Editor's Note: This is the transcript of my recorded Bible study under this title at Truthtellers.org.
Since the beginning of mankind, suffering unrepentant human beings have lifted a clenched fist against God and Jesus the Creator. They allege that no God of love would allow such misery and injustice, especially among the innocent. Atheists say the amount of suffering in this world logically and conclusively proves that an all-loving and all-powerful God doesn’t exist.
Yet Jesus said, “God is Love.” In this article, which significantly amends my other writings and Bible studies on this topic, I will attempt to show that God was entirely just in giving us free will, which has resulted in all the evil and much of the suffering that scars our earth. Giving free will does not make Him responsible for our sin. He created us in an incredible act of grace, prepared to accept millennia of human sin and blasphemy against Himself and to suffer with the innocent at evil hands. In this act, He temporarily set aside His holy nature's demands for immediate justice and extinction of sin. Without God’s willingness to act out of love, not law, we could not exist.
In His image, God created human beings; He gave us the same autonomous moral will that He enjoys. This is the mysterious, God-like ability to make moral decisions undetermined by outside forces. While free to choose, our natures are far from morally neutral. In the image of God, they say, "I come first." God can exalt Himself because He is love; but humans, imitating Him without His love, become dictatorial, destructive and monstrous. Even apparently "good" people continually omit righteous actions and commit less than loving actions against those around them. In addition, without the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are incapable of following the first of all commandments: to love God with all of our being. Thus, "all have sinned and fallen short of the righteousness of God." (Rom. 3:23) The result is the sin and suffering for which atheist philosophers unjustly blame God.
In addition to asserting "I come first," our natures demand religious laws that we can understand and keep, to consider ourselves good by our own merits. The impulse for religious formulas is constantly at war with what God really wants from us: spiritual surrender and childlike trust, which Christ calls "worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:24)
Because religious lawkeeping leads humans further into spiritual darkness and pride, not out of it, Christ continually confronts it throughout the Bible. He went out of His way to lead His followers to flout legalisms. After His resurrection and ascension, His Holy Spirit led a united church of believing Jews and Gentiles into a new understanding of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:28)
God's complete holiness has always excluded rebellion and sin. There is no part of God that is prone to tolerating evil. Scripture describes God as a "consuming fire" and tells us, "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb. 10:31) Far from an indulgent grandfather figure, God is a Being of radiant, burning light and purifying holiness. He does not easily tolerate any act of sin, discord or rebellion.
How could God allow free-will beings to come into existence and live past their first act of selfishness and sin? From endless pre-history, God's nature has forbidden the existence of sin. Yet, to create a heavenly eternal family, God did allow sin to exist and even, for a time, go unpunished! For a relatively brief period, He allows humans to either serve or scorn Him, to treat each other with self-sacrifice or with almost inconceivable cruelty.
God's law states: "The wages of sin is death…The soul that sins, it shall die." (Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:20) But during this period, He decides when the death sentence resulting in eternal death in hell will be served. Furthermore, He actually suspends the well-deserved judgment against any person who repents and accepts the sacrifice of His Son in their place. Thus, before creation, God set aside His former prohibition against the existence of free will and rebellion for a great purpose of Love. His former primary law forbidding discord became a lesser law before His benevolent will allowing free choice. This change was well within His prerogative, as Jesus later told us, “It is lawful to do good.” (Matt. 12:12) After creating the angels, Christ gave them this simple invitation which was the beginning of what Revelation calls "the everlasting gospel:" "I have given you a choice to become my friends. Trust and obey Me and you will dwell in heaven forever." Yet perhaps a third of the angels rebelled. They refused Christ's invitation because their free wills wanted control. After his creation, man rebelled for the same reason. As a result, ungrateful men and angels heaped insult upon Christ.
Scripture says Christ was "slain from the foundation of the world.” He was stigmatized, “numbered among the transgressors,” and became a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” This was because He had indirectly made possible rebellion and the grief it causes. He had committed to become the innocent sacrifice for the transgressions of the rebellious people He had created. Yet, from the moment of Lucifer’s rebellion and desire to ascend to the throne of God and kill Him, the Trinity became the object of continuous reproaches.
God's willingness to act with miraculous, almost bizarre grace, rather than self-protecting legalism, was symbolized by many of His saints and prophets as recorded in the Old Testament. They exemplified total obedience to God's loving will and purposes over rigid adherence to legalism and even His previously given laws for holiness. Consider these examples:
- In anticipation of God the Father's sacrifice of Christ at Calvary for the sins of the world, Abraham was willing to obey God's command even though it meant disobeying His previous and timeless law against murder--and sacrifice his only son. Although God intervened and did not require this mind-boggling sacrifice, Abraham has stood as the “father of faith” for the ages.
- Rebekah was commanded by God in Genesis 25:23 to take from wicked Esau, the firstborn son, his lawful birthright inheritance and give it to Jacob. Rebekah and Jacob violated the law of primogeniture as well as divine law against speaking falsehood as they deceived Isaac. But they were never reproached as sinners! They were led by God and a burning desire for His legacy; there was no sin. God subsequently appeared to Jacob during his flight from his homeland and a murderous Esau and showered him with covenant blessings. Again, a truly spiritual motive allowed for a temporary abridgement of God's previously given law.
- Judges 14:4 says God permitted His prophet Samson to marry a Philistine woman, transcending His law against intermarriage with Canaanites. He did this so Samson, enmeshed in Philistine territory, might find occasion against the Philistines. Small minds accuse God of inconsistency. Yet if we are willing to give God the benefit of the doubt, we can come to appreciate His consistent, intentional display of prioritizing love and greater purposes over formulaic morality.
- David was a preeminently messianic figure in the Old Testament. As he and his supporters fled for their lives from King Saul, God wanted them, in an act of proto-communion, to transcend the Mosaic Law and eat the sacred showbread, symbolic of the Bread of Life, Jesus. On another occasion, although innocent, David was allowed by God to be convinced he was guilty, much as Christ "became sin" though innocent and was reviled on the cross, after God Himself moved David to unlawfully number the people. (II Sam. 24:1)
- God also required His highly favored prophet Isaiah to anticipate the shame of Christ’s nakedness on the cross by walking naked for three and a half years as a testimony to the sinful people of Egypt that God would judge them, deporting them naked to Assyria. Although this flew in the face of the many Biblical condemnations of public nakedness, in transcendent faith, Isaiah obeyed. (Is. 20:3)
- God similarly defiled His holy servant Hosea, anticipating Christ’s defilement on the cross, by requiring that he marry and have children through an unrepentant practicing harlot. (Hos. 1:2)
- Another in the “most esteemed by God” list who was willing to transcend God’s lesser law was Ezekiel. He was required to pay the penalty for the sins of Israel and Judah – sins he had not committed. He also had to act out Christ’s defilement at Calvary. God bound him to lie on his left and right sides for 430 days, commanding him to eat his food cooked with dried human dung. Only Ezekiel’s fervent imploration allowed him to be spared something remotely resembling the defilement of Christ on the cross; he was allowed to eat food cooked over dried cow manure. But this compromise still blatantly violated the Mosaic Law’s standard of dietary cleanliness. (Ezek. 4:4-6)
Like Ezekiel, Jesus was sinless when He "violated" His own law of justice by creating free-will beings full of potential for lawlessness. Like Ezekiel, Christ innocently paid for the sins of others. The penalty Jesus was willing to pay was death because the penalty for our sin is death. While God will never impute actual guilt to an innocent person, He accepted the sacrifice of such innocent intercessors as Ezekiel and Jesus who were willing to pay the penalty for the sins of others.
These saints' righteous, temporary, and very exceptional violations of God's law picture what the Father and Son made possible from the very beginning; God was willing to allow sin to go unpunished temporarily, violating His own nature's mandate for instant justice, for His higher purposes of love.
Government similarly sets aside civil statutes so first-responders (such as firefighters and police) can save life. They break traffic laws, discharge firearms in public, break down doors, and in other ways contravene the norms of acceptable behavior. They remain innocent while disobeying the law and are not required to pay any penalty for their lawless actions. In fact, keeping the law would be wrong. Imagine an ambulance driver who refuses to run a red light or a firefighter who stands ringing the doorbell, refusing to enter a burning home until the homeowner lets him in!
If no law can ever be transcended, then law remains on the throne, vying for equality with God, to guide and justify us. Thus, law is in eternal competition with absolute obedience to God’s sovereign will alone. That is why it was necessary for God to command His greatest prophets to boldly, though temporarily, set aside His own laws. During the exodus out of Egypt, a man was found picking up sticks for firewood on the Sabbath. God commanded him to be stoned. He had violated God’s will for the Hebrews at that time. (Num. 15:32-36) Yet when Jesus came, He went out of His way to harvest grain on the Sabbath with His disciples, clearly against the Mosaic Law. (Matt. 12:1) He revealed that if He could annul the Sabbath law in the fields of Judea He could also in primordial time have violated His own nature's eternal law against the existence of free, rebellious wills. In both instances, He maintained He was Lord over such laws.
"Good," "respectable" people, we believe, do not break the laws of God or society. But at the very foundation of God’s plan of salvation lies the offense of overriding established law. It is no accident that throughout Scripture God goes out of His way to require His holiest saints to follow God’s higher purposes of love through the reproach and offense of breaking God’s lesser laws, being viewed as lawbreakers. To this hour, even among most Christians, the stigma of reproach rests on obedient prophets, such as Jacob, Samson, Hosea, and Ezekiel. Because they transcended God's lesser laws to obey His higher will, they are either regarded by most Christians with harshest criticism for their "lawless" action or ignored from pulpits altogether.
Yes, God insists on lawkeeping as the foundation of a civil society. (Rom. 13:1-7) He used the law as a "schoolmaster" to educate the Hebrews concerning what is sacred and profane and to show all people our hopeless inability to truly meet God's standards without Christ. We also are encouraged to rear children with the help of law in the process of their development. On the other hand, God recognizes the enormous power of law and good works to charm us into believing we can be good because we keep the law. Thus, He has declared war from the beginning against misuse of law, determined periodically in Scripture to abridge His lesser laws, exalting the greatest law of His sovereign, far-reaching, all-loving will.
Christians are obligated not to flee from, explain away, or sanitize the fact that the Trinity transcended its own law against allowing evil. The offense of Christ's gospel that occurred before the foundation of the world, among the Hebrew prophets, or as we preach today, offends the pride, self-righteousness and autonomy of natural man. The Christian’s duty is not to pacify these objections. Rather, it is to glory in Christ and all the offense His cross may entail. Christ expects us to be proud and honored to be found worthy to share such offense with Him.
From everything I have said in this article, a magnificent pattern takes shape. At the dawn of creation, God the Trinity emerged from the security of a holy law banning all rebellion and allowed free will and sin to serve His own higher purposes of love. The result is creation of the universe and friends of God forever. But the result is also the reproach of the gospel. We also see in the Old Testament God’s requirement that certain of His saints emerge from the security of law and obey God's higher will even when it meant violating His previous, more universal decrees to the Hebrews. They faced the same reproach of the gospel Christ experienced at Calvary.
Finally, Christ's post-resurrection church emerged from the seeming safety of the Mosaic Law, again obedient to the higher law of the Spirit, preaching and luxuriating in the gospel of justification by faith alone. Yet, as the apostle Paul says, "…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (II Tim. 3:12)
This is the period of religious adventurism in which we now live. Our lives are based on receiving the will of God in daily communication with the Holy Spirit. Life by faith provides "glorious rest" of soul which Christ the Creator signified when He rested on the seventh day of creation. Trusting Christ without hope in law or works, we live in the “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension [guards our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7) We know that as long as we trust and obey Him we cannot sin, we cannot displease Him, we cannot be lost. Such “glorious rest” is meant to endure not just one Sabbath day a week, but forever. (See What is Spiritual Rest from War Within?)
These three great sequences of ascension out of law through obedience to the sovereign will of God display the powerful upward and forward momentum of God’s will. He desires us to move toward greater spirituality through faith, not backwards toward the entanglements of the Mosaic Law. This is especially important because today powerful movements, particularly in offshoots of Christian Reconstructionism and Messianic Judaism, attempt to take the church backwards into the perilous structure and "safety" of Judaic observances.
In reality, what God has always wanted most from His people, yet so seldom got, is what Job, Hosea, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, and even the little children climbing on Jesus’ lap gave: simple childlike trust. This is trust Abraham gave God as he took his only son up Mt. Moriah to slaughter him according to God’s orders. This is trust the only begotten son of God, Jesus, gave His father as He sacrificed His life for the sins of the world. He lifted His eyes heavenward saying, “Not My will, but Thine be done.”
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