NOTE: This is the announcement I made on my Facebook page just after posting this article. I think it is important to read before reading the article itself. Here it is: “For the past two weeks, I have been working on an article that I believe God put on my heart. It delves deeply into the question of where God is in the midst of our current, ever-increasing health plague. The article is not a short and easy read, but rather a somewhat lengthy and complex one. It could not be otherwise, given the gravity and complexity of the topic. Therefore, unless you are willing to pay the price of reading it carefully and prayerfully, please don’t even start. I don’t want to be misunderstood and/or misquoted. But I do urge you to read it with those parameters in mind. Thank you.”
No doubt this question is being asked by millions of people in our world at this very moment. When calamity strikes, we humans want answers. Some aim their pained questions toward their governmental authorities. “Why hasn’t the government done more?” Why didn’t the government act more decisively much sooner?” “Why isn’t the government doing more right now?” These are common questions and probably relevant questions, but I can’t answer any of them. I am addressing a much bigger and more important question in this article.
Is the Coronavirus COVID-19 a judgment of God or not? Many similar questions are being directed toward him, in the hearts if not outwardly, and most of us with a Christian orientation are definitely asking them. Some of our questions are asked in a way that calls God into question. “Why doesn’t God stop this awful pandemic when we pray?” “Why would God allow this kind of suffering to go on when he could stop it?” “Where is God in this pandemic?”
God’s Nature and Human Nature
None of these questions have simple answers. God is in this plague with us in more ways than we imagine. Those who belong to his family in Christ can rest assured that we have not been forgotten and God wants us to cast our burdens on him (1 Peter 5:7). Those who are not yet in his spiritual family are still loved by him deeply and he wants them to seek a relationship with him through Christ. At times like these, a good starting place is to consider the nature of God and the nature of human beings. God is good, loving, merciful, forgiving, just, powerful and many other things. Does he gain any pleasure in the suffering of his creation? No, none at all. Then why does he allow it? That is the age-old question, is it not?
After the calamity of September 11, 2001, commonly referred to as 9/11, a Boston church college student at Suffolk University reported that one of his professors made this statement: “This proves that God doesn’t exist.” The professor called attention to an age-old dilemma, which is stated in some way similar to this by atheists: “If there is a loving, all powerful God, he wouldn’t allow such things to happen. So, if he exists, he is either not loving or not all powerful. Therefore, the best case is that he simply does not exist.”
Well, God does exist, a topic we will deal with later in the article when examining a biblical text in some detail. And yes, he is all powerful and all loving at the same time. In his power, he created the universe and all that is in it, with mankind being the highest order of that creation. When he created humans, he gave them a gift having extraordinary potential – potential for good and potential for bad. That gift, of course, was the freedom of choice. The choices we can make may be good or bad. The choices made by terrorists on 9/11 were obviously horrendously bad ones. But for God to block choices like those would be to reduce us to robots and that he will not do. He created us to have fellowship with him in both time and eternity, and such fellowship must be based on choice. Otherwise it is not love.
Thus, we see that although God’s nature is righteous in every way, man’s nature includes the ability to choose to be like God or like Satan. Sadly, human nature is always going to tend strongly toward the negative unless we choose to seek God and imitate him. Those who make that choice will be blessed and those who don’t will fail to be blessed. Those are the basic ground rules involved in what it means to be human. God loves us and wants us to be blessed, but we cast the deciding vote in the matter.
Wait a Minute!
You may be saying “Wait a minute!” about now. What does our human freedom of choice have to do with a pandemic that is infecting hundreds of thousands of people and killing thousands as of today (March 29, 2020) – and spreading exponentially at this very moment? Perhaps not much, although refusals to make good choices like obeying “shelter in place” directives could be noted. The bigger picture of how natural calamity and human choice may be related is a complex topic, but the foundation must be laid regarding the nature of God and the nature of humans.
God created the world as a preparation for an eternity with him, and cause and effect are a part of our world. If there were no cause and effect operating in the physical world, it would be difficult to understand its operation in the spiritual world. At this point, we could address how we have damaged our environment to the extent that natural calamities are much more likely, but we will save that discussion for another day.
Where is God in All This?
Let’s return to our question about where God is in all that we are experiencing right now. It is vital that we understand God’s place in this world and what occurs in it. In the broad sense, everything that happens does so with God’s knowledge and involvement. That involvement may take one of two forms: the direct or the indirect. Stated another way, he either causes something to happen or he allows it to happen. Nothing occurs without his permission, even the death of a little bird (Matthew 10:29). Further, God has both an ideal will and an allowed will. His ideal will is for us to seek him but his allowed will gives us the option of doing the very opposite.
Two passages in the Old Testament give us some insight into these two “wills” of God and how they work together. King David had a desire to number his fighting men, which was directly against the (ideal) will of God. In fact, David’s sin resulted in a plague that killed 70,000 Israelites. The motivation for his decision was attributed to both God and Satan. Read the following passages:
2 Samuel 24:1
Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
Of course, those who reject the inspiration of the Bible try to discredit it in any way possible. Pointing out assumed contradictions is one of their favorite approaches, and this example is understandably a primary one they use. What do we Bible believers do with these two verses? Easy answer (at least for me) – Satan was the primary promoter of the decision and God allowed him to do it. In that sense, God is said to have done it because he is in control of the universe through both his direct agency and indirect agency. This particular example is one of the best showing the difference between ideal will and allowed will. His ideal will was that David not number the people; his allowed will was that he number them.
Here are another couple of passages from the Old Testament that make the same point.
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?
We may find this concept confusing and maybe even distasteful, but we actually shouldn’t. The fact that God is ultimately in control of everything helps us to understand and accept passages like this one: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Reading the remainder of Romans 8 adds a great deal to the concept expressed in verse 28. God can not only use the bad things in his overall plan for humanity but can use them to bless his people spiritually.
Naturalistic Explanations Available
Whether God is directly causing the present health challenge or simply allowing it is honestly a matter of conjecture. I don’t pretend to know the answer. God gives us evidence, but not in an overwhelming way that all but forces us to a conclusion. He insists that our positive responses to him remain in the faith realm. For example, the creation itself can be explained in a totally naturalistic way (without a Creator). As ludicrous as that actually is, many very intelligent people, including some scientists, accept it as fact.
However, human reason alone, in looking at the creation, should come to another conclusion – one that has God in the center of it. That is the precise argument found in Romans 1, which we will examine further later. The Psalmist had it right when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” In Psalm 19, the first six verses describe God’s general revelation through creation and the last eight verses describe his special revelation, Scripture. Thus, while God reveals himself and his spiritual truths, he does not do it in a way that overwhelms and forces conclusions.
And why is that important? It helps us weigh more carefully explanations that are simply naturalistic. They may be absolutely valid; possibly valid; or absolutely invalid. Sometimes the available evidence could be interpreted one way or the other, or possibly both ways in combination. As it relates to pandemics, human history is replete with them. I have a web page open as I write this, showing thirteen such pandemics that killed at least a million people, dating back to the Second Century AD. The greatest killer was the Black Death Bubonic Plague, dating between 1347 and 1351, which killed 200 million people (nearly half of Europe’s population). In the last century (the 1900’s), five pandemics are listed, with two of them being in the top five of the most deadly on record: the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, killing 40-50 million, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began around 1981 and continues, killing 25-35 million thus far. In our present century, this current Coronavirus outbreak is one of five pandemics listed.
So what is the bottom line of these facts and figures? Only that such health plagues infecting most of the world geographically have occurred throughout recorded history and may or may not be linked to a direct judgment of God. Only he knows. Even if they are not, surely God wants us to use all such calamities to motivate us to examine ourselves spiritually and to serve our fellow humans in their suffering. Don’t you expect that he wants us to take a much closer look at our morality and our materialism right now? Our early brothers and sisters in the third century were known for loving each other and serving those affected by a destructive plague in their day. Non-believers did the exact opposite. We currently need to heed the example of those early disciples. It is the way of Jesus.
Not Done Yet
This article could have ended with that last sentence. But we are not done with this serious subject just yet. How this present virus may relate to a direct judgment of God needs more examination. Here is what we can know for sure. God hates sin and God punishes sin. As Peter put it, God is very patient in his desire that people come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Thus, we cannot know exactly when that patience is going to reach its limit and bring about Divine judgment. That being said, one particular passage in the New Testament gives us very strong markers about when a nation is going to be severely punished by God. That passage invites a very close look and a very serious examination. Here is the opening verse of it:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
The wrath of God – what a beginning! Most people disdain any consideration of God’s wrath, including many professed Christians. However, the Bible is full of it, from Genesis to Revelation. God’s love is perfect, but so is his justice. At least five types of his wrath can be identified in Scripture.
Wrath in Five Forms
First, we have eternal wrath, the consequences of ending up in hell. The scariest part of this type is that most people on planet earth are going to experience it after they die. Matthew 7:13-14 could not be clearer in describing the “few” who find the narrow road leading to life and the “many” who follow the broad road leading to destruction. I’m sure Jesus must have spoken these words with a very heavy heart, but he said more about hell than the rest of the Bible combined.
Second, we have eschatological (end-time) wrath, that associated with the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world as we now know it. The Book of Revelation provides the most detail about this wrath, and although I thoroughly reject most popular interpretations of Revelation, we can all agree that God’s wrath is in the middle of whatever transpires. In any case, severe judgments come against the earth’s inhabitants in the end-time.
Third, we have consequential wrath, the cause and effect nature of life itself. We reap what we sow in the spiritual and behavioral realms. As creatures of choice, good choices bring good results and bad choices bring bad results. The plan of Satan is to keep us looking at short-term benefits rather than long-term ones. He works very much like our modern credit system – buy now and pay later. His vote is for us to sin now and pay later. God’s vote is for us to live in a way that ensures long-term benefits, so it is pay upfront and reap the rewards later.
Fourth, we have cataclysmic wrath, which includes both natural disasters and man-made ones. The calamitous events of 9/11 fall into this category as does COVID-19. Sin most likely has some relationship to all of it but figuring out exactly how is to entertain a question with an uncertain answer. After looking deeper into Romans 1, you may well end up believing that there is a connection. I’m inclined to think so myself, but as I said, the answer to how cataclysms relate to God’s direct judgment is uncertain.
Fifth, we have the wrath of abandonment, a wrath described in the remainder of Romans 1 following verse 18. God will abandon an individual, a group of individuals or a nation. The Old Testament warns those in living then that such will be the case unless repentance occurs and then describes multiple times when the warning is not heeded and judgment comes. Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were eventually taken into captivity. The level of pain and suffering accompanying both events was almost unbelievable.
God’s Promise of Abandonment
Many examples of abandonment can be found in the Bible. If you want to study those examples further, look at Judges 10:11-14, Judges 16:18-21; Hosea 4:17-19 and Matthew 15:14. Without question, the most detailed treatment of this topic in the entire Bible is likely Proverbs 1:23-33. Read it carefully.
Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings. 24 But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, 25 since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, 26 I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you – 27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. 28 Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, 29 since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD. 30 Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, 31 they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. 32 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; 33 but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.
When I read this passage and others like it, I think back to the time of the great flood and Noah’s ark. I can imagine people screaming and begging to be let into the ark as the flood waters rose. I can picture mothers holding up their babies and small children, pleading with Noah to at least save the little ones. But it was all to no avail, for they had sinned away the day of grace. God had abandoned them to the consequences of their own sinful choices.
The Causes of Abandonment
Romans 1 describes the sad condition of the Gentile nations in the first century and says three times that he had given them over, or abandoned them. They had passed the point of no return and without genuine repentance, they would fall without remedy as individuals and as nations. None of the nations from that era remain. All have fallen and lie dead in the pages of history. The same is going to be true of every nation in existence today, including America. The question is not “if” – it is only “when.” We are clearly at or very near the point at which God abandons a nation, which will become obvious as we look at the text more closely. As a young preacher many years ago, I recall older preachers saying that if God didn’t punish America, he would owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. They could not have imagined those decades ago how far our society has fallen, along with the multiplicity of nations we have influenced to do the same.
Romans 1:19-20 make it clear that the existence of God is unmistakably shown through his creation. Only an idiot could believe that all that we see and are came about without a Creator. One of the most famous atheists of the last century, Anthony G.N. Flew (whom I once heard in debate with one of my graduate school professors), finally renounced his atheism after studying DNA structure in all of its intricacies. As multitudes have realized, something this complex could never have appeared without due cause and that Cause was God. The mathematical probabilities rule out any other possibilities.
Let’s look at the progression of sin into its final stages. Paul said three times that God gave the Gentiles over. Read carefully what the final stages were that brought about this abandonment.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Sinful desires led to sexual impurity (moral uncleanness) and to the degrading of their bodies with one another. The word for impurity is often used to denote lust and unchecked lust leads to physical actions. The Bible is clear about how sex is to be viewed and practiced. It is to be enjoyed only in a marriage relationship between a man and a woman. Premarital sex or extramarital sex is taught against in both the Old Testament and the New. But that is not what Paul witnessed in the first century.
Here is a further description of what he saw, in Ephesians 4:19: “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.” Peter wrote something quite similar in 2 Peter 2:14: “With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed – an accursed brood!” Note in both passages the connection between the lack of morality and the presence of materialism. More must be said about this oft-mentioned connection as we proceed.
Can anyone doubt that we live in a pornographic age? Adult film stars are treated with the same respect by entertainment media as are other entertainers. The statistics of the pornographic world are almost unbelievable. The age at which boys and girls first start looking at porn, the percentages of those in all age groups who indulge in it, and most shockingly, the percentages of professed Christians who frequent pornographic sites – all nearly unbelievable. I started looking up stats and just shut down the search engine. They are sickening. In addition, advertisements are filled with suggestive photos of women. If you use the internet, you cannot escape them. The only alternative is to avoid looking at those sidebars and popups, a near impossibility. Pornography alone should be enough to bring about the judgment of Almighty God!
And then we have the sexual revolution in its mature stages. That revolution began in the 1960s and has blossomed in almost every conceivable way. I remember the first time a couple came to me who were living together and asked me to perform their wedding. They were not in our church, in case you were wondering. They just saw our church building and came in with their request. I agreed to do the wedding on the condition that they would study the Bible with me. They did, but to no avail. In the course of the study, I asked what their parents thought about them living together without being married. They said that both sets of parents were fine with it, but were also happy to see them get married.
I remember watching a talk show in the airport while I was waiting for a flight some decades ago. The show had a live audience, as most such shows do. One of the persons being interviewed said that they believed that sex outside marriage was wrong, prompting the audience to hoot and holler for a long time. Since I didn’t then or now make a practice of watching such shows, that reaction was shocking to me. A person today will be mocked by most if they say they plan to wait for sex until married (think Tim Tebow). But dare they express a belief that premarital sex is actually sinful, they can count on getting an earful.
I know that I am entering politically incorrect territory here. I also know that I am entering very sensitive territory for some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, for two reasons. One, we heterosexual folks have friends inside and outside the church who are homosexually oriented and we don’t want to be offensive. I understand. I’m in that same boat with you. To make it perfectly clear, I am not addressing same sex attraction, but same sex actions. I have the utmost respect, love and appreciation for those like Guy Hammond (Strength in Weakness Ministries) who live righteously with same sex attraction. They don’t know how they got that attraction and wish they didn’t have it. I feel for them as they battle in a way that I can’t fully understand. I know about my temptations to lust, but the stigmas and shame attached to their desires are in another category altogether.
What I do know is that the Bible condemns same sex actions. Homosexuality is sin and in the Romans text, seems to be a step deeper into the sin pit. This sin is called shameful and unnatural, ushering in what Paul called the “due penalty for their error.” Is that talking about HIV/AIDS, many people wonder? In spite of the fact that it began forty years ago and is still growing, it is already the fifth largest pandemic in history, having claimed upwards of 35 million lives. The homosexual roots and spread of this awful disease are well documented, although it can be contracted in other ways.
Those with same sex attraction have to control their actions if they want to please God, and many such as Guy are able to redirect their desires enough to enjoy successful marriages. They are my heroes. As I said earlier, they didn’t ask to be “gay,” as popular terminology styles it. But think about this: those who have sexual attractions toward children didn’t ask for their orientation either. Some with that malady are also avoiding ungodly sexual actions, although most perhaps aren’t. It just seems odd to me that we can show disgust and disdain toward those battling these desires and feel justified in doing so, and yet show compassion toward those with homosexual attractions.
In either case, the actions are sinful and pedophilia is also unlawful. Homosexual practices were for many years also unlawful in America, and still are in some countries. My point is that while unnatural desires put into practice are unquestionably sinful, the ones who are abstaining from actions because of their spiritual convictions need love too. The homosexual community appealed for toleration for decades and once they received it, they appeal for acceptance and finally, for approval and agreement. Those are different things. Christians should offer both toleration and love, toleration because we live in a country that grants the right of homosexual activity, and love because we are Christians. I cannot offer approval or agreement because God doesn’t, although he loves and longs for repentance on their parts. So do I and surely, so do you.
Every Kind of Wickedness
Sin is spiritual cancer. It does not lie dormant but rather grows and picks up speed as depravity increases. Let me drop in those last five verses again here:
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Most of these sins prompted by depraved minds (where logical thinking no longer functions) are self-explanatory. The Greek term translated in verse 31 as “no love” is a word meaning without family love, one of the most natural types of love imaginable. The nature of this sin provides some understanding of how millions and millions of abortions have been performed in recent years, a practice approved by a majority and viewed as murder by a minority (which includes me).
Another term is mentioned that we understand as far as its basic definition is concerned, but we have little understanding of the magnitude of this sin in God’s sight. That term is greed. We have already noted its inclusion along with sexual sins in Ephesians 4:19 and 2 Peter 2:14. One of the most striking usages of the word is found in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul is commanding the church to withdraw fellowship from an immoral person. Note what he includes in the sin list requiring church discipline. “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
In our materialistic culture, we have become all but blind to this sin. We have ignored it, rationalized it and excused it, but rest assured that God has not. I have no doubts that our present health crisis has as one of its primary Divine purposes to force us to examine our materialistic greed. If you think I am overstating the magnitude of this sin, along with sexual immorality of all types, just listen to Jesus on the topic in a passage specifically dealing with our view and use of money. His words were directed toward respected religious leaders of that day.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
Hello America! What are our two greatest concerns right now in our crisis? Health to the point of potential loss of life, and loss of money – the economy. I promise to write a separate article soon and post it on my website. Its title will be, “Greed and Its Root of Materialism.” Watch for it!
Verse 32 sheds some light on several important points. One, people know inherently the basic morality expected by God. Romans 2 describes this knowledge as a law of conscience. Yes, one’s conscience can be hardened by repeatedly refusing to heed it, but unless you are a psychopath, it is never disengaged entirely. In the deepest recesses of our hearts, we know something of our Creator’s expectations in the realm of basic morality.
Two, these sins deserve spiritual death. We sense that reality at a deep level. The fear of death is linked to this sense more than to simply a fear of the unknown. We somehow feel the realness of a Reckoning Day when we will meet God as the Judge of all mankind. This explains why Paul could in only a single sermon, speaking to idolaters who had no recognizable knowledge of the true God, yet speak of the Judgment Day (Acts 17:31). Humans instinctively know somewhere in the recesses of their soul that they will face their Creator. They were created in his likeness and that instinctiveness is evidently built-in to their very nature.
Three, since in their depravity they continue to violate their consciences, they cheer on others doing the same. They want to believe that there will be safety in numbers. If “everyone is doing it,” surely they won’t be held accountable. The people of Noah’s day might well shed some light on that one. The majority is always wrong when it comes to following God’s righteousness and might (numbers) doesn’t make right. So, in looking at this principle, is America fully here? One example should suffice to provide the answer.
Bill Clinton was impeached while serving as our president back in December of 1998. Despite the fact that he was only the second President in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, President Bill Clinton received a 73% job approval rating from the American public after his impeachment. This was the highest rating of his administration, and one of the higher job approval ratings given any president since the mid-1960s. He was clearly guilty of sexual immorality in the White House itself, using what the MeToo Movement would now call his power of position and authority to take advantage of a young woman. While sincere Christians were shocked and outraged, most Americans were anything but. Why? The answer is in Romans 1:32.
Scientific Evidence for the Fall of Nations
When I was a young minister, I heard two striking statements a number of times that stayed in my memory banks. One I’ve already mentioned, that if God doesn’t punish America, he will owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. We will classify that one under the heading of preacher talk for now. The second statement was about a very in-depth study done by a scientist who studied ancient civilizations. I remembered his name and his bottom-line conclusions as they related to sexual immorality. Through the years, I tried to research that study but for whatever reason, couldn’t locate it. Recently, a post on Facebook helped me to find it. Essentially, the findings tracked almost exactly what a Bible student would expect.
The study was entitled “Sex and Culture,” written after a lifetime of research by Oxford social anthropologist J.D. Unwin. The 600+ page book is, in Unwin’s words, only a “summary” of his research. He stated that seven volumes would be required to lay it all out. His writings suggest he was a rationalist and not a religious person, believing that science is our ultimate tool of inquiry. Unwin published his findings in 1936, long before the sexual revolution occurred in the West.
The article I read which summarized his findings was entitled, “Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought,” written by Kirk Durston and posted on his blogsite. I will be using significant quotes from that article, which is based on Unwin’s research conclusions. Basically, Unwin’s findings showed that when strict prenuptial chastity was abandoned, absolute monogamy, deism, and rational thinking disappeared within three generations of the change in sexual freedom.
Let’s unpack each of these concepts. The abandonment of prenuptial chastity would include premarital sex and living together without being married at all. Absolute monogamy gave way to what is termed modified monogamy. Durston’s comments about that are as follows:
Common-law relationships are becoming the norm. Although divorce occurred prior to the 1970’s, the mainstream of our culture still maintained the view that marriage should be for life, and common-law relationships were regarded with some distaste. That has clearly changed. Those who actually practice life-long commitments in marriage have become the minority, with couples born prior to the sexual revolution much more likely to maintain a life-long commitment in marriage.
In describing the loss of deism, or belief in God, he had this to say:
Prior to the 1960’s, a combination of rationalism and a belief in God was the norm for mainstream culture. Not only has belief in God greatly decreased since the 1960’s, but there has been a trend to remove the concept of God from government, the educational system, and the public forum. Those who still believe in God sense a strong societal pressure to keep deistic beliefs private.
Finally, his comments about the disappearance of rational thinking describe what we call Postmodern thinking, clearly the prevailing type of thinking in our younger generations.
The swiftness with which rational thinking declined after the 1970’s is astounding. In its place arose post-modernism, characterized by “skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism” and “a general suspicion of reason.” But it gets worse … post-modernism is giving way to “post-truth”. In direct contrast to rational thinking, a post-truth culture abandons “shared objective standards for truth” and instead, stands on appeals to feelings and emotions, and what one wants to believe. People can now “identify” themselves as something which flat-out contradicts science and rational thinking and, in many cases, receive the full support and backing of governments and educational systems. Not only do people feel they have a right to believe what they want, but any challenge to that belief, even if supported by truth and logic, is unacceptable and offensive.
The statements I recall hearing as a young man about Unwin’s conclusions often included a comment about homosexuality. It went something like this: “When any nation accepts homosexuality as behavior approved as normal, that nation is in its last stage before collapse.” One writer who had studied Unwin in far more detail than I have said that Unwin lumped this behavior in with all aspects of unbridled sexual immorality. Either way, I don’t have to tell you where America and other Western nations are in this regard.
In studying Romans 1, these current nations are right in the middle of the same sins as were the Gentiles of Paul’s day. How long it took for their nations to fall we leave for Unwin’s research to document, but combining his conclusions with Paul’s inspired ones sends chills up my spine.
My own conclusions about the question posed in the title of my article, “Is the Coronavirus COVID-19 a Judgment of God?” are as follows:
- I think the answer is “yes,” with explanation.
- The explanation includes the futility of trying to ascertain whether this judgment is a direct one or an indirect one. It doesn’t ultimately matter. God either caused it or allowed it.
- My study of the Old Testament shows clearly that any plague or natural calamity, whether locusts or sustained drought or any other calamity, was seen by the people of God as God’s discipline for their sins.
- Further, in those repeated occurrences, the call by the prophets was for repentance on the part of the people with the promise of God’s removal of the discipline upon their repentance.
- In my day of prayer and fasting last Thursday, I prayed multiple times on my knees for many needs I see in this current ordeal. The one final conclusion I ended up with time and time again was for enough repentance to occur to move God to intervene.
- Certainly I prayed for protection from the virus for myself, family, fellow disciples and other friends. But I must accept the fact that illness and suffering will likely affect us all randomly. I can get the virus just like anyone else, as can you. If suffering only happened to the unrighteous, the temptation to seek God for wrong reasons would be tremendously strong.
- At the end of each prayer, after expressing my sincere and strongly felt desires, I prayed what Jesus did in the Garden: “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”
- Many of my friends have expressed what I have been thinking for the past several weeks. We have been surprised, even shocked, that something like COVID-19 hasn’t happened sooner. Looking at the depravity of our world through the lens of Romans 1 and many other similar passages, it should have been expected.
- As for me and my house, we are praying and repenting and begging all others to do the same. God is still in control and still responds to prayer and repentance. Let’s get on with it!
A Parting Thought
A few days ago (March 26, 2020), Robert Nicholson wrote an article entitled, “A Coronavirus Great Awakening?” I found the article on the Opinion page of the March 28 online edition of the Wall Street Journal. In it, he used illustrations from the Old Testament and World War II as examples of how cataclysms can move us to repent and return to God. I close with a rather lengthy, but exceedingly profound, section from that article.
Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic.
The experience is new and disorienting. Life had been deceptively easy until now. Our ancestors’ lives, by contrast, were guaranteed to be short and painful. The lucky ones survived birth. The luckier ones made it past childhood. Only in the past 200 years has humanity truly taken off. We now float through an anomalous world of air conditioning, 911 call centers, acetaminophen and pocket-size computers containing nearly the sum of human knowledge. We reduced nature to “the shackled form of a conquered monster,” as Joseph Conrad once put it, and took control of our fate. God became irrelevant.
Who will save us now that the monster has broken free?
“Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realising the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us,” Butterfield wrote. “We of the twentieth century have been particularly spoiled; for the men of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and all our ancestors down to the seventeenth century betray in their philosophy and their outlook a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”
The past four years have been some of the most contentious and embarrassing in American history. Squabbling over trivialities has left the public frantic and divided, oblivious to the transcendent. But the pandemic has humbled the country and opened millions of eyes to this risky universe once more.
“Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny,” Butterfield wrote. Sometimes “it is only by a cataclysm,” he continued, “that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”
For societies founded on the biblical tradition, cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. As the coronavirus pandemic subjects U.S. hospitals to a fearsome test, Americans can find solace in the same place that Butterfield did. Great struggle can produce great clarity.
“The ancient Hebrews, by virtue of inner resources and unparalleled leadership, turned their tragedy, turned their very helplessness, into one of the half-dozen creative moments in world history,” Butterfield wrote. “It would seem that one of the clearest and most concrete of the facts of history is the fact that men of spiritual resources may not only redeem catastrophe, but turn it into a grand creative moment.”
Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?
An old hymn has a stanza that asks the question posed in the title of this article. That’s a very good question, with many answers, but at least four of them are of ultimate importance in truly understanding the gospel of Christ. I recently preached a series of two sermons answering these questions, and since the lessons seemed to be received well, I was motivated to put them into article form and post them on this teaching website. Each of the parts is placed in a sequence that I believe is logical, and you will hopefully understand the reason for the sequence as the answers unfold.
Answer #1 – His Death Makes Possible the Impossible
First, Jesus came to die for our sins. The verses that say this could be multiplied, because this is the foundation of the gospel. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He didn’t just die for the sins of the world; he died for the specific sins that each of us has committed (and will yet commit).
The Astounding Nature of Forgiveness
Astounding is the right word when thinking of the magnitude of our individual sins, to say nothing of the combined sins of the entire human race from its beginning. The ways to sin are many, the Bible tells us.
- Wrong actions – 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
- Wrong words – Matthew 12:36-37: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
- Wrong thoughts – Mark 7:21-23: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”
- Wrong motivations – 1 Corinthians 4:5: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.”
- Failure to do right – James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
In light of these passages, and many more like them, the sin problem of mankind is enormous. How many sins have you committed? How many sins has humanity as a whole committed? I remember reading an old restoration preacher’s writing who made a comment back in the 19th century about the number of our personal sins. Since he was a part of a very doctrinally focused group, his answer was surprising. I supposed that he thought of sin mainly as doctrinal errors, but he said that a mature sinner had surely committed at least a couple of million sins. He was far more in touch with reality than most today, I would have to say.
To even start approaching the number of sins that mankind as a whole has committed and will yet commit, I had to Google the terms by which large numbers are called. Starting with millions, it goes in this ascending order: billions, trillions, quadrillions, quintillions, nonillions, decillions, googols, centillions, googolplexes – and beyond. Astounding! Unfathomable! Overwhelming!
How is Forgiveness Even Possible?
Then we must come to a consideration of how all of those sins could be forgiven. Hebrews 10:4 assures us that “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” In the Old Testament, there were many types of animal sacrifices prescribed by God, the main ones being the burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings and a number of others. The burnt offerings were sacrificed each morning and each evening, plus additional ones on the Sabbath and other special days. This means that well over 1 million animals were killed from the time of Moses to the time of Christ just in this one category of sacrifices. I recall reading of an official Roman report sent to Rome from Jerusalem during the first century, noting that 256,000 lambs had been sacrificed in Jerusalem during one Passover Feast.
All told, no doubt billions of animals were slaughtered during the Mosaic period. Keep in mind that these animals were totally innocent, they were painfully slaughtered (often by the one who brought them to be offered), and in spite of these sacrifices numbering in the billions, all of them combined simply could not take away one sin! With this realization comes the realization that our sins are far more heinous before our God that we can possibly imagine.
Our problem in grasping the awfulness of sin is that we have allowed Satan to do what he does best – deceive us into thinking that we are basically good people. Perhaps many of us are, when compared to our fellow man (the bad ones for sure). But compared to the sinless Jesus, we are anything but good. What we deserve is death and hell; by God’s grace we can escape the latter if we truly live as Jesus calls us to. When I teach the first three chapters of Romans, I give it the heading of “The best of us is a mess!” Chapter 1 shows the horrific sins of the Gentiles; chapter 2 shows the self-righteous sins of the Jews; chapter 3 sums up the problem of all mankind with these words: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3:10). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” Isaiah described it in even more shocking terms when he said in 64:6 that “all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
Are you overwhelmed yet? I am. Forgiveness of the magnitude of sins we have all committed is a concept that our mortal minds simply cannot begin to grasp. Then how can God possibly forgive as freely as the Bible says he does? God had to become a man – there is no other possible answer. The Deity of Christ cannot be glossed over in any way. It is a salvation issue.
The Nature of Christ Jesus
The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus was God’s first creation and then Jesus created everything else. They believe that Jesus is an archangel, nothing more and nothing less, and specifically they view him as being Michael the archangel.
This is nothing short of heretical teaching. Mathew 4:10 says that only God can be worshipped. Revelation 19:10 shows clearly that angels cannot be worshipped by humans. Jesus accepted worship from humans during his personal ministry, and Hebrews 1:6 states clearly that Jesus was worshipped by angels. “And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” The term “firstborn” is obviously used symbolically to mean “highest honored,” as it is used of David in Psalm 89:27. Two verses later in Hebrews 1 (verse 8), the Father says of Jesus, “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.’”
Regarding Michael the archangel, Jude 1:9 had this to say: “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” Jesus certainly had no hesitation in rebuking Satan personally and strongly (Matthew 4:10).
But back to the biggest issue of how forgiveness of sins is possible when considering the just nature of God! I mentioned the first three chapters of Romans in how they describe sin and the penalty due for it. A careful study of these chapters doesn’t leave you with the question of how a loving God can send people to hell; it leaves you with the question of how a just God can do anything else! Sin is deadly and a deadly serious matter. By the grace of God, Jesus came to earth and died for a magnitude of sins that our finite minds cannot begin to grasp. Hence, living as Jesus demands is no small matter, and self-denial is the only possible starting place in imitating him.
Forgiveness in the Old Testament
Some of you may be wondering about those who lived before the sacrifice of Christ – were they saved and if so, how were they saved? If the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin, what happened to those who died before the cross? The general answer is that they were saved just like we are, by grace through faith. Their faith was a seriously committed faith as ours must be, and the grace came by the cross of Christ just as ours has. The effects of the shed blood of Christ went backwards as well of forwards.
Hebrews 9:15b – “… he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
Romans 3:25-26 – “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
We tend to get confused by the time factor of when Christ’s crucifixion took place, but that is because we are time-bound creatures. Time means nothing to God. As Peter put it in 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Revelation 13:8 ties it all together beautifully as it states that Jesus was “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” Before God created humankind, he knew that he would ultimately be nailed to the cross for the redemption of his creatures. And that is the story that mortal mind could never have invented nor comprehended without the revelation of God.
Answer #2 – His Life Makes Known the Unknowable
A second fundamental answer to our question is that Jesus came to reveal God to us. If you try to fully understand God from just the Old Testament, you are going to find it very challenging. I sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic from my study of the OT. On the one hand, I see much about God’s grace, but even more about his judgment – a judgment that at times seems quite harsh.
On the other hand, studying the life of Jesus helps us understand God in a much better way. He made it clear that one of his primary purposes was in fact to reveal God to us. Here are some good passages addressing that purpose.
John 1:18 – “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
John 14:6-9 – “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ 8 Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ 9 Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
One of the most thrilling descriptions of this purpose of Jesus is found in Colossians 2:9, which reads: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” This means that Jesus was God in the flesh, both fully God and fully man, a truth that is still beyond our comprehension in many ways, but the revelation of this truth in the Bible is unmistakable. Jesus shows us God in a way that he could never have been known otherwise, and that was surely one of his key purposes in coming to earth.
God’s Nature Revealed
Certainly Jesus came to reveal God, and to reveal much about God. In our efforts to grasp the nature of Deity, what is one thing that we cannot afford to miss? The Apostle John expressed it quite clearly in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” Love is the normal English translation of more than one Greek word. Phileo is the word for friendship type of love. Thus we call Philadelphia the “City of Brotherly Love.” Although it doesn’t live up to its billing too well, that is its meaning.
The greater word for love in the original language is agape. This type of love goes far beyond friendship love, for it is a love that describes much more than simply a feeling, but rather a serious commitment to the good of the object of that agape love. It is this word that is used in John’s description of God. Paul uses this same term in what is likely the most famous love passage in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. If we substitute the name of Jesus in this passage, it would look like this:
Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy, Jesus does not boast, Jesus is not proud. 5 Jesus does not dishonor others, Jesus is not self-seeking, Jesus is not easily angered, Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Jesus never fails.
How does this passage read to you if you substitute your name in each of these descriptions of what love is and is not? Doing that will give us a very good idea of the areas in which we need to grow if we are to imitate Jesus and represent him to the world. That would be a good exercise for all of us on a regular basis at some interval – perhaps once a month, and then spend the rest of the month working on the areas in which we are not like Jesus.
Paul Harvey, a radio commentator of yesteryear, used to tell a fictional story every year around Christmas. As the story went, a couple lived in a part of the US where the winters were pretty brutal. The wife was a believer and the husband was not. He wasn’t opposed to her involvement in church, but he just didn’t want any part of religion himself. One particularly cold and snowy day, she left him at home in front of the fireplace while she went to a church service. As he was enjoying the cozy fire, he heard an unusual sound at his front door. Out of curiosity he went to see what was making the sound. He discovered a little flock of birds huddling in his doorway, trying to escape the cold. It appeared that they were freezing in the weather.
At first, he just shooed them away and went back to his rocking chair. In a few minutes, they were back at the doorway once again trying to find some escape from the snow. His sympathy kicked into gear at least a little, and he decided to try to move the birds along the ground and into his tool shed in order to protect them. The birds, of course, had no idea of what he was trying to do, and they scattered in all different directions.
Once again, he found his way to his warm, comfortable rocking chair, consoling himself with the fact that he had at least tried to help. A few minutes later, the birds were back and he repeated the process of trying to help them – with the same results. Finally, the thought popped into his mind that if he could have just become a bird for a short time, he could have led them into the shed. He then had a much more profound thought. He realized that this imagined process was exactly what his wife had been telling him about why Jesus became a man – to lead us otherwise lost beings into a safe place. Thus, Jesus not only leads us to safety, but became one of us in order to make it possible. The true story is much more amazing than the imagined one, is it not?
Answer #3 – His Priority Exposes Our Misunderstood Priorities
A third primary answer about why Jesus came is found in 1 John 2:4-6. “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:4-6).” He came to show us the path, how to live our lives on this earth.
This passage introduces at least two other questions. What does it mean to walk as Jesus did? Why is this important enough to be given to us as an absolute command? To walk as he did obviously goes far beyond simply believing in him. Because the word “faith” or “believe” is used in a number of different ways in the Bible, we can misunderstand passages like John 3:16 and think that simply believing the basics about Jesus will get us to heaven. Quite a number of passages show that this very popular view of salvation being a matter of merely believing those basics (such as the virgin birth, Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead) simply cannot be accurate. Read the following passages carefully and you will see what I mean.
John 12:42 – “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue.”
Luke 9:23-24 – “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.’”
Luke 14:26-27, 33
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Matthew 7:13-14, 21 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it… 21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
From the Gospel accounts, we know how Jesus lived in a physical body. From Paul’s inspired writing, we can also know how Jesus intends to live through us in his spiritual body, the church. Just as Jesus was the fullness of God in the flesh, demonstrating to the world what God was truly like, we as Christ’s family are to demonstrate what he is truly like. “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23).” What God is asking of us is that we represent Jesus to the world, to do what he would do if he were here in a physical body again. This truth helps us understand why the religious world’s watered-down version of what it means to be a Christian cannot possibly be acceptable. As the old saying goes, Jesus is either Lord of all in our lives, or Lord not at all.
Imitating Jesus’ Priority
If the nature of God can be defined simply as love (1 John 4:8), then we know that Jesus lived a life of love – which we are specifically called to imitate. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” How was Jesus’ life of love demonstrated in his ministry? He loved every person, and he loved the whole person – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Spiritually, we’ve already considered somewhat in depth his death for the sins of the world. It is only logical that his life on earth was focused on helping prepare people to accept his offering and receive salvation. We are not surprised to read in Luke 19:10 that he came to seek and save the lost. If that is what he did, that is what he expects his followers to do also.
Physically, we see him healing all types of illnesses and maladies, including raising the dead on several occasions. Emotionally, he wept when others wept, he was carried away with compassion for those who were hurting in any way. A great passage to sum up his love for people is Matthew 9:35-36: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
The word found here for compassion is a long Greek word (splagchnizomai). It is never used of a human in the Bible, but only of God and Christ. We use the phrase about having our hearts go out to someone, and if you multiply this by 100, you come pretty close to the literal meaning of the word. Jesus felt deeply for people, more deeply than we have ever felt. But he is calling us to develop more and more of this divine compassion for those who are hurting, spiritually, physically or emotionally. The passage in Matthew 9 is also found in Matthew 4:23, and both passages describe what I call the gospel triad – teaching, preaching and healing.
What Was His Priority?
Which do you think was the most important – loving people emotionally, physically or spiritually? In order to answer that question, we must understand the top priority of Jesus’ ministry. It is easy to say all three areas are equally important, which would seem to allow us to choose which we find most appealing to us and focus on that one area. However, is that really what Jesus did and now calls us to do?
Seeing the physical and emotional needs of others is far easier than grasping their spiritual needs. The latter is not simply a matter of observation, but a matter of revelation – believing what we have already read about the lostness of people. We have more ways to minister to people emotionally and physically than ever before. HOPE Worldwide has been a great channel through which to serve the poor and needy, both locally and globally. We have more Christian-oriented counselors among us than ever before, and that number continues to grow substantially. I’m grateful for all that we are doing collectively in these areas, and I’m trying to do my part individually. It is important to love the whole person.
Having said that, let’s reason together a bit. In Jesus’ ministry, what happened to those whom he healed and raised from the dead? They died or died again. I find it immensely interesting that in our current society that we are obsessed with health issues, while Jesus never said anything about how to be physically healthy and live as long as possible. Most of us moderns want to live to reach our 100th birthday. The life spans in most developed countries has continued to lengthen. At what price? More and more developing all sorts of dementia, and more and more spending their latter years drooling and in diapers. Why are we so obsessed with life on this earth if we believe in heaven? Something is surely amiss here in our value system and in our view of time and eternity. I suggest you read and meditate on passages like the following:
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Evangelism Must Be Our Bottom Line Focus
I’ve recently been speaking a lot about what drew me into the churches of which I am now a part, and the main drawing card was what could be called the practice of “One Another” Christianity. The New Testament has over 60 passages which use the phrases “one another” or “each other,” and many more that describe how God’s family should be loving each other through genuine spiritual relationships. God’s religion is decidedly not a private matter! To put it gently, we are not nearly as committed to helping each other grow spiritually after conversion as we once were.
The same can be said of us regarding our evangelistic zeal to seek and save the lost – why are we not as motivated to help people spiritually as we are physically and emotionally? When I first became a part of my present church movement, it was a fast-growing movement. That was also a strong drawing card for me, because in combination with the one another relationships, both parts of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) were being obeyed in earnestness. Prior to joining the movement, others asked me how these churches were converting so many. My answer was that pretty much all of the members had a constant focus on seeking and saving the lost, and their relationships helped them stay accountable to keep imitating Jesus by so doing.
Sadly, I see a serious deceleration in carrying out both parts of that Great Commission among us. It is commendable that we have planted churches in at least 150 different nations. But 70% of our churches have under 100 members. It now takes 85 members to baptize 1 person in a year’s time, something unthinkable back when I first became a part of things. Over half of our churches baptized 10 or less people in 2016. 111 of our churches had ZERO baptisms in 2016. Our growth rate as a movement continues to decrease – from 1.9% in 2015 to 1.2% in 2016 (about a 60% decrease if my math is correct). The number of baptisms and restorations has declined for the last four years. We cannot spin those facts in a way that makes them sound encouraging. Something is obviously missing!
What are we missing? Obviously, we are missing an understanding of the priority in Jesus’ ministry and our imitation of it. True enough, he helped people emotionally and physically, but it had as its ultimate aim the helping of them spiritually to get right with God. The help they received emotionally and physically was temporal in nature. But people were lost – and people are lost now – and this is an eternal issue.
It is Time to Get Real – and Get Serious!
All spiritual roads don’t lead to heaven – and we can include every religion in the world outside Christianity. All approaches to Christianity don’t lead to heaven – we have the spiritual partner of the American Dream, called the American Church Dream, which means that we pursue this world’s values with a dab of religion thrown in as fire insurance! But as popular as this viewpoint is, we cannot be saved simply by claiming to be Christians! The very first step of Christianity is to deny self, take up our crosses and follow Jesus! That is the essence of imitating him. Read these passages and let them cut your heart. If Jesus and his apostles cannot be believed on these sobering points, how can we believe anything else that they said?
Matthew 7:13-14, 21 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it… 21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
John 14:6 – “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Acts 4:12 – “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
I want to love people as Jesus loved people – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
But I cannot love as he did without having the same priority that he had, and that was clearly helping people to get right with God – above all else. And we will not do that unless we believe what he did about heaven and hell and salvation! This life goes by fast, faster than we could have imagined as young people. My 75 years have been just what the Bible said that they would be: a breath, a shadow, a flower that withers away, a passing breeze, fleeting, a vapor. Death is real; the Judgement Day is real; Heaven and Hell are real! And God is serious! It is indeed time for us to get real and get serious!
Answer #4 – His Power Overcomes Our Weakness
Yes, Jesus came to die for our sins; to reveal God’s nature and heart to us; and to leave us an example that we should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21). These three reasons give us a greater understanding of God, an example to follow and a solution to our sin problem. Yet, we still have one great need remaining, that of finding the power to do what we have just read that we must do – live as Jesus did.
For starters, it should be obvious that while our hearts must be set on imitating him, we will not do it perfectly. In spite of having the dedication demanded in passages like Luke 14, our performance will always be flawed. Our theme verse is translated in other versions as “walk,” thus to walk as did. Actually, the Greek term is more accurately translated as walk, although the meaning in context is live. Looking at the idea of walking with Jesus, a very important passage occurs only a few verses prior to our theme verse and uses the same Greek term.
1 John 1:5-7
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Two walks, or ways of life, are herein described: walking in darkness and walking in the light. John is clearly describing one’s direction in life, the characteristic way in which one lives. A person living in darkness will likely turn aside from that path occasionally and do some good, but they are characterized by walking in the darkness and they will always return to it. Satan’s world is their chosen path. A person living in the light will also likely turn aside, in this case doing something not good, but then they turn back to the light, for that is the focus and intent of their heart. Christ’s world is their chosen path.
Walking (living) in the light cannot mean sinlessness, for then there would be no sins from which to be purified. It does mean serious commitment and consistency in following Jesus. Interestingly, the Greek verb translated “purifies” is a continual action word. It means that Jesus’ blood continues to cleanse our sins, as long as we are walking with him. Just as the blood in our physical bodies continually circulates and takes away the impurities in our body, Jesus’ blood does the same in his spiritual body, the family of God. Here is a related passage that should thrill our hearts:
Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.
Certainly we are blessed with forgiveness, but this passage goes far beyond forgiveness when we become Christians – it describes someone whose sin the Lord never counts against them. A person who is not in a saved relationship with Christ has every sin counted against them. A person who is in a saved relationship with Christ has no sins counted against them. I want to be that second person, don’t you? Grace is not a hopscotch game, in which we sin, repent and then are restored to grace. If we are in Christ, we live in grace – in our good days and our bad days.
A marriage analogy provides a great way of looking at those good and bad days. I am a good husband most of the time, if my wife’s viewpoint can be trusted. But I’m not always a good husband and there are times when I sin and hurt my wife. I should feel badly about those times and I most certainly do. Yet I don’t ever feel unmarried. On my bad days spiritually, I should feel badly about my sins and turn from them, but I don’t feel separated from my relationship with Jesus. (Or at least I shouldn’t!)
Continuing with another marriage analogy, living in the light is interchangeable with the idea of being faithful to our vows to make Jesus the Lord of our lives. Just ask my wife of 53 years if I am a perfect husband, and you already know the answer. Ask her if I am a faithful husband, and the answer will be just as quick and as certain – except it will be a yes this time! I am not a perfect follower of Christ, but I am a faithful one – faithful according to the Bible’s definition of faithful. That that is what Jesus is asking of us as we live for him and imitate him.
The Ongoing Investment Jesus Makes
We know the investment Jesus made – on the cross. But he makes continual investments as our High Priest. Listen to the writer of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Jesus promised his apostles that he would send the Holy Spirit to them, and ultimately to all who would follow Jesus. We close with a passage about how Jesus blesses us through the Spirit. It is filled with God’s multiple promises to bless us as we live with him, for him and through him. It is arguably Paul’s high-water mark of promising victory in Christ.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
One of the most popular Christian writers of last century was C.S. Lewis. He wrote a book with the title that I’m using for this article. Pain is a problem. It is a problem physically to be sure, but it is a bigger problem emotionally and spiritually. It can fill up our hearts and lives. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a survivor of the Holocaust. Once, after he had told his life story to a group, particularly regarding the Holocaust and the pain he endured, a woman in the audience came up to him with an understandable response. Emotionally distraught, she shared that after hearing about his suffering, she felt guilty for feeling her own pain so deeply, because it was so much less than what he had gone through.
His reply is an oft-quoted one. “To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
If one were to know the precise number of times they had been hurt by someone else, the number would be staggering. If that same person knew the precise number of times they had hurt others, that number would also be staggering. The human race is a fallen race, and but for the grace of God, the whole lot of us would have been annihilated long ago. The real issue is which side of that equation we focus on the most – the “victim of hurts” side, or the “perpetrator of hurts” side. By focus on, I refer to that side which occupies our minds most. It is easy enough to feel that we have been hurt by others more than we have inflicted hurt on others. So what – even if true? Do you think that erases your sins, or somehow makes you better than someone who may have sinned more than you?
Many years ago, I was involved in the cleanup phase of the aftermath left by a harsh leader in the church. As I worked with other leaders under his influence, all but one had a similar reaction. They immediately thought about how this leader had hurt them. The one exception listened to me describing the negative impact of this leader, and then he broke into tears and just wept. I asked him what he was feeling, to which he replied, “I’m afraid I’ve used the same leadership style and hurt those under my leadership.” He was a rare bird. Most folks think first of how they have been hurt rather than how they may have hurt others. Not good.
What is God’s Perspective?
The only real issue is God’s perspective on the matter, not yours or mine. Everything that comes into any of our lives comes because God either directly causes it or indirectly allows it. Nothing has happened to you that God has not at least allowed. But why does God allow pain in our lives, especially devastating pain? That’s a question that we are prone to ask very quickly, at least in our minds, when hard times strike.
I think God must feel his own pain when we ask that one so quickly and yet do not ask nearly as quickly why he allows us to hurt others. We are very aware of our pain but not nearly so aware of the pain we cause. That is why Jesus said that the first requisite of following him is to deny self. There are scores of hyphenated words in the dictionary that begin with “self” for a good reason. We humans are selfish to the core. But if the Bible is true, then the only two options available regarding our suffering are that he causes or allows it, both our pain and the pain of others.
Is God in Control or Not?
Any number of verses could be quoted to prove that point, but it is so obvious that we will only include a couple here before going further.
Isaiah 45:7 — I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.
Lamentations 3:37-38 — Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?”
The most important question is why God allows pain and suffering. Agnostics and atheists often rest their case on this very question, believing that there is no logical answer. The agnostics would frame their concerns more in this manner: “If God wills evil, he is not good. If God does not will evil, but it occurs anyway, then he is not all-powerful. Therefore, since evil exists, God must be deficient either in goodness or in power.” The atheists would state their case even more strongly: “A good, all-powerful Being would eliminate evil completely. But, evil exists. Therefore, God does not exist!” Sadly, many believers struggle mightily with faith in God to the point that they never comprehend the God described in Scripture. That is indeed sad, but oh so true.
Do We Believe the Bible?
Our problem starts with a failure to accept the fact that God is in control of everything in the universe, including each of our lives. We may never figure out in this life why something we deem as bad has happened, why he has caused or allowed it, but he has nonetheless. Our problem continues with a failure to accept the very clear statements about how God wants to use suffering in our lives. We are so quick to blame other humans for our pain, not being willing to accept what God says about that pain. If we can’t get enough satisfaction blaming others, then we likely will turn to blaming God and questioning his direction in our lives. Do we really believe what the New Testament says about the purposes of God in allowing or causing our suffering? Do you believe it? Not unless you are able to work through it and surrender your heart and attitudes to him. Look at the key verses that should be determining your thoughts and attitudes when suffering:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Again, Do We Believe the Bible?
Do we believe the Bible regarding the purposes of suffering? A more sobering question is whether we believe what it says about being forgiven? Those who feel justified in nursing their hurts on a long term basis, rather than working through them and surrendering them to God in a reasonable time frame, may be in for a very big surprise when they meet God. Look at the following passages very, very carefully and prayerfully.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ 14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
When I was just a young minister, I heard an older minister preach a sermon based on the above passages. He essentially said that even though we may not be able to completely forgive, that God was well beyond us in his ability to forgive and would still forgive us even if we didn’t forgive others. I related that puzzling sermon to my mentor, who was older than the one who delivered that sermon, and he simply replied, “So, his God is a liar then!” Well said – you either believe all that the Bible says, or you might as well throw it out the window. At least that would be an honest response.
Have You Forgiven? Really Forgiven?
How do you know if you have forgiven or not? If you want to keep hashing and rehashing your hurts over an extended period of time, you have not forgiven. A decade ago, I went through one of the most painful times of my ministry career (which is saying quite a lot, by the way). I knew myself well enough to know that I hadn’t forgiven some of those who had dished out the most pain. I also knew that God did not want me to waste the pain, based on the Scriptures quoted above. I went to a friend’s remote lake house and spent three or four days alone, praying, reading, listening to spiritual music, and crying. I re-read the book “Exquisite Agony” by Gene Edwards. I believe the current title is “Crucified by Christians.”
Thankfully, I had forgotten the punch line of the book (and is it a powerhouse!). It had been some years prior since I had read it. When it hit me afresh, I was staggered. It took my breath away. I nearly fainted. When I then went out into the woods and cried out to God, I ended up thanking him for the intense pain he had allowed in my life and for the privilege of being crucified in pain as was my Savior. As Edwards pointed out, our “Gethsemanes” usually come after our crucifixion instead of before it like Jesus. I felt so one with Jesus and so one with the Father. Words cannot describe the joyful exultation in my heart as it soared beyond my imagination. It was truly an out-of-body experience, and it left me at peace with God and with the world, including those who had in my mind crucified me.
Am I motivated to tell the stories of those painful days before my surrender? Of course not. They are long past and God used them to bless my life, just like Romans 5, Hebrews 12 and James 1 promised. But they only work if we surrender and trust God. Of course, I retained some of the lessons learned through that time of suffering, but I don’t have any inclination to dig up the details of the experience and I don’t have any emotions connected with them now. Having our emotions aroused when thinking about past painful experiences is a dead giveaway. It shouts out, “Unfinished Business!” I surrendered and God blessed me through the whole process. Isn’t that what he calls us to do in his Word?
Do Our Attitudes Demonstrate Faith?
The proper attitudes to maintain as we face human suffering are based on the possible purposes behind the suffering. As we consider the several alternatives which God may be trying to accomplish in our lives, we learn the appropriate responses of faith. One, God may chasten his children in order to mold them, in which case we humbly submit. Two, we may suffer persecution because we are sons and daughters of God, in which case we rejoice. Three, we may not be able to understand just why we are suffering, in which case we trust. In all things, we look to the cross of Christ and see that God shared in our suffering, experienced it to the full degree and in so doing, showed us the greatest love possible. Now he calls us to follow him, trusting that our eternal rewards will far outweigh the temporary struggles. Once we are able to remove the obstacles to faith produced by the problem of pain and suffering, we are in a much better position to see God more clearly.
Two Books Worth Reading
Some of the thoughts expressed in the preceding material came from other materials I have written, whether articles, books or outlines for oral teaching and preaching. The following material comes from the last section of a chapter in one of my books – chapter 4 in Dynamic Leadership. I’ve written 15 books, starting in 1995. Many of the older ones are in the second or third editions by now, and a number of them have been translated into other languages. Dynamic Leadership is one of the newer ones, being published in 2012.
People sometimes ask which of my books is the most popular or which one I like best. The crowd favorite has been The Victory of Surrender, and it is probably my favorite as well. I would put Dynamic Leadership right up there with the book on surrender, believing these two to be the most important I have ever written in terms of the impact they have had or could have. When Wyndham Shaw was writing the Foreword to Dynamic Leadership, (a Foreword well worth reading), he told me that he thought it was the most important book I had ever written. Given the fact the he and I co-authored Golden Rule Leadership, his comments were striking.
As I close out this article, please read the following paragraphs very carefully, prayerfully and personally. Look at your own heart. Don’t think about others whom you think need the lessons contained therein. Fittingly, the following material comes in a chapter entitled “Leadership Styles.” Please continue…
Bitterness Destroys; Grace Heals and Strengthens
No matter what you’ve been through, maintaining a victim mentality will indeed destroy your righteousness. The first Bible Talk I ever attended (as an observer) was on a university campus, led by a single college student whose spirituality was most impressive to me as an older minister. He had a sincere, gentle spirit about him, but courageously laid out the biblical message in an admirable way. Experiences like that one drew me like a magnet into the discipling movement (as I called it then), although it took me a few years. After his graduation, he married a wonderful young disciple, whose spirit was just as refreshing as his. They had what seemed to be the ideal marriage. On a recent trip to their home state, I was told that they are now divorced. Hearing that news shocked and depressed me. We had started a friendship back in that campus Bible Talk that meant something special to me. His influence on me was profound, even though our times together were few and far between over the years. What happened? I don’t really know, but what I do know is that he was a frequent contributor to a certain website where bitterness was fertilized incessantly by former church members who refused to handle hard times and hurts God’s way. Bottom line, bitterness may enter our hearts through different avenues, but once inside, it is only a matter of time before it destroys our own hearts. I have watched this process over and over in the past few years. Satan must be rejoicing.
You might be thinking, “Wait just a minute, Ferguson! You don’t understand my situation. I’ve been hurt, and hurt badly!” I am moved quickly to respond to statements like that by saying, “I’m truly sorry, I really am.” But I am also moved to follow that statement up by saying, “Join the club—the human club, and then the Jesus club.” The human club is a large one indeed, because we have all experienced hurts at the hands of others, but the Jesus club is a very small club, comprised only of people who have chosen to respond as Jesus did (and does, by the way). Am I critical of the military model of leadership described in this chapter? Yes. But do I also understand the environment that produced it and the good that occurred all over the world in spite of many types of sins by the leadership? Yes. If I could redo those years, would I do things a lot differently? Yes. If I could just remove those years from my life, would I do that? Absolutely not! God has always worked his will through sinners. He has no other choice.
What does he expect of us sinners? That we do the best we know, and keep striving to learn and become better in every way; in other words, to be disciples of Jesus: followers and learners. Will we make mistakes and hurt people? Let’s get real here. The person I have hurt most in this life is the one I love most: my wife. But she will tell you that I came from a very dysfunctional home and did the best I knew in our earlier days of marriage, and that over the years I have also kept striving to learn and become better in every way. And by her grace and God’s grace in my life, I have come a long, long way. Yes, I still have a long way to go, but I’ve come a long way. As the old saying puts it: “I’m not what I ought to be, but thank the Lord I’m not what I used to be.”
Some years ago, I was walking around my basement praying. The week before had been a bad one for me (for reasons I no longer remember). As I prayed, I confessed that I had been a mess the week before, and I promised to work really hard in the new week and make up for the bad week. I remember exactly where I was in the room when I said that, because I stopped in my tracks and said aloud, “That’s really bad theology, Ferguson.” No one can make up for anything in the past. Even if that new week I was entering went really well, it still would have contained quite enough of its own sin. That’s the “reality show” that we all live in every day, every week, every month, every year, for our whole life.
What shall we do with our bad days, weeks or months? I discovered an approach to prayer that day in my basement that I think is not only practical, but also biblical. I started most of my prayer times long after that day with this approach: “Lord, here is what happened yesterday—the good and the bad. For the good, I thank you so much. For the bad, all I know to do is confess and repent and then learn from it. So, my plan for today is to learn from both the good and the bad of yesterday, shut the door on yesterday and set out on my journey with you today determined to make this the best day I can, by your grace.” If you are unable to process your past like that, you are in a heap of trouble.
Is not Paul saying basically the same thing in Philippians 3:15–16 that I said in my prayer? After describing some lofty goals in his own life, he then gets practical with these words: “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” I’m not as good a leader today as I will be next year, but it’s not next year yet. What I am today, I am, and I have to be content with living up to what I have attained at this point. And guess what? The people under my leadership are going to have to be content with that as well—it’s the best I have to offer. Can you follow that principle, for your leaders’ sake? Can you follow that same principle, for your own sake? Can you give others grace and can you give yourself grace? If not, you are cooked—no way out. If you cannot accept mercy and if you cannot give mercy, I pity you. We are all a bunch of sinners, trying to get to heaven and help each other get to heaven, and that’s going to require enormous amounts of grace from God and from one another.
Nineteen Reasons—Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?
In this chapter, I listed nineteen evidences of our military model of leadership in the past. For you and for me, that list contains either nineteen reasons to be bitter or nineteen reasons to learn and grow spiritually and not make those same mistakes in the future. It is not what happens to us that ultimately matters; it is how we process what happens to us that matters. We need to learn from our mistakes, but what then? We will make some new ones! We are sinful human beings. This life is not heaven, nor will it ever be. The challenges of life, including all sins you commit and that others commit against you, will either be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. The old bumper sticker said, “Life is tough—and then you die.” That’s true, isn’t it? The real issue is how you handle life when it’s tough. Will it be Satan’s way or God’s way? Those are the only two choices we have, and we have to make that choice on a daily basis, usually many times a day. Jesus said that there are two paths: The narrow path is difficult in the short run, but is the only choice in the long run; the wide one seems deceptively easy in the short run, but is deadly in the long run. If we hang in with God, no matter what happens to us in this life, the long run will be unimaginably wonderful and wonderfully long.
The evolution I wrote about in the Introduction has occurred once again, hasn’t it? In talking about a bad style of leadership, we have ended up at the cross once again. It’s interesting how that will keep happening over and over, if we allow it to happen. The Latin word for cross is crux. The crux of the matter is not man’s leadership style, although I deem it important enough to write a chapter with the title. The real crux of the matter is the cross—God’s leadership style. That is the style I want to employ in my own leadership and to experience as I follow others, but no matter what people may do, God is still my leader, and yours. Whatever he causes or allows in my life, he already has my permission. Otherwise, life will make me bitter. But if God really is the architect of my life, I can handle whatever design he develops in my life. You can too—but the question is: Will we?
The Indwelling Spirit of Promise
Ezekiel 36:26-27, in an apparent Messianic prophecy, gives a wonderful promise of the Spirit’s presence in our hearts and lives as Christians. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 11:19 uses the term “undivided” heart instead of “new” heart.) In the Old Testament, people did not have the indwelling Spirit, and as a result, did not consistently follow God’s decrees and laws. Now, however, we have the Spirit to move us in the right direction.
Paul describes this impetus of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-4 in powerful ways. Through Christ, the law of the Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death. Jesus was our perfect sin offering to take away both the guilt and power of sin in our lives. The righteous requirements of the law can be fully met in us, who live according to the Spirit, which is not sinlessness on our part, but absolute faithfulness and consistency plus God’s continual forgiveness as we walk in the light (1 John 1:7) with the aid of the Spirit.
The Spirit and the Message of Salvation
The Holy Spirit and the Word of God are closely associated in the salvation of mankind. First, the message was inspired by the Spirit in the OT prophets, as they foretold the message of salvation by the Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-12), and in the NT apostles and prophets who had their message revealed to them by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:2-5; 2 Peter 1:20-21). Since the Spirit expresses spiritual truths in spiritual words (1Corinthians 2:13-14), they can only be understood by spiritually-minded people (See also Ephesians 5.17-18). Such a person readily accepts what is written, rather than looking for and praying for an “understanding” which fits his preconceived ideas and desires (2 Timothy 3:2-4). Refusal to accept the Spirit’s inspired message leads to God sending those who refuse a powerful delusion which leads to their condemnation (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12)!
Second, the message also was sent by the Spirit. Once the Spirit came to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, the apostles had the task of being witnesses to all nations – Acts 1:1-8. The Spirit was to testify about Jesus (John 15:26); the apostles were to testify about Jesus (John 15:27); and, all other disciples were to do the same (Matthew 28:19-20). Through this preached message, the Spirit offers the invitation to salvation; the church does the same, and every individual who accepts the invitation must pass it on (Revelation 22:17). Obviously, the Holy Spirit loves to preach! But He can only preach through those whom he indwells. How fired up is he about dwelling in you? Does He find you exciting or boring?
Third, the message was directed by the Spirit, as he opened doors of opportunity for evangelism. These doors were to individuals (Acts 8:26-40, especially verse 29) and to entire areas (2 Corinthians 2:12). This being true, Paul admonished us to pray for such open doors (Colossians 4:3). Sometimes, the Spirit directed some doors closed in order to lead to more open doors (Acts 16:6-10). Therefore, we must take advantage of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5-6) as we trust the Spirit to direct our paths to fruitful service! When your evangelism does not seem successful, do not get frustrated nor discouraged. Keep on sowing the seed, and trusting the Spirit’s direction. You will bear fruit!
The Spirit and Initial Salvation
When we find God, it is because he has first found us, seeking us through the Holy Spirit. In Acts 8:29, the Spirit sent Philip to meet a non-Christian (who had an openness to God). The Spirit is definitely involved in divine providence, both before and after we become Christians. Our being met and taught is never an accident – it is the plan of God brought about by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit draws us to God initially by convicting us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-8). Because we are blinded by sin, we must first deal with this malady if we are to appreciate and accept the abundant grace of God. But how does He bring about this conviction? First, he inspired the Word of God (1 Peter 1:20-21; Ephesians 3:3-5). This explains why the Word of God is called the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), for through it he brings people to conviction.
Look at this convicting process in Acts 2:36-41, as the people were convicted of the sin of crucifying Christ (verses 36-37), convicted of the way to righteousness with God (verse 38) and then convicted of judgment (verse 40). In Acts 24:25, Paul reasoned with Felix about righteousness, self-control (sin), and the judgment to come, which left this hardened ruler convicted (afraid) but not obedient. Thus, the Spirit convicts the world through his Word, whether shared individually, preached publicly, or read privately.
The Spirit and Continual Salvation
When we are baptized into a saved relationship with Christ, the Spirit comes to indwell us (Acts 2:38; 5:32). According to Galatians 4:6, he is sent into our hearts by God because we became children of God, thus signifying this new relationship (tie this in with Galatians 3:26-27). Back in John 7:37-39, Jesus had promised this indwelling. Several truths are connected with this indwelling. One, the Spirit is our seal (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13). A seal was an official sign of ownership. When we become Christians, God stamps us as his property! The world may not be able to tell who is a child of God simply by looking, but the spirit world now can.
Two, the Spirit is the deposit of our inheritance (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:14). The deposit here carries the idea of earnest money put down for a purchase as a pledge that the full amount will be paid at the proper time. Therefore, the Spirit is God’s deposit in us, guaranteeing our future blessings with him (Philippians 3:20-21).
Three, he strengthens us (Ephesians 3:14-21), which is more than being strengthened by the Word (which definitely strengthens us). He also helps us to follow through with our convictions. Of course, he will not force us to do right against our will to do otherwise, but he will strengthen us to do what we really want to do for God. Once I was jogging a much longer distance than I ever had before, and near the end of the run, I came to a formidable hill. When I was tempted to give up, a friend ran behind me with his hand in the middle of my back pushing me. Had I quit running, he could not have helped me, but because I was trying, he could assist me in completing the run. Similarly, the Spirit assists us to complete what we could not complete without his helpful and vital “push.”
Four, he aids us in godly living. Just knowing that he dwells in me keeps me from wanting to sin (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), for where I go, he goes! Galatians tells us that we “live” by the Spirit in a number of ways: by refusing to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (verses 16-17); by being freed from a legalistic works orientation (verse 18); by avoiding a life directed by the sinful nature (verses 19-21), by developing the fruit of the Spirit (verses 22-23); by crucifying the sinful nature (verse 24); by keeping step with the Spirit (verse 25); and by maintaining loving relationships with our brothers (verse 26).
Romans 8 also promises that as we set our minds on spiritual living, the Spirit helps us control our minds and lives for God. We have life and peace (verse 6); our spirit is alive (verse 10); life is given to our mortal bodies (verse 11); we put to death the misdeeds of the body (verse 13); we are led by the Spirit (verse 14); we have a Spirit of sonship, not fear (verse 15); we have the assurance of salvation (verse 16-17); and he intercedes for us (verses 26-27). The Holy Spirit is vitally concerned about every aspect of our lives and needs. He loves us. He cares how we feel. He intercedes because he is an Encourager (Acts 9:31) and a Counselor to us (John 14:16-18). In that latter role, he joins Jesus in speaking in our behalf (1 John 2:1).
Five, the Spirit acts providentially for us, often leading in ways that are very delightful to us as we are led directly into the blessings of God. However, he also leads us into the desert of trials (Matthew 4:1)! In this gospel context, Jesus was thus led right after a time of great commitment to God’s will. Don’t be surprised when spiritual mountaintops seem to be followed by some rather intense valleys. Passages like Lamentations 3:38 inform us that everything which happens to us is either directly caused by God, or at the least allowed by him.
But why does a loving God allowing such painful testing in our lives? The Bible supplies abundant answers to that question. It develops character (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4); it breaks us of self-sufficiency (2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 12:7-10); it makes us into Christ’s image (Romans 8:28-29; Galatians 4:19; Hebrews 5:7-9; 12:4-13). However, knowing why we suffering doesn’t remove the pain! Suffering is tough, producing what men call stress (the difference between our agenda for our lives and God’s agenda for them!). It may lead to our questioning God, as did the Psalmist on many occasions (Psalm 13:1-6). Such struggling with God is natural at first, but if we don’t work it through, we can end up like Job, who found himself facing a God who had worn thin on patience!
Rest assured that God is not sentimental. He gives us what we need rather than what we think we need. We especially struggle with accepting testing through people (who make mistakes), but following Jesus in the way of the cross is still the only answer (1 Peter 2:18-25). The key is to trust God no matter what occurs (Romans 8:31-39) and to decide to be thankful in (not necessarily for) all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Note that nine of the ten lepers cleansed by Christ were not even thankful for the good things in their lives. We seem to expect the good, thus taking it for granted, while being shocked and dismayed at the not-so-good. Shedding the idea that we are somehow God’s gift to creation would help us be more thankful and more accepting of the challenges of life! Only Spirit-filled disciples can be thankful for the hard times in their lives. Bottom line, God is allowing you to be tested in order to become more spiritual and more prepared for deeper spiritual service in the future. Trust him and trust the Spirit who leads you through both the storms and through the sunshine (and each has its own inherent danger!).
The Holy Spirit and Conscience
We often speak of conscience, but what is that? Biblically, it is an inner voice which sits in judgment over our attitudes and actions (Romans 2:15). It is not infallible, for it is only as good as it is trained. Since we all receive worldly training as non-Christians, the conscience must be retrained, by the Scriptures. Two vital lessons regarding the conscience must be kept in mind.
One, we must always strive to keep our consciences clear before God and men (Acts 24:16; 1 Timothy 1:15,19). However, a clear conscience does not guarantee our innocence (Acts 26:9; 1 Corinthians 4:4). It can be weak (accusing us inaccurately – 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10); seared over (1 Timothy 4:2); corrupted (Titus 1:15); and guilty (Hebrews 10:22). Two, in the situation where conscience is not trained properly, it nonetheless must not be violated in the process of retraining it (Romans 14:22-23). Although religion per se cannot clear the conscience (Hebrews 9:9), the blood of Christ, properly applied, can (Hebrews 9:14).
But having said that, how do our consciences and the Spirit work together? Paul said that his truthfulness was confirmed in his conscience by the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1). Since a clear conscience does not guarantee innocence (it is the Lord who judges – 1 Corinthians 4:4), to be approved by the Spirit has to mean that our actions or thoughts are based on God’s Word (which the Spirit inspired). The real danger comes when trusting our emotions and attributing them to an inner prompting of the Holy Spirit. Emotions and conscience are not the same thing. Emotions can be very selfishly directed, leading us to violate our own consciences (with the help of our rationalization process).
In making decisions, conscience should move us to stay surrendered and open-minded, and to get plenty of advice. Emotionalism moves us to be very independent and untrusting of others. Bottom line, if you feel like making a decision without wanting advice, Satan is using your emotions. If you want advice to insure a godly decision, God is using your conscience. This line of reasoning does not rule out prompting by the Spirit, but it does raise a proper caution. The Spirit will never prompt us in a direction which violates biblical principles, and such prompting must then be confirmed by advice from mature spiritual people (Proverbs 12:15;13:10;14:12; 19:20; 20:18; Romans 15:14).
The Holy Spirit, the Word, and Spirituality
The Holy Spirit works very closely in conjunction with the Word he inspired. Note the following parallels:
- We are born again by the Spirit (John 3:8) and by the Word (1 Peter 1:23).
- We are sanctified (set apart) by the Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13) and by the Word (John 17:17).
- We live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25) and by the Word (Matthew 4:4).
- We are strengthened by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16) and by the Word (Acts 20:32).
- We are filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-19) and in a parallel passage, indwelt by the Word (Colossians 3:16).
Being full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3, 5; 11:24) is to be full of desire to love and serve God, and to be directing that desire in accordance with the Word of God. One can be knowledgeable without being spiritual. One can be pious in heart, yet deficient in knowledge, and still not be spiritual. The need is always spirit and truth – to possess both zeal and knowledge. When we are truly Spirit-filled, Spirit-led disciples, we live in the very atmosphere of the Holy Spirit! As Paul put it in Romans 14:17, the kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We are to pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers (Ephesians 6:18). We love one another in the Spirit (Colossians 1:7). In spite of severe suffering, we have joy given by the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
In conclusion, with Paul let us say: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
—Gordon Ferguson (May 1998)
This title conjures up many things in the minds of religious people, depending upon their backgrounds and present persuasion on the subject. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that all followers of Christ today should be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a miraculous way, inducing them to speak in tongues and perform miracles of one sort or another (healings in particular). At the other end of the spectrum are those who are uncomfortable with the charismatic claims and practices, but aren’t sure just how to refute them biblically. Hopefully we are somewhere in between, rejecting the miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit, which were intended for the early age of the church prior to the completion of the New Testament. Now that we have a completed New Testament, the miracles it contains do the same thing for us that the original miracles did in the first century – namely lead us to faith in Christ and salvation as a result (John 20:30-31).
However, we still need to have a biblical understanding of just what the baptism with the Holy Spirit was in its original context and be able to explain both what it was and what it was not. A great beginning place is to read what John the Baptist said about the subject.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:7-12)
What Was the Baptism With Fire?
The most logical way to view this text is to assume that everyone in the audience was going to be baptized either with the Holy Spirit or with fire. The baptism with fire seemed to be fairly close at hand, since John said that the ax was already at the root of the trees that were not producing good fruit. I think this baptism refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, although others think it refers to hell itself. Malachi 4 provides a good commentary on the work of John the Baptist, and I think addresses both the baptism with the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire. Take a few minutes to study out this prediction of John’s work as the “new” Elijah. At any rate, the NT has much more about the destruction of Jerusalem in it than most people realize, but we will save this subject for another column in the near future.
Regarding the baptism of the Holy Spirit, two passages in Acts are essential to our comprehension of the subject: Acts 2 and Acts 10. In Luke 24:49, Jesus had promised the coming of the Spirit and the disciples’ reception of power from that event. Acts 2 records what Peter said was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2. Although the term “baptism” means a covering, an immersion or an overwhelming, it is described here as a pouring out. From heaven’s vantage point, the coming of the Spirit in a unique way was a pouring; from earth’s vantage point, it was a baptism – an overwhelming measure of the Spirit such as had never been seen before.
Acts 10 and 11 contain the account of what most assume is a second baptism of the Holy Spirit. Let’s read these passages together.
44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:44-47)
15“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (Acts 11:15-17)
Two Baptisms With the Spirit — Or Just One?
The question is whether this falling of the Spirit on Cornelius constituted a second example of Holy Spirit baptism or not. As we have already stated, most assume that it is a second example, the first accompanying the induction of the Jews into the Kingdom and the second accompanying the induction of the Gentiles into the Kingdom. Certainly a number of things in the text may support that understanding. Acts 11:15 is a key consideration: “…the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.” Whatever else may be said, Holy Spirit baptism was not a regular occurrence, because this situation reminded Peter of the beginning, a reference to the Day of Pentecost back in Acts 2. This present account took place years later. The Pentecostal view that baptism with the Holy Spirit was (or is) an everyday occurrence does not agree at all with what Peter said.
Since Peter used the “keys” of the kingdom (means of entrance—Matthew 16:19; Acts 2:38) to usher in the Jews at the time of that first outpouring, he now used the same “keys” for the Gentiles at a similar outpouring (Acts 10:44-48). If this view is correct, baptism with the Holy Spirit was a two-time-only event in connection with ushering in the kingdom of God to both Jews and Gentiles. However, another view has much to commend it, as seen in the following explanation.
The account in Acts 10 and 11 is not necessarily a second example of Holy Spirit baptism. As we have seen, that view does make sense, but another similar view takes some other aspects into consideration. In Acts 2:17 (quoting Joel 2:28), Holy Spirit baptism was in the future tense, for it had not occurred before the Day of Pentecost. Then, in Acts 2:33, the pouring out of the Spirit was in aorist tense, which corresponds closely to our past tense, for it had just occurred. But in Acts 10:45, the Spirit having been poured out on the Gentiles was in perfect tense. Perfect tense denotes a past action with continuing results, like Jesus’ statement “it is written,” which means that the Scriptures are written and stand written, that they remain in force.
With this definition in mind, consider the wording of the passage: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” The perfect tense could well be pointing back all the way to Pentecost in Acts 2, as a past action with continuing results. Thus, the miraculous demonstration of the Spirit with Cornelius showed that Spirit baptism back at Pentecost was indeed for all men and not just for Jews. This similar direct falling of the Spirit on Cornelius, without human hands being laid on him, caused Peter to remember back to Christ’s promise (Acts 11:16).
Another evidence of support for this one time outpouring on Pentecost is that “poured out” in Acts 2:33 means literally “to be drained.” The word is often translated “spilled,” meaning emptied instead of having something partially poured out, leaving some of the contents in the container for later pourings. In my view, the evidence strongly suggests that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a one-time event, making him forever available for those who become Christians. As Jesus died “once for all” for all men, so the Spirit was poured out “once for all” for all men. Of course, we must keep in mind that he does not do exactly the same things for us today as he did for those in the miraculous age of the church. But he does seal, strengthen, lead and love us, to mention but a few of the ways he works in our lives as Christians today.
A good parallel would be to consider the death of Jesus and the baptism with the Spirit as similar one-time events. Before Spirit Baptism occurred, he was available only to a select few in the Old Testament (the prophets). Holy Spirit Baptism was the coming of the Spirit into to world in an overwhelming measure, making him available for everyone who would receive him. Jesus’ death was for all people (Hebrews 2:9), but only those who obey Him receive the benefit of salvation (Hebrews 5:9). The coming of the Spirit was for all as well, but only those who obey receive the indwelling Spirit (Acts 2:38; Galatians 4:6). Praise God for all of his work in us through the Holy Spirit!
What is The Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit?
The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, sometimes called “the unforgivable sin,” is a subject that often produces insecurity and fear in the hearts of a number of people. Their underlying question is this one: “Since there is no forgiveness for this terrible sin (whatever it is), what if I am guilty of it?” The quick answer is that God will forgive us of all sins of which we repent. Whether it is “repent and be baptized” to become a Christian (Acts 2.38) or confession and turning from sin after we are Christians (1 John 1.9), forgiveness of all sin is promised by God in these passages. For the biblical explanation, let’s read all three of the passages that mention it before proceeding to a more detailed study – Matthew 12.22-32; Mark 3.20-30; Luke 12.8-10.
Specifics in the Texts and Contexts
The sin is an expression of defiant hostility toward the Spirit. Literally it means “to rail against, to assail, to insult with vicious attacks.” Those involved in the sin were Jewish leaders, who were quite familiar with the Law with its Messianic prophecies, and eye-witnesses of the miracles of Jesus. They not only rejected Christ’s miracles as being from God, but directly and blatantly attributed them to Satan. Since the miracles were done by the Holy Spirit, these people were slandering the Spirit in their vicious accusations against Jesus and His power.
Let’s look at each of the passages and the main points they make about the subject.
And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)
Note the key points made in this text:
· All other blasphemies could be forgiven.
· Blasphemy against the Spirit would not.
· Speaking against Jesus could be forgiven.
· Speaking against the Spirit would not.
· No such forgiveness would be given, either in this age or the age to come.
I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an evil spirit.” (Mark 3:28-30)
Now the key points in Mark’s account:
· All other blasphemies could be forgiven.
· This blasphemy against the Spirit would not.
· This blasphemy constituted an eternal sin.
· Note that Jesus’ warning was issued because they were saying “He has an evil spirit.”
Finally, Luke 12:8-10:
“I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
· It was related to the acknowledging or disowning of Jesus before men.
· Speaking a word against Jesus could be forgiven; blaspheming the Spirit would not be.
This sin lay at the end of a downward progression. People with open hearts saw the miracles of Jesus and accepted him and his message. Others accepted the miracles without yet accepting him as the Son of God (Matthew 16.13-17). His own family thought he was out of his mind (Mark 3.20-21). The ones guilty of blasphemy (or perhaps about to be guilty – Mark 3.30) attributed the miracles to Satan. At any point along the way, people could come to faith, but at the end of this road in question, faith was no longer a possibility.
Saul of Tarsus was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man (against Jesus) – 1 Timothy 1.13. Yet he evidently had not personally seen the miracles of Jesus and claimed they were by Satan. Once you had seen the miracles and so violently rejected them, claiming they were Satanic in origin, nothing could wake you up. The more continual the sin, the more hardened one became. Those in the Pentecost audience (Acts 2) were told to repent and be baptized – every one of them (Acts 2:38). Peter did not make an exception for those guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
No one will be denied God’s grace if they truly repent of their sins and come to him. The Spirit’s invitation is to “whoever wishes” (Revelation 22:17). If you are fearful that you have committed the “unforgivable sin,” that is a sure sign you haven’t! However, becoming hardened in sin is a scary thought anyway. It can begin in carelessness, continue in indifference, and end in a point of hardening. In Hebrews, it began with drifting (2:1), progressed to a sinful unbelieving heart (3.11-12), and ultimately led to the impossibility of repentance (6.4-6).
Seen another way, the downward spiral begins by wanting to be a friend to the world (James 4:4), then loving it (1 John 2:15), then being conformed to it (Romans 12.2), and finally being condemned with it (1 Corinthians 11.32). Therefore, the issue is not whether God will forgive; the issue is whether man can (will) repent. Jesus knew hearts and knew that the ones to whom he spoke had passed the point of no return – a complete hardening. Even at that, his words may have been a warning that they were approaching that point of no return (Mark 3.30). The great miracle of the resurrection would truly be their last hope.
Blasphemy against the Spirit was a blatant, slanderous attack against Jesus and his miracles on a continual basis which led to a complete hardening. Although we are not in the same position of blaspheming the Holy Spirit in our day, any hardening of our hearts is scary business. We must realize that the first step in this direction begins with taking Christ and his word lightly. Keep your heart soft toward the Word, and you will never end up hardened by sin. With our gracious God, it is never a question of his willingness to forgive, but only of our willingness to repent – and at some point, perhaps our ability to repent. But God longs for our repentance and forgiveness, for he is indeed a good God – a perfect Father!
—Gordon Ferguson (October 11, 2009)