Doodle: Trite Comfort from the Sovereignty of God

Sovereignty of GodAs someone famously stated about the human experience, perhaps with just a hint of unhealthy cynicism: ‘life is hard, and then you die.’ For most, life is undeniably hard and for all death is unavoidable. But as a pastor I am convinced that God exalts the humble and is gracious towards the lowly; as Jesus promised, God comforts those who mourn. And one of most powerful means of God’s grace in difficulty is his church, those who are called to weep with those who weep and bear one another’s burdens. The latter end of 2018 has not turned out how my wife and I hoped, raising significant uncertainties over our future and ministry. In this time I have been overwhelmed by the support from my family in Christ, not to mention grateful to God for his wise provision of the church.

However, one of the recurring exhortations we have heard is to remember that God is sovereign. As one pastor has put it, Christians are always (too) ready to give the Romans 8:28 treatment, “Trust in God, because he works all things for the good of those who love him.” Now without going into too much detail, we must also remember that God’s sovereignty does not guarantee everything will work out for the better now, or even in this life. Trials are not the dark clouds pregnant with precious water, nor does suffering precede God’s best blessings. This is not what God has promised. As a good friend recently reminded us in his sermon on Romans 8, God is not doing something hard now in order to give you something better next. That is simply not what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty; it is in fact little more than baptised positive thought, the erroneous belief in the power of positive thinking.

God’s sovereignty does not diminish hurt, confusion or suffering. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort during those seasons. When we travel through the dark valley of sorrow and suffering it does us great good to cling to our sovereign God. A God who is powerless to order our world would not be worth trusting when it appears to be crumbling. However, merely stating the sovereignty of God can be little more than saying God is moving the pieces on the board from a distance. The true and living God, on the other hand, is an incomparable help and strength in trouble. So while I am not saying that exhorting someone to take comfort in the sovereignty of God is a platitude, in my own experience it tends towards being treated like that. Most Christians are convinced that God is sovereign over our lives, from suffering to unplanned joys to the frustration of failed plans. But if the first thing you want to tell a Christian who is hurting or overwhelmed by uncertainty is that they must remember God is sovereign: maybe don’t.

Ishmael AbrahamRecently I have been rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, where I came across a passage that perfectly illustrates this caution. In Gilead, John Ames is relaying a sermon he preached on Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. Preaching that part of Genesis he reminded his congregation that despite the seeming cruelty of those narratives, “the child is within the providential care of God. And this is no less true, I said, if the angel carries her home to her faithful and loving Father than if He opens the springs or stops the knife and lets the child live our her sum of earthly years.” Only Ames cannot stop there, for no matter how many times he has preached on God’s sovereignty and providence he confides that his own answer to suffering has never even satisfied himself. “I have always worried that when I say the insulted or downtrodden are within the providence of God, it will be taken by some people to mean that it is not a grave thing, an evil thing.” Read that last sentence again. John Ames was uncomfortably aware that merely appealing to the sovereignty of God can seem to make little of the situation and diminish one’s suffering.

When I set out to write this post I did not have a specific point in mind. And please do not hear me suggesting that we should not encourage one another with the truth of God’s sovereignty. Just be sensitive enough to know that the person suffering is very likely struggling with God’s sovereignty over their situation; in other words, knowing that nothing happens apart from God’s will can make suffering all the more disorientating. God’s children are often confused by what their heavenly Father is doing. Far from letting go of God’s sovereignty we must treasure it. Only we must also be careful of reducing it to a trite statement of careless platitude. If my son suffers from a crippling fear of the night I must surely do more than remind him the sun will rise in the morning. Praise God, for it will. Only now we wait patiently and hope for what we do not see (Romans 8:25). So while we wait, wrestling with the sovereignty of God let’s encourage, support and help one one another, because as C. S. Lewis wrote in Perelandra, “God can make good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”

Doodle: Interpretation versus Information

LibraryA few weeks ago, after the men’s Bible study that I am involved in, someone asked me what study notes and material I received at Bible college. We have been reading through Romans and anyone who has read it carefully will be familiar with the occasional confounding phrase, even passage. Therefore the question is understandable. Furthermore, I remember being in awe of Bible teachers as a young Christian in my teens and assuming that with enough commentaries I would be able to do what they did. However after an honours in theology and just over five years in local church ministry I was able to answer this man’s question quite differently to how I might have ten years ago. While there is no denying my library has grown in that time, while my savings have shrunk, what I have learnt formally and in my day-to-day Christian life is that reading and understanding the Bible has less to do with information and more to do with interpretation. Let me explain.

At college we did have courses on specific books of the Bible: Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, Romans, and Ephesians. But, as you might picked up from that list, many books were excluded, even though I lived on campus as a full-time student. You might also have noticed from the list above that seemingly more important books, if one can make such a distinction, were omitted: Genesis, Isaiah,  John’s Gospel, and Revelation. But the value of the book studies we did, along with other more general courses, was that we were taught principles for interpretation, tools for faithful reading. What are those? Simply put, we were equipped to read biblical texts carefully, in context, and by considering things like genre and original or authorial purpose. For example, in our course on Ezekiel we learnt tools for understanding Ezekiel that can be applied to all Old Testament prophecy. Sadly, such an approach is all but lost in many churches today where Bible verses are treated like the sayings of Confucius, explaining the vast theological confusion that currently reigns.

In his useful, compendious, free, and excitingly titled essay New Testament Hermeneutics, G. K. Beale provides a few questions that might further help you understand what I mean by interpreting the meaning of a text:
1. Does the meaning reached fit with the larger context?
2. Is it in harmony with rest of biblical revelation?
3. How well does it illuminate the rest of the passage?
4. How does it compare with other commentators’ interpretations?

What you will notice from Beale’s questions is that commentaries are only mentioned in the last. The preceding questions deal with reading the passage in its context (historically and in the biblical storyline), making use of clearer passages in Scripture, and considering a passage or verse within its immediate surroundings. How you read the Bible is in some ways more important than what you read about the Bible. In the same way that you do not pick up a novel, open up to a page at random and read a couple of sentences believing that that is what the novel is about, we should not treat Scripture as a repository of unrelated but inspiring sentences. Meaning is determined by close reading, knowing the context, and comparing your interpretation with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.

HermeneuticsIn conclusion, if these disparate thoughts can actually be brought together, the Christian faith is not housed in a body of work or library but in the living text, God’s inspired words. We benefit immensely by reading scholars who have sought to correctly interpret the Bible throughout history, we even learn as we study those who interpreted it incorrectly. But at the end of the day we must meet God in his Word, as he addresses us in his text. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself, rebuke his people, and reach those who do not know him.

Romans: The Righteousness of God

The men’s group that I am a part of has started reading through Paul’s epistle to the Romans and a few weeks back we considered Romans 1:17, ‘In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”’ The question we discussed was one that has been asked throughout church history: how is the revelation of God’s righteousness good news?

RomansBefore his Turmerlebnis, or conversion, German Reformer Martin Luther understood what this verse meant, in part, and he hated it, deeming it decidedly bad news. Luther felt that God’s righteousness can only show up our own unrighteousness and wrestled with the claim that its revelation was desirable. In the Institutes, discussing the law, John Calvin writes, “It shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness” (2.7.6). If we advance no further than this view of God’s righteousness we can hardly call it gospel.

In his magisterial commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo provides a few options for understanding the “righteousness of God,” which explain Luther’s original disdain for the verse. Moo says that it has been understood to refer to the God’s attribute of righteousness and his just activity. Neither of these filled Luther with much hope, because he was a man well acquainted with his own sinfulness. But Moo offers another historical interpretation, one which both Luther would eventually champion: a righteousness attributed to us by God. In fact, upon consideration of these three options we hardly need to treat them as mutually exclusive, since Paul combines them in Romans 1-3.

Turning back to Romans 1:17, and the question over God’s righteousness being revealed in the gospel, a basic exercise in exegesis sets our course. For in the immediate context, Romans 1:16, we read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Notice that the same gospel that reveals the righteousness of God (1:17) is the powerful salvation of God for all who believe (1:16), not those who possess their own righteousness. So the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel must mean more than simply his righteousness or his just activity being displayed; it is somehow related to those who have faith in Christ.

It is when we reach Romans 3:21 that Paul brings these ends together. Having repeatedly shown in 1:18-3:20 that we do not possess a righteousness of our own, Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (3:21). This righteousness does not come through the law but faith and belief in Jesus Christ (3:21-22). But how does faith reveal God’s righteous character and behaviour? The answer: God shows his righteousness in giving us the righteousness of Christ, in justifying us “by his grace as a gift” (3:24). Paul concludes, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Drawing our minds back to 1:17, the gospel reveals the righteousness of God in at least two ways: firstly we see that he is just, not merely forgetting unrighteousness but punishing it in Christ (3:25); secondly we learn that he is the God who justifies those with faith.

InstitutesWe have covered much ground in a short space. Our original question was how is the revelation of God’s righteousness a good thing, since alongside it our blemishes and sin are made clearer? Added to that was another questions, how does our faith in Christ reveal God’s righteousness while also achieving salvation (1:16)? The answer to these questions comes in Romans 3:21-26, for in the gospel God’s righteousness is manifest. This happens as he simultaneously works in a way that is perfectly just and justifies those who are not perfect. Thus Calvin writes, looking at Romans 5, “God, to whom we are hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favourable toward us…As by the sin of Adam we were estranged from God and destined to perish, so by Christ’s obedience we are received into favour as righteous” (2.17.3). “To God be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).