Archive for April, 2011

But He Died!: The Cross and God’s Sovereignty April 13, 2011

My dad used to say all the time that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. As a child (and later a brash teenager), I was disinclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives–but now I couldn’t agree more.

We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action, rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary.  We grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and  we drag that image into our understanding of God.

Immature prayer  often sounds  like a more polished and polite version of a  young child’s  begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts–even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered around such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him.

Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us at least at some point struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority, and the Scriptures give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position. I’ve broken it down before into a too-simplistic set of statements: Those who see God’s authority rigidly (to the point of denying man’s responsibility for anything) view God’s sovereignty correctly (He is either sovereign over all or not at all), but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly (to the point of diminishing God’s power) correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.

 I know a lot of people who grew into  belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t  help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.

God is in control, however, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent  Son Jesus Christ was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil  is  in reality  an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The cross is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too.  Though a  display of His grace and power and authority to  erase our sins, it is still more.  Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.

Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being.  Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4;15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).

When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”

When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith, we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whos name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).

As I said, the older I get, the more I understand my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift isn’t so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with magnitude of my sin. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems  in the face of  God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I though I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!

Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you all.

Posted by Justin Lonas

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