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All the Saints

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I went to church this morning in Peachtree City, Georgia. The pastor spoke from Ephesians 6 where Paul writes about engaging in a battle against spiritual forces and encourages his readers to stand firm. The sermon contained nothing new. But I noticed something I hadn’t before that got me thinking. Paul concludes his description of the “full armor of God” with an injunction:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

While it’s true that the huge fault lines created by the Great Schism and the Reformation had not yet appeared in the church, still there were divisions. Even from the very beginning there were Grecian Jews who complained that their own widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6). Culture divided the church between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. Yet Paul’s vision was of a church somehow still united, a church so devoted to following Jesus that it would pray for all the saints.

In our own day the church looks more divided than ever. Not only are there various denominations (and groups refusing to become denominations), the church is also divided between Democrats and Republicans, black and white, those who favor gun control and those who oppose it, pro-gay and pro-marriage, pro-abortion and anti-abortion. All the diversity found in our nation appears also in the church.

Some want to exclude those who differ in matters of politics or social policy by refusing to acknowledge that they are really brothers or sisters. Some want to deny that God’s grace might save a man without making him pro-gay or might deliver a woman without making her anti-abortion. But Paul makes it clear that all the divisions that separate us are nothing compared to the faith that unites us, faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.

I certainly don’t want to pretend that the issues that divide the church are unimportant. They are not. However, we don’t have to let those divisions keep us from enjoying our unity in Christ. That enjoyment will present a powerful testimony to the world and open our own eyes to the possibility that each of us might be in some measure wrong. We can disagree. We can urge one another to see different points of view. But in all our interactions we must treat each other with love and respect. There should not be any name-calling or sarcastic put-downs. We ought not to mock or deride one another. We gain nothing by regarding one another as wicked or insane.

I confess, I have been guilty. I have joined with those who vilify fellow Christians for religious or political differences. Forgive me. With God’s help I will do so no longer. Instead, I will pray for all the saints.

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Does God Love Everyone?

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I watched a clever music video today for a song by Michael Gungor Band called “God is not a White Man.” The chorus of the song repeatedly affirms that God loves everyone. Most Christians would find this claim unexceptionable, but does it accord with what the Bible says about God? Does God really love everyone? If so, what does such universal love mean? If not, whom then does he love?

Let’s start by defining love. I may use the same word to describe my feelings for ice cream and my feelings for my wife, so we need something a bit more precise. To love is to act from sincere affection in ways that will secure the good of the one loved. For example, I love my children. My love sometimes impels me to punish them, never because I take pleasure in hurting them, but only because the punishment will help them grow and develop into mature adults. So now let’s ask our question this way: Does God act from sincere affection in ways that will secure of good of everyone?

The consistent witness of Scripture is that he does not. God condemns some people and saves others. He pours out destruction on some while rescuing others. In the end, he accepts some people into heaven and condemns others to hell. Can we say that God loves those he condemns? Here is what the Psalmist says:

The LORD examines the righteous,
but the wicked, those who love violence,
he hates with a passion.
On the wicked he will rain
fiery coals and burning sulfur;
a scorching wind will be their lot. (Psalm 11:5-6)

So according to Psalm 11, God hates the wicked. If we were to combine this verse with verses quoted by Paul in Romans 3:10-18, we might justly conclude that far from loving everyone, God hates everyone. No one is righteous; everyone is wicked; no one fears God or seeks to know him, or knows the way of peace. Instead everyone is deceitful and destructive and violent. God hates everyone, and everyone is destined for destruction. The great wonder is that he hasn’t pronounced his judgment already and condemned us all.

The Bible no where says that God loves everyone. It says that he loves the righteous (Psalm 146:8). And it says that his nature is love (I John 4:8, 16). When God appeared to Moses he told him that he was “compassionate and gracious…, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” God’s own revelation of himself is as a God of love.

Here is a contradiction. God’s nature is love, but he still hates the wicked, and everyone is wicked. His love prompts him to forgive, but his justice demands that he condemn. So God provided a means by which people could be forgiven and made righteous. He sent his own son to take the place of sinful people and endure his wrath on their behalf so that they could take his son’s place and be accounted God’s children. He has made this salvation available to everyone who puts their trust in his son, Jesus Christ.

The expression, therefore, of God’s love to everyone is in Jesus Christ. Anyone who rejects Jesus, rejects God’s love. For such a person there is no love left “but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb 10:27). So now God loves everyone who loves his son and hates everyone who hates his son. He knows those who belong to him.

But what about you. Yes, you. Does God love you? If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, then you know that he does, and nothing—not even death itself—can separate you from his love (Rom 8:38-39). If you have not put your trust in Jesus, then he still loves you enough to make you this offer: you give up your life and everything you call your own to him, and he gives to you eternal life and freedom from your guilt and sin. That’s the deal: all or nothing, life or death. There is no middle ground. Which do you choose?

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Love and Fear II

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After the last post on Love and Fear, I got several comments on my Facebook page. One from my niece, Raine,  raised some interesting questions. She wrote:

What a lot of facets of love and fear!

Chad says that God only desires obedience because obedience is the end-result of love (at least, I think that’s what he’s saying). This doesn’t make sense to me. At all. It seems to me that by saying that he is saying that the things that God requires of us, the things that we are to obey are then also beside the point. That those things don’t exist for their own sake, because they are right and wrong, and God is a righteous and just God. But that those things then are only a way of proving love.

Chad also says, “However, this is my experience of obedience that is gained by fear: it is half-assed. I see it all the time in the soldiers under me. If they are given a task they do not wish to complete, they may not moan or gripe. Instead they do the minimum. They fulfill the letter and only the letter of the orders they are given. As I understand it, Jesus urged us to look to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. This type of obedience can only come from someone who is acting out of something more than fear.”

In my experience, as a child when I did something out of fear of punishment, I did it far more diligently then when I did it simply out of a sense of obligation. I was completely thorough, knowing that my work would be inspected.

I would still be afraid to do the minimum in a situation where I am obeying out of fear, unless that minimum was a clearly defined, easily pin-pointed line. I would be afraid that my minimum wouldn’t be quite enough to avoid punishment.

But besides that, in a situation where someone is doing the minimum required to avoid punishment all the punisher has to do to get more out of them is raise that standard. God’s standard is perfection. God’s standard is obeying the spirit of the law not just the letter.

It seems to me that Chad is talking about a disrespectful fear, a fear where the person who is afraid does not like or respect the person they fear, and they are internally rebelling (and externally rebelling as far as they think they can get away with). This probably happens a lot amongst us humans. However, I do not see how anyone could fear and disrespect God. Doesn’t fear of God inspire great respect? We know that God is omniscient; if we fear him, we must respect him, because we cannot be disrespectful behind his back or internally. Fear of God requires respect. Fear and respect require complete obedience. Complete obedience means doing everything good and everything right.

Maybe the problem is that people do not have enough fear of God. They think that because of grace they don’t have to try as hard as they should, that they can get away with doing wrong and still be forgiven. More fear would overcome this problem; more fear would inspire more obedience, more obedience would inspire more love (because obedience necessarily requires a deeper and deeper knowledge of and relationship with God; you cannot obey God without getting to know him more, and you cannot know him more without loving him more) and as love became perfected, fear would no longer be necessary.

My last thing has to do with Chad’s first paragraph which talks about love of oneself being the basic human condition. This brings to mind a question that I have long had. The Bible says (in Ephesians 5:29) that no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it. But aren’t there a lot of people who hate themselves? And a lot of people who starve themselves or cut themselves or engage in other self-harming behaviors? I guess I must be missing something; I’m just not sure what.

I’ll start with the last question first. When Paul says that no one ever hated his own body, he is talking about common experience, not about pathologies. People who engage in self-destructive behaviors would probably have been regarded as demon-possessed in Paul’s day. In fact, Mark tells us that the Gadarene demoniac “would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). Yet even such a man retained a desire for his own comfort and happiness. Pascal wrote that all men seek happiness. Everyone does things that are consistent with what they believe will lead to their own happiness or lessen their pain. Those who starve or cut themselves are often attempting to alleviate some intense emotional pain through self-inflicted physical pain.

With regard to Raine’s comments on love and fear, I think she gets it exactly right. In fact, I would argue that fear without respect is not really fear at all. The “half-assed obedience” Chad talks about comes from insufficient fear. If his soldier were really afraid of disobeying, his obedience would not be “half-assed.” It would be meticulous.

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