An Approved Workman

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”      II Timothy 2:15

The Apostle Paul’s challenge to Timothy rings down the centuries to all who have been in positions of teaching or leadership in the Body of Christ. Not just pastors and elders and deacons, but all those members of us who like to dig into the Word and bring its truths to light. Study to show yourself approved. Be a workman unashamed, who rightly divides the Word of truth.

It’s not the only time Paul talks about someone being “approved”, either. In among the greetings in Romans 16, we read (v10) “Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ”. Probably this Apelles was a preacher, then; someone Paul thought of as a teacher of sound doctrine who could correctly handle the Scriptures.

“Approved” begs the question of “approved by whom?” It seems fairly evident that it’s God who approves, but how do we know that God is doing that? It’s easy to claim the Divine imprimatur on your own teaching, but we know also that there are liars and hypocrites and wolves masquerading as sheep.

In the days when Paul was writing, many of the original Twelve were still around. There were people still living who had heard the Sermon on the Mount and who had been in the Upper Room at Pentecost and some of whom had been sent out by Jesus as part of the Twelve or the Seventy-Two. It was a largely oral culture, yes, but oral cultures have good memories for details and have systems in place for making sure the story stays straight. If you don’t believe me, try telling your young daughter the story of Cinderella with ruby slippers instead of glass ones and watch the outburst of indignation.

The Apostles as a whole could vouch for this or that doctrine or teaching being true or false to what Jesus actually did and taught. Most of the New Testament letters are them doing just that, in fact. Paul went up to Jerusalem and laid out his doctrine before the Apostles, we are told in Galatians 2. A large part of being an Apostle was the responsibility to the Church at large to keep the teachings true to Jesus’ words and actions.

So “approved” might carry the meaning of “approved by the Apostles as being true to what they themselves received”. We don’t have any of the original Twelve still among us, but we have the entire canon of Scripture assembled painstakingly by the early church as constituting the essential body of teaching of the Ecclesia. We have a huge corpus of additional writings showing what the church through history has thought about this canon. So in modern terms, “approved” might be more like “in line with the essential doctrines of historic Christianity.

If you reinterpret passages of Scripture in entirely novel ways, there’s a risk involved. The onus is on you to show that this new reading is true to what the text is actually saying and in keeping with the rest of Scripture.

It’s not that we can never decide that the church has been mistaken about what a passage says, even mistaken for centuries. Just like us, the ancients were humans, products of their culture and sometimes making assumptions that we do not. For example, for centuries it was assumed that women were inherently inferior to men, something that we’re finally managing to get past only in recent years. Re-reading some passages of Scripture without those particular cultural blinders on might lead us in new directions of interpretation that are more true to the text and to the Scripture in general.

Correctly handling the Word of truth so that we do not need to be ashamed is something that all of us who claim the name of Christ should aspire to. I hope I’m getting there, though I’m painfully aware that I have my own blind spots and interpretive tendencies. I believe that what I write in this blog is that sort of sound teaching.

But I’m not the One who gets to be the final Judge of that.

“God Told Me…”

In certain Christian circles it’s not that unusual, in the process of corporate decision-making, to hear “Well, God told me…” Fill in the blank. We should do it this way. If we do this, it will not be a good thing. You’re the woman for me. The possibilities are nearly endless.

We serve a communicative God. One of the first things we see of Him in the Bible is that He spoke. And because He is the same yesterday, today and forever, we believe that He still speaks today.

However, today as in Biblical times, there are numerous people who claim to speak for God, and not all of them do. How should we discern the voice of God among the other voices?

“God told me” may, in fact, be accurate, but it can (and more often than not does) have the effect of shutting down discussion and manipulating or blackmailing people into following whoever says “God told me”. You’d better do what I say, because I’m speaking on God’s behalf. If you don’t, you’re disobeying God, and you don’t want that, do you?

How should we handle these people who tell us adamantly that “God told me” thus-and-so? We don’t want to reject a genuine leading of God, but at the same time we don’t want to follow a false or mistaken prophet.

It’s also vital that we distinguish these two options. Many of those who tell us “God told me” may be less-mature believers who may be describing a genuine leading of God in more absolute terms than is warranted on this side of Pentecost. There’s a difference between sincerely trying to hear the voice of God and getting it wrong, and deliberately setting out to mislead. Not everyone who gets it wrong is a false prophet.

The Bible gives us several tests which we are enjoined to make of any word or message coming to us. Because while not everyone who gets it wrong is a false prophet, there are those who are. As the Scripture says, “Brothers, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1).

The first test is found in Deuteronomy 13. “If a prophet or one who foretells by dreams appears among you and announces a miraculous sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder takes place, and he says ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them’, you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer”. Does this word or prophecy line up with what God has already spoken in the Bible? Does following it bring us closer to God or further from Him? Is it obviously contrary to Scripture?

If the answer is that it lines up with the Bible, well and good. If it can’t even pass the first and most basic test, it must be rejected, no matter who it is from. As even St. Paul himself said, “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8).

The second battery of tests is found in Deuteronomy 18:14-22. “The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him… You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

This is the test of accuracy. If we have established that what is being said does not contradict the Bible (so far as we understand), we are instructed to test and see whether what is being predicted comes true.

Far from cutting off discussion, “God told me” ought to provoke a careful weighing of the message. No-one to whom God has genuinely spoken has anything to fear from such a weighing. The process of weighing simply allows other people to affirm that the Lord has indeed spoken.

Is it true? Is it, in fact, accurate? God has given us the tests for a reason, and He expects us to use them. He’s also given us wisdom, and He expects us to use that as well.

The thing both the one to whom the message has been given and those who are listening should bear in mind is that we are weighing the message, not the individual.

We aren’t under the Old Covenant any more, with its limited outpouring of the Holy Spirit (for prophets, priests and kings) and its draconian punishments for falsely claiming to speak for God. We live on this side of Pentecost, and all of us have the Spirit. As the people of God, we all have the ability and responsibility to hear God. No-one gets to shift the blame for disobedience onto what someone else told them. And equally, no-one gets to set themselves up as sole arbiter of the Will of God. “God told me” may be just a way of expressing your individual certainty in what you have heard, but it’s not that helpful. We still have to test it, and you need to humble yourself for that. “I believe the Lord is saying…” or something similar is far better. We aren’t the One Mediator. We’re imperfect humans, and sometimes even the best and most mature among us get it wrong.

On the other hand, we who are listening need to humble ourselves to the possibility that God may indeed be speaking. We should not reject the word of the Lord just because we don’t like the way it was spoken.

Even if this is a word from the person’s own spirit, it may still have truth to it. We might need to handle the situation carefully, affirming that yes, you have brought up a truth that we need to face up to and deal with, but no, this might not be from God but from you yourself.

Hearing God is not actually that difficult. After all, He wants us to hear and to get it right. But if you’re finding that God’s words line up exactly with your own prejudices and opinions, you may want to re-examine the source. After all, all of us fall short of the glory of Jesus Christ.

There are times when a word isn’t so simple to test. How do you weigh a message about whether or not to purchase a particular property as a church building, for instance? Following this word could conceivably open the door to new avenues of ministry or new capabilities, and thus lead us closer to God, or it might leave us in the shackles of debt and discouragement. While Gideon’s “fleeces” weren’t necessarily as much of a pattern for our behaviour as we might like to think (did he really need repeated “signs” from God after getting the message directly from an angel?), there’s more of an element of truth to it than we sometimes want to believe. Don’t lay fleeces, we’re sometimes told. That’s unbelief. Just get on with obeying God.

That’s all well and good on an individual basis, but sometimes it really isn’t clear what we should be obeying. It’s not unbelief to request confirmation from the Lord, even through something unusual like a sign. It is unbelief to go on asking for signs as an excuse not to obey, but if you genuinely want confirmation or clarification, that’s a different matter.

God knows how much we have invested in this. If we go off on some random escapade, He knows how much of a hole it might put our family into financially. He’s not asking us to do anything unreasonable, or if He is, He’ll make it abundantly clear that that is indeed what we should be doing. That’s why we have the tests – so that we can know He’s in it.

For corporate decision-making, God’s normally going to speak corporately. This may be through one person acting as a messenger, but even then, we all have the Holy Spirit, and He will confirm to those who listen that this is the word of the Lord. Or not. Weighing the message is important. It lets us all get on board with what God is genuinely saying and weed out the false and the well-meaning-but-mistaken. If you fall into the “well-meaning but mistaken” category, that’s ok. We all get it wrong sometimes, occasionally embarrassingly so. Humble yourself, receive grace, and go on with the Lord.

One more thing. If we disagree with someone over a particular thing we believe the Lord has said (either through different beliefs about a “God told me” message or even through differing interpretations of the same difficult passage of Scripture), they may not necessarily be resisting God and rejecting His Word. They may just have a different understanding than you.

They still believe in the same God. They still follow the same Jesus. We’re still the same family of faith. We may come to a parting of the ways over a decision or an interpretation of Scripture, but it need not be an acrimonious one.

Allah and the God of the Bible

In my last post I addressed the reactions of many to the story about a Colorado high school and its once-off leading of the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic, including the words “under Allah”.

In sifting through the comments made on this story, I came across the statement that “Allah and God are not the same; they are totally separate beings.”

It’s made as if it’s a fundamental Article of Faith; as if it’s something that does not need to be proved because it is beyond challenge.

Seeing as how part of my argument rests on a personal challenge of this statement’s veracity, I thought it would be a good idea to address it directly.

Are God and Allah one and the same?

Well, firstly we need to define terms. For Arabic-speaking Christians, the word for “God” is “Allah”. So in the Arabic Bible, Genesis 1:1 reads “In the beginning [Allah] created the heavens and the earth.” It’s just the normal word in Arabic for God, and is thus the logical word to use to translate the Hebrew “Elohim”. It even comes from the same root: the Hebrew Elohim is a plural form (engaging in a Hebrew linguistic practice called a “plural of majesty”, ascribing a plural form to a particularly great singular being. In non-Biblical literature of the same period it was sometimes applied to great kings and pagan gods as well) of “Eloh”, which in the Arabic form of the Semitic language family is “Allah”.

But on the other hand, Muslims don’t understand Allah in precisely the same way we Christians understand the God of the Bible.

This, I presume, is where the whole idea that Allah and God are two separate beings traces back to. It’s true up to a point. Anyone who is not totally ignorant or an idiot can see that there are some crucial differences between what a Muslim believes about Allah and what a Christian believes about God. These mostly revolve around what it means for God to be Father and how we should understand the Triune nature Christians attribute to Him.

Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe, at least in their typical, “orthodox” understandings, that God is one, that God created the universe, that God is sole unrivalled ruler of the Creation, and that God will eventually bring the universe to an end and judge the world. We all believe, theoretically if nothing else, that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at all times).

Jews and Muslims further believe that God is one absolutely, without division or multiplication, whereas the Chrstian understanding of the Trinity is more complex. So complex, in fact, that Muslims often accuse Christians of worshipping three Gods. A full explanation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity for Muslims is outside the scope of this post; I’m more focused on this strange idea some Chrstians seem to have that Allah and God are two different beings. What’s interesting for the argument that Allah and God are separate beings is the fact that we as Christians readily acknowledge that the God of the New Testament is the same as the Elohim of the Hebrew Bible. We believe we worship the same God who was the God of Noah, of Abraham, of King David, of Elijah. And yet a Jew who does not believe that Messiah has come in the person of Yeshua (or in the Greek form, Jesus) has many of the same differences of perspective on God’s character and nature that we point to in the Islamic understanding and say “see? God and Allah are not the same!” It’s kind of a double standard.

Christians, particularly in the modern time frame, focus on God’s omnipresence. Our primary understanding of God is as Father, as God With Us. Yes, God is omnipotent and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. Our worship to God is all about how near to us God is; I’d even say we over-emphasise it sometimes and are in grave danger of bringing God down to our level as if He’s nothing more than a man.

For Muslims, the focus is God’s omnipotence. Probably the single most recogniseable Muslim statement is “Allahu akbar”: God is great. Yes, God is omnipresent, but what’s important is that He’s great. The focus on God’s omnipotence is so great, in fact, that I’d venture to say that it affects perception of His righteousness. For many Muslims, it’s not so much that righteousness is some kind of objective standard to which even God adheres – to suggest that there is anything higher than God, even the idea of righteousness, is an offence against His greatness – but that God is so powerful that whatever He does is right because it’s Him doing it.

This is, in fact, one of the fundamental differences between Chrstianity and Islam, at least concerning our understanding of God.

Does it mean that the God of the Bible and the Allah of the Qur’an are different, then?

Define what you mean by “different”. Are there differences in the Christian and Muslim understandings of God? Undoubtedly. Does this mean that the God of the Bible is one being and the Allah of the Qur’an is another? Well, that’s a separate question.

How many omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator-Sovereign-Judges do we believe there are? The Allah of the Qur’an and the God of the Bible can’t coexist as separate beings. It’s logically impossible. Besides, belief in more than one God is polytheism. If there is truly one God, then “Allah” and “God” have logically to be understood as referring to the same One Being.

Which is not to say that the Allah of Muslims is identical to the God of Christ-followers. Christians, as I said, understand God as Father. Muslims generally understand this to mean that God physically fathers children in the sense of Zeus and the other lustful pagan deities. So when we call Jesus “Son of God”, they understand this to mean that God looked down from heaven, saw Mary, lusted after her and physically fathered her child, which any Christian who is not a heretic of the first magnitude will recognise as a blasphemous notion. Rather than just saying “That’s wrong. You Muslims need to accept that Jesus is the Son of God”, the onus is on us to explain better in what sense Jesus is God’s “Son”.

Both the Bible and the Qur’an refer to Jesus as the Word of God. But the Bible goes further. Proceeding directly from God as a physical son from his father, the Bible says that the pre-existent Word of God which was in the beginning “became flesh and made His dwelling among us”. The Fathering of Jesus by God is a description in human words of a transcendent spiritual reality. Even most Christian heretics don’t understand it as a physical event.

Let’s take this out of the question of the Islamic understanding of Allah for a moment.

Let’s pretend that we have been suddenly set down in the midst of a hypothetical pagan tribe who worship numerous gods or local spirits. They have “gods” for food and war and the sun, moon and stars, and for everything else. They understand these gods as both limited in scope (only concerned with a particular sphere of life) and in power (their will can be successfully resisted). They fear these dwarf powers and make regular sacrifices designed to keep the gods off their backs.

In addition, behind these local spirits, they acknowledge a virtually unknown “high god” that they call Movo (I’m making this name up), who created the world. The high god is understood to be like the other gods in that he is limited in his presence (can’t be everywhere) and even in his power (can’t, for whatever reason, bridge the gulf between himself and people), but he’s acknowledged as the world-maker and is known to be far greater in power than the tribal spirits.

Most of us would immediately identify Movo with the God of the Bible, even though Movo isn’t known by them as being omnipresent or even omnipotent. We would want to come in and, like the Apostle Paul in Athens upon finding an altar “to an unknown god”, start with their understanding of Movo and build on it to proclaim the true One God. What you worship as something unknown, we now proclaim to you.

So why are we willing to grant a pagan tribe the courtesy of believing that they are worshipping God, though in ignorance, but we aren’t willing to do the same with Islam?

A lot of it, I believe, is just sheer mental laziness. If we make the blanket statement that “The Allah of Islam is not the same as the YHWH of Jews and Christians” or “God and Allah are two different beings”, we don’t have to think. We can lump all Muslims together as “enemies of God” and ignore them, rather than wrestling with the idea that most of them are just trying to serve God according to the way they’ve been taught. It becomes easier keep up our pretence that “enemy of God” and “enemy ofAmerica” are the same thing. We get to maintain the illusion that Islam is 100% wrong and Christianity is 100% right. We don’t have to examine our attitude to the fairly vehemently anti-Messianic State of Israel (not that they don’t have reason); aren’t they also opposed on a root level to the idea that Jesus is God’s Son?

Saying that we are worshipping the same God is not the same as saying that Muslims don’t need to be saved, or that Christianity and Islam are somehow the same thing. They aren’t. There are still crucial differences, and we need to recognise those. But to me at least, there’s more than enough commonality in what we believe about God, and enough logical reason in that they can’t coexist separately, to believe that we’re worshipping the same Being.

Does that mean we believe the same things about how we get to be counted righteous? Absolutely not.  As I understand it, Islam is at its base a legal code: it tells you all the things you must do to be righteous before God, in minute detail. Christianity, at base, isn’t. According to standard Chrstian teaching, what you must do to be righteous before God is to repent/believe. To turn the focus of your life off of yourself and your own ways and your own legalistic righteousness and believe and accept the perfect righteousness that comes from God through the work of Jesus and is by faith. There are still big differences between Islam and Chrstianity. But let no-one deceive you; there’s a lot of common ground too. Saying that we have differences of understanding between the Muslim conception of Allah and the Christian conception of God is one thing. But saying that they are two entirely separate beings flies in the face of all reason.

Some Christians say, in effect, that “we know that Allah is a false god because Al-Lat was the name of a pagan moon god from the pre-Islamic period”. This is, to my mind, a little beside the point. As I alluded to before, “El”, the word for God used in the Bible and the root word of the Divine name Elohim, was also the name given by the Canaanites to one of their pagan gods. This fact gives us a new understanding of just why the ancient Israelites may have had such a problem with chasing after pagan gods. Canaanite “El” kept getting confused with Biblical “El”. But the point is that the present meaning of the Arabic name Allah is entirely unconnected with pagan moon deities, just like the present Hebrew name El is completely divorced from its ancient Canaanite associations, and the English name God is completely divorced from its pagan associations as a name of Woden. If you’re going to deny the use of Allah based on word origins, then to be fair you have to also deny the use of the English word God and the Hebrew word El. Let’s be grown-ups about this.

If there’s common ground between Islam and Christianity, so much the better for Christianity. It gives us an inroad to talk about the things we believe that are different in a way that they can actually understand and have a chance of accepting.

We both believe that Jesus is the Word of God. We both believe that Jesus is Messiah, something Christians and Muslims hold in common that most Jews don’t believe. We both believe that Jesus is Healer and Judge. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus lived a sinless life.

It really shouldn’t be too difficult to go from there to the idea that Jesus is Saviour, and all that that means.

Who God Says He Is, part 4

And so we come to the fourth and final installment of the series on God’s self-daclaration of His nature and character to Moses in Exodus 34.

This section contains one of the more difficult parts of Scripture: all that stuff about the sins of the fathers. I make no claim of absolute authority on this, or anything else I say about what the Bible means. But some of my thoughts are included here.

First, though, the easy-to-understand part:

Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished

And only after His goodness, grace, mercy and forgiveness have been firmly fixed in our minds does He begin to talk about His justice. He doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished.

Grace and mercy cannot exist without justice. Unjust grace is not grace; cannot be grace. Unjust mercy is equally oxymoronic. Without the context of righteous justice, grace and mercy are random chance, not deliberate goodness.

God does not overlook sin; He deals with it. He doesn’t treat the wound of His people as though it is not serious, papering over our inward depravity with little legalisms and obediences. Evil has consequences, both for those who are sinners and those who are sinned against. God cannot be good and allow us to continue in sin; that’s not forgiveness, it’s being an enabler.

He loves us; He’s gracious and compassionate, slow to get angry and lavish in the desire to bless. And so He must deal with sin. Papering over the cracks isn’t going to cut it. If He doesn’t root out the sin itself, we just go on harming ourselves and others. Grace and compassion for the sinned-against as well as justice compels Him to not overlook sin.

So because He is the gracious and compassionate God, He pays the price for us. Not because we deserve it, but because He wants to. Because as well as having the desire to help – compassion – He’s the only one who also has the power. As the old hymn puts it: “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heav’n and let us in”. Others might have had the compassion, but God alone was the All-Powerful I AM who could actually do something about the problem.

If we in our fallenness treat “failure to stop and render aid” as a criminal offence, how much less can God stand by while we suffer in our sin, knowing that He alone has the power to help?

visiting the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation

Even in His preliminary dealing with sin via the first covenant, He sets limits on how far sin can go. Only to the third and fourth generation, not forever. Some people have read this as “punishing the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation”.  God denies this specifically in Ezekiel 18, then later Jesus Himself kicks the supports out from under this idea; all those wrong-end-of-stick questions about “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” are decisively set aside by the Lord Jesus as totally wrongheaded. This difficult-to-understand verse, then, must mean something else. But what?

People live in families, and traits are passed down. Sons are like their fathers, and daughters like their mothers. If we’re not very careful to choose different courses, we reproduce in our own lives what was modeled for us by our parents. Therefore, part of the consequence of sin plays out in the lives of our offspring. Not because of some bio-spiritual law of inheritance, but because that’s how families are. If I have the sin of unrighteous anger, and I sow to that in my dealings with my children, I will reap from them unrighteous anger in return. To put it another way, part of the consequence of your sin is that you have to live in a family that does it back to you. This is almost the Divine equivalent of rubbing the dog’s nose in its business when you are training it to use a litter box.

But even in His punishment of sin, our Lord sets limits. He will not visit the sins of the fathers on their children down through all the generations. We are not spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our unknown 12th-Century ancestors. We are not even spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our immediate forebears. Sin has consequences, and God is not going to let us get away with it. But there is no fatalism that forces us to follow in the ways of our ancestors. Fatalism is for Muslims. We are followers of Christ.

Notice, too, that this doesn’t appear until way down the list. Normally the things first mentioned in a list are considered the most important; in this case, grace and compassion. This is in accordance with the rest of Scripture: “Mercy triumphs over judgement” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.  Yet there are consequences for sin, and God is not an enabler either.  Sin cannot be permitted to endure forever.  He will deal with it, because that, too, is who He is.

Who God Says He Is, part 3

Continuing in our examination of who God says He is when He passes before Moses declaring His name:…

Maintaining love to thousands

Constant in His favour and love. Not just showing love once, but continuing to love. Reliable in His love, so that His people are not high in His favour one day and cast out the next, based on the unfathomable whims of an inscrutable Deity. When He says He loves you, it is not something that fluctuates with the seasons, nor even with our own righteousness. Firm, trustworthy, a Rock worth building your life on. His love can no more change than He can cease to be the I AM.

Maintaining love, not just to a select few, but to thousands. Multitudes. No-one can say “well, He loves you, but He couldn’t possibly love me“. In most ancient counting systems, thousands were the highest numbers they had. The Greeks and some others had myriads – ten-thousands – but a lot of cultures at this stage stopped with thousands. It’s also about the biggest number the human brain can really grasp effectively. Talking of thousands to whom the Lord continued to show love is using a multiple of the biggest number. It’s as if He’s saying “yes, even you.” No-one is excepted from being loved by the Lord.

Forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin

Because He is gracious and compassionate, because He is slow to anger, because He abounds with lovingkindness, and because He maintains love to thousands, He is forgiving. Forgiveness streams as naturally from His character as light from the sun.

Rebellion is the sin of willful disobedience. Rooted in pride, it will not humble itself and admit need or ask for help, but in its insanity assumes it knows best. Rebellion mistrusts the goodness of God, wanting instead to do its own thing and be its own arbiter. Contrary and stubborn, it will not yield, will not bow, will not obey, even when doing so is in its own obvious best interest. Perverse, it insists on its own way, will not take counsel, will not accept help, and will not bow the knee to the One who alone is worthy. And because it will not bow to true Authority, it creates false ones. Every tyranny on the planet is ultimately rebellious at heart. It’s no accident that with the sole exception of America, every rebellion or war of independence ever fought has turned almost immediately to despotism. It’s the spirit of rebellion.

Iniquity is impurity. Rejecting the pure and holy and craving the depraved and impure, it’s the dark, self-destroying impulse that wants what it wants, dammit, no matter that it is poison. Expressed in everything from sexual licentiousness and porn to gluttony, selfish ambition and abusive domination, it describes the fallen condition that takes drugs knowing that they will kill, which craves its own ruin and hates that which is pure.

Between them, they pretty much cover the bases of human depravity. But just in case we can come up with a reason why our sin is unforgiveable, He also states that He forgives “sin”, without categorization or modifying adjective.

It’s not because we deserve it. If we deserved to be forgiven we would not need it. He forgives because of who He is. Because if He did not, He would no longer be the gracious and compassionate God. He does it because He Is Who He Is.

Who God Says He Is, part 2

Continuing from my last post on this subject, this is part two of a series looking at God’s proclamation of His Name before Moses.
In ancient Hebrew thought, of course, one’s name signified one’s character. Thus, Jacob (“supplanter” or “deceptive”) becomes Israel (“prince of God”), and Abram (“exalted father”) becomes “father of a multitude”). So in declaring His Name before Moses, God is making a statement of what He is like. This is probably the clearest verbal statement we have in the Bible of who God says He is, of what He is like.
The clearest statement of what this looks like in practice was made some 1400-odd years later in the One whose very title is “Word of God”.

But let us continue in our examination of who God says He is:

Slow to anger
Not capricious and mercurial. Not dangerous and to be dreaded and feared, as if He will fly off into a rage over the slightest thing. Slow to get angry. Not quick to bring judgement, because He wants people to turn from their wickedness and gives every possible opportunity for them to do so.
A God who, though the all-powerful I AM, is in control of His temper. Who does not “lose it”. Who is not mastered by His anger or by anything else, but is in control of Himself. A God like this will not immediately whack off toes if they step out of line. It takes effort to bring Him to the point of executing judgement. Slow to anger, not easily provoked, not looking for an excuse to smite.
The gods of the nations were as capricious and easily angered as the elements – a Ba’al or a Chemosh who is slow to anger is a contradiction in terms. Only God can be rightly described as slow to anger, because only God is above the natural world and fully in control of Himself.

Abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness
Bestowing His favour lavishly, with an ocean-sized bucket rather than a medicine dropper. Not counting how much favour He’s giving you, as if there are invisible limits after which He has to stop giving. “Sorry; you just exceeded the recommended dosage of My favour” are words you will never hear from the Lord. He gives with abundance, because He Himself is without limitation. “His bountiful care what tongue can recite”. We see it in wildflowers scattered on a hillside at the back end of nowhere, beauty mostly unseen by the eyes of man. We see it in the rain, which falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and on the sea, which is already full of water. We see it in the sun’s boundless energy and light scattered on the entire surface of the earth and out into space where it serves no purpose at all. Limitless abundance.
And an abundance of what? Of favour. Of lovingkindness. Active tender care. Kindness stemming from love. Limitless goodness. As Rich Mullins put it: “And this Man of no reputation loves us all with relentless affection”.
Affection is a mild word, but we so misuse the word love sometimes that perhaps it’s better to avoid it. Relentless affection, kindness, wanting the best for others, wanting to bless and to do good for.
And unlike people, able to see exactly what real good and real blessing look like, because He is not blinded by sin and is limitless in wisdom. Not only does He have the desire to help us in our need for redemption, but more than that, He doesn’t stop there. There is no room in His character for a Redemption that stops with justification. He wants to bless, and to do so abundantly. He wants to go on and sanctify totally, to enable us to walk in His abundant favour, enjoying Him and in close, harmonious fellowship with Him. He wants to do us good, to satisfy our desires with good things. For no particular reason, just because. Not because we earn it or because we deserve it, but because He wants to. It’s who He is.

Who God Says He Is, part 1

In Exodus 34, God passes before Moses and proclaims His name. This is the first time since the pre-Fallen Adam that a human being has seen God without veil of disguise or vision, which makes it an incredibly significant event. What God says here in connection with this is key to our understanding of His nature and character.
In essence, this is the clearest single statement we have of who God says He is. If we get this wrong, we will have a distorted image of God, which will skew our understanding of the Scriptures, of who we are and of what He has called us to.
Who, then, is our God?

YHWH, YHWH
The eternal Name of God. The Great I AM, as He revealed Himself to Moses. Eternal, without “I Was”, nor yet “I Will Be”. Changeless in His character, the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus faithful and reliable. The same God who created the world good. The same God who went looking for Adam. The same God who saved Noah’s household because of his righteousness. The same God who would not sweep away the righteous with the guilty when destroying Sodom, who promised to spare the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous people.
Self-existent, without “I think, therefore…” The only One who exists simply because He exists, without reference to anything else. He alone is the fount of everything else that exists, because He alone is self-existent and not contingent on other things. He owes His existence to no thing; on the contrary, all things owe their existence to Him.
His self-existence implies All-Power, too. Limitless in His strength, the Creator of all things who was before all things. Not contingent on anything, He alone is the one who is in control. Nothing is beyond His reach, no act beyond His power, no sinner too far gone to save. Not mastered by anything, because He Himself depends on nothing.

The Compassionate and Gracious God
Full of grace and mercy. Giving fallen humans the good things they do not deserve and not giving them the bad things they do deserve.
Grace is, as Yancey says, the last best word. If we haven’t paid on time, sometimes there’s a “grace period” before punishment kicks in. In music, “grace notes” are special extra notes whose absence does not affect the tune but whose presence bring it alive. “Graceful” decribes beauty of motion and form. “Gracious” describes unwarranted kindness. “Gratitude” is the appropriate response when we are given something. We “say grace” before a meal to express thankfulness. Something “gratis” is not to be paid for.
Compassion and mercy are allied; two aspects of the same thing. Compassion has been defined as “seeing someone in need and wanting to help”. Mercy has been defined as not getting what you deserve. Giving someone a second chance. Withholding punishment out of love for the person. Mercy values people. Compassion sees a need – people are sinful and fallen – and wants to help. God has the desire as well as the power to do something about the human fallen condition.
These are, after His name, the first things God says about Himself. Along with His Divine power and eternal nature, this is the root from which it all stems.
He describes Himself as “the gracious and compassionate God” with good reason. The Ba’als and Ammons and Marduks of the ancient world weren’t gracious and compassionate. They were harsh and cruel. They were deities of vicious power, capricious and despotic, divine parodies of the horrific abuses of authority practised by the kings of the earth. Like their followers, they lorded it over their subjects and required grovelling obesiance. They could be bought off, but they never showed compassion, much less grace. Their help was always to be paid for.
How unlike our Lord! The gracious and compassionate God, who desires to help and will not be paid for it, because nothing we can offer Him will cover the cost. Who bears the price Himself, because He wants to.