7/16/2007

What I Do Not Understand

“…What is unique about Christianity among all the world religions is its central doctrine of a once-for-all atonement that is offered to people to grant them salvation… most religions have no provision for an atonement … Why would a world
religion not consider an atonement necessary for redemption unless, in their view, God is less than holy? If God is perfectly just and people are not perfectly just, yet those people are trying to be in a vital relationship with God, you have a basic, overwhelming problem. How would a God who is holy and just accept in his presence unjust creatures? … Human beings who are unjust must be justified somehow to enter the presence of a holy God. That’s why the whole focus of Judeo-Christianity is at the point of atonement, which brings about reconciliation. But if you don’t believe that God is all that holy, there’s no need for any concept of reconciliation. We can live however we want because this kind of god is a cosmic bellhop who will overlook all of our sins and do whatever we want him to do for us.” - R. C. Sproul

Many things in theology confuse me. This is not a big surprise. I am not a professional theologian and have no seminary training. It is a “hobby” for me in a sense, but one I take seriously. Theology is a passion for me because it has been impressed upon me from an early age what God is like and how little of God’s character I reflect.

God is holy. This means He is separate and different from me, primarily in the fact that He is completely without sin or sinful desires. My understanding of God’s holiness comes mainly from reading and studying the life of Jesus.

I can see out into the expanse of Christ’s life by looking through the window provided in the New Testament of the Bible. I have read this collection of 27 books many times.

I have rarely questioned whether these records were true, at first because of the fact that the people I respected held the New Testament to be God’s Word and without error. Later I had the opportunity to explore the evidence for the basic truthfulness of the New Testament documents for myself. I accepted The New Testament as true for my own reasons without depending on the testimony of others.

The New Testament presents a terrifying picture of what holiness is when it shows us the Person of Christ. Christ shows knowledge beyond that expected of a human (John 1:48-49). He heals the sick (Matt. 15:29-31). He stops the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41). He raises the dead (John 11:38-44). He teaches the most strict version of morality I have seen, including actions and attitudes of the heart (Matt. 5-7, Mark 7:14-23). He teaches that sin requires an eternal punishment (Mark 9:42-50). He accepts worship (Matt. 16:16-17, Luke 5:8, John 9:38, John 20:28-29). And, certainly not least, He rose from the dead Himself (1 Cor. 15:1-8).

Christ claimed to be God (John 8:58, John 10:30). He convinced a group of Jewish monotheists that He was God in the Flesh (Phil. 2:5-11).

Why is this so scary? He created the world (John 1:1-5) and holds it together (Col. 1:16-17). As my creator, He has the right to tell me what to do, and He requires perfect obedience (Matt. 5:48). He knows my imperfections (1 Cor. 13:12). In the words of Phillip Yancey, He is resurrected and “out there running around loose somewhere,” capable of upending all of my plans and dreams at any time. And He has reason to do exactly that in view of my sin.

However, the story does not end there. We see Christ promising to reconcile us to God by taking away our sins (Luke 24:46-49, John 3:10-21, John 14:6-7). We learn of the marvelous chance to take credit for what He has done for us by our faith (Luke 18:9-14). We see the picture of God’s action: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” by making “[Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:16-21).

That is a part I really do not understand: that God could love me. That a being so perfect and holy could love me, a professional sinner, and a bad one at that.

The atonement, what Christ did for us on the cross, is a partial explanation for that love. The idea is that God could love us because He sees our sin as paid for by Christ's suffering on the cross. He sees us as having Christ’s righteousness credited to our account. (penal substitutionary atonement)

Many within the church obscure this marvelous, incomprehensible love of a holy God. I read books which treat the atonement as a kind of overarching story without explaining any of the particulars. I read and hear sermon after sermon that hide God’s holiness, His requirements, and man’s sinfulness under a mountain of practical advice and modern psychological methods. I find Sunday School materials that omit God’s requirements and holy nature while pointing to the example of God’s love, leaving much of God’s character unexpressed. I find intellectuals who bury the simplicity of the gospel under a mountain of technical jargon and obtuse arguments over fine points of archaic “theories” that have often been rejected by the church in most of history.

Only Christianity even begins to explain God’s holiness and God’s love at the same time. Why do we hide our uniqueness under the mundane?

We see a light that blinds us in its intensity and permanently changes the way we see. Why do we hide this light, the very light of the world, under a bushel? Why do we hide the very words that could gain a hearing from the world and the cultures we live in?

May God have mercy on us because of Christ. May He grant us a change of heart that overflows into the lives of those around us.

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