only come once per year, and that only after washing himself, putting on special clothes, burning incense so the smoke would cover his eyes, offering sacrifices to atone for his sins and the sins of the people, and bringing sacrificial blood with him. (Lev 16:2, Exo 28; Heb 9:7). It was a serious and dangerous meeting because God is so holy it is actually dangerous to us.
Consider it this way. There are a lot of things in the world today that we can take a little bit of, but too much will kill us, right? This Christmas I bought my dad what I think is a unique present for Christmas. We went to a special store in Manotick that has bags and bags of different kinds of imported ————. (Not sharing! Dad reads these blogs!) He likes it so I made him a gift-set. Then I read an article online that said too much ———– can kill people 40 and over. So, yeah, I sent my dad a potentially lethal Christmas gift.
Actually, a lot of things in this world are lethal. We can drink a glass of wine, but too much alcohol and we die. Salt makes food taste better and we need it to live, but too much can kill you. Same with water. If you drink too much water in one shot, you can die. Humans need to work in order to live and function in this world, but if we only work, all the time, giving up eating, relationships, and sleep, we’ll die.
It seems that humans need impurities because pure versions of things tend to harm or kill us. We couldn’t see or live without the sun, but if we stare at it, it’ll burn out our retinas and we’ll go blind – stay out in it too long and it’ll cook you and then give you cancer. We need air to breathe, but pure oxygen will kill us.
Sin Separates Us From God
This is why sinful humans cannot be in the presence of God, why sin separates us. God’s holiness does not mean He cannot be around sin, but that sin cannot be around God. This is a really important concept and one that a lot of people don’t understand.
Sometimes we get this view in our head that the reason that sin is a problem, and why sin separates us from God, is because our sin would somehow taint His holiness. That somehow God keeps us away because He’s afraid that if we get too close that we’ll mess Him up. Some people believe that when the Bible says that God is “too pure to look upon evil” that it means he can’t see us, can’t be near us, can’t tolerate our presence. That isn’t it at all. Not even close.
The reason that Adam and Eve were removed from God’s presence and kicked out of the Garden of Eden wasn’t merely as a punishment, and certainly so that they wouldn’t infect God, but because their sin made the presence of God lethal to them. The reason for the veil in the temple was so people who got a glimpse in wouldn’t die.
God isn’t like that pristine white couch that your grandma or your friend had that no one wants or is allowed to sit on because you’re going to get it dirty. “No, sin cannot be in the presence of God because whenever God draws near to sin, the raging inferno of His… holiness washes all sin away.” And that includes us.
Open up to Isaiah 6 and let’s read the call of Isaiah the prophet together:
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”
Do you see what happened there? Isaiah has a vision of God and what is his reaction? Terror. So far all he’s seen is God’s entourage. He’s seen some angels, felt an earthquake, heard an announcement, and saw some smoke, and he is convinced he is going to die. Why? Because of his sin. And he wasn’t wrong! God hadn’t shown up yet and if He had, Isaiah would have been consumed by the holiness of God. So what does God do? He sends one of the seraphim to touch a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, to burn away the impurity, to atone for the sin. And then Isaiah can stand in the presence of God.
That’s why no one can be in the presence of God unless their sins have been dealt with first. Just as the High Priest needed washing, clothes changing, and blood sacrifice before he could even walk into an area where there was a clouded version of the merest hint of God’s holiness and glory, so any human needs to have their sin dealt with before they could be in the presence of God. Not to protect God from us, but to protect us from God.
This is why “good people go to heaven” isn’t true. This is why “if I do more good things than bad, then I can go to heaven” doesn’t work. This is why doing religious things doesn’t get you any credit with God. This is why not everyone goes to heaven. Everyone has sinned (Rom 3:23) and therefore literally cannot withstand the presence of God. When their sin comes near the presence of holy God they will be like straw before a blast furnace, they will be utterly destroyed.
The only solution is for us to be as holy as God, without imperfection, without blemish, without sin, without any condemnation, to be as perfect as God is – otherwise we are literally toast.
But how can a human become that holy? By ourselves, we can’t. That’s why we need the blood of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus, to atone for our sins, to wash away our sins, to cleanse us from unrighteousness. We need Jesus, the God-man, to take the entirety of God’s wrath against sin, to stand before the blast furnace of God’s holiness as our propitiation, as our sacrifice, as our stand-in. We need Jesus, the only man to ever live a perfectly holy life, to take that wrath, to die the death we should have, take the punishment we should take, pay the price we should pay, and then live again to prove He has conquered sin once and for all and has the power to not only forgive us but to make us clean to.
The Torn Veil
When Jesus was on the cross, right when He died, Matthew 27:50-51 says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment, something fundamentally changed about humanity’s relationship with God. No longer would we only be able to be able to meet God behind a curtain in a human temple after a bunch of preparation and sacrifices. Now, because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, perfect atonement for sin, because He had done His work, there was no longer any need for a barrier between God and Man that could only be breached once per year by one special person. Jesus stood before the blast furnace of God’s holiness and wrath and through His sacrifice made a way for us to stand before God.
Turn with me to Hebrews 9:6-14. Here’s how it describes the difference between our relationship with God before Jesus and after,
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
Now, there is no longer a “holy of holies” where God’s Spirit dwells and which we must travel to visit. Now, everyone who believes in Jesus becomes a Temple and has the Holy of Holies inside them and carries God with them everywhere.
Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed to God for this-this way in John 17:20–23,
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
1 Corinthians 6:17-20 says it this way,
“But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.… Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
Let me close with our admonition and comfort in knowing that God is holy.
The admonition here, the warning, is that knowing how Holy God is, and how fundamental to His nature holiness is, God’s people should be filled with reverence for God and hatred towards sin. We should not take God lightly, use His name callously, or pretend that God is like us because He is decidedly not like us. That should inform our worship and words. And we should not take sin lightly. We should be pursuing holiness in our lives, our conduct, and our words, because we know that sin put Jesus on the cross, separates us from God, and has caused every problem in our lives and this world.
1 Peter 1:14–16 says it this way,
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
But the comfort here is that we are not left to pursue that holiness alone. In fact, we can’t. It is The Lord Himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the blood of Jesus Christ, that or uncleanliness is taken away and we have the ability to pursue holiness. We can’t white-knuckle being holy. It must come from God. We must be dependent on Him (1 John 1:7).
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22–29. Listen to what God says there about what He will do and why:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.”
This is what Jesus did for all believers who call out to Him. This is what Jesus offers to all people who see their sin and hate it; all those who are sick of themselves, who are done trying to hide their sin or trying to impress God or others, but feel like garbage inside. This is what Jesus offers to those who know they need help beyond anything that this world has to offer; to those who feel guilty, shameful, used, worn, and afraid. He offers holiness and the ability to live a holy life in His presence.
The warning is that we must take the holiness of God seriously, that our sin condemns us, clouds us, and infects us and others through us – but the comfort is that God has offered to save us from ourselves, clean us up, and make us holy, if we are only willing to admit we are sinners, ask for his forgiveness, take ourselves off the throne of our life, and put Jesus in charge.
 ESV Study Bible (Isaiah 6:3)
 Brower, K. E. (1996). Holiness. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 477). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
John McCrae and Flanders Fields
In Canada and around the world, the poppy has long been a symbol of the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others. It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of Remembrance Day. I did some reading about him and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place/ During what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what saw by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother around that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…..And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches –holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them a voice. (http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar/mccrae/flanders)
It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd,1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. He died five days later at the age of 46 and was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of (Bull-oy ne) Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields.
No Greater Love
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, knowing what could happen, so others could be safe. Their sacrifice was a choice. One that ought to be remembered.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
As Christians, one thing we do every week – not only once a year, but every Sunday – is to remember the One who willingly laid down His life not to defend our nation, but to save our souls; Jesus Christ. What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that we can never say that anyone “took Jesus’ life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice – the cross.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” We often say that God sent Jesus to die on the cross, but we must also remember that Jesus is God and chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who deserve death and Hell. We are the ones who should have received our just punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example of bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication, and sacrifice.
But the Christian understands this best of all because we see all those attributes most perfectly in Jesus. It is His perfect sacrifice that compels Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t any believer is fully able to process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some who can more than others. In the same way that a soldier understands Remembrance Day better than most, it is those under persecution for their faith and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, that can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”, as in a witness in a courtroom. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. As Christians gave their lives for their faith, pointing to Jesus as the reason for their sacrifice, it came to be known as the term for those who were suffering in the name of Jesus,and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to their beliefs,that that they are willing to die. The ultimate witness of truth.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people may think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. The website Voice of the Martyrs, among others, is dedicated to telling those stories. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Jesus promised that anyone who serves Him will risk persecution and martyrdom.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
And there is no point at which this will stop. It is a future reality as well. When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country like North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, or Iraq where Christians live in constant fear of losing their lives because of their faith. But it is coming and we should pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who suffer and are martyred in His name. They aren’t suffering or killed because God loves them less or forgot them because they are cursed, or because they didn’t have enough faith. They did not suffer because of their sin –Jesus already paid for that. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. Our identification with suffering as losing God’s blessing is a very Western, very wrong idea. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5, “ThenI saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They are not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom and will be given things byGod that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. They need to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength, to learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous. In the same way, when Jesus was sending His disciples out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [and a few verses later] Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22)
Being a follower of Jesus requires the commitment of our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages, our families, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus must be ready to give everything to Him because it may be asked of them – knowing that Jesus has already given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like that part of the Bible or theology or Christian discipline, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. They see Christianity as a smorgasbord of options from which they get to pick and choose.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths, our own version of God. Then we can be happy.”
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected, or because you like the idea. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution, to suffering, to the inconvenience that comes with being a Christian, is to believe with every fibre of your being that what Jesus says is true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
In a word, “Assurance”. Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”
God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose things about Him. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking aboutsubjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, picked through for what we like and don’t like, but truths that are meant to be found, taught, discovered and believed.
Christians who suffer through persecution, or for that matter, Christians who suffer through anything in this life, learn that they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a pie-in-the-sky, subjective truth which they can pick up or put down at their convenience. For those who suffer, their beliefs must have certainty. Suffering tests the quality of our faith. Their relationship with Jesus can’t be merely based on peer pressure, feelings, or fashion. If your faith is only as strong as your feelings, then you are in real trouble.
Your decision to be a Christian must be a very real one, because it affects every moment of your life, from when you get up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night. If God changed your heart, revealed His presence, sent His Son, made you His, and sealed you salvation by His Holy Spirit, then you must live that way. When you go through suffering or persecution you faith is no longer your opinion – it becomes either true or false, life or death – because you need to be absolutely certain you’ve put your faith in the right person.
In suffering we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them, “…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was, “Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures and the Christian martyrs who have come since, were not certain in themselves. It wasn’t about their own strength, their own will, their own abilities. They were not strong in themselves. They did not build their lives on their own foundation. Their strength lay in the God they knew would deliver them.
When Paul was under arrest for preaching and teaching Jesus, he said 2 Timothy 1:12 that he wasn’t ashamed ofhis suffering, nor the Gospel, nor Jesus. He said, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When a suffering Christian prays, they must know with certainty that God hears them and will answer. They don’t have time for spiritual games, they need Jesus to help them. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we knowthat he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
A believer in suffering must have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, or they will fall apart and go all manner of other places for comfort. The question is whether or not they believe Jesus when He says in Matthew 6:31–34, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Butseek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Or Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
I believe that with the same certainty with which I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs or those facing suffering because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be totally free from hypocrisy, to be absolutely certain of their faith. They didn’t say one thing and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Have you readFoxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about someone who died for their faith? Or, maybe do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture that talk about suffering? Let me encourage you to read those books and verses. They are a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certainis your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it anunshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your rootsburied deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in yourlife? Or, when suffering comes, do you find yourself falling into doubts,fears, poor coping strategies, sinful habits, even avoiding God and otherChristians? Could that be because you aren’t doing those things, like prayer,study, meditation, and worship, that are necessary to grow your faith deeper?
Third, are you avoiding something difficult, that you know God wants you to do, but you don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable or inconvenient? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, choosing to pretend you are not a Christian in that moment, because acting like a Christian will bring unwanted attention? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something important – or stop doing something – but you know that obeying in that way will bring a time of hardship or suffering… so you choose not to obey? If so, you are missing a great blessing.
A 2nd-century Christian author named Tertullian said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” which means that it is possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, your obedience, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus. I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because you fear man more than you fear God!
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to obey God and go preach and die for the gospel. I do not want to suffer, nor should any of us, but Romans 5:3-5 is the absolute truth and cannot be circumvented. Whatis the recipe for hope? “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” To believe that all suffering is evil is to deny what God can do with it. And to run from and try to avoid all forms of suffering is to avoid Jesus and thereby avoid building hope and faith – in yourself and others.
Last week I told you that the sermons over the past month have all really been one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. We started with a quick review of what we’ve talked about so far in the Heidelberg Catechism and how studying theology and doctrine will lead to greater love for God. We then moved onto talking about the attributes of God, beginning with one of the most complicated, that being that God is Triune – that the one true eternal God has revealed himself to be three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We then moved on to what is called General Revelation where I said that “God wants to be known” and even without the Bible He has shown Himself to humanity in obvious ways.
If you recall, I quoted one commentary which said it concisely:
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We studied Romans 1:18-20 which said it this way,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”
This led us to talking about the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and why, in the face of what God’s General Revelation has shown us in Creation and Conscience, all humanity stands condemned. General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and that we have sinned against God. That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that God did not leave humanity condemned. His revelations about Himself are not merely general, but specific, what theologians call “Special Revelation”. He has given us more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and His plan to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to people and gave them dreams and visions. He performed miracles and appointed people to be His ambassadors on earth. He inspired people to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, we encounter who God is in the person of Jesus Christ who is the very person of God in human flesh.
Today, what I want to do is go through some more of the specific attributes of God that He tells us about Himself in the Bible. Beyond what we learn in Conscience and Creation, into the Special Revelation we have in scripture that tells us who God is in a much more specific way.
We are going to break these attributes into three sections. First, God’s attributes in relation to the whole world. Second, God’s attributes in relation to mankind. And third God in relation to Himself.
However, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list them and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to divide it into more helpful categories and then seek out not only what God has shown us about Himself, but what that means to us as an admonition (or warning), what it means to us as a comfort, and how we see it in the life of Jesus.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipotence
The first of God’s attributes in relation to the whole world, in fact, the whole universe, is that God is Omnipotent. This is from the Latin words OMNI, meaning “All” and POTENTIS meaning “powerful”. When we talk about a spice or a drug we talk about how potent it is, how powerful. God is Omni-Potent, all-powerful. Another good word is Almighty. Psalm 115:3 says,
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
To be omnipotent means that God has ultimate power, ultimate authority, and can do whatever He wants. He can create anything He wills and do anything He desires.
The story of Gideon from Judges 7 is a great illustration here. God calls a cowardly young man to lead an army against an invading nation. The enemy nation, the Midianites, had 135,000 soldiers and God told Gideon to raise an army to fight them. Gideon made the call and 32,000 people showed up. And here’s what happened,
“The LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ ” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained. And the LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many…” (Jdg 7:2–4)
And God whittles down Gideon’s army to 300 people to defeat Midian. Why did God do that? Verse 2 gives the answer. Because God wanted everyone to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the situation was so lopsided that the victory had to have been a miracle and therefore the glory belonged to Him.
We see this in the life of Jesus, of course, in His miracles. He turns water into wine, makes those who are blind from birth see, calms storms with a word, multiplies a small lunch to feed thousands, and even raises the dead. Hebrews 1:3 says that it is by the power of Jesus that the whole universe is sustained
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
The admonition here, the warning, is that we should humble ourselves before God Almighty. Our greatest allegiance, our biggest fear, our largest concern should be what God thinks, what God desires, what God has to say. Jesus said it this way, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). This is why we sing so much about God’s power, might, and authority, because it is one of his chief attributes. When we worship, we are telling God his “worth” to us, meaning we are singing back to Him His own attributes and what they mean to us.
But if the warning here is that we ought to fear God above all else, the comfort is that because God is omnipotent, God is trustworthy and capable of helping and protecting us. He is not like humans or the petty ancient gods of old who grasp for power, are limited in their abilities, and are easily manipulated. If God wills it, it happens. Period. This is a comfort to us because that means that regardless of what is happening in our lives, no matter how difficult, God is in control of it, God has ordained it, God has allowed it, God can use it for His glory and our good.
This is one reason we are invited to and ought to pray to Him. He, above everyone else, is capable of helping. And He has promised to. One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that God invites us to pray and that through our prayers God makes things happen.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipresence
The second of God’s greatest attributes in relation to the world is that He is Omnipresent, meaning He is everywhere at the same time. This doesn’t mean that God is everything – God is not a tree, a mountain, a bug, a tidal wave – it means that God is everywhere. God is present everywhere in His creation at the same time, but is not part of His creation. God is at work in everything and in all places at the same time and there is nothing that can happen in this world that He is not present for. God is not like the ancient gods, restricted to temples or buildings or nations or peoples. There is nothing He does not see.
This also means that God cannot be circumscribed, or gone around. No one can draw a circle around God, or go behind His back. He also cannot be bound or tied down. His power and presence have no limit. He says in Jeremiah 23:23-24,
“Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
We see this most eloquently in Psalm 139:7–12. Turn with me there. Where the writer knows this and says,
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night.’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
In the past I’ve called this the Rorschach psalm because how you read it will depend on your relationship with God. The fact that God is everywhere at once, seeing everything, will either fill you with fear and dread and guilt, or comfort and peace.
Omnipresence is a little strange to talk about when it comes to the life of Jesus. He was and is eternal God, containing all the attributes of God, but added to Himself the attribute of human flesh. Jesus, without losing any of His godhood, added humanity to Himself. These are the dual natures of Christ, both human and divine at the same time. So that means that Jesus didn’t lose his Omnipresence. We’ll get into that more when we hit Question 47. But we see Jesus claim this in His promise to believers in Matthew 28:18-20 when he says to his disciples,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus has the authority of God and says that He will be with His disciples forever. That’s Jesus claiming Omnipotence and Omnipresence. But as I said, we’ll cover this more later.
So the admonition here, the warning, is to remember that we have no secrets before God. Our deeds, our sins are known to Him. We can hide from our friends, our spouse, our boss, we can even hide from ourselves, but we cannot hide from God. We may want to be like Adam and Eve and try to cover ourselves and hide, but it doesn’t work. God was there the whole time and saw everything. The warning is that we ought to live in that knowledge and it should temper our decisions.
But the comfort is that no matter where we are, God is always near. Over and over in the Old Testament and the New, God says to His people, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:10, Jeremiah 1:8, Acts 18:10) God cannot be far off, ignoring you, turning His back on you, not understanding what you’re going through because it is contrary to His nature. He is Omnipresent and the knowledge of the presence of God, the nearness of God, the closeness of God is a comfort to the people who trust Him.
God in Relation to the World: Omniscience
The third of God’s attributes in relation to the world is that God is Omniscient. God is Omnipotent. God is Omnipresent. And God is Omniscient. OMNI, meaning “all” and SCIENTIA meaning “knowledge”. That’s where we get the word “Science”. When we do science, we are seeking to know something, to understand something, to come to conclusions about what it is, what it does, where it came from. God is OMNI SCIENTIA, Omniscient, All-Knowing. God knows everything that is past, present and future, in all places, that which is seen and which is unseen, even the most hidden thoughts in our heart before we even think them.
Look back to verse 1 in Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it…. [Skip to verse 13]
For you formed my inward parts you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”
Again, this is a little complicated in the life of Jesus, because there were times when it says He didn’t know things (Matthew 24:36), but we also see that He had supernatural knowledge. Multiple times He demonstrates that He knows the thoughts and motivations of the people around him (Matthew 9:4, John 6:64, John 1:48.) John 2:24-25 says summarizes it like this, “… he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” In Revelation 2:23 Jesus gives a warning to one of the churches saying, “…all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
The admonition here is that we should be mindful at all times that God not only sees our deeds, but knows our thoughts and motivations. Proverbs 16:2 says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.” Psalm 14:2 says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
There is no point on putting on a show for God or anyone else. There’s no reason to pretend to be better or worse than you are. There’s no point in convincing everyone that you’ve got it all together. There’s no point in going through a bunch of religious rituals if you’re secretly in unrepentant sin. God knows your heart and has rejected your worship. There’s no point in doing a bunch of good deeds and saying prayers and giving to charity if it’s done to impress others, no matter how great people think you are. God knows you’re just an arrogant show-off and you get no reward from Him for it (Matthew 6).
God knows where your heart is at when you walk into this building for worship. He knows the conversation you had in the car, the thoughts in your mind while you sit here and all the ways that you are comparing yourself to and judging others. He knows, so there is no point in pretending to worship, pretending to pray, pretending to listen, pretending to believe, pretending to be happy, pretending to be a Christian because it gains you nothing. It is the truth that sets you free.
In Hebrews, it says that we should be persevering in our faith because God knows what we’re all about and we see that every time we open up the word of God. Turn to Hebrews 4. It says in Hebrews 4:11–13,
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So stop pretending.
But the comfort of this knowledge is this: God knows everything we need and want, everything we feel, knows exactly what to do about it, and is willing to help. There’s no need to pretend with God, so that means we can be honest with Him about what we want, what we need, what we’re afraid of and what we hope for. He cares about all of that and is willing to do everything possible to help us to become who we were created to be. Jesus says that God already knows everything we need (Matthew 6:32), and the Bible says that Jesus knows how we feel.
Continuing to read in Hebrews 4:14 we see that not only does God know everything about us and therefore can judge us perfectly, but that His knowledge motivates Him to help us! Hebrews 4:14–16,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
What allows us to pray, to come close to God when we are in need? The fact that Jesus not only perfectly knows everything we are going through, but has experienced it for Himself, and stands before God as our high priest, advocating on our behalf. This means that whatever is happening in our life, no matter how difficult or perplexing, is something God is doing to draw us closer to Him and teach us something – that along the way and in the end, God is not wasting anything and nothing is out of control. Or as Philippians 1:6 says it,
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
I know that’s hard to understand sometimes. Especially when things are very difficult and there seems to be no reason. But at that moment when we are feeling hopeless, it helps for us to remind ourselves about who God is, what He is like, and what that means for us. We say to ourselves and to God – bow your head with me… maybe this can be your prayer too…:
“Lord, things feel bad right now. Darkness and confusion about. But God, you are Omnipotent. You are all-powerful, meaning that nothing is beyond Your ability and nothing can happen to me without Your permission. God, you are Omnipresent, meaning that you are with me no matter what and you see everything that is happening to me. And You are Omniscient, meaning You knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen as a result. I’m limited in my understanding, limited in my knowledge, but God, You are not. I recognize that because of your perfection You have no reason to harm me because You gain nothing from it. So instead, at this moment I will look to Jesus, my High Priest, the one who knows me, loves me, and has been where I am – the God who prays for me and advocates for me. Jesus, it doesn’t feel very good right now. I’m scared, alone, afraid, anxious, worried, lost – I feel guilty, shameful, and dirty – I am at my wit’s end and don’t know what to do. But I trust you. You are bigger than my fear and my need and my sin. I trust your power, your knowledge, your wisdom and your love to do what is best for me. Please help me not only know you are here but to trust you through this.”
Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.
You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”
How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.
But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?
But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.
But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,
“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:
“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”
Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).
That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.
In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.
Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.
God Wants to Be Known
And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.
Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.
General Revelation: Creation
First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”
General Revelation: Conscience
But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.
Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.
I heard a quote this week that said:
“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)
Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.
Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.
At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.
That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.
No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”
Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan
The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.
This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?
The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.
Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.
But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.
Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.
 Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20
 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.