Why let the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. – Psalm 115:2-3
I’m told that after an earthquake in California a group of ministers met for a prayer breakfast. As they discussed impassable expressways and ruined buildings, they agreed that God had very little to do with the disaster. They concluded that since the earth is under the Curse from Creation, earthquakes and other natural disasters simply happen according to laws of nature. But even after they made that conclusion, one of the ministers closed in prayer, thanking God for the timing of the earthquake that came at five o’clock in the morning when there were fewer people out on the roads.
So did God have anything to do with that earthquake or didn’t He? How can a person conclude that God is not involved and then thank Him for His involvement? It can’t be both ways.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Our earth is not immune to disasters. So how does God fit in? Intuitively, people know God is in charge. When tragedy strikes, people call out to Him. We know that when something is outside of our control, we need to call upon a higher power for help. But if people intuitively know that God is in charge, how do we explain the heart-wrenching suffering that accompanies such disasters?
Who Is Responsible?
There’s no doubt about it—natural disasters aren’t very good for God’s reputation. As a result, many Christians try to absolve Him of any and all responsibility for these horrific events. They want to “get Him off the hook” in order to help Him maintain His loving image. Some do this by saying that God is weak—He can’t really stop these disasters from happening, but He will work really hard to bring something good out of them. Others try to give the devil all the blame, saying God is not involved at all in any of the bad things that happen—He’s just a bystander.
Is God Weak?
Let’s begin with people who try to protect God’s reputation by claiming that He is unable to prevent our planet from getting pounded by one calamity after another. These folks fear that if we say God is responsible for natural disasters or that He allows them because of a higher purpose, we will drive people away from the Christian faith. “Why would people want to come to a God who would do such horrible things?” they ask. When we glibly say that “God will bring good out of it” or that “in the end we win,” it does little to comfort those who have lost loved ones or possessions in a disaster.
I agree that glib statements about suffering being part of God’s plan will not immediately comfort the grieving. In fact, it probably is true that giving such answers without any compassion or understanding could indeed drive people away from God rather than toward Him. As Christians, we do need to be very careful what we say to those who are grieving from great loss. Sometimes it is best to remain silent, not pretending that we have the right to speak on God’s behalf, but to act benevolently on His behalf instead. I will talk more about this later in this chapter.
To take the approach that God is weak, unable to handle the forces of nature, is to believe that God is finite. If it is true that God is not all-powerful and must deal with natural disasters as best as He can after they happen, how can a God like that be trusted? If God is helpless in the face of a hurricane, how confident can we be that He can one day subdue all evil? To believe that God is finite might get Him off the hook for natural disasters, but it also puts end-time victories in jeopardy. The Bible does not describe a weak God, however. In fact, just the opposite. God is omnipotent—all-powerful. Consider just a sampling of Scripture that focuses on God’s power over His creation:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. – Genesis 1:1
You formed the mountains by your power and armed yourself with mighty strength. You quieted the raging oceans with their pounding waves and silenced the shouting of the nations. – Psalm 65:6-7
The heavens are yours, and the earth is yours; everything in the world is yours—you created it all. You created north and south. Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon praise your name. Powerful is your arm! Strong is your hand! Your right hand is lifted high in glorious strength. – Psalm 89:11-13
Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. – Isaiah 40:26
[Jesus] got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. – Matthew 8:26
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20
It would be strange indeed if the God who created the world were unable to control it. To describe God as too weak to handle natural disasters doesn’t help God’s reputation, it doesn’t get Him off the hook, and it isn’t biblical. The answer to the question, “Is God weak?” is a resounding no! God is all-powerful and completely able to control nature.
Are Disasters the Devil’s Fault?
The second way some Christians try to exempt God from involvement in natural disasters is to simply blame everything on the devil. God is not responsible for what happens, they say. He created the world and lets it run; nature is fallen, and Satan, who is the god of this world, wreaks havoc with the natural order.
Scripture clearly tells us that nature is under a curse just as people are: “The ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it” (Genesis 3:17). It follows, then, that Satan might indeed be involved in natural disasters. We have an example of this in the book of Job, when God gave Satan the power to destroy Job’s children. Acting under God’s direction and within certain set limitations, Satan used lightning to kill the sheep and the servants and a powerful wind to kill all ten of Job’s children (Job 1). Clearly the devil takes great pleasure in causing havoc and destruction. Take a moment to look at the wretched life of the demon-possessed man before Jesus commanded the legion of demons to leave him. The Gospel of Luke describes him as homeless and naked, living in a cemetery, shrieking, breaking chains and shackles, completely alone, and without hope (Luke 8:26-29). This is a snapshot of Satan’s ultimate goal for living things. Here is proof, if proof is needed, that satanic powers might indeed be connected to the natural disasters that afflict our planet.
So if the devil is involved, does this mean that God is removed from Does He really have a “hands-off policy” when it comes to disasters? Does this absolve God of responsibility? Is it all the devil’s fault? Clearly the answer to all of these questions is no. God has not relegated calamities to His hapless archrival the devil without maintaining strict supervision and ultimate control of nature. No earthquake comes, no tornado rages, and no tsunami washes villages away but that God signs
off on it.
But that conclusion creates its own set of questions…
So What Does It Mean That God Is in Control?
If God isn’t too weak to deal with His creation, and if we cannot put all the blame on Satan, then where does that leave us? It leaves us with the fact that God is all-powerful and in control—and that applies to natural disasters. We must think carefully at this point.
We must distinguish between the secondary cause of disastrous events and their ultimate cause. The secondary cause of the lightning and the wind that killed Job’s children was the power of Satan. But follow carefully: it was God who gave Satan the power to wreak the havoc. It was God who set the limits of what Satan could or could not do. In effect, God said, “Satan, you can go this far, no further. I’m setting the boundaries here.” That’s why Job, quite rightly, did not say that the death of his children was the devil’s doing. Instead, Job said, “The LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away. Praise the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21).
Scientifically speaking, we know that the secondary cause of an earthquake is due to a fault beneath the earth’s crust; the top of the earth’s crust moves in one direction while the levels under the earth’s crust gradually move in the opposite direction. The secondary causes of a tornado are unstable atmospheric conditions combined with warm, moist air. The secondary cause of a hurricane is a large air mass heated and fueled by the warmth of the ocean. All of these weather patterns might or might not receive their momentum from Satan, yet we can be sure that the ultimate cause of these events is God. He rules through intermediate causes and at times by direct intervention, but either way, He is in charge. After all, He is the Creator, the Sustainer, of all things. We sing with Isaac Watts,
There’s not a plant or flower below,
But makes Thy glories known;
And clouds arise, and tempests blow,
By order from Thy throne.
So what does it mean for us that God is in control, even when natural disasters occur? How do we begin to process this?
First, many theologians who agree that God is in charge of nature emphasize that God does not decree natural disasters but only permits them to happen. Understanding the difference between these words is helpful, especially since in the book of Job God permitted Satan to bring about disasters to test Job. However, keep in mind that the God who permits natural disasters to happen could choose to not permit them to happen. In the very act of allowing them, He demonstrates that they fall within the boundaries of His providence and will. The devil is not allowed to act beyond the boundaries God sets.
Second—and this is important—God is sometimes pictured as being in control of nature even without secondary or natural causes. When the disciples were at their wits’ end, expecting to drown in a stormy sea, Christ woke up from a nap and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” The effect was immediate: “Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). Christ could have spoken similar words to the tidal wave in Papua New Guinea or the rain that triggered the mudslides in Venezuela, and they would have obeyed Him. At the word of Christ, the tsunami in Southeast Asia would have ended before it hit the coastlines. Notice how the Scriptures credit tidal waves and tsunamis to God: “The LORD’s home reaches up to the heavens, while its foundation is on the earth. He draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land. The LORD is his name!” (Amos 9:6).
Third, if the heavens declare the glory of God, if it is true that the Lord reveals His character through the positive side of nature, doesn’t it make sense that the calamities of nature also reveal something about Him too? If nature is to give us a balanced picture of God, we must see His judgment, too. “The LORD does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth, and on the seas and in their depths. He causes the clouds to rise over the whole earth. He sends the lightning with the rain and releases the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:6-7).
After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, a supposed Christian cleric was asked whether God had anything to do with the disaster. “No,” he replied. “The question as to why it happened demands a geological answer, not a theological answer.” Is he reading the same Bible I am? Or has he read the Bible and simply chosen not to believe it?
Who sent the Flood during the time of Noah? God said, “I am about to cover the earth with a flood that will destroy every living thing that breathes. Everything on earth will die” (Genesis 6:17).
God determined the timing, the duration, and the intensity of the rain. And it happened according to His word. It would have been difficult to convince Noah that God had nothing to do with the weather, that all He could do was weep when the Flood came.
Who sent the plagues on Egypt? Who caused the sun to stand still so that Joshua could win a battle? Who first sealed the heavens and then brought rain in response to Elijah’s prayer? Who sent the earthquake when the sons of Korah rebelled against Moses? This event recorded in the Bible is of special interest:
[Moses] had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel (Numbers 16:31-33).
Can anyone say that God is not the ultimate cause of these disasters? In the story of Jonah, the biblical writer leaves no doubt as to who caused the storm that forced the sailors to throw the stowaway overboard. “The LORD hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart” (Jonah 1:4, italics added). The sailors agonized about unloading their unwanted cargo, but we read that they “picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once!” (Jonah 1:15). It appears that the Bible is not as concerned about God’s reputation as some theologians are. It puts God clearly in charge of the wind, the rain, and the calamities of the earth.
What do all these stories have in common? Notice that God is meticulously involved. Whether an earthquake, a raging wind, or a rainstorm, the events came and left according to God’s word. In addition, many of these calamities were acts of judgment by which God expressed how much He hated disobedience. In Old Testament times, these judgments generally separated godly people from wicked people (this is not the case today, as we shall see in the next chapter). However, even back then, sometimes the godly were also victims of these judgments. Job’s children were killed not because they were wicked, but because God wanted to test their father.
On the other hand, we should also note that in both the Old and New Testaments God sometimes sent a natural disaster to help His people. During a battle when Saul’s son Jonathan killed a Philistine, we read, “Then panic struck the whole [enemy] army—those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God” (1 Samuel 14:15, NIV, italics added). And in the New Testament, an earthquake delivered Paul and Silas from prison: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!” (Acts 16:25-26).
Both of these earthquakes had God’s signature on them.
God uses nature to do His bidding. Directly or indirectly, He can cause an earthquake to happen at five in the morning. God does as He wills.
Is Our God Really Good?
If God is the ultimate cause of all things and if He does as He wills on this earth—including with nature and natural disasters—can we put the blame on Him for the evil and suffering that these disasters cause? How can God be good when He permits (or does) things that seem so destructive and hurtful to human beings? Surely if we had the power to prevent an earthquake, if we could have stopped the tsunami, we would have done so.
Natural disasters are not “evil” in the usual sense of the word. If a tsunami took place in the middle of the ocean and did not affect any people, we would not think of it as evil. It’s when humans are affected, and when death and suffering occur, that such disasters become “evil.”
In light of what I’ve said, should God be blamed for such destructive disasters that create unfathomable human suffering? The word blame implies wrongdoing, and I don’t believe such a word should ever be applied to God. But even asking if God is responsible for natural disasters also might not be best, since the word responsibility usually implies accountability, and God is accountable to no one: “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes” (Psalm 115:3).
Let’s begin by agreeing that God plays by a different set of rules. If you were standing beside a swimming pool and watched a toddler fall in and did nothing to help, you could be facing a lawsuit for negligence. Yet God watches children drown—or, for that matter, starve—every day and does not intervene. He sends drought to countries in Africa, creating scarcity of food; He sends tsunamis, wiping out homes and crops.
We are obligated to keep people alive as long as possible, but if God were held to that standard, no one would ever die. Death is a part of the Curse: “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). What for us would be criminal is an everyday occurrence for God.
Why the difference? God is the Creator; we are the creatures. Because God is the giver of life, He also has the right to take life. He has a long-term agenda that is much more complex than keeping people alive as long as possible. Death and destruction are a part of His plan. “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that natural disasters prove that God cannot be both good and all-powerful. If He were, suffering and happiness would be carefully meted out to all people, each person getting exactly what he or she deserved. Since natural disasters appear to be random, affecting both good and evil people, God therefore cannot be both good and all-powerful. Mill forgets, however, that we don’t receive our final rewards and punishments in this life. Indeed, the Scriptures teach that the godly often endure the most fearful calamities. God always acts from the standpoint of eternity rather than time; His decisions are made with an infinite perspective. Therefore, it comes down to this: we believe that God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heartrending tragedies disasters bring.
Speaking of the earthquake in Turkey that took thousands of lives, pastor and author John Piper says, “[God] has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age” (John Piper, “Whence and Why?” World Magazine, September 4, 1993, 33). God has a purpose for each individual. For some, His purpose is that their days on earth end when disaster strikes; for the survivors there are other opportunities to rearrange priorities and focus on what really matters. The woman who said she lost everything but God during Hurricane Katrina probably spoke for thousands of people who turned to Him in their utter despair. God does not delight in the suffering of humanity. He cares about the world and its people: “But you, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15). God does not delight in the death of the wicked but is pleased when they turn from their wicked ways (Ezekiel 18:23). We finite beings cannot judge our infinite God. He is not obligated to tell us everything He is up to. As Paul described it, the clay has no right to tell the potter what to do (Romans 9:19-21). It is not necessary for us to know God’s purposes before we bow to His authority. And the fact that we trust God even though He has not revealed the details is exactly the kind of faith that delights His heart. “It is impossible to please God without faith” (Hebrews 11:6). In chapter 5 we shall see that this sovereign God has given us reasons to trust Him. Faith will always be necessary, but our faith has strong supports. We do not believe clever fables but rather a credible account of God’s will, God’s power, and God’s dealings with us in the Bible.
Responding to the Hurting with Compassion
The God who created the laws of nature and allows them to “take their course” is the very same God who commands us to fight against these natural forces. Before the Fall, God gave Adam and Eve the mandate to rule over nature. After the Fall, the mandate continued even though the ground would yield thorns and thistles and childbearing would mean struggling with pain. The desire to live would become the fight to live.
We’ve seen it over and over—the relentless compassion of people reaching out to help others who have been faced with calamity. People offer money, goods, services, and their time and labor to bring aid where it is most needed. Charitable giving to the American Red Cross for Haiti relief set a record for mobile-generated donations, raising seven million dollars in twenty-four hours when Red Cross allowed people to send ten-dollar donations by text messages (Doug Gross, “Digital Fundraising Still Pushing Haiti Relief,” CNN, January 15, 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-15/tech/online.donations.haiti_1_earthquake-haiti-haiti-relief-twitter-andfacebook?_s=PM:TECH). This is when God’s glory shines through even in the darkest times.
God uses nature both to bless and challenge us, to feed and instruct us. He wants us to fight against the devastation of natural disasters, even as we fight against the devil, so that we might become overcomers in this fallen world. Although nature is under God’s supervision, we are invited to fight disease and plagues.
We can and should strive for better medical care and clean water and food for the starving in Third World countries. We should be willing to help those who are in distress—even at great personal risk.
Martin Luther, when asked whether Christians should help the sick and dying when the plague came to Wittenberg, said that each individual would have to answer the question for himself. He believed that the epidemic was spread by evil spirits, but added, “Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner John the apostle teaches, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’” (1 John 3:16 and for more on Martin Luther see Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1989, 744).
In recent years, the news media have carried stories of virulent flu viruses that have infected humans in epidemic proportions. Some Christians might wonder if they should help those who are sick, risking their own lives for the sake of others. Disasters such as these make Luther’s comments about Wittenberg plague relevant. Martin Luther continued:
If it be God’s will that evil come upon us, none of our precautions will help us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, “Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; they will be done. I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me in the pestilence in the same way if I were in fire, water, drought or any other danger” (Ibid, 742).
Yes the plague was “God’s decree,” but we also must do what we can to save the lives of the sick and minister to the dying, We should thank God when He gives us the opportunity to rescue the wounded when a disaster strikes. Tragedies give us the opportunity to serve the living and comfort the dying all around us. Through the tragedies of others, we have the opportunity to leave our comfortable lifestyles and enter the suffering of the world.
Historically, the church has always responded to tragedies with sacrifice and courage. During the third century, the writer Tertullian recorded that when plagues deserted their nearest relatives in the plague, Christians stayed and ministered to the sick.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, churches rose to the occasion to help the victims. Church members prepared tens of thousands of meals for people left homeless and scattered in shelters. One church would help another begin the painful process of relocation and reconstruction. Even the secular press had to admit that governmental red tape did not stop the churches from sacrificially helping in time of need. What the government and the Red Cross could not do, the people of God did. This is how it should be. This is how we become Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.
In the days after the 2011 Joplin tornado, one pastor’s wife wrote to a friend, “It [the tornado and its aftermath] has certainly stretched us. All the things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—marriages in crisis, pettiness, misunderstandings, sins of all varieties—do not go away when the storms come. They do get put on the back burner. They catch fire. Other things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—tireless, selfless, tenderhearted servants who are constantly seeking to please God and serve His church—do not go away either. They catch fire. I am amazed at these people.”
Jesus was touched by the plight that the curse of sin brought to this world. We see Him weep at the tomb of Lazarus, and we hear His groans. “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance” (John 11:38). After the stone was removed, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43) and the dead man came to life in the presence of the astonished onlookers. The Jesus who stayed away for a few extra days so Lazarus would die is the very same Jesus who raised him from the dead.
Like Jesus, we mourn for the horrendous pain people experience on this planet. Like the weeping prophet Jeremiah, we find ourselves saying, “Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord. Lift up your hands to him in prayer, pleading for your children, for in every street they are faint with hunger” (Lamentations 2:19).
Although modern medicine and technology allow us to stave off death as long as possible, eventually we will all be overcome by its power. Yet in the end, we sin! Christ has conquered death.
Responding to God in Faith
If there is still some doubt in your mind that ultimately God has control of nature, let me ask you: Have you ever prayed for beautiful weather for a wedding? Have you ever prayed for rain at a time of drought? Have you ever asked God to protect you during a severe storm? Many people who claim God has no control over the weather change their minds when a funnel cloud comes toward them. The moment we call out to Him in desperate prayer, we are admitting that He is in charge.
It is also vital to understand that if nature is out of God’s hands, then we are also out of God’s hands. We should be nothing more than victims of nature and thus die apart from His will. Jesus, however, assures His children that He will take care of us. “What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7). The God who cares for the tiny sparrows and counts the hairs on our heads is in charge of nature.
The ministers in California were right in thanking God that the earthquake came early in the morning when there was little traffic on the expressways. They were wrong, however, for saying that God was not in charge of the tragedy. Of course He was—both biblically and logically.
There is, perhaps, no greater mystery than human suffering, so let us humbly admit that we can’t determine God’s ways.
The eighteenth-century English poet William Cowper put the mysteries of God in perspective:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain (William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Cowper’s Poems, ed. Hugh I’Anson Fausset. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1966, 188-189).
“Grieve not because thou understand not life’s mystery,” wrote a wise man. “Behind the veil is concealed many a delight” (Quoted in Charles Swindoll, The Mystery of God’s Will. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999, 115).
The trusting believer knows this is so.
About the Author:
Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.
Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Dr. Lutzer and his wife, Rebecca, live in the Chicago area and are the parents of three grown children. The article above was adapted from Chapter 2 in the short and insightful book by Erwin W. Lutzer. An Act of God: Answers to Tough Questions about God’s Role in Natural Disasters. Wheaton: Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 2011.
LIE BELIEVED: “God Is More Tolerant Than He Used to Be”
“I’M GLAD NO ONE REALLY BELIEVES the Bible anymore, or they’d stone us.” Those were the words of a gay activist, replying to a Christian who was using the Bible to condemn homosexuality. The activist’s argument was clear: Since the penalty for homosexuality in the Old Testament was death, how can you say you believe the Bible? And if you don’t believe it, then don’t use it to argue against homosexuality!
How do we answer those who insist that God is more tolerant today than He was in the days of the Old Testament? Back then, the law dictated that homosexuals be stoned to death, along with adulterers, children who cursed their parents, witches, and blasphemers. I have discovered about a dozen different sins or transgressions that Jewish law considered capital crimes in Old Testament times.
Today everything has changed. Homosexuals are invited into our churches; parents are told to love their rebellious children unconditionally; adulterers are given extensive counseling. Yes, murder and incest are still crimes, but witches are allowed to get rich practicing sorcery in every city in America.
We hear no more stories of Nadab and Abihu, struck dead for offering “unauthorized fire.” We read no more documented accounts of people like Uzzah who touched the ark contrary to God’s instructions and was instantly killed (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Today people can be as irreverent or blasphemous as they wish and live to see old age. As R. C. Sproul has observed, if Old Testament penalties for blasphemy were in effect today, every television executive would have been executed long ago.
Is God more tolerant than He used to be?
We need to answer this question for two reasons. First, we want to know whether we are free to sin with a minimum of consequences. Can we now live as we please, with the assurance that God will treat us with compassion and not judgment? A young Christian woman confided to me that she chose a life of immorality in part because she was sure that “God would forgive her anyway.” She had no reason to fear His wrath, for Christ had borne it all for her. Her statement begs the question: can conduct that in the Old Testament received strong rebuke or even the death penalty now be chosen with the sure knowledge that God is forgiving, showering us with “unconditional love”?
At one time Christians in America might have been described as legalists, adhering to the letter of the law. No one would accuse us of that today. We are free—free to ski in Colorado and romp on the beach in Hawaii, but also free to watch risqué movies, gamble, free to be as greedy as the world in which we work—free to sin. Is it safer for us to sin in this age than it was in the days of the Old Testament?
There is a second reason we want an answer: we want to know whether it is safer for others to do wrong today. If you have been sinned against, you want to know whether you can depend on God to “even the score.” The girl who has been raped, the child who has been abused, the person who was chiseled out of his life’s savings by an unscrupulous salesman—all of these victims and a hundred like them want to know whether God is so loving that He will overlook these infractions. What is the chance that these perpetrators will face justice? We want God to judge us with tolerance; however, we hope that He will not extend the same patience to those who have wronged us. So we wonder: can we depend on God to be lenient or harsh, merciful or condemning?
Many people decry God’s apparent silence today in the face of outrageous and widespread sin. The question is, how shall we interpret this silence? Is God indifferent, or biding His time? Has he changed?
In a PBS program hosted by Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation, the participants agreed that there was development in God. He sent the flood to the world, but then, like a child who builds a sandcastle only to destroy it in anger, God regretted what He had done, felt duly chastised, and so gave the rainbow with a promise to never do that again. Most of the panelists agreed that the Flood was evil; it had no redeemable value. Choose almost any human being at random, and he/she would have been more benevolent than God, they said.
The panel assumed, of course, that the Bible is only a record of what people throughout the centuries have thought about God. So as we evolved to become more tolerant, our conception of God became more tolerant. Thus the New Testament, with its emphasis on love, is a more mature, gracious representation of God. This surely would explain the apparent difference between the Old and New Testaments.
Other religious liberals believe that the Bible reveals two Gods: the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the more loving, inclusive God of the New. Again, this is based on the same premise: as humanity changes, so our ideas about God change. In primitive times men’s ideas of God were harsh and unrelenting; in more enlightened times, men’s conceptions are more tolerant and loving. This, as we have already learned, is building a concept of God beginning with man and reasoning upward.
There is another possibility. We can affirm that God has not changed, His standards are the same, but He has chosen to interact with people differently, at least for a time. In fact, in this chapter we will discover that the attributes of God revealed in the Old Testament are affirmed in the New. Even in the Old Testament we see the severity of God, but also His goodness; we see His strict judgments, but also His mercy.
The neat division sometimes made between the Old Testament with its wrath and the New Testament with its mercy is not a fair reading of the text. Yes, there were strict penalties in the Old Testament, but there also was grace; in fact, looked at carefully, God appears tolerant. Note David’s description of his “Old Testament God”:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:8-12)
The fact is, the same balance of attributes is found in both Testaments. There are compelling reasons to believe that God has not changed a single opinion uttered in the Old Testament; the New Testament might emphasize grace more than law, but in the end God reveals Himself with amazing consistency. Properly understood, the penalties also have not changed. And thankfully, His mercy also remains immutable.
Join me on a journey that will probe the nature and works of God; we will see the magnificent unity between the Old Testament and the New. And when we are finished we will worship as perhaps never before.
Who made God? You’ve heard the question, probably from the lips of a child, or for that matter, from the lips of a skeptic who wanted to argue that believing the universe is eternal is just as rational as believing that God is eternal. If we don’t know where God came from, the argument goes, then we don’t have to know where the universe came from.
Of course there is a difference: the universe does not have within itself the cause of its own existence. The living God, and not the universe, has always existed, for He is, as theologians say, “the uncaused cause.” We can’t get our minds around the concept of an uncaused being, but both the Bible and logic teach that if there were no “uncaused being,” nothing would ever have existed, for out of nothing, nothing can arise.
Scripture tells us, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). From eternity past to eternity future, God exists, and as we shall see, He does not change.
God’s Nature Does Not Change
God cannot grow older; he does not gain new powers nor lose ones He once had. He does not grow wiser, for He already knows all things. He does not become stronger; He already is omnipotent, powerful to an infinite degree. “He cannot change for the better,” wrote A. W. Pink, “for he is already perfect; and being perfect, he cannot change for the worse” (A.W. Pink quoted in J.I. Packer, Knowing God. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 63). “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).
God’s Truth Does Not Change
Sometimes we say things we do not mean, or we make promises we cannot keep. Unforeseen circumstances make our words worthless. Not so with God: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). David agreed when he wrote, “Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens…. Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever” (Ps. 119:89, 152). God never has to revise His opinions or update His plans. He never has had to revamp His schedule. Yes, there are a few passages of Scripture that speak of God as regretting a decision and changing His mind (Gen. 6:6-7; 1 Sam. 15). In these passages Scripture shows God changing His response to people because of their behavior. But there is no reason to think that this reaction was either unforeseen or not a part of His eternal plan. As J. I. Packer put it, “No change in His eternal purpose is implied when He begins to deal with a man in a new way” (Packer, Knowing God, 72).
God’s Standards Do Not Change
The Ten Commandments are not just an arbitrary list of rules; they are a reflection of the character of God and the world that He chose to create. We should not bear false witness because God is a God of truth; we should not commit adultery because the Creator established the integrity of the family. “Be holy, because I am holy” is a command in both Testaments (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God intended that the commandments hold His standard before us. “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).
The command to love the unlovable is rooted in the very character of God. God’s attributes are uniquely balanced. He combines compassion with a commitment to strict justice, describing Himself as “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).
Though we die, nothing in God dies; He unites the past and the future. The God who called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees called me into the ministry. The Christ who appeared to Paul en route to Damascus saved me. The Holy Spirit who visited the early church with great blessing and power indwells those of us who have received salvation from Christ. The Bible could not state it more clearly: God has not changed and will not change in the future. The prophet Malachi recorded it in six words: “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6).
Reverend Henry Lyte had to leave the pastorate in Devonshire, England, because of poor health. As he bade farewell to his beloved congregation, he shared these words, which many of us have often sung.
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me. (Abide with Me)
At the Moody Church where I serve, there is a motto in the front of the sanctuary that reads, “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today and forever” (see Heb. 13:8). Yes, the One who changes not abides with us.
GOD’S ADMINISTRATION HAS CHANGED
How then do we account for the difference between the consequences of disobedience in the Old and the New Testaments? If God cannot be more tolerant than He used to be, why are the Old Testament penalties not carried out? Why does it appear to be so safe to sin today? God’s judgments abide, but His method of managing them has changed. He relates to us differently without altering either His opinions or requiring less of us. He is neither more tolerant nor more accommodating to our weaknesses. Let me explain. When a four-year-old boy was caught stealing candy from a store, his father gave him a spanking. Let us suppose that the same lad were to steal candy at the age of twelve; the father might choose not to spank him but to give him some other form of punishment, such as a loss of privileges or a discipline regime. If the boy repeated the practice at age twenty, there might not be any immediate consequences pending a future date in court. My point is simply that the parents’ view of thievery does not change, but they would choose to deal with this infraction differently from one period of time to another. Rather than lessen the penalty as the child grows older and has more knowledge, his parents might exact a more serious penalty. Just so, we shall discover that God’s opinions have not changed; His penalties are yet severe. But there is a change in the timetable and method of punishment.
The more carefully we look at the Scriptures, the more we become aware of the unwavering consistency of God and His intention to punish sin. He hates it just as much today as ever. Thankfully, He offers us a remedy for it. In Hebrews 12:18-29 we see the unity of God reflected in both Mount Sinai and Mount Calvary. Here, like a diamond, the fuller range of God’s attributes are on display. We see that God has not lowered His standards; He will in the end prove that He has not mellowed with age. Those who are unprepared to meet Him face a future of unimaginable horror. No, He has not changed.
This change in management can be represented in three ways. Stay with me—the contrast between Sinai andCalvary will give us the answers we seek.
The Earthly versus the Heavenly
The author of Hebrews gave a vivid description of the mount at Sinai when he reminded his readers: You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear” (Heb. 12:18-21).
On Mount Sinai God’s glory humbled Moses and Aaron into silence and worship. God called Moses to the top of the mountain to see the fire, lightning, and smoke. Moses then returned to tell the people that they would be struck down if they came too close to the mountain. The physical distance between the people and the mountain symbolized the moral distance between God and mankind. Not even Moses was able to see God directly, though he was given special privileges. The word to the people was, “Stay back or be killed!” Imagine the power needed to shake a mountain! Even today we see the power of God in tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. God accompanied this special revelation with a physical act that would remind the people of His power and judgment. They were to stand back because He is holy. There was also a vertical distance between God and man. God came down out of heaven as a reminder that we are from below, creatures of the earth. He is separated; He exceeds the limits. To quote Sproul, “When we meet the Infinite, we become acutely conscious that we are finite. When we meet the Eternal, we know we are temporal. To meet God is a study in contrasts” (R.C. Sproul. The Holiness of God. Wheaton: Tyndale. 1985, 63).
Imagine a New Ager standing at Mount Sinai, engulfed in bellows of fire and smoke, saying, “I will come to God on my own terms. We can all come in our own way!” Sinai was God’s presence without an atonement, without a mediator. It pictures sinful man standing within range of God’s holiness. Here was the unworthy creature in the presence of his most worthy Creator. Here was a revelation of the God who will not tolerate disobedience, the God who was to be feared above all gods. Now comes an important contrast. The writer of Hebrews affirms, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22). When David conquered Jerusalem and placed the ark on Mount Zion, this mountain was considered the earthly dwelling place of God and later the word Zion was applied to the entire city. Centuries passed and Christ came and died outside of its walls, fulfilling the prophecies that salvation would come from Zion.
Mount Zion represents the opening of heaven, and now we are invited to enjoy six privileges. Look at Hebrews 12:22-24.
First, we come to “the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22). As believers we are already citizens of heaven. As we have learned, we are invited into the “Most Holy Place” by the blood of Jesus.
Second, the writer says we come to the presence of hundreds of millions of angels “in joyful assembly” (v. 22). We come to celebrating angels whom we join in praising God. Don’t forget that angels were present at Sinai too (Gal. 3:19), but the people were not able to join them there; these heavenly beings were blowing the trumpets of judgment. Like God, they were unapproachable. But now we can join them, not for fellowship, but for rejoicing over God’s triumphs in the world. Whereas Sinai was terrifying, Zion is inviting and gracious. Sinai is closed to all, for no one can keep the demands of the law; Zion is open to everyone who is willing to take advantage of the sacrifice of Christ. In Jesus the unapproachable God becomes approachable.
Third, we come to the “church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven,” that is, the body of Christ (v. 23). Jesus said that the disciples should not rejoice because the angels were subject to them, but rather because their names were “written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). The names of all believers are found there in the Book of Life; all listed there are members of the church triumphant.
Fourth, we come to God, “the judge of all men” (v. 23), for the veil of the temple was torn in two and we can enter “the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19).
Fifth, we come to “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (v. 23), which probably refers to the Old Testament saints who could only look forward to forgiveness, pardon, and full reconciliation with God. In Christ we receive in a moment what they could only anticipate. In a sense they had to wait for us (Heb. 11:40). The bottom line is that we will be united with Abraham and a host of other Old Testament saints. What a family!
Finally, and supremely, we come to “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but his shed blood could not atone for his sin, much less for the sin of his brother. Jesus’ blood, however, is sufficient for us all. The contrast is clear. Sinai was covered with clouds; Zion is filled with light. Sinai is symbolic of judgment and death; Zion is symbolic of life and forgiveness. The message of Sinai was “Stand back!” The message of Zion is “Come near!” Look at a calendar and you will agree that Christ splits history in two—we have B.C. and A.D.—but He also splits salvation history in two, even as the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Now that His blood is shed, we can come to God in confidence. Does this mean that God’s hatred for sin has been taken away? Has Christ’s coming made the Almighty more tolerant? It’s too early in our discussion to draw any conclusions. Let’s continue to study the passage, and our questions will be answered. There is a second way to describe this change of administration. The Old Covenant versus the New Covenant Jesus, we have learned, is the mediator of “a new covenant” (v. 24). What does this mean? If He gave us a new covenant, what was the old covenant?
In Old Testament times God made a covenant with the entire nation of Israel. He chose to rule directly through kings and prophets, revealing his will step by step, and expecting them to follow His instructions. The prophets could say, “The word of the Lord came to me” and tell the kings what God’s will was. There was no separation between religion and the state, as we know it; the state existed to implement the divine will of God. Obviously, there was no freedom of religion in the Old Testament era. Death was the punishment for idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me” was the first of the Ten Commandments given to the nation Israel. If people did not obey, the penalties were immediate and, from our standpoint, severe. Jesus brought with Him a radical teaching, the idea that it would be possible for His followers to live acceptably under a pagan government. He did not come to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel; indeed, His kingdom was not of this world. When faced with the question of whether taxes should be paid to the pagan Romans, Christ replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar‘s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25). Yes, believers could pay taxes to a corrupt government, and yes, they could fulfill their obligations to God as well. There are two major changes inherent in Jesus’ teaching.
First, God would no longer deal with one nation, but with individuals from all nations. He would now call out from among the nations a transnational group comprised of every tribe, tongue, and people, to form a new gathering called the church. These people would live, for the most part, in political regimes that were hostile to them. But we who are a part of this program are to continue as salt and light, representing Him wherever we find ourselves.
Second, in our era, we are to submit, as far as possible, to worldly authorities; we are to do their bidding unless such obligations conflict with our conscience. Indeed, Paul, writing from a jail cell in Rome, said that we must submit to the governing authorities (in his case, Nero) because they were established by God (see Rom. 13:1). Our agenda as a church is not to take over nations, politically speaking. Of course Christians should be involved in government as good citizens, but our primary message is the transformation of nations through the transformation of individuals.
The early disciples had all of our national woes and more, and yet without a political base, without a voting block in the Roman senate, they changed their world, turning it “upside down,” as Luke the historian put it (Acts 17:6, NLT). When Paul came to the immoral city of Corinth, he taught what surely must have appeared a novel idea, namely,that it was not the responsibility of the church to judge the unbelieving world with regard to their morals, but only to judge them in relation to the gospel, which is “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
To the church he wrote: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Cor. 5:9-12).
If you work in the unbelieving world and decide not to eat with those who are immoral, greedy, or idolaters, you just might have to eat your lunch alone! Of course we can eat with such people if they do not claim to be believers in Christ. But if a Christian lives this way and we have fellowship with him over a meal, or if we enjoy his company, we are in some sense approving of his sin. To help such see the error of their ways, Paul says don’t even eat with them.
Now we are ready to understand why we do not put people to death today as was done in the Old Testament. We have no authority to judge those who are outside the fellowship of believers; the state is to penalize those who commit certain crimes, and those laws must be upheld. But—and this is important—all the behaviors that merited the death penalty in the Old Testament are infractions for which we now discipline believers within the church.
We do not have the right to take a life, we do not have the right to inflict physical death, but we can announce spiritual death to those who persist in their sins. Paul instructed the Corinthian church to put the immoral man not to death but out of the congregation (1 Cor. 5:5). Such discipline is our duty. It is foolish for us to think that we can sin with impunity just because Christ has come. The purpose of redemption
was to make possible our holy lives. It is blessedly true, of course, that God does forgive, but our sin, particularly deliberate sin, always invites the discipline of God. We are to pursue holiness, for “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
God has not revised His list of offenses.
A woman said to her pastor, “I am living in sin, but it’s different because I am a Christian.” The pastor replied, “Yes, it is different. For a Christian, such sin is much more serious.” Indeed, God takes our disobedience so seriously that the Scriptures warn: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:5-6). There is a final and important way to describe the contrast between Sinai and Calvary, and at last we will specifically answer the question of whether God is more tolerant than He used to be. Immediate, Physical Judgment versus Future, Eternal Judgment Continue to read this breathtaking passage. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. (Heb. 12:25-27)
We can’t miss it: if God judged the people for turning away from Him when He spoke at Sinai, just think of the greater judgment that will come to those who turn away from the voice that comes out of heaven, from Mount Zion! The Jews who heard God speak at Sinai did not get to enter the promised land but died in the wilderness. Their primary punishment was physical death, though for the rebellious there was eternal spiritual death as well. Today God does not usually judge people with immediate physical death, but the judgment of spiritual death remains, with even greater condemnation. If God judged the Jews, who had a limited understanding of redemption, think of what He will do to those who have heard about the coming of Christ, His death, and His resurrection!
If the first did not enter the promised land, those today who reject Christ will forfeit spiritual blessings in this life and will assuredly be severely judged by an eternal death. Imagine their fate! At Sinai God shook the earth. From Zion He is going to shake the whole universe. “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (v. 26). The phrase is borrowed from Haggai 2:6, where the prophet predicts that God will judge the earth (see Rev. 6:12-14). Everything that can be shaken, which denotes the whole physical order, will be destroyed and only eternal things will remain (see 2 Pet. 3:10). Don’t miss the first principle: the greater the grace, the greater the judgment for refusing it. The more God does for us, the greater our responsibility to accept it.
The judgment of the Old Testament was largely physical; in the New Testament it is eternal. If you, my friend, have never transferred your trust to Christ for salvation, the terrors of Calvary are much greater than the terrors of Sinai could ever be! Elsewhere, the author of Hebrews faces directly the question of whether God has relaxed His judgments as we move from the past to the present. If we keep in mind that the law at Sinai is spoken of as accompanied by angels, we will understand his argument, “For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:2-3,). He argues from the lesser to the greater: if the law demanded exacting penalties, think of the more severe punishment for those who refuse grace!
In a sense we can say that the harsh penalties of the Old Testament demonstrated an overabundance of grace: by seeing these punishments immediately applied, the people had a visual demonstration of why they should fear God. In our day, these penalties are waived, and as a result people are free to misinterpret the patience of God as laxity or indifference. Today God allows sins to accumulate and delays their judgment. Paul, writing to those who had hardened their hearts against God, said, “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5).
Retribution and justice have not escaped God’s attention. Grace gives the illusion of tolerance and, if not properly interpreted, can be construed as a license to sin. Indeed, the New Testament writer Jude warned that there “are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4). They confuse the patience of God with the leniency of God. A second principle: we should never interpret the silence of God as the indifference or God. God’s long-suffering is not a sign of either weakness or indifference; it is intended to bring us to repentance. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It would be a mistake to think that His “slowness” means that He is letting us skip our day of judgment.
Solomon in Ecclesiastes warned that a delay in applying punishment encourages wrongdoing: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Eccles. 8:11). How easily we misinterpret divine patience as divine tolerance! In the end, all penalties will be exacted; retribution will be demanded; nothing will be overlooked.
At the Great White Throne judgment, the unbelievers of all ages will be called into account and meticulously judged. Those who see a difference between the severity of the Old Testament and the tolerance of the New should study this passage carefully: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:13-15). Nothing that terrifying occurs in the Old Testament.
Is it safe to sin? In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis tells the story of four children who encounter
a magical world through the back of an old attic wardrobe. In this land, Narnia, animals talk, and one especially glorious creature, a majestic lion, represents Christ. Some beavers describe the lion to Lucy, Susan, and Peter, who are newcomers to Narnia, and they fear meeting Asian. The children ask questions that reveal their apprehension. “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Asian without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you” (C.S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Macmillan, 1950, 75-76).
Is God safe? Of course not. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But thankfully, He is good, and if we respond to Him through Christ, He will save us. If we still think that God is more tolerant of sin in the New Testament than in the Old, let us look at what His Son endured at Calvary; imagine Him as He languishes under the weight of our sin. There we learn that we must either personally bear the penalty for our sins, or else it must fall on the shoulders of Christ. In either case, the proper and exact penalties shall be demanded. And because we ourselves cannot pay for our sins, we shall have to live with them for all of eternity—unless we come under the shelter of Christ’s protection. Only Christ can turn away the wrath of God directed toward us.
Is it true that justice delayed is justice denied? For human courts this is so, for as time passes evidence is often lost and the offender is freed. But this does not apply to the Supreme Court of heaven; with God, no facts are lost, no circumstances are capable of misinterpretation. The whole earthly scenario can be re-created so that scrupulous justice can be satisfied. Judicial integrity will prevail, and we shall sing forever, “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Rev. 19:1-2).
Is Jesus only, as the old rhyme goes, “meek and mild”? In the same C. S. Lewis story I quoted above, the children meet Aslan the Lion. Lucy observes that his paws are potentially very inviting or very terrible. They could be as soft as velvet with his claws drawn in, or as sharp as knives with his claws extended. Christ is both meek and lowly, but also fierce and just.
Read this description of Christ, and you will agree that the warnings of the New Testament are as terrifying as the Old: “With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:1-6).
What follows in this passage is an unbelievable description of the carnage that takes place after Jesus executes His judgment. With sword in hand, He smites His enemies and leaves them dying on the battlefield. Even if we appropriately grant that the account is symbolic, it can mean nothing less than the revelation of the vengeance of God Almighty. The Lord God of Sinai is the Lord God of Zion. Finally, figuratively speaking, we must come to Sinai before we come to Zion.
We must see our sin before we can appreciate grace. In the allegory called Pilgrim’s Progress, a man named Christian travels with the weight of sin on his shoulders, but the burden proves too much for him. Thankfully, he comes to Calvary, and there his load is rolled onto the shoulders of the one Person who is able to carry it. To his delight the terrors of Sinai are borne by the Son at Calvary. What a tragedy to meet people who are comfortable with who they are, people who have not felt the terrors of God’s holy law. Since they do not see themselves as lost, they need not be redeemed; absorbed in themselves, they have lost the capacity to grieve over their sin. To those aware of their need, we say, “Come!” Come to Mount Zion to receive mercy and pardon. Stand at Mount Sinai to see your sin, then come to linger at Calvary to see your pardon. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (Heb. 12:28-29). There was fire at Sinai; there will also be fire at the final judgment. A consuming fire!
Donald McCullough writes: “Fire demands respect for its regal estate. It will not be touched, it will be approached with care, and it wields its scepter for ill or for good. With one spark it can condemn a forest to ashes and a home to a memory as ghostly as the smoke rising from the charred remains of the family album. Or with a single flame it can crown a candle with power to warm a romance and set to dancing a fireplace blaze that defends against the cold. Fire is dangerous to be sure, but we cannot live without it; fire destroys but it also sustains life” (McCullough, The Trivialization of God, 20).
There is a story that comes to us from the early days, when a man and his daughter spotted a prairie fire in the distance. Fearing being engulfed by the flames, the father suggested they build a fire right where they stood. They burned one patch of grass after another, in an ever-widening circle. Then when the distant fire came near, the father comforted his terrified daughter by telling her that flames would not come to the same patch of ground twice; the father and daughter would be safe if they stood where the fire had already been. When we come to Mount Zion, we come to where the fire of Sinai has already struck. We come to the only place of safety; we come to the place where we are welcome. There we are sheltered from terrifying judgment. God’s Son endured the fire that was headed in our direction. Only those who believe in Him are exempt from the flames.
A PERSONAL RESPONSE
There is a story about some members of a synagogue who complained to a rabbi that the liturgy did not express what they felt. Would he be willing to make it more relevant? The rabbi told them that the liturgy was not intended to express what they felt; it was their responsibility to learn to feel what the liturgy expressed.
There is a lesson here. In our day some have so emphasized “felt needs” in worship that they have forgotten that in a future day our most important “felt need” will be to stand before God covered by the righteousness of Christ. The real issue is not how we feel, but rather how God feels. Our responsibility is to “learn to feel” what God does. Let us worship at both of the mountains that are symbolic of the two covenants. We must first come to Mount Sinai as a reminder of our sinfulness; then we stand at Mount Calvary as a reminder of grace. On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.
So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish.” (Exod. 19:16-21) And now we turn to Mount Calvary.
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice,“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:33-39)
Let us join with the centurion and say, “Surely He was the Son of God!”
About the Author:
Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.
Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The article above was adapted from Chapter 3 in the excellent book by Dr. Erwin Lutzer. 10 Lies About God: And the Truths That Shatter Deception. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009.
Encouragement and Hope For The Journey Ahead
Book Reviewed By David P. Craig
The subtitle of this book is “how to put your regrets behind you, embrace grace, and move toward a better life.” *Lutzer definitely does that, and much more in this very helpful book on how God’s sovereignty plays out in our lives, even when we sin, fail, make mistakes, and blow it every which way. The good news is that God works things out for our good even when we have messed things up pretty bad.