Category: Salvation & The Christian Life

What is Godliness?

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How would you explain “godliness” to a new Christian or a non-believer? Often this key word is used in a well-meaning but unprecise way by many Christians. Sometimes “godliness” becomes synonymous with other terms like “holiness” or “integrity” and other times familiarity with its meaning is simply assumed. For example, R. Kent Hughes’ best-selling book Disciplines of a Godly Man* takes 1 Timothy 4:7b “train yourself for godliness,” as its foundational text. The book’s introduction goes to great lengths to explain what is meant by “training” and “discipline”, while failing to define or explain what godliness is.

Other times godliness may be subsumed under other ideas of what a Christian should be. Larry Crabb asks in The Silence of Adam,* “what does a godly man look like?” He immediately asserts “you can substitute the phrase ‘manly man’ for ‘godly man,’ the two are the same,” and later suggests: “Men in whom masculine energy is suppressed or distorted are unmanly, ungodly men…” Here, godliness appears to be subordinated to a particular notion of masculinity.

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The biblical concept of godliness is a very important element of Christianity and it deserves better than to be used as shorthand for generic Christian living, or in any other way that diminishes its uniqueness. There is also a rich heritage of earlier saints who were deeply concerned with the nature and characteristics of godliness, which can be drawn upon from two millennia of church history.  Every Christian will be well served to explore what godliness means biblically and how it has been understood and lived out by those in centuries past.

Eusebeia and Theosebeia in the New Testament

The main Greek word translated as “godliness” in our English New Testaments is eusebeia. It appears around 15 times in the Greek New Testament (Acts 3:12; 1 Timothy 2:2, 3:16, 4:7&8, 6:3,5,6&11; 2 Timothy 3:5; Titus 1:1; 2 Peter 1:3,6&7, 3:11) with words from the same family appearing several more times (Acts 10:2&7, 17:23; 1 Timothy 5:4; 2 Timothy 3:12; Titus 2:12; 2 Peter 2:9).

The word breaks down to eu- (Gk: ‘good’ or ‘well’) and sebeia (Gk: ‘reverence’ or ‘worship’) – literally ‘well-worship’ or ‘good (i.e. proper) reverence.’ In Greek, the concept doesn’t relate exclusively to God, but conveys the idea of giving appropriate reverence to those one has a duty to honour. The similar word theosebeia (literally: ‘God-reverence’) appears once only in 1 Timothy 2:10, but is also usually translated “godliness” in English Bibles.

Thus, if we are to use the term “godliness” in any meaningful way that is anchored in its New Testament definition, it must relate specifically to showing proper reverence to God in our lives. But exactly what is the nature of this worship or reverence?

A helping hand from History

It’s at this point that it will help if we draw on the thoughts of Christians who have wrestled with the implications of this biblical sense of godliness long before we ever asked the question. While Christians in the early centuries of the Church often have valuable insights on this issue (Augustine for instance is sometimes credited with tweaking the sense of the Greco-Roman notion of piety into a more personalised devotion towards God),[1] it will be most helpful to consider the voices of the more recent forerunners of modern evangelicalism: namely the Reformers and Puritans.

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The Reformer John Calvin, defined piety (a synonym for godliness) as the “union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.”[2] Here we see that proper reverence towards God must be accompanied by love towards Him. Calvin considered this reverence and love to be built upon a theological foundation: they were inspired by the knowledge of God and his benefits learned through the Gospel and instruction in the Scriptures. Piety was a heart-response to what the head had learned.

Calvin later said that the kind of godly reverence or fear he spoke of also led to “legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.”[3] That is to say, the outward forms of worship (eg; a church service) which a godly person adopted would not only be characterised by a proper demonstration of reverence for God at all times, but would also be based on whatever forms of worship God had called for in the Bible.

The Puritans

 

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The English Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries were perhaps more preoccupied with the meaning and centrality of godliness than any other movement in Christian history. They saw the biblical emphasis on worshipping God sincerely from the heart as a core truth that was denied by multitudes of nominal Christians who were “no better than baptised heathen!” (Thomas Watson, Godly Man’s Picture).

Like Calvin, they saw godliness as having the right appreciation and esteem of God as He really was. The Puritans emphasised the cultivation of godly affections – again chiefly fear and love – which showed God actually was being worshipped from the heart. The godly man or woman was a person who cherished God as their most precious treasure and who regarded Him as the Being of greatest magnitude and glory in the universe. This was only possible for those who had been regenerated and given a new nature by God’s Holy Spirit.

The Puritans were also concerned that outward worship be reformed to reflect that which God mandated in the Scriptures, as this was seen as an obvious means of showing they took God seriously. The English Church in which most of them worshipped (for some, until they were forced out) there was a mixture of biblical worship and the innovations of the Roman Catholic Church that found little Scriptural warrant. The Puritans sought to bring church services, corporate worship and private devotion in line with simple, God-honouring reverence and get rid of anything that reeked of superstition or took the focus away from God.

Summary

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I think the easiest way to emphasise the true meaning of godliness is to bold the first three letters: Godliness. In fact, perhaps bold them in size 200 font. Because godliness is all about your attitude towards God. When our heart beholds, by faith, the immense majesty of the King of Kings in His exalted-above-the-heavens glory and is inflamed with sincere love, while trembling with holy fear – that’s godliness. And the way that kind of heart-response shows up in our daily living and the way we gather and worship as a church is godliness-by-extension.

Now that you know what godliness is, it’s worth pondering whether you have it…

 

[1] Joseph Harp Britton, Abraham Herschel and the Phenomenon of Piety (London: T&T Clark, 2015): 26-27.

[2] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book I, Chapter II.

[3] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book I Chapter II.

*I have nothing against either author, nor do I intend to discredit these particular works: I simply sought to demonstrate from these books how commonly the meaning of godliness is either assumed or conflated with something else.

Are you a Maranatha Christian?

This post originally appeared on the blog of 517 Church Brisbane, where the author served in various ministries from 2011-2015. It reappears on Lion & Phoenix on the occasion of the church and it’s website shutting down, as the members move to join another like-minded church in the local area. 

Australian Indigenous Christian Artwork depicting the Second coming of Christ (Author's collection, all rights reserved)
 Australian Indigenous Christian Artwork depicting the Second coming of Christ hanging in a church at Tennant Creek, NT (Photograph from author’s collection, all rights reserved)

Right towards the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul utters a very short prayer. The prayer in 16:22 has sometimes been left untranslated in English Bibles as “Maranatha!” If we go by it’s size, we could call this a mini-prayer, but if we consider its meaning it’s an incredibly huge thing to pray. So what does it mean?

Maranatha is Aramaic (the language Jesus would have spoken) for “Come Lord!” This simple, yet profound phrase is possibly bigger than anything else we regularly pray for. It’s essentially calling for the King of the Universe, the Risen Son of God, to appear in all His glory, bring an end to the world as we know it, rescue all of His people from every distress they face and bring in the Kingdom of God in all its fullness for all of eternity.

This is a prayer that will soon be answered. A prayer that we can all be certain is God’s will. As surely as Jesus came the first time – He will return again to rule and judge. As surely as He rose from the dead He will bring life and transformation to His people and His creation. It’s guaranteed to happen. And soon. This is the most wonderful thing in history that could well occur in our lifetime. It’s the glorious tomorrow that should affect even the most mundane, monotonous or melancholy today. It’s what we’re waiting for: “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13, ESVUK).

My question is, are you a Maranatha Christian? Do you pray for this to happen? Do you even want it to happen? Or is the return of Jesus something you dread? Do you think it would ruin your plans, unfulfilled desires and hopes in this life? You want to go to heaven and be with God, but you really want to have a good life of doing the things you want to do before that happens. You’re not desperate for Jesus to return. Eternal life in the kingdom seems more like a pleasant retirement after a busy eighty years of working hard and doing the things we wanted to do in this present age.

I often struggle in my thinking about the past, present and future. The past sometimes haunts. The present sometimes seems bleak. Will the future also be trying, difficult and bring pain and sorrow? Sometimes when I am by myself, this way of thinking can get so bad it teeters on the brink of despair. But God has used some of these occasions to challenge me to think about how tainted my perceptions can be. For the Christian, no matter how painful the past, no matter how bland the present – the future is bright. And it’s bright because Jesus is returning.

It’s true that Thursday could be just as hard as Wednesday. Friday could be worse. But the hope we have is not how the remaining days of our life will turn out and whether they’ll bring all the things we wanted in this life. Our hope is that one day very soon, God is going cancel Night. It will be Jesus Day – a single day of glory, joy and life that never ends.

Do you long for that day? Is it where your hope is? What desire, what worldly hope or ambition, what attachment is keeping you from praying “Maranatha!” “O Lord, Come!”?

Sometimes we need to see this life for what it really is. Whenever you find it dissatisfying or disappointing you and see the things you once lived for quickly fading – I pray that it won’t be a moment that drives you despair. Instead, I pray it will help you “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13, ESV). This is the tomorrow that shapes today. This is the future that means everything for how we live, think and pray right now.

Are you a “Maranatha Christian?” Could you become one by starting to pray “Come Lord Jesus” today?

Further More Sanctified (cont.)

In part 1, “Never More Justified” we saw that we are never more justified as a Christian than when we first believed. Never more or less right with God; Never more worthy of our justification; and God is never more pleased with us (in the fundamental sense of us being His children through adoption in Christ). In part 2a “Further More Sanctified” we saw three ways in which greater sanctification brings about positive developments in our Christian life. Namely, through the process of sanctification we can grow more like Christ; better glorify God; and better enjoy God.

We continue this look at being “Further More Sanctified” with three more features of growth in holiness and Christlike, Christian maturity.

#4 We can gain greater victory over sin the more we are sanctified 

Being justified means our relationship to sin is changed forever. Our spiritual identity is no longer defined by our rebellion against God. Our status is no longer determined by how badly we’ve dishonoured God and gone against His ways. There is a sense in which we are no longer sinners. And yet there is a sense in which we still are.

Tragically, justified Christians still sin. We still think, speak and act in ways that do not honour God’s authority and character. We still stumble and take our personal satisfaction into our own hands and take short-cuts to short-lived gratification. We still exhibit signs of self-reliance, whereby we try to look good in front of others (and perhaps even in front of God!) by how well we can perform certain kinds of tasks and behaviours.

That’s why sanctification is important. Because every justified Christian is called not to simply rest in their righteous status and be indifferent to whether or not we dishonour God through sin. We’re each called to go to war with sin. To fight dishonorable thoughts and attitudes. To resist temptation. To put our sinful passions to death.

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The war against sin is one that will last the duration of our lives – but it is one that God has ordained to be won progressively battle by battle, rather than some kind of immediate, total annihilation victory via weapons of mass destruction. The good news is that each victory in our battles against sin is a real gain, where the sin that remains in us becomes less potent than it was before and our capacity to live holy lives in accordance with God’s will increases.

We need to value sanctification because we can be slowly and steadily conquering sin by the grace of God, the power of Christ and the with the help of the Spirit.

#5 We can be of greater use to God and greater benefit to others the more we are sanctified 

We already noted in the last post how being progressively sanctified enables us to increasingly bring glory to God and enjoy what we have in Him. But as we are made more like Christ and increasingly live out our justified status as God’s children, we can also be fitter vessels for God’s use in advancing His Kingdom and serving others.

This is probably seen most clearly in the way Paul talked about people’s suitability for certain kinds of ministry. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, he gives some lists of the qualities that Christians need to exhibit if they’re going to be serving God’s people in particular ways.

Example: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.” (Titus 1:7-8)

Both the positive and negative characteristics in these verses are a test of whether the candidate for pastoral ministry and church leadership has been sufficiently sanctified in their character to faithfully communicate and demonstrate what the gospel of Jesus is all about. A man who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined in their conduct demonstrates that the gospel has really been applied to their heart by the Holy Spirit and transformation of character is taking place. But a man who is unable to restrain himself when it comes to prideful opinion, temper, alcohol, physical force or material goods needs to let Jesus do more work in his heart before he can be used by Jesus as He works in the hearts of others.

The more your character has been sanctified, the more your lifestyle will adorn the gospel and commend it to others – rather than bringing it into disrepute. The more sanctified you are, the more others can learn from you as they seek to live lives that honour God and proclaim the gospel themselves.

#6 We can be better prepared for heaven the more we are sanctified 

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Finally, sanctification is vital in the way it prepares us for eternity. Justification gains us a place in heaven and in the new creation. But sanctification readies our soul for eternity in a special way. When we die we will be with Christ and when we experience the resurrection of our bodies, we will be perfect (more on that next time!) and more Christlike than we could ever be in this life. But the whole of the Christian’s life is the process of becoming more and more like Christ and more and more like what we’ll be when we see Him (see 1 John 3:2-3).

Becoming like Jesus; seeking God’s glory in all that we do; gaining greater enjoyment of God; putting to death our sinful and worldly desires; and seeking the advancement of God’s Kingdom by pursuing the kind of holy character that reflects the gospel and can be used in God’s service,  all point to the end goal of our lives.

Growth in sanctification loudly declares that the entirety of our present identity and our aims in life is centred on who we will be and what we will do for eternity. Our eternal destiny is to glorify God as perfected reflectors of Christ, while enjoying the fullness of God and his everlasting Kingdom.

Each phase of sanctification is the Holy Spirit pulling back the curtain a little more to show us and the world what kind of person we’ll be when God is finished with us and completes His plan of redemption. Each decision to actively seek God’s glory in this life is a testimony to our highest purpose in the next. Each time we say “no!” to sin and resist temptation points us and others to the sinless perfection we’ll enjoy in God’s presence and the greater reward He offers to us for seeking His Kingdom and righteousness.

As we wax brighter and brighter in holiness, like the moon progressing through its phases, we grow in joyful anticipation of the day when we most fully reflect Christ – when His image in us is never again obscured by the shadow of sin and worldliness.

 

[1] JimmyMac210 – just returned home from hospital “heaven” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr

Further More Sanctified

In part 1, “Never More Justified” we saw that we are never more justified as a Christian than when we first believed. Never more or less right with God; Never more worthy of our justification; and God is never more pleased with us (in the fundamental sense of us being His children through adoption in Christ).

But there is something about us as Christians that begins at our conversion and progressively develops throughout our lives on earth. Sanctification  is the term usually used to describe the changes in our hearts, minds and lives as Christians that see us grow in holy living. In simple terms we might describe being sanctified as having our lives increasingly come to reflect and resemble  the truth of who God has declared us to be in Christ through justification. Or simpler still, being sanctified is the process of the Holy Spirit conforming us to the image of the Son: making us more and more like Jesus in our character and behaviour.

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Sanctification is progressively reflecting the Son more fully [1]

 

 

Sanctification is not about “staying in” God’s family by works after getting in by grace through faith (Galatians 3 condemns this thinking quite strongly!). It does require effort on our part, but is ultimately dependent on the work of the Spirit to succeed. It is not a joyless, demanding obedience to a set of special rules for Christians, but a willing, joyful submission to God’s will out of a desire to imitate Christ and respond to His glory.

But if it doesn’t make us more “right” with God, more worthy of his love and acceptance or more essentially pleasing to Him, it may in fact seem like going through an ongoing process of spiritual growth is somewhat optional or unnecessary when we have so much through justification already.  This would be a mistake, however as sanctification is a vital companion to our justified status and does bring about results that justification by itself would not.

#1 We can become increasingly more like Jesus the more we are sanctified 

When God justifies us, He declares us to be righteous in His sight because Christ’s righteousness is counted to us as a free and undeserved gift. Theologians call this imputed righteousness (righteousness that isn’t intrinsically ours, but is counted to us as though it actually were). When God sanctifies us He makes us more like the Jesus we have believed in and benefited from. While our lives will never be good enough nor our actions right enough in this life to please God apart from Christ, sanctification sees our lives become more and more reflective of Christ’s character. The more we become like Jesus, the more we act in ways that please God – with our behaviour coming into greater harmony with the fact that God is pleased with us as beloved children on account of Jesus.

The more we reflect Jesus in our attitudes, speech and actions, the more we tell the story of what kind of Saviour He is and what wondrous things He has done for us. Becoming more like Jesus is the goal of Christian life and one of God’s key purposes in redeeming, justifying and adopting us into His family. Which brings us to the next point.

#2 We can bring more glory to God’s name the more we are sanctified

The classic Presbyterian Catechism asks the opening question: “What is the chief end of man?” (or “What is the highest/most important purpose of humanity?”), to which it answers: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
If this is the purpose of our existence, how do we ensure it occurs? The key lies in what we just discussed above: becoming more like Jesus. Jesus’s aim was always to bring glory to God in whatever He did. To imitate Him is to follow Him in the way of seeking God’s glory. To become Christlike is to develop qualities of character that naturally reflect God’s goodness and bring Him glory in the sight of others.

To glorify God is to give Him “ascriptive glory” – to recognise how glorious He is and respond to it with reverence, awe, love and a certain kind of life. The more our hearts are opened to see who God is, the more our minds are illuminated by the revelation of God in His Word, the more the Spirit enables us to live faithfully in a way that demonstrates the majesty of the King we love and serve – the more glory God gets from us and our response to Him.

#3 We can have greater enjoyment of God the more we are sanctified 

When these changes are progressively happening in us, the more we can experience part B of our great purpose: enjoying God forever. The more we know and appreciate God through the gospel and the more our lives are transformed to be like Jesus, the greater enjoyment we should have of God. One reason for this is that although our grasp of who God is when we first believe is profoundly impactful – there is actually much more of God to be discovered, known and loved. This deeper enjoyment of God is not simply the process of accumulating more theological knowledge. We only deepen our enjoyment of God if our character and heart is being changed by our encountering God in His Word and His work in our day-to-day lives. There is a sense of divine enjoyment that can only accompany mature Christianity.

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Sanctification is often linked to our sense of assurance of salvation. While our confidence in Christ should not depend on how well we think we’re “performing” as Christians, God often seems to grant a greater sense of assurance to those who are diligent in their pursuit of holiness and Christlikeness, while withholding it from those who are negligent in their Christian development. The level of certainty we possess in relation to salvation and the promises of the gospel has an enormous impact on how able we are to enjoy God.

Next time we’ll look at three more things that sanctification can affect or improve…

[1] Sandeep Gangadharan “Phases of the Moon” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr
[2] Raimond Klavins Himalayas mountain NEPAL GOSAIKUNDA YATRA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr

Never More Justified

Going through Galatians at church and starting to read through 1 John with a friend, have been good catalysts for thinking about justification and sanctification. It is always easy to confuse who and what we are already as Christians with what we’re becoming, how fast we’re becoming it and how far off the mark of perfection we still are. So I wanted to take a quick look at some truths about justification (“having a ‘right’ standing in our relationship with God”), sanctification (“being made progressively more holy/conformed to the image of Christ”) and glorification (“being perfected in Christ through our resurrection from the dead and enjoying Him for eternity”).

Justification

There is much that can be said about so grand a topic as justification. But in brief we can say this by way of introduction: Justification refers to our status in relation to God. God regards believers in Christ as “righteous” in His sight and allows them to enjoy a right relationship with Him.

The basis for our justification is Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. The perfect, sinless Jesus suffered and died in place of sinners and took God’s wrath upon Himself as the consequence of our sins. Thus, He dealt with the sin that had made us “guilty” in God’s sight and had left our relationship with God as one of brokenness and enmity.
However, Christ’s death did not only address our sin-guilt and gain us some sort of “clean slate” before God. His sacrifice was a “propitiation” for our sins – designed to not only deal with God’s holy wrath against us, but to bring His favour upon us in its place.

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Since Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, people around the world have been invited to trust in Jesus as their Saviour and be united with Him, by faith, in His death and resurrection. When someone trusts in Jesus in this way, not only does He serve as the substitute that took away their sins – but God counts (or “imputes”) Jesus’ righteousness to the believer, as if it were there own. When this happens for someone, they are justified (made right before God) completely by grace (i.e. because of God’s goodness and kindness and not based on any goodness or good works of their own) through faith (i.e. they become right in God’s sight and receive this new status, solely by trusting in Jesus as their Saviour).

Never More Justified  

Justification happens at the beginning of someone’s Christian life – when they repent and believe in the gospel. It is important to understand and appreciate the importance of the truth that once God confers this status upon someone it does not vary by degree, fluctuate or come and go. Once justified, the Christian is never more (or less) so than the hour they first believed.  To explore what this means for us, I will make the following 3 statements.

#1 We are never more (or less) “right” with God, than when we first received the gift of justification. 

Our understanding and appreciation of our justification may increase, but not our righteous status itself. This is a natural consequence of our righteousness or right standing with God being a free gift of grace and the imputation of Jesus’ own righteousness. If we were expected to increase or complete our righteousness in the sight of God, it would mean that our own good works contribute to that righteous status. But our good works cannot justify us before God, neither do they increase or complete our righteousness as though something about our status was lacking. Because God already regards us as though we have loved, honoured and obeyed (excuse the matrimonial phrase!) Him the way His perfect Son Jesus did, we can never be “more right” with God than we already are as justified Christians. Why? Because we can’t be in a “righter” relationship with God or enjoy a “righter” status with Him that exceeds the relationship and status Jesus has with the Father, and that very standing has been counted to us.

#2 We are never more worthy of justification than we were 

In Saving Private Ryan a band of U.S. Soldiers embark on a deadly mission to rescue the only surviving son of a mother whose lost three out of four boys to the carnage of World War II. As they make their way to try and save Private Ryan, the officer in charge of the mission, Capt. Miller makes the remark: “He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease or invent a longer lasting light bulb.” By the time the credits roll, six out of the eight who set out on the mission to save Private James Ryan have died. A high cost, even if their mission was based on a noble principle. As Capt. Miller lies dying from fatal gunfire he utters his final words to Ryan, “James, earn this…earn it.” The film ends with an elderly James Ryan pondering that very question at a U.S. War cemetery. Had he lived a good enough life? Had he done things worthy of the great cost paid for him?

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Justified Christians certainly owe our lives to Jesus, who undertook the greatest rescue mission of all and made an unmatchable sacrifice to save us. I could be tempted to picture Jesus on the Cross, looking down at me with His bloodied visage and saying, “Yarran, earn this…earn it.” Thankfully, we find nothing of that kind of message on Jesus’ lips in the Gospels. Yes we should live wholeheartedly and single-mindedly for the one who died for us. But if I got to the end of my life and had a Private James Ryan moment – if I’d understood the greatness of Jesus as a Person, the enormity of His sacrifice and the seriousness of my sin – I’d have to conclude that I hadn’t lived a life that earned the sacrifice made for me.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to be “worth” the sacrifice He made, nor does He imply we need to “earn” what He did for us.
We ought to be immensely thankful for the Cross and shape our entire lives around who Jesus is and what He has done. But the best-quality, blue-ribbon Christian is never going to be “more worthy” of what Jesus did for them – no matter how good their post-conversion lives are. Salvation is by grace – grace is never earned.

#3 God is never more “pleased” with us as His children (at least at the fundamental level)

I saved the controversial one for last. God’s pleasure in us as His children is inseparably linked to our union with Christ by faith and God’s counting as true of us what is true of Jesus. God the Father’s pronouncement at Jesus’ baptism: “”This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17) applies by derivation to us as God’s adopted children in Christ. Justified Christians are God’s beloved sons and daughters and God is well-pleased with us because of who we are in Christ.

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Crucially, this doesn’t mean that our actions can’t be displeasing to God when they dishonour Him or fail to love others. Nor does it suggest that sin has no effect on our familial relationship with God. What it does mean is that God’s fundamental pleasure in us comes not from what we can offer to Him by way of obedience, but from His seeing Jesus when He looks upon us as His children. [Note: Just this morning when I’d already planned to write on this topic, I stumbled across a good article dealing with potential misunderstanding and abuse of this truth. Worth a read].

This means that while our way of life certainly can be more or less pleasing to God (more on that in the sanctification installment), we need to be careful how we think about whether we’re pleasing to God ourselves. If God’s pleasure in us as His children depended on the quality of our obedience, He would never be pleased with us, because our best duties and offerings are always stained with sin. But if our faith is firmly in Christ, we can rejoice that God is pleased with us because we are united with His perfectly obedient Son.

We should only doubt God’s pleasure in us as His children if we ourselves are pleased with our sin. If we are unrepentant, we make light of Christ’s sacrifice and fail to come to Him for forgiveness and salvation. When such a state of life persists, we ought to question whether we truly are united with Christ and God’s beloved children.
But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness: our relationship with God is secure in Christ and He is well-pleased with us because of the Son.

[1] Waiting For The Word “Baptism of Christ 3” (CC BY 2.0)

 

 

More convinced by hell (than you or I)

In my last post I suggested that you and I are probably less convinced by hell, than many of our Christian forbears were (as demonstrated by their life, preaching and ministry). In this follow-up I’m sharing some examples of what some significant Christian ministers have expressed with regard to the realness of hell and how it affected their outlook. Of course, what is provided below by no means establishes how much of an emphasis these men put on hell across their life and ministry (that would be too enormous a task) – but it does give us a taste of how generations before us have regarded the truth of hell, which will be useful for comparison with our own emphasis or lack thereof.

Biblical

Our Lord Jesus was more convinced by the reality of hell than we are:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48, ESV)

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”  (Luke 12:4-5, ESV)

Paul was convinced enough by hell to use it as an encouragement for those suffering persecution:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering– since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

Peter convinced enough by hell to warn Christians that false teachers were headed there:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction…
Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world…if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority
…(2 Peter 2:1-10)

John was convinced by hell because God showed him a vision of what it would be like:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:12-15)

Early Church 

Early Christian bishop and martyr Polycarp was convinced enough by hell to tell his persecutors how much worse it would be than anything they could do to him:

You threaten me with fire that burns for one hour and then cools, not knowing the judgment to come, nor the perpetual torment of eternal fire to the ungodly.”

Tertullian was convinced of eternal punishment for the unrepentant:

But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility.

Augustine was so convinced by the reality of hell, he thought it should make us shudder:

“So then what God by His prophet has said of the everlasting punishment of the damned shall come to pass—shall without fail come to pass,—“their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched…”  [Jesus] did not shrink from using the[se] same words three times over in one passage.  And who is not terrified by this repetition, and by the threat of that punishment uttered so vehemently by the lips of the Lord Himself?”

Likewise Chrysostom, who thought it was better to tremble at the thought of hell than end up there through lack of due consideration:

For indeed my heart is troubled and throbs, and the more I see the account of hell confirmed, the more do I tremble and shrink through fear, but it is necessary to say these things, lest we fall into hell.”

Reformers

Luther was convinced that hell was an unending experience of God’s judgement:

The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. For the Day of Judgment will not last for a moment only but will stand throughout eternity and will thereafter never come to an end. Constantly the damned will be judged, constantly they will suffer pain, and constantly they will be a fiery oven, that is, they will be tortured within by supreme distress and tribulation.”

Calvin was convinced that hell was absolutely necessary if we have a right understanding of God and sin:

“…but then the majesty of God, and also the justice which they have violated by their sins, are eternal. Justly, therefore, the memory of their iniquity does not perish. But in this way the punishment will exceed the measure of the fault. It is intolerable blasphemy to hold the majesty of God in so little estimation, as not to regard the contempt of it as of greater consequence than the destruction of a single soul.”
Puritans

John Owen was convinced that hell would be intensified for those who have been offered forgiveness and yet rejected it:

…of this sure I am, that none shall have their portion so low in the nethermost hell, none shall drink so deep of the cup of God’s indignation, as they who have refused Christ in the gospel. Men will curse the day to all eternity wherein the blessed name of Jesus Christ was made known unto them, if they continue to despise it. He that abuseth the choicest of mercies, shall have judgment without mercy.”

Thomas Watson was convinced by the sheer incomprehensibility of the eternal nature of hell:

“The fire of hell is such, as multitudes of tears will not quench it, length of time will not finish it; the vial of God’s wrath will be always dropping upon a sinner. As long as God is eternal, He lives to be avenged upon the wicked. Oh eternity! eternity! who can fathom it? Mariners have their plummets to measure the depths of the sea; but what line or plummet shall we use to fathom the depth of eternity? The breath of the Lord kindles the infernal lake, (Isa. 30:33), and where shall we have engines or buckets to quench that fire?” 

Evangelical Evangelists, Missionaries and Preachers

Wesley was convinced by the terrible miseries of hell:

There is no grandeur in the infernal regions; there is nothing beautiful in those dark abodes; no light but that of livid flames. And nothing new, but one unvaried scene of horror upon horror! There is no music but that of groans and shrieks; of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth; of curses and blasphemies against God, or cutting reproaches of one another. Nor is there anything to gratify the sense of honour: No; they are the heirs of shame and everlasting contempt.”

Whitefield was convinced that anyone confronted with hell as it really is, should scarcely need persuading to avoid anything that would lead them there:

You have heard, brethren, the eternity of hell-torments plainly proved, from the express declarations of holy scriptures, and consequences naturally drawn from them. And now there seems to need no great art of rhetoric to persuade any understanding person to avoid and abhor those sins, which without repentance will certainly plunge him into this eternal gulf.”

Jonathan Edwards was convinced that the eternal destruction of those who refused to trust in Christ was so certain that they might as well already be in hell:

Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet – than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell. So that it is not because God is unmindful of their Wickedness, and don’t resent it, that he don’t let loose his Hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, tho’ they may imagine him to be so. The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.

Hudson Taylor was convinced that a right perspective on hell would motivate us to seek the salvation of others without rest:

Would that God would make hell so real to us that we cannot rest; heaven so real that we must have men there; Christ so real that our supreme motive and aim shall be to make the Man of Sorrows the Man of Joy by the conversion to Him of many concerning whom He prayed, “Father, I long that those whom Thou hast given Me be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory.””

Spurgeon was convinced of hell and urged his students not to allow themselves to be less convinced of its terrible nature:

Meditate with deep solemnity upon the fate of the lost sinner, and, like Abraham, when you get up early to go to the place where you commune with God, cast an eye towards Sodom and see the smoke thereof going up like the smoke of a furnace. Shun all views of future punishment which would make it appear less terrible, and so take off the edge of your anxiety to save immortals from the quenchless flame. If men are indeed only a nobler kind of ape, and expire as the beasts, you may well enough let them die unpitied; but if their creation in the image of God involves immortality, and there is any fear that through their unbelief they will bring upon themselves endless woe, arouse yourselves to the agonies of the occasion, and be ashamed at the bare suspicion of unconcern.”

J.C. Ryle was convinced that hell was part of God’s revelation, which he must urge others to think properly about:

 Who would desire to speak of hell-fire if God has not spoken of it? When God has spoken of it so plainly, who can safely hold his peace? I dare not shut my eyes to the fact, that a deep rooted infidelity lurks in men’s minds on the subject of hell. I see it oozing out in the utter apathy of some: they eat, and drink, and sleep, as if there was no wrath to come. I see it creeping forth in the coldness others about their neighbor’s souls: they show little anxiety to awaken the unconverted, and pluck brands from the fire.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was convinced by hell – to the point that it shaped the goal and approach of his preaching and pastoral ministry:

“We spend most of our time rendering people fit to go back to their sin! I want to heal souls. If a man has a diseased body and his soul is all right, he is all right to the end; but a man with a healthy body and a distressed soul is all right for sixty years or so and then he has to face eternity in Hell.”

I’m less convinced by hell (and you probably are too)

Is there really such a thing as hell? A reality/state/place where people experience eternal, conscious torment as a result of their rebellion against the God who gave them life? Are there millions of rebels already experiencing some form of unrelenting suffering, while they await final judgement for their sins before being consigned to an inextinguishable lake of fire? Are there many more millions headed there, who will most certainly perish and endure eternal death, unless they turn from their sins and put their trust in Jesus to save them?

Do you really believe in this stuff?

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Surely we want a Christianity that’s more about God’s love and less about “fire and brimstone”? Surely we’ve moved on from “hellfire preaching”? Don’t we want preaching that focuses on how good Jesus is and how full of grace the gospel is? Surely preaching too much about eternal punishment reinforces the negative stereotypes of Christianity and God: it’s just a bunch of rules and He’s a nasty tyrant ready to mete out punishment to anyone who He doesn’t like.

I think I’m less convinced by hell than a lot of Christians from years gone by. At different periods in church history, it has not been uncommon to find people terrified by pictures of eternal judgement and believers who were plagued for many years by fears concerning their eternal destination.

Often preachers and churches were all-too-eager to warn people that they were about to face the fiery reality of God’s wrath. They thundered their “turn or burn” style message at everyone – the kind of thing that makes many of us cringe today. Hell was a major component of their message. Many have come to the conclusion that it was too much of a focus and it was the main thing sinners heard.

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^Scenes like this make many Christians uneasy [2]

Now many of us have taken quite a different approach. We may speak about sin and it’s visible effects in our broken world and mention that God is just and will judge evil – but perhaps because we assume people know we mean “hell” when we say “judgement”, we’re quick to move onto the gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus. By ensuring we focus on Jesus, we are making sure our message comes across as Christ-centered, or gospel-centered – not about a woeful, fiery nether region.

I’m all for making sure Jesus is the explicit centre of everything we say and do. But I have a problem.
When I say I’m less convinced by hell than many Christians who lived before me – I say it as a shameful confession – not as a proud declaration. You see I know hell is real – but I wonder why it makes so little impact on my life and the lives of many Christians around me. I say I’m less convinced by hell, because the reality of eternal punishment doesn’t seem to have much of an effect upon how I live a typical day. I say you’re probably less convinced by hell too, because generally speaking I don’t see a widespread appreciation of how serious it is amongst the Christians I know.

We may eschew hellfire preaching – I don’t dispute that it’s been done pretty badly over the years. But I would contend that spelling out what God’s judgement is like, does have its place in our proclamation of a Christ-centered message. I agree that if our focus is on how bad hell is and that Jesus is just a divine lasso to pull us to safety, or a fire escape door to run through – we’ve magnified hell at the expense of the pre-eminence and wonder of our Great God and Saviour. But on the other hand, the more we make hell something that is out of mind, out of sight – the less we and others will appreciate how great a salvation we have. Because the gospel is always meant to be awesome goodness on the backdrop of awful badness. Without the juxtaposition, we lose something vital.
Without understanding hell, the Cross itself loses its context.

The message of hell

Hell is itself a message; a kind of sermon; an eternal object lesson. And it’s the failure of the 21st Century church in developed societies to truly appreciate the components of this message that explains why we may be prone to minimising hell. So what’s the message? It’s very simple.

Hell is a declaration that:

1) God’s holiness is absolute, paramount and inviolable.

2) Any sin or rebellion against God is an indescribably severe and evil insult to God’s supreme dignity and a provocation of his wrath against ungodliness.

3) God’s justice administers a punishment against such sin – the severity of which reflects the severity of the transgression committed against Him.

When we as a church lack a proper appreciation of God’s awesome majesty and what it really means for Him to be holy (i.e. He alone has a claim to being truly sacred, unique, distinguished in kind and value from all other things and regarded with an esteem and gravity that reflects who He is) we will find ourselves agreeing with our non-Christian neighbours – that hell seems an extreme punishment for people who have basically lived a good life but committed some petty wrongdoings along the way. We are less convinced by hell, when we’re less moved by God’s holiness. We are less convinced by hell when we don’t recognise sin for how serious it is.

Now I’m not saying we should spend all of our time thinking and speaking about hell. But I am saying we should spend some time thinking and speaking about it. Because hell declares a message about God, sin and justice that our generation desperately needs to hear. I don’t want people coming to church just because they want a ticket out of hell. But nor do I want the church to be lethargic about the fact that people around us are going to hell if they reject Jesus (and it’s not wrong to make that part of the conversation we have with them). Want I do want is a church that knows hell is real and is prepared to make it clear to people what they’re choosing over eternal life in Jesus if they reject God’s offer of forgiveness. And I want to see converts who know how great the grace they’ve received is, because they’ve recognised how holy God is, how deeply they’ve wronged Him and how great a punishment Jesus took on their behalf to grant them life.

I hope to do a follow up post, featuring the way some of the great Christian pastors, preachers, authors and others leaders have spoken about hell and how it fit into their understanding of the Christian life.

 

 

[1] Nathan Reading “Inferno” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr
[2] Erik Bishoff “Hate” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr