Sunday, June 29, 2008

"In God We Trust , In God We Live"

The Living and Consistent God
But before we come to his saving activity, there are two basic truths about him to consider, which Scripture emphasizes throughout. The first is that he is a living and sovereign God; the second that he is consistent, always the same, "the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (Jas. 1:17).

Again and again the one, living and true God is contrasted with the dead idols of heathendom. Prophets and psalmists hold heathen idols up to ridicule. Isaiah describes the scene in one of the temples when Babylon was captured. He pictures the chief Babylonian deities being snatched ignominiously from their pedestals, carried out on men’s shoulders and loaded on to carts outside. Fancy gods being carried by men and becoming "burdens on weary beasts"! And when the laughter subsides, the voice of God is heard. He is no idol needing to be carried about by men, for it is he who carries his people:

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all you who remain of the house of Israel,
you whom I have upheld since you were conceived,
and have carried since your birth.
Even to your old age and gray hairs
I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you. (Isa. 46:3-4)
Not only the idols’ inability to save aroused the prophets’ scorn, but their total lifelessness:
Their idols are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but they cannot smell;
they have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but they cannot walk;
nor can they utter a sound with their throats. (Ps. 115:4-7)
In contrast to them, "our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him" (Ps. 115:3). He is the living God, who sees and hears
and speaks and acts.
This living God is sovereign, a great king over all the earth. He is king of nature, and king of the nations also.
As king of nature he sustains the universe he has made and all its creatures. Even the ferocious elements are under his control. "The sea is his, for he made it" (Ps. 95:5), and the "stormy winds" fulfill his command (Ps. 148:8). Psalm 29 gives a dramatic description of a thunderstorm, in which "the voice of the LORD" breaks the cedars of Lebanon. The lightning flashes. The wilderness is shaken. The forests are stripped bare. The rain causes floods. As havoc spreads, one would expect apprehension and alarm to spread with it. But the psalmist remains quietly confident that God is in
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever. (Ps. 29:10)

Psalm 104 is an early study in ecology. In it the psalmist marvels (Ps. 104:17-18) at the way storks make their homes in fir trees, while "the high mountains belong to the wild goats" and "the crags are a refuge for the coneys" (that is, the rock badger, or hyrax).
The psalm goes on to describe how God feeds all animals:
These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things. (Ps. 104:27-28)

Entirely in keeping with this Old Testament insistence that God is the Lord of nature is the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, that God rules the animate and inanimate worlds. On the
one hand, he feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field; on the other, "he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45; 6:26-30).

The King of nature is also King of nations. As Daniel said to King Nebuchadnezzar, "The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes" (Dan. 4:32). We saw
in an earlier chapter how the little countries of Israel and Judah often seemed no more than pawns on an international chessboard. The great power blocs of the day were the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. As they confronted each other on the battlefield, and the tide of war ebbed and flowed, it was Israel and Judah and the small neighboring states which got caught in between. Yet Israel continually uttered the splendid shout of faith:
The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble! (Ps. 99:1)

No power on earth, whether alone or in coalition with others, could triumph over God’s people without God’s permission. Do the nations scheme and plot, and set themselves against the Lord and
against his anointed?
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them. (Ps. 2:4)

The apostles of Jesus in New Testament days had the same conviction. When Peter and John were forbidden to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, they called their friends to prayer. They lifted their voices together to God as the "sovereign Lord," the
creator of the universe. Then they recited the first two verses of Psalm 2 (from which I have just quoted) and applied them to Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the rulers of Israel. These had conspired together in Jerusalem against Jesus. To do what? "What your power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (Acts 4:18, 23-28).

More than that. The prophets taught that the mighty soldier-emperors of the day, some of whom were cruel and ruthless men, were still instruments in the hand of the Lord. Shalmaneser of Assyria was the rod of his anger, the staff of his fury, with which to punish Samaria (Isa. 10:5-6), Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon his
"servant" through whom he would destroy Jerusalem (Jer. 25:9; 27:6) and Cyrus of Persia his "anointed" to free his people from their captivity (Isa. 45:1-4; cf. 44:28).

If the God of the Bible is the living and the sovereign God, he is also always self-consistent. His sovereign power is never arbitrarily used. On the contrary, his activity is always consistent with his nature. One of the most important statements about God
in Scripture is that "he cannot disown himself" (2 Tim. 2:13). Does it come as a surprise that it is said God "cannot" do something? Can he not do anything? Is he not omnipotent? Yes, he can do anything he pleases to do, anything which is consistent with his nature to do. But his omnipotence does not mean that he can do absolutely anything whatsoever; for he limits it by his own self-consistency.
God’s love and wrath, together with his works of salvation and of judgment, are sometimes set over against each other as supposedly incompatible. We have already mentioned how some people imagine the God of the Old Testament to be a God of anger and the God of the New Testament to be a God of mercy. But this
is a false antithesis. The Old Testament also reveals him as a God of mercy, while the New Testament also reveals him as a God of judgment. Indeed the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, presents him as a God of love and wrath simultaneously. The biblical authors are not embarrassed by this, as many moderns seem to be. Thus, the apostle John can tell his readers how "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son"; and at the end of the same chapter declare that on him who does not obey the Son the wrath of God remains (John 3:16, 36). Similarly, the apostle Paul can describe his readers as "like the nature objects of wrath" and in the very next verse write that God is "rich in mercy" and has loved us with a great love (Eph. 2:3-4).

The only explanation the Bible gives of the loving and wrathful activity of God, of his deeds of salvation and of judgment, is simply that he is like that. That is the kind of God he is, and this is why he acts that way. "God is love," and therefore he loves the world and has given his Son for us (1 John 4:8-9). But also "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29; cf. Deut. 4:24). His nature of perfect holiness can never compromise with evil but, as it were, "devours"
it. Always he sets himself implacably against it.

One of the ways in which Scripture dares to express this truth of God’s self-consistency is to say that he must and will "satisfy himself." That is to say, he is always perfectly himself and acts in a way that is true to himself. In every situation he expresses himself as he is, in mercy and in judgment.

Having now drawn attention to the biblical revelation of God as both living and sovereign on the one hand, and self-consistent on the other, there can be no doubt that the principal way in which the living God has expressed himself is in "grace." No one can understand the message of Scripture who does not know the meaning of grace. The God of the Bible is "the God of all grace" (1 Pet. 5:10). Grace is love, but love of a special sort. It is love which stoops and sacrifices and serves, love which is kind to the unkind, and generous to the ungrateful and undeserving. Grace is God’s free and unmerited favor, loving the unlovable, seeking the fugitive, rescuing the hopeless, and lifting the beggar from the dunghill to make him sit among princes (Ps. 113:7-8).
It is grace which led God to establish his covenant with a particular people. God’s grace is covenant grace. True, it is also shown to everybody without distinction. This is called his "common grace," by which he gives to all men indiscriminately such blessings as reason and conscience, love and beauty, life and food, marriage and children, work and leisure, ordered government and many other gifts besides. Yet God’s entering into a special covenant with a special people may be described as his characteristic act of grace. For in it he took the initiative to pick a people for himself and to pledge himself to be their God. He did not choose Israel because they were greater or better than other peoples. The reason for his choice lay in him, not in them. As Moses explained it,
The LORD...set his affection on you...because the LORD loved you. (Deut. 7:7-8)
Covenant" is a legal term, and signifies any binding undertaking. When used in Scripture to describe what God has done, however, it is not to be thought of as an agreement between two equal parties, a kind of mutual contract. It is more like a "testament" or will in which the testator has sole and entire discretion in the disposal of his own estate. Indeed, the English words "covenant" and
"testament" can be used interchangeably, which is why the two halves of the Bible are known as the Old and New "Testaments." The Greek word diatheke can mean either, and twice in the Epistles there is a play on the two meanings of the word, in order to make it plain that God’s covenant is like a "last will and testament" in that he has freely made certain promises (Gal. 3:15-18; Heb. 9:15-18). His covenant promises are not unconditional, since his people are required to obey his commands and this is their part of the covenant, but God himself lays down the commands as well as the promises. So even at Sinai God’s covenant remains a covenant of grace.

It is important to grasp, then, that the covenant of God is the same throughout, from Abraham to Christ, so that those who are Christ’s by faith are thereby Abraham’s children and heirs of the promises God made him (Gal. 3:29). The law which was given at Sinai did not annul the covenant of grace. On the contrary, the covenant of grace was confirmed and renewed at Sinai. What the law did was to emphasis and expand the requirement of obedience. It is only when the law is considered in isolation from the covenant
of grace that it is contrasted with the gospel. Then the law is seen to condemn the sinner for his disobedience, while the gospel offers him life by grace.
We are now in a position to think about what may be described as three stages in the outworking of God’s covenant,
expressed in the three words "redemption," "adoption" and "glorification."

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