Understanding God

In childhood, the two things I guess we said most to our parents were probably: 'That's not fair' and 'You don't care.' 'That's not fair' was when our parents did the right thing, like cutting the birthday cake into equal pieces. And 'You don't care' was when they lovingly stopped us playing with the kitchen-knives, or razor blades, or the lawn-mower. Basically, parents are in a lose-lose situation. Because what they're trying to do, however imperfectly they do it, is to keep love and justice together. And they realise what children don't realise: namely, that love without justice is plain careless; and justice without love is plain hard. Well, our humble (!) title tonight is: Understanding God. And the bottom line is basically this: God is loving and God is just. One book of the Bible, 1 John, says these two things:

God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1.5) God is love (1 John 4.8)

In other words, he's perfectly just. He cannot do anything but the right thing. And he's perfectly loving. He cannot do anything that is not for our good. God is love. God is justice. And he's both, together, all the time. And that's the key to understanding God and how to relate to him properly, as the book of Romans will show us. And I should say: if you were here last week, on the subject 'Understanding Ourselves' (see 5 October 1997, 6.30pm), tonight will be similar stuff, but from a different angle. First, How God relates to us before we put our faith in Jesus Say you're not a Christian believer, yet, and you ask the Bible, 'What does God think of me as I am?' Or you are a believer, and you ask, 'What did God think of me before I came to Jesus?' Well, last week's passage said that from God's point of view we are 'by nature objects of wrath'. (Ephesians 2.3). And that's basically what Romans chapters 1-3 are about. Let's start with Romans 1.18:

The wrath of God is being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

In other words, we all know at least some truth about God. But we suppress it: we ignore it so that we can do what we want to do. So, when I sin as a Christian, mostly I'm doing what I know God doesn't want me to, or not doing what I know God does want me to. I suppress the truth and do what I want. And the non-Christian does the same. I remember a student who said to me, 'I think Christianity's true, but I'm not going to do anything about it because I want to keep sleeping with my girlfriend and getting wasted.' His exact words. He suppressed the truth so he could do what he wanted. And God is justly angry with us for that kind of behaviour. Because we're ignoring him. And 'the wrath of God' means that he's rightly angry with us treating him like that. It's not like human anger, out for revenge or flying off the handle because our pride's been wounded. It's the reaction of perfect justice to human sin. And until and unless we come to Jesus for him to rescue the situation, the truth is: God is justly angry with us. Now, we like to make exceptions to that, because we don't want it to be true. This is part of the truth that e want to suppress. Which is why Paul had to write Romans 1.18 to Romans 3.20 - to knock on the head all the exceptions we try to cook up. For example, someone said to me the other week:, 'Well, this can't be true of people who've never heard of God. How can he be justly angry with their behaviour if they've never heard?' And in Romans 2.12-16 Paul says: everyone's heard. Everyone's heard their God-given conscience. And everyone's failed to do what it says. So: God is justly angry - with everyone. Or good people, religious people - some of us, perhaps - like to make themselves an exception. 'We have high standards,' they say, 'We've always tried to live a good life.' And in Romans 2.17-29, Paul says: that's not the point. The point is: have you actually always lived your high standards? Have you actually always done good?' To which the honest answer is: No. So: God is justly angry - with everyone. And he's loving enough that he'll one day hold us accountable for the way we've behaved. Look on to Romans 3.19:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.

It's a picture of judgement day, which each of us will be at. It's a picture of the deadly hush as all excuses and exceptions and objections freeze on the lips as judgement begins. But then people often say to you as a Christian: 'How can you believe God is loving if he judges? If he even shuts people out of heaven?' Well, some friends of mine have a daughter who became increasingly unhappy soon after a change of teacher at junior school. They tried to get her to tell them what was wrong, and finally she said 'Miss so-and-so doesn't care.' And her mother said, 'I'm sure that's not true. What makes you say that?' And the little girl replied, 'She never marks my work.' That's the ultimate sign of carelessness. 'She never marks my work.' What I do doesn't matter. It isn't noticed. If judgement is your stumbling block on the way to faith in Jesus, ask yourself: would you really like God to be like that teacher? To wave us all smilingly into heaven, and say, 'It really doesn't matter how you lived. Faithful, promiscuous; truthful, deceptive, they're all the same to me. You know, how you lived down there really didn't matter'? None of us would want to live in a world where from breakfast to bedtime nothing we did mattered. Love marks peoples work. And God is loving enough to hold us accountable. So where does Romans 3.19 leave us? Unless and until I come to Jesus, the state of relationship between me and God is: God is Judge; I am the guilty criminal. I'm in trouble. I'm heading for trouble. Which is why before people come to Jesus they are basically afraid of God. I was. That's why we don't go looking for God. Guilty people don't like the thought of going to court. That's why it's not us who go looking for God, but God who comes looking for us. So: Secondly, What God has done to rescue our relationship with him What we've seen so far is that God is offended by us and justly angry with us. Now imagine I offended you in some big way over coffee after the service. Imagine I was rude in the extreme about your dress sense or where you came from. And you're justly angry. Well, as the offended party, the ball is in your court. And there are two things you can do with anger. Either you can let it out, and leave relations broken. Or you can keep it in and forgive. But the ball is in your court. I may see the error of my ways, I may want to be forgiven, I may send you chocolates, flowers and 'Sorry' cards. But if youdon't want to forgive, I can't influence you to. And if we've understood and believed what's under heading 1, the biggest question on our minds will be: does God forgive? Or, put more personally, 'Will God forgive me?' (If that isn't the biggest question on our minds, we don't actually believe what we've looked at under our first heading. 'Will God forgive me?' Religions the world over answer that question by saying, 'Yes, he will, if you do the right thing to influence him.' Yes, he will if you are sorry enough about the past. Yes, he will if you try harder in future. Yes, he will if you do this or that religious ritual. Whether it's the penances and masses of Roman Catholicism, or the moral effort of Sikhism or the blood sacrifices of pagan religions, it's all the complete opposite of real Christianity, of the truth. All man-made religions say: I can influence God to be favourable to me. I can come at him with the moral and religious equivalents of chocolates, flowers and 'Sorry' cards, and make him accept me. Whereas God says: we can do nothing. The ball is in his court. And as the offended person, it is entirely up to him either to let out his just anger on us, or to keep it in and forgive. And the heart of real Christianity is this: that God has done something by which he has kept his justice in, so as to forgive. And that something is the death of his own Son, Jesus on the cross: God has turned his anger away from us at the cross so that he can forgive us justly. God looks down on each us with love and justice. Because he's just, he can't turn a blind eye to our sin. Because he's loving, he refuses to see it and say, 'It doesn't matter.' So we're guilty. And the question is: can God, will God forgive? Is there some way he could separate his justice and his love, and somehow turn his justice away from us? From our point of view, that's just what we need. From God's point of view, it's a big problem. Because how can God be perfectly just and yet leave justice 'hanging in mid-air'? He simply cannot leave sin unjudged, unpaid-for, unpunished. 'God is light and in him is no darkness at all': he can't 'fudge' the issue that we have sinned and sin should be punished. And his love provided the solution to the problem when he sent Jesus, his Son, to die on the cross. Romans 3.22 part way in:

There is no difference [ie, all of us are in the same boat; we've sinned in different ways but] There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified [we'll come back to what that means] freely by his grace through the redemption [ie, the payment of a penalty] that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. (Romans 3.22-25)

In Old Testament (OT) times, God set up a visual aid to show people before Jesus how the problem of judgement could be dealt with. On a day called the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16, if you want to read it for yourself), two live goats were brought to the temple. And the person in charge would lay his hands on the head of the first goat. As if to say, 'This is our stand-in. This is our substitute.' It was then sacrificed - killed - and its blood was taken into the temple as a sign that the penalty of death had been paid. Then, the person in charge took the second goat, laid his hands on its head, confessed over it the sins of everyone and then the goat was taken out into the desert and left. They never saw it again. That one as called the 'scapegoat'. And that visual aid taught two things. The first goat taught that a substitute can stand in for sinners, and take the punishment they deserve, in their place. And the second goat taught that when that happens, the sinners' sins are well and truly removed, forgiven. You need never worry about them again. Those sacrifices were just visual aids. An animal cannot really take the place of a human. The only substitute qualified to help us would have to be a human with no sins of his own to pay for. Which is why God's Son became man, lived a perfect life and then died on the cross. Romans 3.25 again:

God [the Father] presented him [Jesus, his Son] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.

The OT sacrifices were just visual aids of what Jesus would one day do. In OT times, the issue of judgement was left hanging in mid-air. Then, Jesus came as our sinless substitute, and took the responsibility and the punishment of the sins of the whole world on himself. God's justice was let out and yet kept in, kept between himself and his Son in a way that we may never fully understand. So Romans 3.25 again:

God [the Father] presented him [his Son] 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 [the sins of OT believers] unpunished - 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.

Look at the cross and you see God's justice. And that he can't say to us, 'Let's pretend you haven't sinned', or, 'Let's say it doesn't matter.' He can only say, 'I will forgive you because my Son has faced the justice you deserve.' But equally, look at the cross and you see God's love. Over the page: Romans 5.6-8:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless [powerless to make up for our sin or influence God in any way to let us off], Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Knowing us at our very worst, anticipating every sin we have ever committed and will ever commit, Christ died for us. Last night I went to see Much Ado About Nothing at the theatre. There's that appalling scene where Hero is falsely accused of unfaithfulness at her own wedding by her husband-to-be, who refuses to go through with the marriage. It's almost unbearable to watch as she is publicly disgraced with this accusation of an offence she never committed. God's Son had that done voluntarily to him on the cross. He voluntarily submitted to the accusation and punishment of sins he'd never committed - our sins. That is the measure of God's love. 'Does God love me?' we ask ourselves. Or, 'Does God still love me, after this bit of my life, or that sin?' Don't ask what your feelings say. What does the cross say? Thirdly, How God relates to us after we put our faith in Jesus I've heard of two people who've put their faith in Jesus in the last week or so - which is great to hear. Equally, I guess there are people who've come here for months, even years, who aren't sure they've done that. The forgiveness that Jesus achieved on the cross has to be received. It's like a present. It's been paid for, and it's got our name on it. But like a present, it has to be received - unwrapped and accepted for myself. I don't receive the benefits of Jesus' death automatically - just because it happened. And that's what faith is. Faith is the receiving. Faith is saying to God, 'I trust that when Jesus died on the cross, he took the punishment for my sins so that I can be forgiven without having to do anything more.' So, back to Romans 3.25:

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement. [And so far, we've done nothing - except supply the sins that need forgiving. Well, the price is paid, forgiveness is in the bag, wrapped up and waiting. Where do we come in?] through faith in his blood.

Faith is simply accepting for myself what Jesus achieved for me on the cross. And if you're unsure whether you've ever done that, do pick up a copy of the booklet, 'Why Jesus?' from our bookstall. It's especially helpful because there's a prayer in the back which you can use to say to God that you're wanting to receive forgiveness and start life over with him. (NB: Internet users, you could read over the sermon at the Invitation Service, 28 September 1997, 6.30pm, which tries to explain the step of putting faith in Jesus). And faith is abandoning as stupid and useless all attempts to earn God's favour. I'm speaking to myself, by the way. I'm still stupid and think that reading my Bible, saying my prayers, or living flat out for the Lord will earn his favour. Complete nonsense. He's already so favourable to me that he sent his Son to die on the cross. Look at Romans 4.5:

However, to the man who does not work [to earn God's favour], but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Imagine I take you to the cinema. I buy two tickets. I give you one. And you reach for your pocket to buy yourself one. That is stupid and useless. Stupid because you're in already. And useless because another ticket can't get you more in. Why can't you just accept a gift and come and enjoy the film? Jesus has paid for us to come into the love and acceptance of God forever. The cross is our ticket to that. So why do we keep trying to pay to be loved by God - by trying harder, or whatever? It's stupid because Jesus has already brought me fully into God's love. And it's useless because nothing I do can get me more in. Why can't we just accept forgiveness and get on and enjoy the Christian life? Funny, isn't it? We really need Romans 4.5. Nearly done. Let's come back to that word 'justified.' It's there in Romans 3.24, 26, 4.5. The moment I put my faith in what Jesus did on the cross, God says I'm 'justified'. It simply means, the moment I put my faith in the cross, God declares that, the judgement due to my sins has fallen, has been paid for. He declares that he will hold no sin of mine - past or future - against me, because Jesus has willingly had them held against him. It means, as Romans 8.1 puts it, that 'there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [ie, whose trust for their acceptance by God is in Jesus, and not in themselves]'. So what's the state of relationship, now? God is Judge, but I am at peace with him because he has declared that he will hold nothing against me. But that's only half the truth. Let's end with Romans 8.15:

For you did not receive a Spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of Sonship [or adoption]. And by him, we cry, 'Abba, Father.'

If we've put our faith in Jesus, God wants us to think more than just, 'God is my Judge, but I'm not in trouble any more.' He wants us to think, 'God is my Father, and I am his adopted child.' I'm not just tolerated by someone who finds me a constant disappointment. I'm loved by a Father who will never stop being my Father, give up being my Father, or boot me out of the family for bad behaviour. Imperfect sons and daughters we are and will be, this side of heaven. But there is to be no fear that his love, or his forgiveness will run out. Because of the cross. So, what should we do about this? We need to understand the cross - inquirer and Christian alike. Read about it, talk about, never think you've got it sussed. We need to trust in what the cross achieved. I guess few of us who are believers have lived this past week strongly assured of God's love. But he wants us to be assured. And that will happen as we trust the cross, rather than our feelings about ourselves. And I guess we need to spend regular time pondering on the cross. How many days do we go - even with our Bible reading schemes - without sitting down for five minutes to remind ourselves of the cross? One last thing. God may have unburdened us through what we've seen tonight. We may have seen the stupidity of trying to earn love which has long since been given in full. We may have found confidence for forgiveness of something particularly painful. In a word, we've lost our fear. And we're worried that if we really believe this stuff, that we're unconditionally accepted, what will happen to our motivation for Christian living? Might I become complacent? Might I sin because I know I can be forgiven? (That was the objection Paul faced when he explained God's grace: see Romans 6.1!) The answer is: go and see. If you're a believer, go and trust that these things are true of you. Go and believe that nothing you do this week - good or bad - can make God love you more or less. And see what an effect it has. The Bible doesn't share your worries. Because it knows that being loved by God, not living in fear of him, is the greatest motivator in the world to living for him. And if, having read this, you think you can go out and 'just sin, because God will forgive me, anyway', that's the surest sign that you're not yet a true Christian.

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