Saturday, October 23, 2021

Chapter 10 Excerpt 2 -- God as Savior

Final excerpt from God with Ten Words:


The Hebrew word for salvation, yeshu‘ah, and the verb to save, yasha‘, together appear hundreds of times in the Old Testament. It is not likely that they ever referred to the afterlife in their original contexts. Salvation and being saved in the Old Testament were always about being rescued in this life from something, including being rescued from death (e.g., Ps. 6:4). Both before and after the exodus, Moses looks for the salvation of the LORD from the Egyptians (Exod. 14:13) and then he thanks the Lord for that salvation afterward (Deut. 32:15)—“the horse and its rider he threw in the sea.”

The very name Joshua, who leads Israel into the Promised Land, points to salvation. The salvation the Lord leads through him is not just escape from Israel’s enemies but also the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Israel is put into right standing in the land. The priest of the Jews after they return from Babylon is also named Joshua (Hag 1:12), as the Jews finally escape their captivity in Babylon and are restored to the land again.

The point is that God is not just the Savior of our souls. God also brings salvation in this life. God not only rescues us from those who wish to do us harm or those who might enslave us. God rescues us from any number of other things in this life, both individually and corporately. God “saves” those who are crushed in their spirits (Ps. 34:18). Job speaks of his “wholeness” having passed away (Job 30:15). In the Gospel of Luke, the Greek word to save (sozo) is used several times in terms of physical healing (Luke 8:50).

God wants our wholeness, our full restoration in every aspect. It does not always come in this life but sometimes it does in some area, and it is not wrong to work in this world for the wholeness of both individuals and societies. Obviously God’s greatest desire is for us to find eternal salvation. God also acts to heal our bodies (Acts 3:6). God delivers people from slavery, as we see not only in the exodus but repeatedly throughout the book of Judges. God heals and restores relationships.

While Christians currently disagree on the nature of the racial divide in the United States, there is no question biblically or theologically that God wants the reconciliation of all people to each other. It will not always happen, but God has no interest in us giving up, like the man who hid his talent in the ground because investing was too risky. Christians currently disagree on what a society would look like that was equitable to all, but we cannot disagree on the goal of wholeness for all.

The Bible reveals this impulse to “salvation” as an essential dimension of God’s justice. Understood in this broader biblical sense, education is a tool of salvation because it can potentially provide a pathway to restoration for those whose families are off track. We will disagree on the best methods and pathways, but the goal of wholeness for all should not be in question from a biblical standpoint.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Chapter 10 Excerpt -- Savior

We now get to the final word about God in the book I plan to self-publish by the end of the week: God with Ten Words:


God is our Savior. Although it may not fit with the way we normally think, salvation is part of biblical justice. Biblical justice is about putting things right, which means that God has “brought down the powerful from thrones and exalted the humble” (Luke 1:52). For a season, God may allow evil for reasons we have already seen. But evil is never the final answer.

God allows evil because it is better for us to freely choose the good rather than be forced to do the good. The corollary action of God is for salvation. Counterbalancing the constant presence of evil in the world is the constant action of God for salvation in the world. The culmination of this action was and is of course in Christ.

The thread of salvation runs throughout the Bible. Typically, we are well acquainted with God’s actions toward eternal salvation. We know the storyline of Scripture. Sin entered the world, and death through sin. Jesus came to destroy the power of Sin and death and free us to eternal life. This is the lens of salvation through which Christians predominantly read the Bible.

In much of Christianity, this story is read as a personal story. That is to say, it is a story about me and my individual salvation. It is also a spiritual story about my eternal, individual destination. Of course that thread of the story is true.

It also is only part of the story of salvation in Scripture. For one, this story of personal salvation in Paul’s writings is even more a story of corporate salvation. It is also a cosmic salvation, the setting right of all things. It is our culture that leads us to focus on our individual piece of that puzzle. The biblical world was a more group-oriented world. The story of salvation in Romans and Paul’s letters is thus more a story of God's people being saved together rather than mere individual salvation. Election in Paul is more about us collectively and God’s plan corporately than about any individual’s salvation.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Sermon Starters: God's Loving Justice

I'll backfill last week's sermon. This is the second of two sermons on God at Brookside Wesleyan Church in Wellsville.

God's Loving Justice

Text: Hebrews 12:5-11


  • Getting my children shots for kindergarten--not because we were evil parents, a moment of pain to save death or a lifetime of trouble
  • We think pleasure is good and pain is bad. This is not actually the case.
Some preliminary questions about God and justice:

  • God allows evil because it is better for us to choose him freely than to be forced to. But then there will be evil.
  • We have to believe that God allows suffering for a greater good, though we don't often know why (relative that died of cancer, Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever")
  • Abraham discussing Sodom with God--God will do what's right
1. God's loving justice gets us back on the right path.

  • pain is a good thing--it is a warning
  • CIP and hot stoves
  • consequences remind us of the way God has made the universe
  • "Spare the rod and spoil the child" -- episodes in parenting

2. God's loving justice protects others from us.

  • Speed laws and seat belt rules
  • Traffic lights
  • Think of justice as protection rather than punishment
  • Jail as protection

3. God's loving justice lets us go if we ultimately abandon him. 

  • God lets go. Romans 1
  • hardened hearts
  • C.S. Lewis' thought experiment in the Great Divorce
  • "Life imprisonment"
  • Hell as letting us go to the torment of self-imposed separation from God

  • training for a race and discipline

Monday, October 11, 2021

Another Chap 9 Excerpt -- Justice

Excerpts so far from God with Ten Words:


How can God’s justice fit within the context of loving us and the world? First, one dimension of “justice” is redirection and redemption. The last chapter mentioned the discipline of God in Hebrews 12. The purpose of discipline is to help us both get on track as well as to help us grow.

For one thing, God has wired the world a certain way. If someone has Type 2 diabetes and eats lots of sugar and starch, bad things will happen to the body. They may find themselves unproductive because their body struggles to process what it is eating. Individuals may find their minds clouded. In time, they may begin to have vision problems or begin to struggle with heart problems.

These consequences follow naturally from the laws of nature. God is not being mean to people if they begin to experience such things. On the other hand, if they discipline themselves in their eating, they may find their energy returning, their thinking clearing, and they may find themselves healthier than some others who do not have diabetes.

As we saw in Romans 1, one dimension of God’s justice is simply letting us experience the consequences of our choices. God has created our world with a certain moral wiring as well. If a person is untrustworthy, it will have consequences. When such individuals need others to trust them, such trust will be a hard time coming. If a person is violent, violence gives birth to more violence. “The one who lives by the sword dies by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Similarly, indiscriminate sexual activity and adultery usually bring turmoil and unhappiness in one’s life, not peace or lasting joy.

Along these lines, some of God’s discipline is a warning. Perhaps we experience a check on how we are thinking or acting, one that foreshadows where we will end up if we keep on our current course. Let’s use the example of a speeding ticket. The reason speeding is against the law is because it is dangerous both to ourselves and others. A ticket is a kind of warning. “You should slow down before you get into an accident.” If we listen, we may save our own lives as well as the lives of others. Discipline or “justice” thus helps get us on the right path.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Chapter 9 Excerpt -- Justice

Excerpts so far from God with Ten Words:


We know God is love (1 John 4:8). Scripture also tells us that God does what is right (Gen. 18:25). On the one hand, the “righteousness of God” leads to salvation (Rom. 1:16-7). We should be careful not to see God’s justice solely in terms of judgment or punishment because the Bible also connects it clearly with salvation. Paul in Romans is arguably drawing from passages in Psalms and Isaiah where God’s righteousness is especially shown by bringing salvation to Israel and the world (e.g., Ps. 98:2; Isa. 56:1).

At the same time, the other side of God’s righteousness is the fact that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and human unrighteousness among those who hold back the truth with unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). Notice the reason for God’s action in such cases. It is to release the truth. We are prone to think of God’s wrath in terms of fire and brimstone, and we will come to those images in a moment. However, in Romans 1, God’s wrath mostly plays out by “letting go” of those who have gone astray (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). God lets them experience the consequences of their conscious turning from him (Rom. 1:21, 27).

How do God’s love and justice (in its more prevalent English sense) fit together? I do not believe they contradict each other when properly understood, but it is very difficult for us as humans to hold them in proper balance. It seems that in the end one or the other must ultimately be made the primary characteristic. It seems that we must either locate God’s justice within his love or locate God’s love within his justice.

I believe it is most biblical to locate God’s justice within the context of God's love. God’s primary orientation toward the world is for salvation rather than condemnation. We see this dynamic in John 3:16-17. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” … “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” James 2:13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” If indeed God would prefer for everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), then God’s love and mercy must be the primary attitude of God toward the world, with a good but regrettable reason for justice to be an exception. Again, I am using the word justice here in its more prevalent English sense rather than its much richer biblical sense.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Fragments of Reading

It is my practice to "store" memory of the books I've dabbled in here so I can collect the information at the end of the year. I have not completed the following, but I have read or listened to several chapters of each. Don't have the time to write them up.

For the Body

Fault Lines


Reading While Black 

Another Chapter 8 Excerpt

Excerpts so far from God with Ten Words:


Not everyone has a great father or mother. Some fathers are abusive. Some fathers are distant and uncaring, perhaps even completely absent. A few parents even give their children their every wish and whim, providing no preparation for a harsh world that is likely to smack us around a few times.

It goes without saying that none of these models measure up to God as our perfect parent. Because of the failings of our earthly parents, God sometimes uses people to step into the gaps of our upbringings to help us see more clearly what such relationships can be. As an old song used to say, “God uses people, just like you and me.”

God is not like a parent who is never around or completely absent. That is not to say that we are likely to feel God’s presence every moment of every day. Sometimes, as part of the “growing up” process, God lets us learn to walk in silence. But such silence is temporary. God is a parent who is ever-present, even when we do not feel it.

God is not abusive. We will talk in the next chapter about God as judge. There are pictures of God as wrathful in the Bible, especially in some parts of the Old Testament but also sometimes in the New Testament. Like the pictures of God where God does not seem to know everything or be present everywhere, these are imprecise pictures. As we will see, they are especially examples of God meeting Israel within an extremely harsh cultural framework and also a picture of the consequences of living against the grain of the way God has made the world.

The primary image of God is found in the Old Testament “creed” that is repeated in every part of the Old Testament. “Gracious and compassionate is the LORD, slow to anger and great in steadfast love. Good is the LORD to all and his compassions are over all his creations” (Ps. 145:8-9).

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Chapter 7: God is Good

I decided to post most of the chapter on God's goodness from my project God with Ten Words.

1. God is great! God is good. We already saw in chapter 2 that God is love (1 John 4:8). God desires and acts for the benefit and good of the creation. God desires us to have pleasure more than pain. God is good—all the time. All the time—God is good!

So why have a separate chapter on the goodness of God when we have already seen that God is love? In this chapter we want to address the biggest question, perhaps the biggest obstacle that some people have to faith in God. If God is good, if God is loving, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?

This question is sometimes called the “problem of evil” or the “problem of suffering.” As we shall see, those are probably two distinct questions. But they do have the same basic underlying issue. If God is all-powerful, then God is able to stop evil and pain in the world. If God is loving and good, you would think God would want to stop evil and suffering in the world. Then why is there evil and suffering?

There are several different answers that have been proposed. Some suggest that God is not all-powerful. Further, some of the open theists I mentioned earlier would rather think that, because God is love, God cannot force anyone to do anything. I do not agree with this understanding of love.

Then of course some would say that God simply does not exist. They might say not to blame God for something he is not around to do. Interestingly, some in this last category almost act like they are angry at God for allowing evil. “I’ll show you, God, by not believing in you.” But of course, you can’t be angry with God if you don’t think God exists. I suspect many in this category actually do believe and are just upset because God didn’t stop some evil or suffering.

One argument for believing in God is actually the argument from evil. If God doesn’t exist, it suggests, then what basis is there for calling something evil in the first place? If God exists, we have a basis for saying that good exists. Therefore, even if we don’t always understand why God allows evil, we at least can call evil, “evil,” and oppose it.

The classic answer, the one I affirm, is that God always has good reasons when evil or suffering is allowed to happen. We just do not always know what they are. God is good. God could stop evil and suffering. But God has good reasons not always to do so, even though we often do not know what they are.

When I think of this question, I often think of the story of Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. God knows how the conversation is going to end. God knows how many righteous people are in Sodom and has since the creation of the world. But God walks through the conversation with Abraham for Abraham’s sake. Abraham is a creature in time. God is outside of time and knows exactly how it will turn out without forcing it to go a certain way.

“Will you save Sodom for fifty righteous people?”

“Sure,” God says.

“What about forty?” “What about thirty?” “Twenty?” “Ten?”

Again, God saw this conversation before the foundation of the world. God knew what Abraham would (freely) ask, and God knew what would be answered.

What I find particularly interesting about the conversation is one of Abraham’s questions. “Will not the Judge of all the land do justice?” (Gen. 18:25).

To me, this is an excellent picture of our situation. We know that God is good and will always do what is the best and what is right. The problem is that we do not always know what that is. God does, but we don’t.

2. Our problem, I believe, is that sometimes it doesn’t look like God has done the good and the right. Why did God allow the Holocaust? As I write this chapter, they have just found the body of a young girl who went missing while on a road trip with her fiancé. We have footage of the police intervening earlier with them because they were fighting. It sure seems like she was murdered. Why, we ask, did God allow that to happen when it could have been avoided?

What we can say for certain is that God is good. We can say for certain that God is love. We do not know exactly why God allows such things to happen. But we believe that God has a reason and that the reasons are good. We just don’t see the big picture.

You’ll notice that I said God “allows” such things to happen. There is an important distinction here. There are some Christians who believe that God directs everything that happens in the world. They believe God selects who will be saved and that every single event that happens is according to God’s intricately detailed plan.

The problem with this approach is that it makes God directly responsible for evil. On this understanding, every last detail of every murder that has ever been committed was planned by God down to the last, intricate detail. On this understanding, every last detail of every rape that has ever happened was planned by God down to the last, intricate detail. On this understanding, Satan and demons are but puppets through whom God tortures the universe. God becomes the author of evil on an astounding level.

This is untenable and incoherent. If God is responsible for all evil on that level, then Christianity is a farce.

When we say that God allows evil, we are saying that God has chosen—on God’s own authority—to give the creation some freedom in decision-making. There are likely many things that God makes happen in the creation, things that God determines. But Christians from my tradition believe that God has given some freedom to the creation to make its own decisions.

In chapter 3, we mentioned God’s “sovereignty,” God’s absolute control over the universe. Some Christians believe that God could not give any freedom to the creation without losing his sovereignty. But this claim makes no sense. A parent could let a child make a free decision and still be in control of the situation. “Should I get the strawberry or chocolate ice cream, Mom?” “You decide.” By delegating that decision, the parent does not lose any authority over that situation. The claim simply doesn’t follow.

We are talking about the difference between God’s “directive will” and God’s “permissive will.” God’s directive will relates to things that God determines to be so, that God commands to be so. God’s permissive will refers to what God allows to happen. God is in total control of every situation all the time, but some specific things happen that God does not prefer but allows.

We have talked about God creating the world out of nothing. That fact does imply that God created the possibility of evil. But it seems different to say that God created the possibility of evil for a good reason rather than to say that God dictated the actuality of evil with high intentionality in every case.

And here it is important to note that evil is not a “thing.” As a young man I remember seeing a comedy on television where, at the end, it turns out that evil is actually a lump of black substance something like coal. Evil is not actually like that. It cannot be removed from the human heart in some supernatural surgery. It is not a presence to be removed or an absence to fill. It is not a thing. Evil is a decision, made by a person. It is an adjective that describes intentional choices and actions. An animal cannot do something evil. You cannot accidentally do something evil. Evil requires a mind, an intentional “agent.”

You can of course accidentally “wrong” someone. In that sense, you can unintentionally “sin.” On the one hand, there can be intentions in the background of such sins. You can neglect sleep and have an accident the next day where someone is killed. Such an event probably does not rise to the level of evil, although there is culpability and responsibility involved. There is a category in the law—negligent homicide or criminal negligence.

However, dying in a volcanic eruption invokes the question of pain and suffering but not the question of evil. Tectonic plates are not evil to cause an earthquake that kills you. The problem of evil involves the intentionality of minds. The problem of suffering involves a slightly different question.

So God created the possibility that angels and humans would choose evil, but God does not dictate evil decisions to happen. This raises the question, “How could Adam sin in the Garden if he did not have ‘evil’ inside him?” How could Jesus be tempted if he did not have evil within him?

Pristine temptation happens when a good desire is directed at an inappropriate object. Sexual desire is good in itself. Temptation to sin happens when its object is someone who is different from your spouse. But temptation itself is not sin. James 1:14-15 make it clear that sin is one step beyond temptation. Sin is when temptation “has conceived.”

So Adam desires knowledge. Adam desires to “be fruitful and multiply” or to excel and advance in the world God has given him. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil tempts him and Eve because it is an opportunity for knowledge and, apparently, advancement. But it is an inappropriate object of such desire. Temptation happens. And, in their case, it conceives.

This version of the existence of evil suggests that God does not dictate for specific evil to happen or exist. Rather, God dictated that evil could exist. This difference seems significant. We are suggesting that God could create the possibility of evil taking place and yet be good in God’s intention. However, if it were true that God dictates and commands specific evils to happen, then God would be the author of evil. I do not believe this.

3. The question still remains, however. Why would a good God even create the possibility of evil choice?

The primary answer that Christians have given throughout the centuries is that a world in which we can choose God freely is a better world than one in which we are forced only to do the good. This answer is called the “free will theodicy,” where a theodicy is an explanation for how God can be good despite the existence of evil and suffering. This explanation chiefly goes back to a Christian thinker named Augustine (AD354-430).

Now, going back to chapter one, who are we to say what the best universe is? I resist those who would say, “this is the best of all possible worlds” (e.g., Gottfried Leibniz) or “God couldn’t create a universe where it was better not to be free.” I just would argue that this is not that universe. In this universe, it is better to be able to choose God freely than to be forced to choose the good. Who are we to say what God has done or could do elsewhere?

In this universe, however, most parents would say it is preferable for their children to love them freely than for them to be forced to love them. The same goes for spouses. It is surely preferable for your spouse to be with you because they freely wanted you rather than because someone forced them to marry you.

But if people have those choices, some will choose God and some will not. In the traditional understanding, Adam and Eve had that choice, but they made the wrong one. Christians disagree on the extent to which we still have such a choice. Many traditions believe that only those that God chooses or “elects” can make the right choice. They would typically say that God’s will is “irresistible” in such a case. If God chooses to save you, you will certainly choose God and be saved.

There are certainly verses that sound this way (e.g., Rom. 9). But there are many other verses that do not sound that way (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:4), and God certainly didn’t seem to operate with that philosophy in John 3:16. Even language about God choosing us seems to be conditional in some places (Rom. 11:24; 2 Pet. 1:10). The election would seem to be more collective and a matter of God’s plan than something fixed for individuals apart from their choices.

I breathe a sigh of relief here, because the idea of unconditional election and perseverance seems incoherent with any substantial notion of the goodness and love of God. A loving God would surely want as many people as possible to be saved, as 1 Timothy 2:4 says. The notion that God seemingly arbitrarily numbers us off, whimsically consigning some of us to burn forever and others for bliss hardly makes any sense in the light of 1 John 4:7-8.

By contrast, the Wesleyan tradition holds to a notion known as “prevenient grace.” This is the idea that God reaches out to everyone in their morally disempowered state. God does not force anyone to move in the right direction, but the Spirit empowers those that do. Movement toward God brings more grace, like steadily turning on the light. Those who continue to receive that grace find themselves eventually saved by that grace. In this way, salvation is by grace through faith, not of works, but it is available to all who freely choose it.

This is a book about God, however, not about humanity or salvation. We were concerned about the fact that God allows evil. We wondered how God could be good and allow evil to happen. The “free will theodicy” says it is because there is a greater good. The greater good is the ability for us to choose God freely. But if we are free to choose God, some will not, and evil will result.

We have still not answered many questions. Are humans really free? What does that look like? It sure seems like what we do is very determined by our environment, by our genetics, by our biochemistry. In the scenario above, moral freedom comes by the supernatural power of God. There are other possible answers, such as the idea of a soul that stands to some extent outside the normal cause-effect chain of events that take place in the world. But that is probably a topic for another book. For us it only matters that there are possible answers, not that we have the one, right answer.

Another question is why our default state seems to be one of moral disempowerment or “depravity,” as it is sometimes called. The classic answer is that it is a consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve. In an event in Genesis 3 known as the “Fall,” the power of Sin comes over the physical world (cf. Rom. 8:20-21), including our bodies (Rom. 7:14). We think a little about the question of Adam and Eve below.

4. The free will theodicy gives some explanation for how a good God could allow evil in the world. God gave humanity extensive moral freedom, which is good. But if we have moral freedom, some will make the wrong choice, and evil will result.

A second theodicy gets more at the question of pain and suffering. It is sometimes called the “soul-making theodicy,” and it is older than Augustine’s free will explanation. In the second hundred years of Christianity, a man named Irenaeus suggested something very similar to the exercise slogan—“No pain, no gain.” If you never exercise, your body will get weak and flabby. Resistance is essential to build strength.

In the same way, Irenaeus suggested that the challenges of pain and suffering help us grow morally. Without pain, we sometimes take the gifts of God for granted. Without challenges, it can be difficult to know how deep our moral strength is. “What does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Sometimes suffering can result as a consequence of bad choices. If I eat a certain way, if I behave a certain way, I may be more likely to get sick or have an accident. Consequences make clear the structure of the world God has created. I learn not to touch that hot stove.

A man named C. S. Lewis spoke of suffering as a chisel by which God makes us into something beautiful. It is not a particularly pleasant image, but there may be some truth to it. Some of the most beautiful and significant creations of humanity have come from the depth of pain and suffering that are part of the human experience, like the annoying spec of sand in an oyster that produces a pearl...