Evil, Suffering, And God

The Messina earthquake and tsunami took as many as 200,000 lives on December 28, 1908 in Sicily and Calabria.We Christians believe that God is all powerful, all knowing, all present, all good, and worthy of our trust. We also believe there’s an abundance of evil in the world.

Now God could eliminate evil and suffering immediately, …but He doesn’t. The fact that He doesn’t seems to create problems in many people’s minds. Some see it as a logical inconsistancy, that it is impossible for an all powerful, all knowing, good God to allow evil to exist. Rather than earnestly searching the Bible for the answer, they take the easy way out by concluding God isn’t all powerful, all knowing, all good, or He doesn’t exist.

But God does exist, and there is much evidence for this fact 1. Evil also exists, for which we also have much evidence. So how do we reconcile the fact that both God and evil exist at the same time? Why would a good God allow evil and suffering?

Before I answer the question, it is important to recognize that there are two different kinds of evil: moral evil that has to do with things that are wrong, like theft, rape, murder, etc., and amoral evil that is the bad things that happen as a consequence of sin or living in a fallen world. You can loosely equate amoral evil with suffering. God doesn’t do moral evil, but sometimes He does amoral evil…

Who is he who says, and it comes to pass, when the Lord doesn’t command it? Doesn’t evil and good come out of the mouth of the Most High? Why does a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?

– Lamentations 3:38 (WEB)

I form the light, and create darkness. I make peace, and create calamity. I am Yahweh, who does all these things.

– Isaiah 45:7

Does evil happen to a city, and Yahweh hasn’t done it?

– Amos 3:6

We see here that God does do evil, but it is not the moral kind of evil. Humans are the ones who do moral evil. God just responds to our moral evil with amoral evil (i.e. suffering). But He never does amoral evil capriciously – there is always a good reason, whether we can see that reason or not. The most important question we must try to answer when we see God do or allow evil is “Why?” What are some of the reasons God does or allows evil?

First, the evil that happens to us is ultimately a consequence of our sin. The evil and suffering we see on the news and experience in life is the accumulating consequences of the sin of every individual who lives or has ever lived. Think of the world like a big swimming pool, and God’s Laws like the rules posted at the pool. God posted those rules so that swimming in the pool would be safe, enjoyable, and beneficial for everyone. If one of the rules is “Don’t pee in the pool”, but everyone pees in the pool and continues to do so, it’s not God’s fault when the pool becomes unpleasant, and then foul and unhealthy. Every individual experiences the accumulating result, not just of his own peeing in the pool (which seems so insignificant), but of everyone’s else peeing in it. Likewise, everyone in the world suffers the result not only their own sins, but that of the others. Multiply the wrong that man does by billions of humans over time, each disobeying God many times in life, and the consequences are also multiplied. This is why the world is the way it is today, and why it’s getting worse. God doesn’t want people to suffer – that’s why He posted the rules. But we bring suffering on ourselves when we don’t do things His way: we don’t love others above ourselves, we don’t care for the needy, we don’t respect authority, etc.

Now God could miraculously keep the pool clean no matter how many people pee in the pool, but God is not an enabler. He does not shield us from the consequences of our actions. Since we choose our own way, we must take the consequences of our choices and learn from them. By suffering the results of our sins and those of others, hopefully we get some clarity to see that God’s way is better than our way – that not peeing in the pool is better than peeing in it.

Second, God does or allows amoral evil to limit the consequences of our sin. At the Fall, God cursed His creation. He did this, not because He was angry and wanted to vent, but to slow down the spread of sin. It’s like we were piloting a ship and, due to some fault of our own, we rammed into an iceberg. At that point, the ship was doomed to sink. But God closed the bulkheads so that it would sink slower, to give people more time to be rescued. Those bulkheads limited the passenger’s movement through the ship, but they also gave the passengers more time to be rescued. In the same way, God slows down the spread of sin by limiting man in various ways. He shortened man’s lifespan. He confused man’s languages at the tower of Babel. He sometimes destroyed those who rebelled against Him. 2 These are necessary evils to slow down the spread of sin and its consequences – things which would not have had to happen if we didn’t go our own way.

Third, sometimes God causes suffering as earthly punishment for our sin – not as the ultimate form of eternal justice, but in hope that we will repent. In the book of Judges, Israel wandered away from God many times, and each time, God allowed them to suffer when their enemies overcame them, and each time they turned back to God. Later, when Israel rebelled against God, He strengthened other nations such as Assyria and Babylon to bring them into captivity. While they were in their captivity, they repented (as seen in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel). In the last days (which I believe we’re in), man will have become so hardened to God that He will bring harsh judgments that have never been seen before (described in Revelation 6 and following). Yet man will not repent but continue to curse God:

The fourth poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was given to him to scorch men with fire. People were scorched with great heat, and people blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues. They didn’t repent and give him glory. The fifth poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was darkened. They gnawed their tongues because of the pain, and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores. They didn’t repent of their works.

– Revelation 16:8-11

The goal of this kind of suffering on earth is not to destroy man but to give him more reasons to repent so he won’t be destroyed in hell (the ultimate form of justice). God does not want man to go to hell (John 3:16, 1 Timothy 1:15). Hell was created for the devil and his angels. But if man stubbornly refuses to repent, destruction is the only other option, for God will not allow man to do to heaven what he’s been doing to earth.

Fourth, God allows evil to discipline us and prove or test us in this life that we are fit for the next. It’s kinda like going through basic training, only a lot more difficult. When I joined the Air Force, I first went to basic training to prepare me for my life in military service. Basic was hard for a reason. It not only prepared me for service, it proved I was fit for service. Some recruits washed out because they were not fit physically or mentally. But for those of us who made it past boot camp, we found life in the service afterward was nothing like boot camp. It was much better. I didn’t have to crawl through mud, survive on k-rations, or be shouted at for my remaining years of service. While I was in basic training, I took the hardness like it was supposed to be: a temporary inconvenience. I treat the unfair difficulties of life today the same way. They are temporary, and one day in eternity I will see the good that will come as a result of patient endurance (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

I think people get into trouble when they think life here on earth is supposed to be comfortable and happy. That’s like thinking basic training is supposed to be comfortable and happy. Life is a preparation and test for eternity. Yes, we experience happiness at times, but that’s not what life here is about. It’s about continuing to trust God under difficult and even unfair conditions. This is faith: fully trusting in God, even when it sometimes appears He is not worthy of trust.

Take for example Job who was God’s pride-and-joy as it were. God allowed Satan to do a lot of extremely painful and unfair things to Job and his household. Even though Satan caused Job’s suffering, God was also implicated by letting down the ‘hedge’ so Satan could attack Job. Job recognized God had a part in his suffering and he complained bitterly about it. He even despaired of life. And yet he still trusted in God. In a moment of lucidity, he recognized that this was a test and that he would come out like gold (Job 23:10). Job continued to trust in God (Job 13:15), even though he couldn’t see God as good at the time. By the end of the book, Job passed the test (Job 42:7), and God restored double to him. This is what tests of faith are all about. They always focus on our belief in God’s character: In spite of appearances, do I believe God is really good? is He really all powerful? does He really care? etc.

I’ve read and studied the book of Job and wondered, after all was over, how Job felt about God who allowed him to suffer and his children and servants to die. How can anything make up for that? But I’ve read quite a few autobiographies of men and women who have suffered in Job-like epic ways. Those who passed the test came out grateful, not just for surviving, but for going through the suffering itself, for in their suffering they came to know the goodness of God. Here are a few examples:

Christiana Tsai (1890-1984) contracted a form of malaria that left her in pain with an extreme sensitivity to light for the rest of her life (over 50 years). She spent much of that bedridden in darkened rooms. She wrote, “For a time, each step of progress was followed by a relapse. I’d get better, then the symptoms would return, and down I’d go again. But all through the darkness, the light of God’s love never failed me. I could never tell of His great goodness to me, even if I had a thousand tongues, nor could I ever write of all His care and provision, even if, as the Chinese say, ‘the pen I hold could bloom,’…”

Helen Roseveare (1925-2016), a missionary to the Congo, was taken prisoner by rebels, beaten and raped. She said, “In the weeks of imprisonment that followed and in the subsequent years of continued service, I have looked back and tried ‘to count the cost,’ but I find it all swallowed up in privilege. The cost suddenly seems very small and transient in the greatness and permanence of the privilege.”

Darlene Deibler Rose (1917-2004) was a POW in a Japanese prison camp. She lost her husband, all of her possessions, and suffered hunger, disease, beatings, and more. At one point, she thought God had left her. But afterwards, she said, “I understand something of the cost, beloved. I don’t even think about that anymore. I’d go anywhere for Him. I’ll tell you why, tonight. Because the compensations are so tremendous! I wouldn’t trade places with any of you tonight! Those were not terrible years, they were the sweetest years that God ever gave me. Because then He taught me that He would never leave me nor forsake me.”

Perhaps another illustration will help. I like watching the show “How It’s Made”. In some factories, after a product is made it goes through a bunch of harsh tests before it goes to the consumer. The purpose of the tests are not to destroy the product but to prove the product is ready for the real world outside of the factory. From the product’s point of view, it may appear that the factory is trying to destroy the product when it gets subjected to various stress tests, but that is not the case. In a similar way, life on earth is like being in a factory where we are being made and stress-tested to see if we are ready for eternity. These tests are not focused so much on doctrinal understanding, obedience to the Law, or on how well we hold up physically or mentally under suffering, but on our faith in God: Will we continue to trust in God in the most difficult of circumstances or not? These tests have to be very difficult at times to prove whether our faith is real or not. But when we continue to trust God, we sense His presence and see His goodness, as many have discovered by experience. By itself, suffering will not bring about our good. It is persevering faith in God in the midst of suffering that results in the good.

You see this testing theme throughout scripture. God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden to test Adam and Eve’s belief in what God told them (Genesis 2:16-17, 3:1). God allowed Satan to test Job (Job 1:12, 2:6). God fed the Israelites manna and gave them rules about how to collect it to test their obedience (Exodus 16:4). God led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years to test them (Deuteronomy 8:2). God left some of the surrounding nations in the Promised Land to test Israel’s obedience (Judges 3:4). God allows injustice to continue for a time to test the hearts of man (Ecclesiastes 3:16-18). God allowed Jesus to be tested by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1). Jesus allowed Satan to test Peter (Luke 22:31-32). God allows believers to be tested through suffering to prove our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7). Hebrews 11 is about the faith of many biblical characters, some of which suffered agonizing deaths, yet they trusted God to the end because they were looking forward to the eternal benefits:

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

– Hebrews 11:13

In the next chapter, all believers are invited to join with them in enduring suffering through faith (also Acts 14:22, Philippians 1:28-30). Difficult tests are the only way to prove faith.

Fifth, God sometimes allows evil because He will bring great good out of it in the end. One example was how Joseph’s brothers mistreated him, wanting to kill him, yet selling him into slavery. Joseph suffered unjustly for a time as a result. Yet he recognized in the end that God meant it all for good (Genesis 50:20) – even in the details of their earlier animosity towards him. This is a picture of what happened later when God allowed the Jews to kill Jesus so that both Jew and Gentile could be saved (Acts 2:22-23). God took the evil that Satan had instigated and turned it into the best thing that could happen to us. God works in this way not only to bring good to us but glory to Himself. He takes the most impossible situations and turns them around into good for those who love and trust Him.

A more modern example of this is in the autobiography of Captain James Riley. He suffered shipwreck with his crew on the coast of Africa in 1815. They nearly starved to death and became naked, abused slaves in the hot Sahara desert. His suffering was in many ways worse than that of Job. Yet after he was rescued, he recalled the many ways God showed His goodness to them during their sufferings, including some literal miracles. His biography became one of Abraham Lincoln’s three most influential books (the others being the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress), and was probably the primary work that led to the freeing of the slaves in the United States. God took one man’s suffering and brought good to millions out of it.

Sometimes God allows suffering for a combination of these reasons, but He never causes or allows suffering on earth on a whim or because He’s having a particularly bad day. God allows suffering in my life for my ultimate good, whether I can see that good at the time or not. That doesn’t mean I have to like it or that I look forward to it, but I do look forward to the benefits that will come.

So, if God causes or allows suffering, what is the difference between God and Satan? There is a big difference. Nature-wise, God is the creator of all, and infinite in all His attributes. The devil and everything else that God created are finite and totally dependant on God for continued existence. Character-wise, God and the devil are also not the same. God desires His creation to work together as designed for the good of His creation and for His glory. Satan desires to destroy whatever God does, or blame God for things, so that God does not get the glory. It is not God’s intent to cause man to suffer (Ezekiel 18:31-32, Lamentations 3:33), but sometimes God uses suffering as a means to an end, and other times man leaves God with no other option than to cause suffering.

Suffering is the norm for life here on earth. Jesus told us ahead of time that there is going to be suffering, especially for those who follow Him:

Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, there is no one who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or land, for my sake, and for the sake of the Good News, but he will receive one hundred times more now in this time, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land, with persecutions; and in the age to come eternal life.”

– Mark 10:29-30

“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”

– John 15:20

In the parable of the sower, it is assumed that difficult times will come that will cause many to fall away from God (Matthew 13:21). Paul even said that those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). But this suffering does not mean God has forsaken us. Instead, it means we are God’s sons and He is training us (Hebrews 12:3-11). So we are to trust God anyway by enduring through trials and persecution (1 Corinthians 4:12). We’re even supposed to rejoice in it, not for the suffering itself, but for the benefits that come later (Matthew 5:12, 1 Peter 4:13).

A strong faith that can survive no matter what circumstances may throw at it can only come about by a close, personal, living relationship with God. Nobody is going to trust God in difficulties merely by having a good understanding of Bible doctrine or following church dogma or practice. That is dead knowledge. It takes exercising weak faith through trust and obedience, taking God at His word, to grow in faith. It takes knowing God and seeing Him at work in your life for faith to grow strong enough to stand up to whatever life throws at it. (This is why Job continued to trust God after God appeared to act like the devil.) As that happens, God rewards faith by doing amazing things for us – even public things that those around us can see. As we see Him work when we trust and obey, our faith grows more. True faith is not blind. It trusts God because it sees God work for good.

Notes:

  1. See my Personal Apologetic.
  2. Biblically, the Canaanites were probably the biggest example of this. God did not command Israel to destroy all of the people of the land, but only the Canaanites because of their wickedness. The Canaanites had always been wicked in general, but for a time there were a few good people among them, most notably Melchizedek, the king of Salem. But by the time Israel entered the Promised Land, they had become completely wicked, with no hope of repentance. Their wickedness was then ‘complete’ (as in Genesis 15:16), and it was time to end the line of Canaan.

Guilt: What To Do With It

Are you struggling with feelings of guilt? Are you ashamed of something you have done recently? Perhaps your whole life has been one failure after another. You’re powerless to do what is right. You can’t stop doing the things you do. While you may have given up a long time ago, there is hope. You just have to look beyond yourself and look to God who already has provided a solution to your problem!

The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.

– Luke 18:27

When it comes to guilt, you’re not alone. Everyone has done wrong. Some people pride themselves in being ‘law-abiding citizens’, however there is not one person who has not broken God’s law and offended Him in some way. It’s human nature.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

– Romans 3:23

God is absolutely righteous (morally good), but we are not. We may try to do things that please Him at times, but even our best is futile in God’s eyes:

We are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.

– Isaiah 64:6

The problem with the wrong we do is that it cuts us off from God. He cannot look on sin because it goes against His nature, and He will not violate His nature.

Your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear.

– Isaiah 59:2

The wrong things we do cut us off from God. The Bible calls this separation “death”:

The soul who sins shall die.

– Ezekiel 18:4

For the wages of sin is death…

– Romans 6:23

The short-term consequences are bad enough. The long-term consequences are unthinkable. Unless sin can be dealt with, we will spend an eternity in hell, separated from God forever:

“The Son of Man [Jesus] will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

– Matthew 13:41-42

It sure sounds hopeless. And it would be, except that God still loves sinners…

God loves you!

These are not just empty words. He proved it by providing a way out of our dilemma. Two thousand years ago, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to pay the penalty of sin for you and I. He lived the perfect life we could not live, and then He willingly died a shameful and agonizing death on a cross in our place so that we could live eternally with God!

For when we were still without strength [i.e. without hope], in due time Christ died for the ungodly. … God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

– Romans 5:6-8

Jesus’ death was no accident. It was part of God’s plan from the beginning. 700 years before His birth, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus:

Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. … By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. … He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.

– Isaiah 53

God did not have to do this. But He loved you and me so much, He sent His Son to pay the complete penalty for our sin. To prove that Jesus’ death was acceptable, God raised Him from the dead, and now Jesus is at God’s right-hand, interceding (mediating) for those who trust in Him. It is His intercession that ensures those who trust in Him will never be separated from God:

Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

– Romans 8:33-39

Once you place your trust in Jesus, sin no longer separates you from God because Jesus’ blood continually cleanses you from your sin:

The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

– 1 John 1:7

Once you place your trust in Jesus, you are perfect as far as God’s acceptance of you is concerned:

For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.

– Hebrews 10:14

I have placed my trust in Jesus Christ to save me. You can too. All you have to do to be saved is:

1. Recognize you are guilty before God,

2. Recognize God’s offering of mercy through Jesus Christ’s death,

3. Desire no longer to live for yourself but for God,

4. Ask God to save you, trusting only in Jesus’ work on the cross.

When you’ve had it with the results of doing things your way, try God’s way. Turn your life over to Jesus. He lived the perfect life you could not live, and died to pay the penalty for your sin.

By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

– Ephesians 2:8-9

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

– 2 Corinthians 5:21

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

– Romans 6:23

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

– John 3:16-17

There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

– Acts 4:12

And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

– John 6:40

The Meaning Of Yahweh’s Name

Israel went through a time of slavery in Egypt. God had told Abram this would happen beforehand (Genesis 15:13), but He allowed it to happen anyway. Slavery is evil, but God always has a purpose and is able to bring good to His people out of anything.

Whatever manner God deals with His people, whether through something He does or something He allows, it is always to bring glory to Himself. Glory is simply the revealing of God’s character and nature such that we can understand and appreciate Him better. So to find out why the Israelites were enslaved, we need to ask how God revealed His character and nature through the situation. What do we learn about God from this time?

Remember when God told Abram what would happen to His descendants, He also promised to bring great good out of it? Abraham received many promises from God, but he never saw them fulfilled (Hebrews 11:13). Abraham continued to believe God in spite of this, but I wonder what everyone else thought? Imagine you’re one of Abram’s neighbors – say, an idol-worshiping Canaanite. You hear Abram say his God (of whom you know nothing) made a bunch of promises to him… but years go by and, even though Abram dies, you never see them fulfilled. Wouldn’t you think his God is no different than your god? After all, your god never fulfilled any promises either.

Four hundred years later, God appeared to Moses and said He was now going to act to fulfill the promises made to Abraham (Exodus 3:8). But the Israelites didn’t know God anymore. He was the stuff of legends to them. He hadn’t spoken in hundreds of years. Moses had to ask who God was so he could tell his people (Exodus 3:13-15). It was then that God gave His name: Yahweh (Jehovah).

Exodus 6:3 says God wasn’t known by that name to Abraham, and yet Genesis 12:8 says Abraham had called on the name of Yahweh. This is not a contradiction. I take this to mean Abraham knew the pronunciation of God’s name, but didn’t understand it has a meaning. It’s like knowing someone by the name of Cook, and not realizing he’s a great chef. Abram knew what God’s name sounded like, but he never experienced what it meant. Only later did God reveal the meaning of His name to Moses and the Israelites.

One phrase you see repeated in the Old Testament is “…and then they will know that I am Yahweh,” (i.e. Exodus 6:7-8; 14:4; 1 Samuel 17:47, 1 Kings 20:28, etc). Every time you see this phrase, God says He is going to act to fulfill a promise. So the meaning of the name Yahweh is tied with the God who acts to show Himself real and faithful to His promises. God is the great I AM, and He proves it by keeping His promises.

Abraham never saw the promises fulfilled, but the Israelites did. God revealed Himself to them in spectacular ways. As a result, they came to know God better. They knew Him as Savior, Redeemer, Provider, and One who loves them. They knew His holiness and righteousness through His Law. They experienced both His love and His justice, His blessing and His wrath. They knew He was faithful to His promises – even those made hundreds of years ago. They witnessed His power over nature and man. God was glorified in their eyes AND the Egyptians’ (Exodus 5:2, 7:5, 8:20-22, 14:4) AND the Canaanites (Joshua 2:9-11, Judges 9:24). And the glory was greater because God had brought His people out of what was an impossibly difficult situation. That is the same way He works today. He comes through for us even in impossible situations.

The Israelites’ slavery also had other benefits. It helped the Israelites to understand the relationship they had to their God. God did not set His people free from slavery. He redeemed them to be His own servants. He bought them: they were now His.

As Christians, we are also redeemed; we are now slaves of Christ. We have a harder time understanding the ramifications of this because we haven’t come from a slavery background. Israel knew what it meant, even though they rebelled over and over again. Thankfully, we have a Master is extremely good, and loves us. However, too many of us do not really know the name of Jesus. We hear it all the time, but we’ve never experienced its meaning: “Yahweh Saves.” Let’s use our difficult situations for what they are intended: to know and experience the name of Jesus. He is our Savior, Redeemer, Provider and Lover of our souls. He is holy and righteous. He is faithful to His promises… even those made thousands of years ago. This is the meaning of life.

“Say These Words…”

During the terrorist incident in Mali this past week, many hostages died. But one hostage was let go after an Islamic attacker told him to recite verses from the Koran. 1 This reminded me of an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown where he was at the wailing wall in Jerusalem. Anthony said he didn’t believe in a higher power. But after finding out he was a Jew, a rabbi quickly grabbed him, strapped on a phylactory, and got him to recite the words of a bar-mitzvah blessing.

I think it’s pretty obvious the freed hostage did not become a Muslim merely by reciting verses from the Koran, just as Anthony Bourdain did not become a practicing Jew and believer in God merely by reciting the words of a blessing. Words are just words. They don’t have the power to do anything… and they are very often said in vain.

Yet many people believe they will get to heaven because they said the words of a “sinner’s prayer” at some point in their lives. It’s as if the words had some kind of miraculous power to save. But this is unbiblical. There is no command or example in the scriptures that show salvation comes by means of saying certain words. 2 Salvation is a gift from God, and it comes by grace through faith. Faith can be expressed by the words of a prayer (written or not), but it is not the words that save. God saves, and He does so in response to from-the-heart faith.

This goes beyond salvation. Living the Christian life is also by faith, not words. Christians do not grow by speaking affirmations, positive words, or blessings. Only God has the power to cause things to happen by speaking them into existence. We don’t. Our part is to trust God in every situation we find ourselves in and to obey Him, leaving the results in His hands.

The saved have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms 3. To believe otherwise is to buy into a lie like the one Eve fell for: God is withholding good from you.

Notes:

  1. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/11/20/mali-hotel-attack/
  2. The first part of Romans 10:9 is not about repeating the words “Jesus is Lord”, but about testifying to His lordship in your life. But notice the requirement for faith in Jesus (“…believe in your heart…”). This faith requirement is repeated throughout the New Testament, but mouthing words is not.
  3. Ephesians 1:3

Second-Hand Faith

“…I am left, I alone…”

– 1 Kings 19:10

Hypothetical questions: If the person who led you to Christ suddenly told you, “I’m sorry. I misled you. I was wrong. There is no heaven or hell. Jesus is a fairy tale. God does not exist. … I have proof, and here it is…,” how would your faith fare?

What if all of the great Christian preachers, teachers, authors, apologists, radio and TV personalities, etc. you look up to suddenly said the same thing? What if everyone in the world abandoned Jesus and urged you to do so… what would you do?

I’ve thought about questions like these off and on for many years as a way of identifying whether my faith is real or not. It’s somewhat hypothetical: there will always be true believers. But there may come a time when it seems everyone around me has abandoned the faith once for all delivered to the saints. It has happened to some degree before and will happen again.

Since the early church, there have been those who appeared to be saved, and even had leadership roles in the church, but who fell away (2 Timothy 4:10). John tells us they left because “they were not of us” (1 John 2:19), meaning they were not really saved. These are somewhat isolated examples, but 2 Thessalonians 2:3 speaks of ‘the apostasy’ of the last days. There will come a time when there is a mass defection from the faith. I believe this speaks of people in the church that we would identify as believers, maybe even strong believers, because you can’t fall away from the truth unless you first have the truth. Some will fall away completely, while others will be seduced by a different gospel. I think we’re seeing this happen in America today. 1

I think one reason people fall away is because they have a second-hand faith. They believe in the doctrines of the Bible, and they say they believe in Jesus, but they don’t really trust in Him. They think they are saved because they agree with what the Bible says, but God hasn’t given them new birth. They don’t have the internal Witness, the Holy Spirit, who convicts of sin and helps them become more like Christ. They’ve heard or read inspiring stories of other people’s faith, but they haven’t stepped out in trusting obedience to the Lord and seen Him work in their lives. Then, when someone comes up with a convincing-sounding argument, or when difficulties arise, they easily fall away. Their faith is built on sand, not the Rock.

Do you believe in Jesus only because you’ve been taught to? Do you have a second-hand faith? Or have you stepped out in obedient faith and seen God prove Himself to be true?

But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, supply with your faith virtue, with virtue knowledge, with knowledge self-control, with self-control perseverance, with perseverance godliness, with godliness brotherly affection, and with brotherly affection love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the full true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his sins of the past. Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make sure of your calling and election, for if you do these things you will not ever stumble; for so an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly supplied to you.

– 1 Peter 1:5-11 (VW)

Notes:

  1. I don’t believe this has anything to do with losing salvation. Salvation cannot be truly lost if you have it. But there are many in the church who think because they did this or that at some time in their lives they are saved. Although repentance and faith are necessary prerequisites, salvation is not based on something we do. It is entirely the work of God, and what He does, He carries on to completion.

Abandoning Fleshly Righteousness

The fleshly nature has two ways of expressing itself. The first is the one we are most aware and ashamed of: it is our desire to sin. But the second way is also bad, and maybe worse because we are not ashamed of it – we’re even proud of it: it is our desire for self-righteousness.

When I say self-righteousness, I’m not talking about a holier-than-thou attitude, or a hypocritical righteous facade. I mean sincerely trying to do the right thing through one’s own willpower and determination, but apart from reliance on the power of God. This kind of ‘righteousness’ falls far short of the righteousness God requires for salvation or for living the Christian life. That law-keeping is insufficient for salvation can be seen in Mark 10:17-23.

A young man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied with the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not give false testimony, Do not defraud, and Honor your father and mother.” The man replied, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.”

Jesus did not call the man a liar, nor did He try to undeceive the man on his ability to keep the ten commandments. This young man was able to keep the letter of the law – I’m sure not perfectly, but Jesus didn’t make an issue of it. But also notice Jesus did not say, “Don’t worry about it then. You kept the Law, you’re in!” Instead, He said, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” Jesus said eternal life requires more than just keeping the ten commandments.

As he walked away in sorrow, Jesus said, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” This amazed His disciples because the Law says nothing about wealth hindering one’s entrance into heaven. (Actually, the Law mentions nothing about heaven.) The Law even includes blessings of wealth on those who keep its commands (Deuteronomy 7:12-24, 28:1-14). But Jesus’ told the man to sell all he had, give to the poor, take up the cross and follow Him. The reason He did so was to reveal the fleshly heart condition that was keeping him from eternal life. The man was still a slave to his fleshly desires. 1

The righteousness of the flesh looks deceptively good because it claims the letter of the Law as its standard. We think if we can keep the letter of the Law, we’re righteous. We can see this in the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12:

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus to himself, God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.

– Luke 18:11-12 (VW)

Again, there is no indication that the Pharisee was being deceptive in his prayer. He was able to live up to the letter of the Law. And yet, it was the sinful tax collector who left justified, not the law-keeping Pharisee.

I can see Paul in this Pharisee. Before he was saved, Paul was also able to live up to the letter of the Law “blamelessly” (Philippians 3:4-6). But once he was saved, Paul realized his legalistic self-righteousness had brought him no closer to God. You see, the letter of the Law covers only a portion of the standard of righteousness. It is only the beginning.

Imagine somebody handed you a bottle with the label “Lemon Juice” on it, but you were suspicious that it might contain something else that was perhaps poisonous. How would you know the contents matched the label? You would test it against the characteristics of real lemon juice.

Lemon juice is a slightly yellow sour liquid. As you look at the bottle, you see it is a yellowish liquid, but how can you tell it is sour without tasting it? You can do a litmus test. Blue litmus paper turns red when dipped in acid. So you dip the litmus paper in the liquid and it doesn’t turn red. You have proved the liquid is not lemon juice.

But even if the paper did turn red, that would not prove the liquid was lemon juice, because any acid will do that. To prove the liquid is what it says it is, it has to pass all tests for lemon juice (which goes beyond testing just for ‘a slightly yellow sour liquid’). Each test by itself can only disprove what it is. Only all of the tests together can prove what it is.

The Old Testament Law is like a litmus test for righteousness. If you break just one command, then you are not righteous. But even if you keep all of the Law to the letter, that still doesn’t prove you are righteous. The Law is only one test – just enough to disprove our righteousness, but not enough to prove it. Jesus gives more tests for righteousness in Matthew 5:17-48. You may have kept the letter of the Law in regards to murder, and yet still be guilty of murder. You may not have committed adultery by the letter of the Law, and yet still be guilty of adultery. Keeping the letter of the Law does not prove you are righteous, because you still fail the other tests. But by breaking the letter of the Law (i.e. any one command), you immediately prove yourself a sinner.

For whoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.

– James 2:10 VW 2

If you break one command of the Law, the Law has done its job in proving you a sinner (Romans 3:20).

The flesh thinks it can live up to the Law, but doesn’t realize the Law actually condemns it. Jesus shows us God’s righteousness is so perfect, we have no hope of fully meeting all of its requirements. We have to exceed the letter-of-the-Law righteousness of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisee’s righteousness, and ours, are just filthy rags.

Self-righteousness is done in our own power, with no real need to be grateful to God. It is not the righteousness of (i.e. from) God 3. Only Christ’s righteousness satisfies God’s standard. But that righteousness will only do us good if we forsake our own weak, fleshly attempts. When Paul was saved, he abandoned his own “blameless” legalistic self-righteousness, and trusted entirely in the righteousness of Christ. Let’s follow his example.

But no, rather, I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the Law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

– Philippians 3:8-11 (VW)

Notes:

  1. Notice Jesus told the man, “One thing you lack,” then proceeded to mention four things: sell all, give to the poor, follow me, take up the cross. What the man lacked was not these things he had to do, but a heart that was fully submitted to Jesus.
  2. Likewise, Galatians 3:10 says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the Law, to do them.”
  3. Isaiah 54:17, Romans 3:21-22, 10:3, 2 Corinthians 5:21, James 2:23

Is Sanctification By Law Or By Faith?

We tend to misunderstand what was going on in the Galatian church. Well, let me rephrase. I have misunderstood what was going on in the Galatian church, …but I do think many of us share the same misunderstanding.

What I mean is, as we read Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, we assume they were trying to be saved by the works of the Law of Moses. It’s real easy to come to this conclusion when we see warnings of “a different gospel,” and read statements like “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through the faith of Jesus Christ,” and “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” There is so much justification-by-grace-through-faith doctrine in Paul’s letter that we think he was correcting their misunderstanding about how we come to salvation. And there is nothing wrong with applying the doctrine in this manner. We are saved by faith, not by works. Any gospel that says otherwise is a false one. But salvation by works was not their main problem.

While there may have been exceptions, for the most part, the Galatians were not trying to earn their salvation. They had already received the true gospel (Galatians 1:9,4:9), and as a result they had already received the Holy Spirit by faith (Galatians 3:2, Ephesians 1:14). Getting saved was not their problem. The issue was how they lived after they were saved. They had a misunderstanding of sanctification.

That their problem was a practical one can be seen in Galatians 2:10, where Paul mentions Peter, James and John’s instructions on how believing Gentiles are to live, while leaving out any instructions on how Gentiles are to be saved 1. But it becomes much more evident in chapter 3 where Paul really starts chewing them out:

Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?

– Galatians 3:3 (KJV)

This is the first place where Paul directly confronts them with their error. Notice the word ‘Spirit’ here. This is a gigantic clue he is not talking about how to become or stay saved …otherwise he would have said something like, “having begun in Christ.” It is the Holy Spirit’s role to make us practically righteous, not to declare us righteous before God.

The Greek word for ‘perfect’, epiteleo, is used nine times elsewhere in the New Testament. Every one of those usages refer to accomplishing something through actions 2. Epiteleo is never used in reference to our gaining or maintaining a right standing before God. In other words, we have no need to perfect our righteous status before God, because Jesus has already perfected it.

Also notice Paul did not condemn his readers merely for seeking perfection. He condemned them for the manner in which they sought it. This is another clue that sanctification is the topic at hand. The Galatian believers were trying to attain practical perfection through the Law. They thought they could achieve sanctification by works of the flesh. But sanctification is purely God’s work (John 17:17, Romans 15:16, 1 Corinthians 1:30, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 5:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Hebrews 2:11, 10:10, 13:12, 1 Peter 1:2, 3:15). They began their walk correctly (‘by the Spirit’), but then they ceased submitting to the leading of the Holy Spirit and let the Judaizers divert them. No wonder Paul was upset with them!

Although we apply the doctrine of justification in this epistle to our evangelism of the lost, it was written primarily to us believers, because we are vulnerable to the Galatians’ error. Sanctification by works is a much subtler error than justification by works, because it infects our minds so easily without knowing it. In some churches today, the Holy Spirit’s role goes no further than doctrine. Practically speaking, the Trinity becomes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps this is a reaction against the errors of some who tend to have a fixation on the Holy Spirit at the expense of good doctrine. I don’t know. But I do know there are serious dangers in trying to live by the Law:

• It actually empowers sin in our lives (Romans 5:20, 7:5,8, 1 Corinthians 15:56). The more we seek to live by the Law, the more power sin has over us, even if that sin is only a prideful self-righteous attitude over others. It’s not the Law’s fault – the Law is righteous and good. But our flesh still has sinful desires which attempts to use the requirements of the Law to make itself look good.

• We downplay what Paul said in Galatians 3:10, that those who insist on living by the law are under a curse, because they put themselves in debt to keep the whole law, with its sacrificial system, holy days, circumcision, etc. While this is not the curse of Galatians 1:8,9, it is still a very bad thing.

• And a legalistic sanctification mindset slowly infects our justification mindset, eventually sowing seeds of doubt about our salvation.

I think a big part of the problem is our lack of appreciation of the gospel. When we read or hear a message about the death of Jesus, or the importance of trusting in Him, we file the information away under the heading ‘How To Be Saved’, not realizing the gospel is also good news about what God does to enable us to overcome sin in our day-to-day lives 3. Jesus’ death on the cross not only has justification benefits, it has sanctification benefits (Romans 8:3-4), and both come on the same basis: by grace through faith.

The Christian life is not one of following a standard but of following a Person. Many believe the only way to avoid sin is by keeping the Law. They are unaware that walking in the Spirit and abiding in Christ prevents sin, and does so much better than trying to obey the Law. (I’m not advocating lawlessness – that would lead to sin. Instead, we are to live by a different law: the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2-4).)

But we lack faith to live this way. We’d rather hold on to our own works through law-keeping because we’re afraid to trust God to make us holy. As a result, we find no real victory over sinful habits.

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster [to bring us] unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

– Galatians 3:24-25 (KJV)

Justification happens as a one-time event, but sanctification is a process that continues for the rest of our lives. We don’t drop law-keeping at the point of salvation, and then immediately take it back up again afterwards. We are no longer under that schoolmaster 4. We live by faith. Faith is not only the beginning of the way of life but its entirety. The faith that trusts God to justify us when we abandon our self-righteous works and believe in Jesus is the same faith that trusts that He will sanctify us as well when we abandon our self-righteous works and walk in His Holy Spirit. It is part of the same gospel. This is why Paul uses the doctrine of justification to address how the Galatians lived the Christian life. Sanctification is tied inseparably to justification.

We do not partake of a partial grace that gets us into heaven but doesn’t make us fit to live there. The gospel is the good news of all that God does to restore us to Himself. If we continue to rely on law-keeping to make ourselves presentable to God, it would be well to ask ourselves what Paul asked the Galatian believers: “Are we so foolish?”

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of {i.e. ‘in’} the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness [come] by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

– Galatians 2:20-21 (KJV)

Notes:

  1. This is also seen in the practical words “our liberty in Christ” in verse 4, and “walked” in verse 14. Even the word ‘gospel’ in chapter 2 is repeatedly used in the context of how believers are to live, showing the gospel includes the doctrine of sanctification as well as justification. When Paul rebuked Peter in Galatians 2:11-21, it was over a practical issue of how he lived, not about his lack of faith in Jesus to save him.
  2. The word is used elsewhere in Luke 13:32 (‘perform cures’), Romans 15:28 (‘I have performed this’), 2 Cor. 7:1 (‘perfecting holiness’), 2 Cor. 8:6 (‘he would finish‘), 2 Cor. 8:11 (‘perform‘), Php 1:6 (‘He will perform‘), Heb. 8:5 (‘make the tabernacle’), Heb 9:6 (‘accomplishing the service’), 1 Pet. 5:9 (‘afflictions are accomplished‘).
  3. Another confusing point is that Paul uses the word ‘justified’ six times in his letter, while never using ‘sanctified’. We like to separate the meanings of the words into how to get saved and how to live. But these words are sometimes used interchangeably. We need to pay attention to the context. In this letter, even though we see Paul using the word ‘justified’, he writes about how we are live.
  4. The Law still has a purpose: to convict men of sin and to lead them to Christ. As the standard, it remains. But the Mosaic Law is eliminated as a means of living (Romans 7:1-6). Look at Paul who used to follow the Law “blamelessly” before he was saved (Philippians 3:6). After he was saved he didn’t use his salvation as an opportunity to keep the Law more perfectly. Instead, he counted law-keeping a total “loss”. This is what he meant when he called the Galatians (and us) to “be as I am; for I am as you are.” If you find this difficult to accept, I suggest reading straight through the epistle to the Galatians once a day for at least a week, so you can get familiar with the flow of Paul’s argument.