Saving Judgment

14 10 2008

SAVING JUDGMENT

 

Study 9

 

Trevor Faggotter  

 

As we pursue the study of P.T. Forsyth’s book, The Justification of God, we look at the matter of salvation – and the apostolic desire for all people, including the kings of the world, to come into the Kingdom of God, and be saved. As Forsyth says: The more we believe in the Kingdom of God the more we must believe in judgment.

 

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God;
 there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

 

God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  God saves his people. The Israelites groaned under their slavery in Egypt, and cried out to God (Exodus 2:23). They were rescued – or saved by passing through the red sea. Salvation involves coming out into a large place – a place of freedom and space. Salvation involves the joy of daily life within creation. Salvation involves liberty and the joy of community life; salvation involves the future glorious freedom, which is given from sin and death. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). Salvation extends to the future of creation, set free from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). Salvation is eternal life in Christ Jesus.

 

SALVATION THROUGH JUDGMENT

 

Many people think that the cross of Christ is a sort of legal device designed for avoiding judgment.  This is not so. Rather, salvation comes, not in bypassing judgment, but takes place by passing through judgment.  The judgment of the cross cuts right through us, and we, by faith, pass through it, in Christ. I have been crucified with Christ is our true claim. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

 

P. T. Forsyth says:

 

What is judgment but the setting out in true and full light (i.e. in just relation to the whole) of the actual state of things between the soul’s case and the ruling power of the world? Unless Christ be a dream or a dreamer, that power is God’s grace. That is our final judge. To it we stand or fall. The gospel of grace, in the Cross and its preaching, is the real ultimate judgment of the world, the real and final power at work now.

 

Our salvation cost the Father his own Son. We may think this was but for a moment. That view would be a misreading of the gospel message. That Christ was utterly forsaken – is a fracture, or deep break, within the love-unity of the Triune God himself, and is of immense importance. Paul sees this action as a totally gracious giving to the human race.

 

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

 

Forsyth presses us in the opposite direction in order that we might grasp something of the judgment process both in the cross, and in the course of human history. God who is prepared to forsake his Son, for the sake of humanity’s future, is also prepared to us the most dreadful of circumstances, to further his good purpose for creation.  Forsyth is referring particularly to the tragic world war he was experiencing in 1917.

 

If God spared not His own Son He can bear to see, and rise to use, the most dreadful things that civilisation can produce. History is a long judgment process; but it is not in the course of history with its debacles that we find the last judgment of God, and fix our faith in it, but at a point of history, in the Cross of Christ. It is there that we find the justification of God at first hand, and His own theodicy.

 

THE LOOSING AND BINDING ACTION OF LOVE

 

Hearing the gospel message is not a neutral exercise. It is a crisis, a moment of decision. It has consequences. The disciples understood their actions were not neutral, and learned this from their Lord, when Jesus said:  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:19). In John we read: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’. (John 20:23)

 

Their power to forgive is of course ministerial only, and not magisterial. The disciples are heralds of the gospel, servants and agents of Christ, But only God, in Christ, as King has the right to forgive, and pardon. God acts in love, in sending Christ, to reveal this love:

 

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:10).

 

The great Christian message to the world is not simply love. That is too general, not to say vague. Christianity does not produce only love to God, but also hate.

 

Our message is never neutral.  Forsyth said of gracious loving, direct preaching:

 

It not only produces faith but it also deepens unfaith, and hardens impenitence. If it loose it also binds; and it can do the one only if it do the other—action and reaction being equal. If it draw some near to God, it repels others into distance and estrangement. There is such a thing as the repulsive power of a great affection.

 

Perfect grace was and is final judgment. It is condemnation to ignore salvation. Full and final judgment is not something super-added to the Gospel. It is no corollary, no by-product. It is intrinsic to it. It is an element of Fatherhood, and not a device.

 

John’s Gospel warns people not to ignore this salvation. Following on from the most used evangelical appeal from Scripture, is the warning sound as well. We should weigh it carefully in our minds and hearts.  

 

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; (John 3:16-18a)

 

but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ (John 3:18b-21)

 

Forsyth writes:

 

The same Church that evangelises the world in the very act judges it. It not only divides each soul, but all society, electing and rejecting.

 

The Cross did not, indeed, come directly and expressly to judge (John viii. 15-16, xii. 47-48). It did so only in the course of exerting …God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. But judge it certainly did. It brought to a head for the world the sin of an elect nation—a nation whose sense of privilege and merit repudiated moral for national interests, scouted Christ’s word of mercy and His call to repent, and found no public meaning in His Word of love and humility. It thus became, more than Rome, incarnate Antichrist. It sinned against pure light.

 

The Cross, which that nation inflicted filled up the measure of its guilt and brought it death. And this was not against Christ’s will but with it. He knew He was Israel’s doom. The Holy One knew that the soul of man or nation that chose to sin must go on to die, and that every word of greater love might become a word of more wrath. But He never judged them in the sense of avenging, far less of revenging. Their judgment was the reaction on them, from God’s holiness…

 

THE PERSON OF CHRIST IS NOT KNOWN APART FROM HIS WORK

 

Sin is deceitful, as are the works of the evil One, which Christ came to destroy. Indeed, the powers of Satan and his minions are poorly considered, by our humanistic culture. As Geoffrey Bingham has pointed out: There is quite a bit of shoulder-shrugging in regard to this subject. Forsyth describes deficient teaching in his day as:

 

‘… defective insight into the final nature and victory of the Cross over the diabolism and perdition in the world’.

 

It reflects a certain moral amateurism due to the abeyance of a theology of the Cross. Such religion, certainly, loves the person of Christ. It is in love with His love, and with His Cross as the summit of that love in self-sacrifice. But it has no room nor need for judgment there. It does not feel there God’s judgment on sin, and the crisis of the moral world and of a holy eternity. It needs moralising from a deeper experience of life—an experience older, more secular, more tragic. For want of a theology of conscience such souls do not know the world nor gauge its redemption. Their belief in Christ is impaired for want of a belief in the Satan that Christ felt it His supreme conflict to counter-work and destroy.

 

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil (1John 3:8b). And that he did by bearing our sins, dealing with our guilt, pronouncing God’s word of forgiveness and peace, thus saving humanity from Satan’s deadly accusations. 

 

The grace of God is the greatest judgment ever passed on the world. That is the nature of the Cross—God’s grace (and not God’s law), in moral, saving judgment on man. When we have entered the kingdom through the great judgment in the Cross, we do not escape all judgment; we escape into a new kind of judgment, from that of law to that of grace. We escape condemnation, for we are new creatures, but chastisement we do not escape. Our work may be burned, to our grief, that we may be saved (I Cor. xi. 32). We are judged or chastened with the Church to escape condemnation with the world. And at the last must there not be some great crisis of self-judgment, when we all see Him as He is, and see ourselves as His grace sees us?

 

We are afraid that if we find that moral ground and destiny of the world in the historic Christ and His Cross, and if we say ‘we see not yet all things put under righteousness, but we see Jesus,’ and rest, we shall be called Biblicists instead of historians, more theological than ethical. Well, we must take the risk. The judgment of the world accordingly is not the history of the world, but its Saviour.


P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 170

P. T. Forsyth, p. 184-185

P. T. Forsyth, p. 170

P. T. Forsyth, p. 170

P. T. Forsyth, p. 170

P. T. Forsyth, p. 171

P. T. Forsyth, p. 171

P. T. Forsyth, p. 171

P. T. Forsyth, p. 172

G.C. Bingham, The Clash of the Kingdoms, NCPI, 1989, p. 10

P. T. Forsyth, p. 175

P. T. Forsyth, p. 181

P. T. Forsyth, p. 186





The Cross Crucial For Destiny

14 10 2008

THE CROSS CRUCIAL FOR DESTINY

 

Study 8

 

Trevor Faggotter

 

INTRODUCTION

 

There is a strange statement in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul speaks of God the Father’s active involvement in the event of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, saying:

 

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

 

Given that human sin is not ‘but a remora, or drag, on Humanity’, but rather, ‘its death and hell’ – and given that, ‘the wrongest thing with the world is its sin’, then the need to deal with sin finally and fully is the matter upon which the destiny of humanity, and the holy character of God, must centre. What it means for Jesus Christ, God’s Son, to be made to be sin lies at the heart of the gospel.

 

THE CRUCIALITY OF THE CROSS

 

In following P.T. Forsyth’s book, The Justification of God, (1917), we now come in our series, to Chapter IX.  It is entitled ‘The Eternal Cruciality of the Cross for Destiny’, and it may remind you (if you know of Forsyth’s other books), of his work first published in 1909, entitled The Cruciality of the Cross. While we have much to read, digest, and study already, I would nevertheless like to include in this study some quotations (taken slowly), from the final few pages of The Cruciality of the Cross.

 

In being “made sin,” treated as sin (though not as a sinner), Christ experienced sin as God does, while he experienced its effects as man does. He felt sin with God, and sin’s judgment with men. He realised, as God, how real sin was, how radical, how malignant, how deadly to the Holy One’s very being.

 

When Christ died at sin’s hands it meant that sin was death to the holiness of God, and both could not live in the same world. When He rose it meant that what was to live and rule in the world was the holy God.

 

Dying as man, Christ placed His whole self beside man under the judgment of God. He was beside man in court but on God’s side in the issue, confessing God’s holiness in the judgment, and justifying His treatment of sin. Justifying God!

 

Forsyth then gives a poignant illustration, with a comment, which is pure theodicy:

 

A missionary to the North American Indians records that having seen his wife and children killed before his eyes, and being himself harried in bonds across the prairie amid his tormentors, he “justified God in this thing.” I do not know a sublimer order of experience than from the heart to bless and praise a good and holy God in despairs like these. It is to this order of experience that the work, the blood, of Christ belongs. And there is no justification of men except by this justification, this self-justification, of God.

 

Never is man so just with God as when his broken, holy heart calls just the judgment of God which he feels but has not himself earned; and never could man be just with God but through God’s justification of Himself in the blood of Christ.

 

In speaking here of atonement, Forsyth is keen to retain the word ‘satisfaction’:

 

We cannot in any theology which is duly ethicised dispense with the word satisfaction. It was of course not a quantitative replacement of anything God had lost, nor was it the glutting of a God’s anger by an equivalent suffering on who cares whom. It was no satisfaction of a jus talionis.

 

But it was the adequate confession, in act and suffering, “Thou art holy as Thou judgest.” That man should confess this vicariously and victoriously in Christ crucified and risen is the re-establishment of God’s holiness in the world. We can only understand any justification of man as it is grounded in this justification—this self-justification—of God. The sinner could only be saved by something that thus damned the sin.

 

In a far more nuanced manner, than is employed by many evangelicals today, Forsyth then speaks of what is not the Father’s action in the cross (punishing Jesus), as well as what is his action in the cross, (namely imparting unto Christ, the penalty upon sin). 

 

The Saviour was not punished, but He took the penalty of sin, the chastisement of our peace. It was in no sense as if He felt chastised or condemned (as even Calvin said), but because He willingly bowed, with a moral understanding possible only to the sinless, under the divine ordinance of a suffering death and judgment which was holily ordained to wait on the sin of His kin.

 

The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin. The metaphor denotes the radicality, totality, and finality of the whole action in the realism of the moral world which even high sacrifice, not resisting unto blood, only slurs or shelves—when it does not toy with it. 

 

Forsyth notes that Jesus early teaching wholly relates to his suffering deeds in the cross:

 

It is notable that Christ speaks of His blood only at His life’s end, while during life He spoke only of forgiving grace without any such expiation (except in the ransom passage). Why was this so?

 

Two reasons are given:

 

1. Was it not, first, because His grand total witness, which death but pointed, was to the grace of God’s holy love; and the exposure of sin could only come by the light of that revelation?

 

2. And was it not, second, because His revelation and offer of holy grace without sacrifice and judgment failed of its effect; because even the great, uplifted, and joyful invitation, “Come unto Me,” failed till it was enacted from the mighty gloom of the cross; because only the uplifting of the cross, and not the uplifting of His voice, draws all men unto Him;

 

The cross draws people. It does so as the holy love of God breaks through to human beings by revelation. God’s very wonderful loving kindness is brought home livingly by the Spirit of God – the mystery of the cross is opened, and poured into hearts and minds.

 

THE CROSS AND GRACE

 

Forsyth saw the biblical relationship between the cross and grace, in a way, that many others failed, and fail still to see and proclaim (that is why many abandon atonement theology).  Robert McAfee Brown followed Forsyth’s corrective theology well:

 

God is willing to go to the length of suffering and dying to enter into fellowship with man. There is a misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of atonement that goes something like this: God is an angry God, angry at men because men have sinned, and he decides to condemn mankind; but Christ intercedes for man, and God’s vengeance is sated by punishing Christ instead. Although this is a travesty of the Christian position it has unfortunately been too often suggested by interpreters of the atonement as well as by their critics. But Forsyth, who said, “The doctrine of grace and the doctrine of the atonement are identical,” the true interpretation is that the atonement flows from grace, it does not “procure” grace. This extremely important insight means that our reading of the atonement is more like this: Because God loves men, he suffers on their behalf, bears himself the weight of their wrongdoing, and this restores fellowship, or reconciles. Grace is not something Christ earned for us from God; grace is rather something God gave us in Christ. “Do not say: ‘God is love. Why atone?’ Say: ‘God has atoned. What love!’

 

SALVATION IS THE SOLUTION

 

We are not taught or argued by proofs, or theology into the kingdom of God.  Rather we are transferred, by way of rescue.  He has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14) The victory of the resurrected Christ is our salvation. The work of the crucified Christ is our forgiveness of sins, and it means the redemption of the world. We are not seeking our own solution. We are given one.

 

Not only can God solve the world, He has solved it, in His own practical way of solution, by saving it—by an act done, and not a proof led, nor a scheme shown. His wisdom none can trace, and His ways are past finding out; but His work finds us; and His grace, His victory, and His goal become sure.

 

The message of the apostles was always of what God had done, in the death and resurrection of Christ (see Romans 5-8). And yet, Forsyth identifies good reasons why God’s ways in revelation, are unsearchable; Drawing upon apostolic insight – O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33) – Forsyth comments:

 

If we saw all His scheme our faith would be compelled, and not free. It might do more to overwhelm us than to raise or fortify. It would be sight—something too satisfactory to a merely distributive justice; it would not be faith creative and constitutive for the holy soul. The faith we keep means more for our soul than the views we win.

 

Faith in receiving the truth of God in the cross is an absolutely essential factor.  Faith is not some well-reasoned conclusion. Faith is at once a gift from God, and an action of personal trust, of belief, of receptivity.

 

Job’s friends had sounder views on some points than he, but they did not receive the reward that his desperate faith had. In the Cross of Christ we learn the faith that things not willed by God are yet worked up by God. In a divine irony, man’s greatest crime turns God’s greatest boon. 0 Felix culpa! The riddle is insoluble but the fact is sure. The new man, remade in Christ and not simply impressed by Christ, is sure amid a world of strident problems. We know what God has done for the world in redeeming it; we have tasted that in our soul; but we do not know why He took the way with it that He did, why it must mean the Cross. He speaks not an all-solving but an all-liberating word.

 

THE FATHER AND SON CARRY AND SUFFER THE MISERY OF THE AGES

 

Jesus said: the Father and I are one (John 10:3). He also said, the Father is in me and I am in the Father (John 14:10). When we see the Cruciality of the Cross, we see the action of the Father giving up his Son in love, and the Son honoring the Father. God, the Father, was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. We are often made aware of the sufferings of Christ. However, Forsyth draws our attention to the depth of the Father’s suffering too, saying: ‘And the Father suffered in His Son even more than the Son did’.

 

There is an Eye, a Mind, a Heart, before Whom the whole bloody and tortured stream of evolutionary growth has flowed. We are horrified, beyond word or conception, by the agony and devilry of war, but, after all, it only discharges upon us, as it were from a nozzle, a far vaster accumulation of such things, permeating the total career of history since ever a sensitive organism and a heartless egoism appeared.

 

The war is an occasion, to turn anew to the sufferings of God throughout human history:

 

This misery of the ages, I have said, vanishes from human thought or feeling, till some experience like war carries some idea of it home. But there is a consciousness to which it is all and always present. And in the full view of it He has spoken. As it might be thus: ‘Do you stumble at the cost? It has cost Me more than you—Me who see and feel it all more than you who feel it but as atoms might. “Groanings all and moanings, none of it I lose.” Yea, it has cost Me more than if the price paid were all Mankind. For it cost Me My only and beloved Son to justify My name of righteousness, and to realise the destiny of My creature in holy love.

 

Forsyth spotlights the love of the Father, for the Son, and calls us to consider this. (We are often very self-centred when we ask questions concerning theodicy).  He continues, along the lines that the Father, might say, concerning his Son, Jesus:

 

And all mankind is not so great and dear as He. Nor is its suffering the enormity in a moral world that His Cross is. I am no spectator of the course of things, and no speculator on the result. I spared not My own Son. We carried the load that crushed you. It bowed Him into the ground.

 

This suffering however, achieved the Father and the Son’s shared purpose for the world:

 

On the third day He rose with a new creation in His hand, and a regenerate world, and all things working together for good to love and the holy purpose in love. And what He did I did. How I did it? How I do it?  This you know not how, and could not, but you shall know hereafter. There are things the Father must keep in His own hand. Be still and know that I am God, whose mercy is as His majesty, and His omnipotence is chiefly in forgiving, and redeeming, and settling all souls in worship in the temple of a new heaven and earth full of holiness.

 

THE SUPREME THEODICY IS ATONEMENT

 

As we have been saying in other studies ‘that day’ – the coming close of history as we know it, the telos – is an essential part of God’s plan, through the cross and Christ’s resurrection; this is a continuation of what Forsyth, understands the Father is saying to us.

 

In that day the anguish will be forgotten for joy that a New Humanity is born into the world.’

 

However, the matter is never just hoping for heaven. It is the holy name of God fully honoured, through atonement. It means leaving no room or place for sin, eternally.

 

But all this is groundless if in the Cross of Christ we have but the love of God shown in sacrifice and not its holiness secured in judgment; if the Cross be but to reconcile man and not atone to God, to impress many and not first to hallow the holy name.

 

In hallowing the Father’s holy name, Christ is doing more than being obedient unto death he is being obedient unto judgment, the final judgment of holiness. Paul says, ‘For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.’ (Romans 5:19) Others who have studied Forsyth have also pointed out that he saw Christ’s obedience as of prime importance:

 

The important thing is not the “wounds of Jesus”, but the fact that in going to the cross he offered a perfect obedience to the holy will of God. This has never been sufficiently emphasized.

 

As this series of studies, is looking at this whole matter of theodicy, it is appropriate that we close this study, with Forsyth’s closing words for the chapter:

 

Christ was the new Humanity doing the one needful and right thing before God. God’s justification of man, therefore, was by His justification of Himself in man. The last theodicy is a gift of God and not man’s discovery nor an achievement. It is not a rational triumph but the victory of faith. Christ is the theodicy of God and the justifier both of God and the ungodly. The supreme theodicy is atonement.


Luke also draws attention to the Father’s involvement in the cross, saying that Jesus was handed over to the Israelites, ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God ‘ (Acts 2:23); In Acts 8:32-33 Luke shows how Isaiah 53 is a prophecy including the Father’s involvement in the cross – the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6); similarly Matthew 26:31 takes the prophecy of Zechariah 13:7, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered, indicating the Father’s sovereign activity. 

Remora a suckerfish – which attaches itself to sharks, whales, sea turtles or the hulls of ships

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 146

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 167

P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, NCPI, (1909), 1984, p. 212

P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 213

P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 213

P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 213-214

P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214

Jus talionis:  an eye for an eye; quoted from P.T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214

P.T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214

Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet For Today, Westminster Press, 1952, p. 82-83

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154

Felix culpa – Blessed fault or fortunate fall’, or “O happy fault”.

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 169

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 165

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 165

Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet For Today, p. 83

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 169





The Coming Event in History

14 10 2008

THE COMING EVENT IN HISTORY

 

Study 7

 

Trevor Faggotter

 

ONE FAR-OFF DIVINE EVENT

 

Jesus said: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware; keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 

(Mark 13:31-32).

 

The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, concluded his poem, In Memoriam with these words:

 

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

 

Just as there was a day when the Messiah, and Saviour of the world, Jesus, was born into this world in a town called Bethlehem, so too there will be a day when Christ’s coming-appearing will be an actual event in our very real, daily human history. Tennyson described that occasion as “one far-off divine event, to which the whole creation moves”.  The seeming delay in Jesus Christ’s coming-appearing – coupled with this expectation but non-arrival in every age since that of the early Christians – has driven some people to mistrust all such prophecy, and to doubt or deny the Christian story, and gospel. 

 

This coming anew of the ascended, reigning Christ into human history, to put things right, and close off this age with finality, is an essential part of a biblical theodicy. It is one component, which is always lacking in a philosophical theodicy, where an understanding of the world is sought apart from the action of God in Christ. The difficult, or seemingly unanswerable questions of theodicy have often produced great doubt, and a kind of faithlessness in many people. 

 

Only this week I noticed that a well-known University Professor in New Testament studies, by the name of Bart Ehrman has concluded that the questions of theodicy, and the unsatisfactory answers he has found, have forced him to take up the stance of an agnostic, rather than hold to his former Christian faith. He has now authored a book telling why. One of the reasons given is his unbelief in much of the Christian creed – such as the resurrected, ascended, currently reigning Christ, an his coming appearing. 

 

We should note that P.T. Forsyth draws our attention to the importance of faith, which looks forward to a teleology – God’s planned goal –arriving in history.

The faith of a teleology in history protects us from the vagrancy of soul, which dogs the notion that things are but staggering on, or flitting upon chance winds over a trackless waste. It saves us from the timidity, which so easily besets us before the incalculable.

 

Praying and not losing heart are important qualities for a human being to have, and to wrestle to maintain, and sustain.  Jesus asked a good question about this persistent, enduring approach, especially when living amidst human injustice and suffering: ‘When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:8).

 

LIVING IN THE MYSTERY

 

Jesus said… ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables’. (Mark 4:11).

 

He went on to say: ‘Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away (Luke 8:18).

 

Geoffrey Bingham has helped us to see that a mystery is not a problem to be solved, but a revealed reality in which one lives:

 

The Scriptures do not seem to us to be mysterious, since we can read and noetically understand every idea put forward, but in what we think we understand, there is, nevertheless, mystery. Christ said that in certain cases it has to be given to understand certain mysteries. That is, such mysteries cannot be understood by intellectual endeavour. Somewhere—and somehow—the heart and the will are involved in true comprehension. This is a baffling thought; namely, that such mysteries are not puzzles to be solved. God is Himself the great mystery, and He retains the right to open up Himself and all concomitant mysteries, or to close them off. This is a fearful thought—that mysteries may be shut off from us, and we from them! 

 

Humility is especially necessary in the matter of theodicy, and in understanding the nature and origins and activity of evil. In our previous study we commenced by including these two passages from Scripture, concerning the matter of evil:

 

For the mystery of lawlessness (or mystery of iniquity) is already at work (2Thessalonians 2:7).

 

And he (Jesus) said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly (Mark 7:22).

 

Paul’s phrase in 2Thessalonians 2:7 teaches and cautions us that sin, lawlessness or iniquity is a mystery. Aware of this one can consider carefully such questions as:

 

  1. The origin, cause or reason for evil, as well as, perhaps, a prior question about its essence or nature. What is evil? St. Augustine (354-430) denounced as absurd all efforts to reflect upon the origin of evil as long as one does not know what it is.

 

  1. How long O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? (Habakkuk 1:2)

 

  1. What is Victory? And, when does it arrive, this Victory over evil? For a humanity that is overwhelmed by suffering (evil endured) and guilt (evil committed), that is the question that matters.

 

Whilst we are reading and listening to Forsyth seeking understanding – especially of his exposition of the significance of the cross of Christ – we need to bear in mind that we are not merely searching for intellectual insights, but rather, gospel insight – which comes by hearing with faith as Christ speaks!

 

EVIL TOUCHING OUR NERVE

 

Forsyth recognizes that there is a greater problem than merely staggering on to nowhere:

 

But our worst trouble is not due to a mere tracklessness in the course of history.  That is too negative to try us keenly. We are exposed to positive assault. The iron enters our soul. The worst question rises, and the chief protest, when the disorder in the world touches our nerve in the shape of positive pain, evil, or guilt; when our personal life is deranged by that alien invasion, or is crushed, instead of stayed, by our connection with the course of things; when conscience rises in protest at the fate of the good, or the falsity of ourselves.  Questions then come home about the connection of evil and suffering, sin and sorrow, grief and goodness. Then it is that the desire for a teleology deepens into a passion for a theodicy. Has the teleology a moral end?

 

Other writers reflecting upon the more horrendous crimes of World War 2, seem to keep looking at the issue of guilt, and the need for it to be attributed, acknowledged and dealt with. But how is guilt to be dealt with, if you have done such things? Is there any hope for a person who has committed gross evil? What about our own less than righteous lives?  It is valuable, even if very painful to recount what has happened and keeps happening in human history.  In searching for a theology for Auschwitz, Simon writes:

 

We are dealing with the deaths of millions, mostly non-combatant Jews, who had been rounded up and sent to various concentration-camps designed entirely for their extermination.  Auschwitz was the largest but by no means the only place of infamy. At Treblinka, Maideneck, Ravensbruck, Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen, Chelmo, Sohibor, Mauthausen and many lesser known places the same dimensions of sin and suffering prevailed.  Auschwitz stands here for the whole guilt which has stained the earth, not only in Europe but also in Asia. 

     This guilt must in the first place be ascribed to Hitler, the German Chancellor from 1933 until his death by suicide, probably on April 30th, 1945, in Berlin.  He appointed the men who carried out the task of extermination with ruthless efficiency.

 

Our problem is evil as it affects our own lives, so terribly. Over Nyholm produced a film documentary entitled ‘The Anatomy of Evil’, in which he interviewed mostly the perpetrators of mass murder in World War 2 and the Balkans War.  In setting out on his task, he said. “I have decided to confront heartlessness, heartlessness itself, face to face.” The interviewer’s final conclusion is honest, as he asks about what he might have done in the same circumstances:  “I cannot answer if I would do it; if I say I know myself it is not correct; I can’t predict if I can handle it; I no longer have certainty…from certainty to maybe – that is a profound loss. That is my condition!”

 

WHEN GOD TRUSTED MAN WITH FREEDOM

 

When a film documentary maker, cautiously, fearfully, and sadly concludes that virtually all human beings are capable of terrible evil, and many have exercised it in such an atrocious manner, then it seems clear enough that we have been given such freedom as to include even a terrifying capacity for genocide.  What then are we to say of our Creator?

 

There was never such a fatal experiment as when God trusted man with freedom.  But our Christian faith is that He knew well what He was about.  He did not do that as a mere adventure, not without knowing that he had the power to remedy any abuse of it that might occur, and to do this by a new creation more mighty, marvellous, and mysterious than the first. He had means to emancipate even freedom, to convert moral freedom, even in its ruin, into spiritual. If the first creation drew on His might, the second taxed His all-might. It revealed His power as moral majesty, as holy omnipotence, most chiefly shown in the mercy that redeems and reconciles.

 

In the light of the Cross’s power, Forsyth goes on the revel in God’s grand plan:

 

To redeem creation is a more creative act than it was to create it. …The supreme power in the world is not simply the power of God but of a holy God, upon whose rule all things wait, and may wait long. It is no slack knot that the Saviour has to undo. All the energy of a perverse world in its created freedom pulled on the tangle to tighten it. And its undoing has give the supreme form to all God’s dealing with the world. But at the same time the snarl is not beyond being untied. Man is born to be redeemed. The final key to the first creation is the second; and the first was done with the second in view… The first creation was the prophecy of the second; the second was the first tragically ‘arrived’. There was moral resource in the Creator equal to anything that might happen to the creature or by him

 

The Cross is at once creation’s fatal jar and final recovery. And there is no theodicy for the world except for a theology of the Cross … No reason of man can justify God in a world like this. He must justify Himself, and He did so in the Cross of His Son.

 

As Forsyth reflects upon the 1914-1917 (1918) war to end all wars, he urges us to see the greatness of the gospel of redemption, and the role the church has to know her Lord, and proclaim his Act of Redemption, accomplished, (and recounted), in the power of the weakness of the cross:

 

We are now in a crisis that no individual can measure, nor his piety deal with and it is beyond any philosophy or idealism of a time.  In needs that faith of an agelong holy Church to grasp it. Would that the Church’s faith could always handle it in the true power of that crisis greater still which made the Church – in the power of the Church’s Cross and Gospel. An awful crisis of wickedness like war can only be met on the Church’s height and range of faith; and it forces us up to levels and aspects of our belief which our common hours or moral slackness too easily feel extreme.  Nothing but the great theologies of redemption are adequate to the great tragedies of the world. …Christ finished the world-work given Him to do. He brought the world home.

 

Isaiah once said of the suffering servant to come – Jesus – that ‘He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied’. (Isaiah 53:11 RSV). Forsyth takes up the same words and applies them to the whole creation, and its travail:

 

In Him the whole creation sees the travail of its soul and is satisfied. He who can take away the sin of the world has in His reversion the reason, completion, peace, joy, and glory of all things.  The Destroyer of guilt pacifies all grief, the Reconciler of our enmity ends all question. To see the devastator a truly penitent thief would compensate any Christian victim. The Justifier of men is the one and only theodicy of God.

 

 

Further reflection upon the sadness and horror of the war, brings Forsyth to describe the situation as elements of hell breaking through into the daily life of humanity, as judgment on the world, but also upon the Church’s failure to serve the world well:

 

After all, the present cataclysm is an acute condensation of what has been going on in nature, human and other, for millenniums. If faith could survive that, need it succumb to this? If the existence of hell is compatible with faith in God, and is even of His ordinance, must we lose faith when it comes through the earth’s crust in a volcano?

 

The dirty chimney needed to be fired.

The present situation is a monument to the failure of the Church!

 

We are driven to a very personal involvement in the cross, where we can not consider it from afar, nor just talk about it – rather, by the Spirit, we are taken into its action, in the embrace of our Saviour, as he bears our sin, we say – I have been crucified with Christ:

 

The Cross is not a theological theme, not a forensic device, but the crisis of the moral universe on a scale far greater than earthly war. It is the theodicy of the whole God dealing with the whole soul of the whole world in holy love, righteous judgment, and redeeming grace.

 

HOW WEIGHTY IS THE GLORY THAT IS TO COME?

 

Concerning the coming glory, Alister McGrath chimes in with a helpful word:

 

Some say that nothing could ever be adequate recompense for suffering in this world. But how do they know?  Have they spoken to anyone who has suffered and subsequently been raised to glory?  Have they been through this experience themselves?  One of the greatest tragedies of much writing about human suffering this century has been its crude use of rhetoric. ‘Nothing can ever compensate for suffering!’ rolls off the tongue with the greatest of ease.  It has a certain oratorical force. It discourages argument.  It suggests that what has been said represents the distillation of human wisdom in the subject, and is so evidently correct that it does not require justification. It implies that anyone who disagrees is a fool. But how do they know nothing can compensate for suffering? Paul believed passionately that the sufferings of the present life would be outweighed by the glory that is to come (Romans 8:18). How do they know that he is wrong, and that they are right?  Have they tasted the glory of the life to come, so that they can make the comparison? Have they talked to others who have been through the bitter experience of suffering and death, and have been caught up in the risen and glorious life of Christ, and asked them how they now feel about their past suffering? No. Of course they haven’t.  The simple truth is that this confident assertion of the critics of Christianity is just so much whistling in the wind. Their comments are made from our side of the veil which separates history from eternity.


Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why we Suffer’, HarperOne, 2008. He says he has never had discussions with other lecturers about personal belief.

Theology apart from doxology, outside the Christian community, can become merely academic.

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 120

Geoffrey C. Bingham, The Glory of the Mystery and the Mystery of the Glory, NCPI, Blackwood, 1998, p. xii

Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, Apollos, IVP, England, 1994, p. 12-13

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 120

Ulrich Simon, A Theology of Auschwitz, SPCK, London, 1967, p. 11

The following are comments made by men who once killed their civilian victims, so mercilessly:

Ø   Many people will ask, is there no light in this murderous dark? The light in the darkness is the shame.

Ø       Generally speaking I am not a good man at all. I am not a good Christian. I succumbed to instincts to do evil to others.

Ø       I envy people who have normal lives BBQ and go to the beach. I envy tramps. I am no longer like them. Now I don’t belong anywhere, any particular place. I belong here (prison). I’ve lost what is most important – morality.

P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 123-124

Forsyth, p. 123-124

Forsyth, p. 122

Forsyth p. 126

Forsyth p. 127

Forsyth p. 129

Forsyth p. 133

Alister McGrath, Suffering, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1992, p. 96-97





The Failure of the Church as International

14 10 2008

FAILURE OF THE CHURCH AS

INTERNATIONAL

 

Study 6

 

Trevor Faggotter

 

CHURCH FAILURE

Read Mark 7:`4-23; 2Thess. 2:7

It is, unfortunately, simple enough to recall our own failures. Small wholly geriatric congregations and the selling off of stacks of local church buildings – shout or whisper to us of congregational failure.  In the New Testament local churches (Rev. 2-3), where failure was rife, Jesus gave severe warnings concerning their future.  Many of the distinctive public failures of denominational or national churches have been well documented and evaluated; however, as far as I can see, it is not customary for church leaders to speak of the Failure of the Church International. However, P.T. Forsyth drew attention to this fact. The historical context of international relations was of course unique, and unrepeatable. During World War One he noted:

 

That the greatest and cruellest war in the world should take place between the two nations for which evangelical Christianity has done the most, and to which its history owes most…

 

A general reading of history will show that prior to WW1 the British Empire and Germany had both been greatly influenced for good, by the gospel. But, how did people of the day grasp and interpret what was happening across Europe?  Forsyth observed:

 

It is a staggering blow to a faith that grew up in a long peace, a high culture, a shallow notion of history, society, or morality, and a view of religion as but a divine blessing upon life instead of a fundamental judgment and regeneration of it. It is fatal to the piety of pony carriage, shaven lawn, or aesthetic tea.

 

In the light of this, Forsyth raised the question as to whether the church had anything substantial to give to the wider world as it contemplated the significance of this war. What could it offer to the many perplexed people looked for understanding?

 

Can the Church give the ravaged and bewildered world a theodicy equal in power to the challenge? Or is its own faith but staggering on to its goal, with many falling out to die by the way? Is its God justified in expecting the trust and the control of a world, which He has allowed to get unto such a state? Has He gone deeper than its tragedy?  Is the Cross He bore really a greater tragedy and monstrosity than war?

 

Statistics for World War 1 reveal that there were some 37.5 million casualties, consisting of 8.5 million people killed, 21.2 million wounded, and some 7.75 million taken as prisoners or missing in action.  While Forsyth would not have had these grim statistics to hand when he wrote, he was nevertheless a fellow sufferer, together with all members of his own nation during these days. He writes as a preacher of the cross of Christ:

 

The war is a greater misery and curse than we know, greater than we have imagination to realise – even if we had more facts for imagination to work on.  Are we quite sure that it is a greater cross to God than to us, that it is but a part of the tragic and bloody course of history whose sword pierced through His own heart also, and that His Redemption still is in command of all, and His Kingdom sure?  His insight misses nothing of all the facts and His holiness none of the horror;

 

Forsyth earnestly wants people to consider, and then rediscover the power of the cross for the healing of the nations of the world.  Of the horror and global grief brought about by the war, he asks, regarding the power of Christ:

 

does it unhinge Him? Or is the Word of His Cross a vaster salvation than we dream, who are blinded by fears and tears, and whose conscience is not equal to conceiving either the enormity or the salvation?

 

GRATUITOUS OPTIMISM

 

To be realistic as a person secure in Jesus Christ is to be neither unduly pessimistic, nor superficially optimistic. It has been said that someone who is unduly optimistic has a misty optic. Forsyth addressed the light and easy optimism of his day, which seemed to stubbornly persist – even during the war – within the church:

 

One reads appeals made sans gêne by some whose measure of the situation is not equal to their good intention, and who even give the impression of meeting the Atlantic with a mop.  We come across machine-made appeals to the Church to be getting ready to handle the situation when the war is over.  As if a Church which could not prevent its coming about would have much effect on the awful situation when it is done!  If the Churches so little gauged the civilization, which they had allowed to grow up, and which carried the war in its womb, are they more likely to grasp the case when the moral confusion is worse.  If they were so impotent before, how are they going to be more powerful now?  What new source of strength have they tapped? 

 

Clearly Forsyth believed the Church, globally had some more work to do in order to grasp the true authority and power which lies at the heart of their message and mission:

 

The Church reared the nations but it is not able to control them for the Kingdom of God. Why? What is missing in its message for adult peoples?

 

He believed that the matter of real international power lay in integrating the peoples with moral and not merely political force.  The source of this moral force is ever the cross of Christ, where sinful humanity is crucified with Christ, and raised to a new dignity and vision for the world in him. Even national parochialism gives way to the larger vision of the purity of, and service to, the human race, and the present will and desire to speak to one’s own nation of such things, believing that a fresh hearing of the gospel is possible. Forsyth said somewhere in his writings, ‘that which goes deepest to the conscience goes widest to the world’. So he was keen to speak with global vision, about the matter of salvation, holy love, and its – at certain times in history – amazing effects.

 

A CALL TO REDISCOVER THE RADICAL METHOD

 

If the Church left such a war possible, what encourages us to think that it will discover the radical method by which ‘a recurrence of these experiences may be rendered impossible’?  Democratic control!  Who or what is controlling or instructing the democracy?  The ideologues? A parliament of blue birds!  If ‘it has been shown how inadequate the influence of the Churches has been to restrain the forces of international strife,’ it is not because the Churches have been inactive. They have been active even to bustle, not to say fuss.  Is there something wrong or inept in the rear of their activity, in the matter of it, in their mental purview, spiritual message, and moral power?  And is it more than fumbling with the subject to indulge in platform platitudes about ‘wielding a universal influence over the actions not only of individuals but of the whole community of nations’. This kind of speech does something to depreciate the value of language, and to lighten the moral coinage. 

    The Gospel is not primarily and offhand a message of peace among men, but among peace of men of goodwill. If the amateur advisers of the Church will realise that its first work, which carries all else with it, it not to lubricate friction but to create among men that goodwill, to revise and brace the belief which has failed to do it, to think less of uniting the Church and more of piercing to a deep Gospel that will; if they will distrust the bustling forms of activity, the harder beating of the old drums, the provision of ever more buns and beverages;

 

Today there is much talk in churches of the importance of food and table fellowship. But it is still crucial that we open, and are opened time and again to the content of the gospel – Christ himself, and him crucified, bearing our evil away. A person I knew well, often said of potluck suppers, with little content of the Word: ‘The church is stuffing itself again’.  We so quickly depart, and desert the one who called us in the grace of Christ, and turn to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6).  Of Jesus, we must rediscover as nations, and as individuals: “He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, and King and Lord of the race!

 

THE BRITISH EMPIRE – AND PATRIOTIC PRAYER

 

It might be valuable to take in some of Forsyth’s historical reflections from our text book; and at the same time to bear in mind what has happened in the British Empire in recent years, particularly the advance of Islam into the very heart of British Society.

                 

 “February 8, 2008; LONDON — The archbishop of Canterbury called Thursday for Britain to adopt aspects of Islamic Shariah law alongside the existing legal system. His speech set off a storm of opposition among politicians, lawyers and others, including some Muslims. The archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, said in his speech and a BBC radio interview that the introduction of Shariah in family law was “unavoidable.”.

 

One wonders how Forsyth, Wesley, and Churchill, to name but a few, would view this nation, Britain, today.  We might ask, and observe again, with Forsyth:

           

  1. We of this country have indeed much to answer for. Some of our greatest leaders and policies have been but pagan.  Much of our conduct is still.  But we remember that twice we have saved the liberty of the world – in the Armada, and at Waterloo. Have we become unworthy to do it again? 
  2. We sent forth the great free people of the West. 
  3. There are those who think that Britain’s record in such things as Slave Emancipation, Catholic Emancipation, the emancipation of the workman, the woman, and the child;  […show a growing repentance]
  4. In the self-denying ordinance taking effect in the government of India by way of atonement for its acquisition;
  5. In the treatment of South Africa since the Boer War, and especially of our enemies there (a treatment of which no other country than England was capable).
  6. – I say there are those who think that such and other like things show a growing repentance which only prigs could call Pharisaism, and a moral power which only pagans would call quixotic [i.e. idealistic].
  7. These things place us in another class, so far as God’s Kingdom goes, from a nationalism which is ostentatiously outside moral or humane regards, and is abetted by its Church in their neglect
  8. We have at least begun to reverse our engines. The cause of the weaker nations has often owed us much….
  9. If there be a kingdom coming with all God’s might to rule the earth, then, as nations go, Britain, by God’s grace, has done more for it than most. We are at least on the way to serve God’s Kingdom rather than extend our own.

He went on to encourage patriotic prayer, in so far as victory in the war, would be “a means to continue a service to that Kingdom which other nations have not yet given”…

 

 “And yet, and yet. The present judgment is one upon a whole egoist and godless civilisation, of which we also are a part, and whose end is public madness.”


P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 99

German Composers:  Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Wagner;

   English Composers: Purcell, S. Wesley, Handel, etc. – all indicative of cultural achievement and success .

Forsyth, p. 99

Ibid.

Sans gêne: without embarrassment or constraint

Forsyth, p. 100

Forsyth, p. 101

Ibid.

Ibid.

Forsyth, p. 77

Forsyth p. 103





Faith Amidst Catastrophe

14 10 2008

FAITH AMIDST CATASTROPHE

 

Study 5

Trevor Faggotter

 

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. (Jesus in Matt. 7:24-25)

 

‘…when historic progress seems to end around us in a social collapse and a moral anarchy… if the moral soul is anchored on the Gospel of the Cross and Kingdom of God in a historic crisis really greater than any war, it cannot be swept away by any currents or storms in history.’ (P. T. Forsyth)

                       

INTRODUCTION

 

As we pursue our studies in The Justification of God, by P.T. Forsyth, it may be valuable to recall again what is at the core of our studies, namely theodicy. Theodicy has been called ‘Thee-ODD-I-see’. We do see much that seems ODD, particularly in terms of suffering and catastrophe.  In many of the occurrences in our daily lives, things occur which can, and often do cause us to question, or at the very least, re-evaluate what we understand by the mercies and goodness of God.

 

Job had to work things right through, from his worship life as a praying, righteous man, to the onslaught of inexplicable evil, permitted by God to take place, through to the week long silence of his friends as they sat with him, while he suffered greatly; on to the inadequate words of his comfortless theological counsellors; and his own genuine protest; and his trust still – though he slay me, yet will I trust in him; yet finally God, the wonderful counsellor revealed himself as creator, and then acted as redeemer, blessing once again the suffering Job. Job repented. He changed his mind and his disposition.

 

It was Epicurus (341-270 BC) who formulated the classic theodicy dilemma, which David Hume (1711-76) has subsequently expressed in the following way:

 

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

 

It is the incarnation of God in Christ, however, in the very midst of human history, which ultimately shatters this philosophical formulation, rendering it untenable. For God, the Father, and Jesus the Son of God, reveal themselves, together with the Spirit, to be the God who suffers to the full – to the uttermost in abandonment and forsakenness.

 

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

 

At the same time, this is the God who is the only righteous enemy of all evil – human, demonic and satanic. This God comes in human flesh, to conquer evil, by holy love.

 

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil (1John 3:8b).

 

We may give assent to such a biblical statement, and be glad of it, yet still find ourselves at a loss to respond to suffering and evil, when it arises in new, surprising and terrifying forms. Human suffering is so very unpleasant – in particular our own, or that of those near to us. Global suffering is so often tragic beyond comprehension (if we are not sedated and numbed by the sheer frequency of news updates, and the crass lack of reverence for life, often evident in TV programming).  Global tragedy can confront us to Be Still and Know That I am God, and re-evaluate our own lives – when, in particular, faith is present.

 

C.S. LEWIS AND PAIN

 

In the film Shadowlands – the famous C.S. Lewis is giving a university lecture in which he addresses the great issues of life.  In the movie (from my memory), he asks his students this question: ‘…and why does God allow us to suffer?’ There is a thoughtful pause, as the camera pans the lecture hall of students who are eagerly looking on.  They brace themselves for the wisdom they have been seeking of late.  Lewis proceeds confidently – providing the small beginnings of a profound answer to this age-old question.  He has a note of certainty in his voice: ‘God lets us suffer because he wants us to grow up!’

 

Lewis is also well known for his comments regarding pain:

 

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

 

Pain is the flag of truth, planted in a rebel fortress.

 

Fast forward to a later segment in C.S. Lewis’s life. His young wife Joy has died, and Lewis is writing his thoughts, and expressing his emotions. He is engulfed in grief, deep grief.  He acknowledges the hope of the gospel.  But he is negating one significant aspect. To paraphrase (again from memory), he says something like: Speak to me of the sovereign God, and I will listen. But speak to me of the God of comfort, and I cannot agree. I feel no comfort. No consolation. Only numbness. But no comfort!

 

Many will identify with Lewis at this point. It is not so easy just to grow up when it is our turn to suffer, intensely. Lewis reveals his emotions and thoughts. He illustrates the daily human struggle of coming to terms with life as it really is. On occasions, the pain – Christian or not – is very acute. We can ponder the reasons for suffering. We can even set them forth in a lecture, given from a biblical perspective. We can talk about them.  It is another thing however, to be on the receiving end of incidents, for which, discussion seems entirely inappropriate. Words fail us. Doctrines fail us. We need the breast of the Living Jesus on which to lay our head (John 13:23).

 

Suffering and sadness at the death of a loved one under not uncommon circumstances, like cancer, can be very tiring, tearing and most difficult. However, when blatant human evil is in our face as the immediate cause of our pain, and when sinister powers seem to dominate and destroy human life, in murder, massacre and mayhem, then we are likely to ask, or to be faced with the most difficult and most probing of human questions.

 

FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY ON THEODICY

 

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his famous book The Brothers Karamazov has a fictional character named Ivan Karamazov, who says of God and creation: 

 

‘I accept God plainly and simply …I accept his divine wisdom and his purpose…  I believe in the underlying order and meaning of life.  I believe in the eternal harmony into which we are all supposed to merge one day’. However, almost immediately he tells his brother Alyosha: ‘I refuse to accept this world of God’s… Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created. I do not accept God’s world and I refuse to accept it.  Ivan then proceeds to explain why he cannot bring himself to accept this world of God’s.  He mentions a number of cases of extreme and gratuitous cruelty, in particular the report of an army general who fed an eight year-old boy to his hounds because the child had slightly injured his favourite dog with a stone. Ivan says:

Listen: if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have children to do with it – tell me please?  It is entirely incomprehensible why they should have to buy harmony by their sufferings. Why should they, too, be used as dung for someone else’s future harmony?

    Ivan then concludes:

I don’t want harmony … too high a price has been placed on harmony.   We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission… It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

 

Ivan is not an atheist, but he finds it morally repugnant that God should (seem to) expect such a terrible price to be paid for the final bliss and harmony that he will bestow on humankind at the end of time.   Some suggest that too much freedom was given to Adam.

 

How are we to respond to this type of reasoning? Perhaps, with silence, prayer and trust in God? Is it true love to speak of Christ, in the face of tragic and terrible deeds? Is it usually best left for another day?  What then do we say or do on another day?  Have we merely theories of the cross to share, and mere words to offer, for the loss of a loved one? Or is there a time and a season for speaking even into the most difficult of objections, of God’s goodness? Is this all profoundly a matter of ‘soul making’, fitting us for glory? Do we not have a Person, to offer, a Redeemer, Jesus, the friend, glorified flesh and blood, who has been there in the deepest of suffering, made to be sin, in order to redeem?

 

What indeed has God given us in Jesus Christ?

What He has not given us is a scheme of rational optimism, or a visible process of good, dawning and spreading to its perfect day. He has given us no programme of happy things.

 

What then?  It is said that we have nothing but the promises of God. But these are all:

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God (1 Corinthians 3:21b—23). 

 

Forsyth always draws us back to God’s one moral Act of holiness, destroying sin’s guilt:

 

No reason of man can justify God for His treatment of His Son; but whatever does justify it justifies God’s whole providence with the universe, and solves its problem.  He so spared not His Son as with Him to give us all things. The true theology of the Cross and its atonement is the solution of the world. There is no other. It is that or none.

 

Our faith rose from ‘the sharpest crisis, the greatest war, the deadliest death, and the deepest grave the world ever knew – in Christ’s Cross’.

 

“The chief cause of our being unhinged by catastrophe is twofold”.

 

First, that we have drawn our faith from the order of the world instead of its crisis, from the integrity of the moral order rather than from the tragedy of its recovery in the Cross.

 

And, even if we start there, the second error is that we have been more engrossed with the ill we are saved from than with Him who saves us, and the Kingdom for which we are saved.  We are more taken up with the wrongs so many men have to bear than with the wrong God has to bear from us all – God who yet atones and redeems in giving us a Kingdom which is always His in reality and ours in reversion.

 

It is not as if God first redeemed, and, having thus prepared the ground, brought in the Kingdom; but He redeemed us by bringing in the Kingdom, and setting it up in eternal righteousness and Eternal Life. The Cross of Christ is not the preliminary of the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom breaking in.  It is not the clearing site for the heavenly city; it is the city itself descending out of heaven from God.


P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 85

Job 42:1-6

Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, Basil Blackwell, 1986, Oxford, p. 2

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Fontana, 1957, p. 81.

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Seabury Press, 1961

Job 2:13 ‘They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, (1880) 2003, Penguin Books

Quoted by Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, Basil Blackwell, 1986, Oxford, p. 96-97

Forsyth, p. 79

Forsyth, p. 122

Forsyth, p. 57

, p. 76-77 








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