|Title: Letter to an Evangelical (Continued)|
Part 6. Doesn't God hate sinners?
But what about God's wrath?
Elsewhere my friend states another worry of evangelicals: “another problem I have with telling unbelievers that God loves them is that …. they are objects of His wrath.”
Now let's consider the reality of this teaching. It is not so clear cut as many of would like to think. My temptation here is to expound on great length on the conclusion I have reached in my book (yet to be completed but available on this site, ‘Judgments of a Loving God') but instead I would just request you work your way through chapters 5 & 6 of that book. Perhaps some summary comments:
I know my concordance shows 197 times the word ‘wrath' is used in the Bible, most of them in respect of the Lord.
God's ‘wrath' is the fullest extent of His anger. Righteous anger is a right response to wrongs and injustices and is the trigger or warning that something needs to be done in respect of this situation (i.e. disciplinary or terminal judgment needs to be brought depending on the outcome the Lord can see is possible). Think on it some more -
With human beings, anger can be an indication of being out of control, but that is never true of God.
With God such anger is specific and limited in duration and attached to specific sins.
Note, Isa 54:7,8 puts His anger in context: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer.”
Quoting from my previous writings referred to above, I suggest that–
Because we only tend to think in terms of human experience, please note again the words underlined. It is never hasty or capricious.
In an extensive study of God's judgments in the Bible, the word that has surprised me that most stands out in respect of God's judgments is ‘restraint' but you'll need to read the book to see why.
What is sad is that certain evangelicals focus more on the wrath of God rather than the compassion of God which is more prevalent in the Bible (see below).
But Doesn't God Hate the Sinner?
The nearest thing we get to a contradiction in the Bible is God, on one hand ‘being love' as noted above, but then reading, “ the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.” (Psa 11:5) or “You hate all workers of iniquity.” (Psa 5:5)
Hatred = a strong moral revulsion and immense dislike.
I have used above the example earlier in this paper - I can love my sinful son and hate the lifestyle he has adopted. He is still my son and I love him and desire the best for him. That doesn't stop me at the same time hating the lifestyle in which he has become entrapped.
When God sees people who have become so embedded in their lifestyle, He sees their thoughts, their schemes, their desires, their warped ways of thinking and He sees what they do and the harm they cause and everything in Him revolts against this complete picture, so person and being and doing cannot be separated out.
NEVERTHELESS, the moment that person repented the whole of His experiential love and forgiveness and salvation is open to them to receive. This is what grace and mercy are all about.
(It might be worth, a little mischievously, to ask why love our sinful children? Even more, I suggest we are unlikely to find ourselves telling the wild demoniac that God loves him. Oh yes, and for fans of the Cross and the Switchblade, I remember David Wilkerson telling unbelieving drug addicts that God loved them)
Geisler & Howe in their “Big Book of Bible Difficulties” suggest, “The difficulty arises when we wrongly assume that God hates in the same way men hate. Hatred in human beings is generally thought of in terms of strong emotional distaste or dislike for someone or something. However, in God, hate is a judicial act on the part of a righteous Judge who separates the sinner from Himself. This is not contradictory to God's love, for in His love for sinners, God has made it possible for sins to be forgiven so that all can be reconciled to God. Ultimately the sinner will reap the harvest of God's hatred in eternal separation from God, or the harvest of God's love by being with Him in all eternity.”
What we might go on to say is that at any point of time God is wearing four hats all at the same time:
That of the Creator who loves all His created beings, made in His own image, who He yearns would receive Him and receive His inheritance for them, and
That of a Judge administering justice for sins, the greatest being to reject God, and
That of the Saviour who has redeemed all who will turn to Him through Christ, and
That of the Lord working out His plans and purposes to the final end of this world as we know it, to welcome in the new world of eternity, while leading and guiding His children through their lives.
Thus although He wears four different hats, pursuing four different roles, He never ceases to have that primary characteristic of love. That love may express itself in joy or in anger or in a variety of other ways, but it is still love. (a human father may inflict a painful punishment but he still loves the child. A judge might have to sentence his own child to imprisonment but that would not stopping him loving the child_
A prophet speaks out
Perhaps nowhere in the Bible are God's intentions spoken out so clearly as in Ezekiel:
Ezek 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and
Ezek 18:31,32 “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel ? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” and
Ezek 33;11 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel ?”
The echo of this in the New testament comes from the apostle Peter:
2 Pet 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
In each case repentance is the key to life and salvation. The strength of these verses is that God yearns for people to repent and come back to Him. But there is a whole problem area we are skirting round that needs to be addressed which is to do with how much God makes people act.
A Final Thought
A final thought in this part, if God hates them, these sinners, and God's wrath is on them, why did Jesus tell us to love our neighbour where ‘neighbour' surely includes unbelievers and would he teach something that he didn't do? If God truly hated every unbeliever (and the OT verses don't say that) then I would expect Him to teach us to hate them too and we know that is not so!
Part 7. Predestination-type Problems
If we are seeking to be thorough, there is a practical problem and a theological problem to be considered:
The Problem of not Loving Unbelievers: A Practical Problem
A basic query that my friend is verbalizing is that God only loves IF salvation is forthcoming, i.e. He doesn't love sinners and we shouldn't tell them He does.
Suppose I was converted in October, say. Suppose back in July I was a total unbeliever. Did God not love me back then?
Don't appeal to Eph 1 and say it is all about ‘calling' and the fact that God knew from before the foundation of the world that I would respond in October and that's why He loves me in July and not the unbeliever who history will reveal never believed.
If that were so then there may be millions of unbelievers who God knows will one day turn to Him and whom He would therefore love now – but we don't know , i.e. we could never say God didn't love this particular person because we don't know if one day it will be revealed that they are one of the ‘chosen', seen before the foundation of the world.
Practically we cannot deny on this basis that God loves this person, this person who may be an ‘at-the-present unbeliever'
The Problem of Eternal Knowledge
The ‘chosen' are so because God foresaw them and saw their response from before the foundation of the world (see Eph 1:4,5,11).
Now, if God allows sinful men to come into being, knowing from the outset that they will reject Him and therefore will be consigned to hell from the outset, He is shown to be a cruel God to make them live out a hopeless life – sand not a God of love. This is the mystery that theologians struggle with.
It is of,
on one hand, a God who sees all from above and knows the beginning from the end (and therefore knew what would happen – see Acts 2:23), and
on the other hand, the God who seems intimately involved with mankind and almost seems surprised by their actions sometimes, apparently only knowing the present.
This is particularly so when He gives commands which later were clearly disobeyed. Why give them if you know it is a lost cause? Why not kill off every individual at birth who He sees will not respond well? It is a mystery, and one where logic cannot prevail and Scripture gives no answer but presents both possibilities as realities.
Again, trying to cover as many bases as possible, there is yet another area to be considered, that of ourselves and our feelings and emotional abilities in trying to understand love. That we now move on to.
Part 8. How we view people – a clue for us
A crucial question for each and every one of us when thinking about this subject is, “How do I view people?” and our answer will reveal much about who we are, more than about who God is unfortunately.
It is a preliminary question that needs asking. To surround it by context may I give a personal testimony and then ask how you would fit in with this. It is important because we are supposed to reflect God (2 Cor 3:18).
A personal testimony
In my role in life, that I have been doing for the last five years, I interview people from all walks of life to create a local directory for our community. I thoroughly enjoy every person I have interviewed. I realise that I am only seeing part of their life and there is no doubt a dark part of their life that I am not seeing. Even more, I am aware that most of them are not Christians and therefore they are missing all the potential wonder of knowing God. I am sad about that and where the opportunity arises I will talk about the Lord – although the reality is that most of them are not ready to open up to me on that, and I am sad about that – but that doesn't stop me thoroughly enjoying these people and I hope and pray that their encounter with me will be a pleasant one, that will bless them and, yes, may one day open them up to me to talk about Jesus - but in the meantime, these are people made in the image of God and I thoroughly enjoy them.
Now you may say, “but I am not a people-person like you obviously are.” That is a pure excuse but it may hold an element of truth because we are each different personalities and some personalities are more inward looking and do not get on with people generally, as others do. But if you are a Christian that is merely an excuse because the Holy Spirit indwells each of us, the Spirit of Jesus, and he is for every person. Watch him in the Gospels, with the tax collectors and sinners. He obviously enjoys them because they enjoy him. Her enjoys them even when he knows some of them will not turn to his Father.
If God's love is within me (and it is) I can never hold back His love from any I meet. This is really little to do with uttering a limited formula of words that we call the Gospel, it is about enjoying people – loving them, simply for who they are.
How we may be unknowing people
I am a prophetic-pastor in terms of the basics of who I am, and so very often I have insights into people. In some people there is darkness, evil, and although I may love that person and yearn for them to be delivered, the expression of my love is limited because I cannot get through their darkness. Here is a revelation, we can express our love as much as people respond to us. The tax collectors and sinners responded to Jesus and they were clearly blessed by his company. I love, people open up, and I enjoy them.
Now here's something about us being unknowing people. When I say I have insights into people, I have to add that I could probably tell you at least three things wrong with every single member of the congregation that I belong to, including my friend. While we are ‘incomplete works' (and we are until we get to heaven) we all of us those who are on the same spectrum as every other person on this planet who desires to be good (and there are a lot of them and Paul spoke of them in the early chapters of Romans). Of course the things that separate us off from them is that we have come to a point of belief, have been born again etc.
The New Testament warns us believers, again and again, to ensure our lives are better than those of the unbeliever. Perhaps one of the biggest deceptions is thinking that we are perfect as far as every day behavior goes, when we are not, and following that the deception is to look down on others, some of whom may have got daily life together better than we have – and that is sad if true because of the Lofrd's resources available to us.
I have used this word ‘enjoy' or ‘enjoying' about people because that is sometimes a better word to describe the outworking of our love, Jesus' love in us.
When we say to someone, “God loves you,” if we wanted to expand on it we could say, “God loves you because He sent Jesus to die for you,” and that would be true. The point of this whole paper is that some people say He only loves as far as He wants them saved.
In my descriptions above, I have been trying to show how love goes beyond words and good long-term intentions (“I want you to be saved”) and includes feelings of acceptance of this person in front of us even though at the same time we may feel sad because we know that at this present time at least (which may change in days to come) they cannot see the truth. That is God's love for us – He accepts us as we are and respects us for who we are, even though He has much more on His heart for us. (it's part of that eternal versus present love conundrum we mentioned in the previous Part.
Obviously if they are evil, as I indicated above, then His love is limited in expression by the blackness of their life. Many people do not let God love them. He does love them but His is stopped expressing it by their free will.
For the sake of the unknowing Christian I will add that that is exactly the same for every one of us, even though we are Christians. Our free will limits God expressing the love He has for us; He limits Himself to just what we will allow Him to bring into our lives . That is exactly true of the unbeliever as well, except in their case it is the bigger issue of coming to the truth about their need and the Cross.
I would add at this point that it is obvious that God turns up and heals unbelievers and comes in power on them (even though they subsequently do not appear to get saved). I have seen it happen and the testimony of the book, ‘The Grace Outpouring' by Godwin & Roberts about God's activity in recent years at Ffald-Y-Brenin, also shows this quite dramatically. I suspect that the testimony of the people who pray for healing on the streets is that although they often see healing, not every one culminates in a person giving their life to the Lord – yet God still heals unbelievers.
Querying out of Unknowingness
One of the biggest concerns that I have, is that I believe these concerns often expressed by evangelicals in general, a) lay a heavy judgment on unbelievers that Jesus did not have, and b) reveal a lack of knowingness about themselves and c) exhibit a lack of grace.
A simple test: the last person you spoke to about God, Jesus, or the Christian Faith – when you left them did they feel loved and respected?
1 Pet 3:15 Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect
…..regardless whether they are a believer or unbeliever!
Part 9. A Scriptural Way Ahead
The aspect of love and loving the lost has to be seen in a much wider context that simply that of the theological approach. It needs to be considered in respect of how it has been absent in so much of what we were as we went from the 20 th to the 21 st centuries, as well as considering perhaps the pastoral approach that considers how people are changed.
A Question of History
As I have previously written elsewhere on this site in “Fresh Thoughts on a Witnessing Church ”, I am convinced that words alone are inadequate for today. I have lived through periods of great evangelism, through periods of the Charismatic and Restoration movements, not to mention the Toronto Blessing, only to find that today Christianity magazine tells us that for the first time Christians (or people with some religious belief) are outnumbered in this country by those who now openly declare they have no religious belief at all.
I have contended for a number of years that ‘words alone' are inadequate in the face of the humanistic and atheistic forces that are at work in our society and so what is needed is a combination of words, love, goodness, revelation and power , all of which need to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Love and goodness are Jesus' personality characteristics, while revelation and power are expressions of Jesus' work. (I accept there are likely to be a variety of other issues for the church to face, but I believe these four characteristics are critical to the wellbeing and indeed growth of the Church unless the Lord comes with revival).
I suggest we need ALL FIVE things because
Any vision I have for the church that breaks through in the future includes these things and they go way beyond slapping individuals with what we have called the Gospel in the past, but which, if we only have the courage to admit it, has fallen far short of the genuine Gospel which Jesus summarized as doing the same things that he did (Jn 14:12), expressions of the kingdom of God (Mk 1:15, Lk 4:43). Young people in particular want to see church that works, church that is divinely supernatural, and where God's love and goodness are obvious. (It almost goes without saying that I believe we have a long way to go with all five elements).
How we are Changed
I know that as a Christian I have been changed by God in three main ways. (There will of course be variety of other ways as well but these three feature largely in my own life)
FIRST and foremost, I have been changed by being loved.
When I am loved I am vulnerable and open to being corrected and changed.
When I am threatened, challenged or abused I simply get defensive.
When I am unconditionally loved I am open and I change and I know I have changed dramatically over the years by being loved by particular people and by receiving encouraging prophecy from God.
SECOND, and I am certain this has played a large part in my outlook, understanding etc. which has changed me, I have been changed by reading, studying and meditating upon God's word daily.
His presence as I have prayed and sought Him, and then the truths He has opened up on a daily basis have helped transform me.
Yes, there have been exceptional preachers and exceptional sermons that have changed me by their example and their words of revelation, but they have been rare.
I reiterate, being loved has been the greatest force for change in my whole life and I believe it is THE character of God that changes most people. It acts as a channel to let God's truth reach us, which then challenges us to act and be changed further.
Probably THE Classic example of this in the Gospels is that of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) who is accepted by Jesus and immediately is transformed without any words of correction being indicated.
In the gospels we find lots of teaching intermingled with lots of example. The example appears to be the bit that evangelicals seem to disregard, possibly because rules of hermeneutics and interpretation suggest we create doctrines from straight teaching and only secondarily by inference of activities.
Nevertheless, the example of Jesus is staggeringly powerful
Appendix 1: A Helpful Summary from the Internet
Question: "Does God love everyone or just Christians?"