Thursday, 26 June 2014

The hard truths.

This week, my friend Steve Nichols is preparing to leave our city church for ministry in pastures new in London. Steve has faithfully shared the marvels of the good news concerning Jesus Christ for many years here, for which we are very grateful.

A few weeks ago, Steve was asked in one of his final sermons to address the issue of if we worship a God of love, why is there a hell? What follows is a slightly edited version of that message, with many thanks to Steve for allowing me to use it.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and one-time resident of Stonehouse, once wrote, ‘Hell.... has long dropped out of the thoughts of every reasonable man’.

Perhaps you agree with him. It was all very well in the Middle Ages, as a doctrine to scare people into behaving themselves, but in an age of reason hasn’t the idea of hell and eternal punishment passed its use-by date?

After all, God is a God of love. And if He’s a God of love, how can He send people to hell forever? ‘For ever’ is a very long time.

And shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime? 
Whatever crime a person may have committed in their short lifetime, punishment for ever is totally disproportionate. So one critic, John Hick claimed that hell is ‘totally incompatible with the idea of God as infinite love’.

The discomfort with hell doesn’t stop at the door of the church. 
Most preachers... indeed most Christians ignore the doctrine of hell. I’ve not preached on it very much. I wonder if you’ve ever heard a sermon on it. Even hearing the word ‘hell’ from the pulpit makes us want to look at our shoes. We treat to hell the way the Victorians treated sex – an embarrassing family secret; a necessary evil.
One writer, provocatively, has said that perhaps we’re ashamed of the doctrine of hell because we’d rather stand with sin than with Christ. We sympathize with sin and find the idea of hell an embarrassment.
So perhaps it comes as a surprise to realize that when our Saviour walked among us he talked more about hell than He did about heaven. In three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), He spends twice as much time warning us about hell as He does reassuring us of heaven. 
Let's think about two popular ideas about hell. Then we’ll think about God’s warnings about hell, before ending by taking a look at what Jesus says in John chapter 3.

Here’s the first popular idea about hell that we’re going to think about:

1.     ‘God is a God of Love, not judgment’.

Like all one-liners, there’s an element of truth in it. Wrath is not fundamental to God in the way love is.
God is a unity of Three Persons. Three Person eternally united in love. So in 1 John 4:8 John writes, God IS love. He doesn’t write, ‘God IS wrath’. From eternity past God’s nature has been love. The Father loved His Son so much that He created everything as an inheritance for His Son. In love He created the human race to share in His, to be His children. Everything there is was created as an overflow of God’s love.

John begins his gospel with these words:
All things were made through Him [Christ, the Word of God];  and without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.

At the very beginning when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden with the Son of God He was our life. Without Him we’d be dead. He was the Light. Without Him we’d be in darkness. And yet in our first parents we turned away from the very One who is life and light.
We turned away from Life, thinking we’d find ourselves... but we found only death. We turned away from the Light, thinking we could see better on our own... but we found ourselves in lost in darkness.
And so the Son came to find us. Walking in the Garden, He came searching for our parents. And in His love He pronounced sin’s death-penalty.
Because He loves us He won’t allow us live forever exiled from Him in our guilt and shame. He won’t allow sin to spoil His creation forever. God’s love means His opposition to all that is wrong.

God’s wrath is not natural to the Him in the way love is. His wrath is His righteous response to our sin. In Isaiah 28:21 He describes judgment as His ‘strange work’. He takes no pleasure in it.
Hell was not a part of God’s plan for us.

In Matthew 25 Jesus describes the final judgment, when He will separate the righteous from the unrighteous, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Verse 34, Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’. But to those on His left He says in verse 41, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’.
To those who have been forgiven: ‘Come, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’.
To those who refused to come to Christ for forgiveness: Depart, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

God is a God of love. His intention from the very beginning has been that we share His Kingdom, but because we’ve pushed Christ away, our very Life, we’re dead. And if nothing changes and we continue to push Him away God will give us over to our choice. We’ll be cut off from Life forever.

Popular culture mocks hell as a place where naughty pleasures can be enjoyed: where all restraints are removed and every appetite can be indulged. Some people think of hell as a place of total self-abandon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus spoke about hell often. Jesus spoke about hell in the most horrific terms, as a place of everlasting punishment. Of burning fire and unimaginable suffering to body and soul. It is a place of physical suffering. It follows the resurrection of the dead. Everyone – Christians and non-Christians will be raised physically from the dead with eternal bodies . As the prophet Daniel says, Some will rise to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). It will be a place of wailing and angry gnashing of teeth, as those sent to hell for ever both realize their tragedy in rejecting Jesus Christ and yet continue to curse Him through their suffering.
Hell won’t be full of sinners wanting to repent and get out. It’s a place where those who are filthy are filthy still. It’s a place where for eternity people are still justifying themselves, still nurturing self-righteousness, still hurting each other, still being selfish, still mocking Jesus Christ. An endless cycle of shame, and guilt and punishment.
Hell is not the devil’s home. It’s not where Satan will torment people for eternity. Hell is a place God has prepared for the devil and his angels where He will punish them and all who share in their rebellion. But the Lord takes no pleasure in it. ‘Why will you die?’ He asks Old Testament Israel. ‘For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Turn to me and live!’ (Ezekiel 18:23).
He describes Himself as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love. It’s not that He never gets angry. But wrath and judgment are His ‘strange’ work. 
If sin didn’t bother Him, He wouldn’t be loving. He’d be a monster.

As a parent I love my children. And because I do, I hate whatever might harm them. I love my children and I hate what they do that harms them. I get angry with them sometimes because I love them. 
Husbands and wives
should have a jealous love for each other. So that if a third party threatens their marriage the husband or wife should get angry with a righteous anger and be jealous for their partner because they love them.
There’s nothing arbitrary or irrational about God’s wrath, as there so often is with ours. God’s wrath is always predictable, because it’s His righteous response to sin. John Stott helpfully describes God’s wrath as His ‘steady, unrelenting... uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations’.

They’re not opposites: love and anger; or love and wrath; or love and hell. God’s judgment is His loving response to all that is wrong.

.... So our first popular idea is that ‘God is a God of love, not judgment’. But we’ve seen that it’s precisely because He’s a God of love that He judges sin.

Here’s another: ‘God hates the sin, but loves the sinner’.

2.     God hates the sin, but loves the sinner’.

Is God angry with sin or with sinful people?
John 3:36 it says Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.

Archbishop William Temple said, ‘There is a shallow psychology which regards the sin as something merely separate from the sinner, which he can lay aside like a suit of clothes. My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself as far as I am active. If God hates the sin, what He hates is not an accretion attached to my real self;  it is myself, as that self now exists’.

It would be incredible to say that God hates abuse, but feels no displeasure at all towards abusers. Or that He hates greed, but feels entirely neutral towards greedy people.
God is angry with sin, but He’s also angry with sinners.

He is angry with sin and angry with us. And yet the good news of the gospel is that in His love God makes a way to save those who are under His judgment. He doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. He is a God of love. And if some go to hell, it won’t be because He hasn’t loved them or warned them.

3.    In love God Warns us of Hell

Let’s turn from these two popular ideas about hell to God’s warnings about hell.

Did you know, if you’re not a Christian here tonight, God wants to frustrate your life?
He wants to make your life difficult. The Bible says He does that because He wants to warn you of hell.

We try to create heaven on earth every day, but all our little ‘heavens’ are all broken. We think that if we had a better job, or a higher income, or a nicer house, or a sunnier holiday, or relationship with that person.... then we’d be happy. Heaven on earth. But we can’t make heaven on earth. Ever since our first parents turned away from the love and life of the Living God we’ve tried to make heaven on earth,
but our little heavens constantly fall short. They’re broken. They disappoint us. Our little heavens all actually closer to little hells. And we blame everyone else. But it’s God who’s responsible. God knows we can’t make heaven on earth without Him. He won’t let us make heaven on earth without Him. The Bible says He has subjected the world to frustration. He’s cursed it. Without Him we’re spiritually dead. Hell lies in front of us, but we taste something of it now. 

Romans chapter 1 verse 18 says that The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven right now.
It’s not that His wrath will one day be revealed in judgment and in a place called hell – though that is true. His wrath is being revealed right now in this world.
It’s not that our futures hang in the balance until Judgment Day when Christ announces the verdict. The verdict’s already been passed. John 3:18. Whoever believes in Jesus is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

The world is under God’s judgment and every day in love He warns that we don’t want to be face His judgment for ever.  Every day in a thousand ways because He loves us He warns us, ‘You do not want to go to hell’. 
We’ve got so used to God’s warnings that we think they’re a natural part of the world. We’re like Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, who hardened heart again and again to the warning plagues the LORD sent him that eventually he couldn’t repent.
Earthquakes, wars, famines, disasters, diseases. We think, ‘That’s just the way it is’. We even call them ‘natural disasters’. There’s nothing natural about them. They’re God’s warnings. There’s nothing natural about going to visit someone in hospital. Or attending a funeral. God never intended death to be part of His beautiful creation. He’s warning us, ‘You do not want to go to hell’.

God has frustrated marriage. 
Marriage should be a taste of heaven, a picture of Christ’s love for His Bride, the church. And in its best moments it is. But when each partner struggles to get their way it can be more like hell.  The Lord Jesus has given it over to that. ‘Your desire will be to be over your husband’, He said to Eve in Gen. 3:16, ‘and he will rule over you’. Every row a married couple has is a warning that we live in a world under God’s curse.

God has frustrated your work. 
It’s hard. It doesn’t satisfy you. You’re not fulfilled by it. You slave over it and wonder what the point of it is. You go to work tomorrow. And you look at the clock. And the afternoon seems to drag on forever...
Or perhaps you’re not treated fairly at work. Others take advantage of you. We blame everyone else, but actually God’s responsible. Do you remember His words to Adam in Genesis 3, ‘By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return’. His judgment is a warning to us that we do not want to live under His curse forever.
Perhaps friends have turned on you. You feel you can’t trust anyone. You’ve had painful separations. God doesn’t want you to go to a place where it’s like that forever. It will be place of eternal destruction, of punishment. Where shocking and unimaginable things will happen. He doesn’t want you to spend eternity there, so He warns you in this life.
We don’t have to wait for Judgment Day for God’s judgment to begin. We’re living in a world under God’s wrath already. And every day He warns us, ‘You do not want this to go on for ever’.

We’ve already thought about how we’re not condemned to hell because of anything we’ve done, but because of who we are. We’re children of Adam. The betrayal, the affair, the abortion, the abuse – our sins don’t have the power to send us to hell. They’re just the fruit of a condemned tree, the symptoms of my condemned condition. The reality is, on our own we’re condemned already. It’s not our doing, but our very being that is the problem.
And that means the solution doesn’t lie in my doing, but in my very being. We need a new life; a new heart to love Him; a new birth from above.
God not only warns us against hell. But He has provided a Saviour.

4. The Good News

So let’s finish in John chapter 3.  A religious teacher comes to Jesus. Despite all his credentials Jesus tells him that unless he’s born again from above he won’t enter the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus doesn’t understand, so Jesus reminds him of an event in the life of Old Testament Israel. John 3 verse 14, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.

As Israel wandered through the wilderness on their way towards the Promised Land there was no food and no water and the people started grumbling against the LORD. The LORD sent venomous snakes among them and many were bitten and died.
Then the people came to Moses and asked him to pray that the LORD would take away His judgment. And the LORD told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then whenever anyone was bitten by a snake all they had to do was look up at the snake on the pole and they would live.
Everyone who looked upwards – those who trusted God’s salvation – were healed.
Jesus is God’s solution. When He died on the cross all our sins were laid on Him. Every time we sin it was as if He said, ‘I did that. I said that terrible lie. I harboured that murderous thought. I nursed that grievance. I committed that adultery’. He became sin for us. He took God’s curse for us. He died under the judgment of God. He endured hell on the cross so that we might never have to.
All the Israelites had to do was look at the snake on the pole and they would live. All you need to do is look to Jesus lifted up on the cross, and you will have life.

  Verse 16: For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son into the world that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
You think, is it really for me?
Martin Luther once said, ‘I thank God that it does not say “God so loved Martin Luther that He gave His one and only Son, that if Martin Luther believes in Him he should not perish but have eternal life.” Because if it did, I should think it must refer to some other Martin Luther and not to me. But because it says ‘whoever believes’ I know it includes even the very worst of all the Martin Luthers that ever lived.’

How about you? Have you started the new Jesus offers? Sometimes it’s dramatic. Very often it’s not. I can’t even name the date when I became a Christian believer. It was very gradual for me, probably over several years – slowly just waking up to what Jesus has done for me...
But whether our new birth is sudden or gradual, dramatic or quiet, the important thing is to have that new birth from above, to be born again into the new life that Jesus alone can give us.

Then we can say in the words of the song:
No guilt in life, no fear of death
This is the power of Christ in me.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Magnum Opus

My life is a witness to 'vulgar' grace – a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying theif’s request–’Please, remember me’–and assures him, ‘I will’ A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”

Robert Capon Farrar.

Wisdom is all about harvesting riches, wherever they are found.
Thanks to Jim Mc Neeley's excellent book, the Romance of Grace, I've been re-thinking a number of things of late in regards to how life and truth are meant to marry. Jim writes at the beginning of the book about the parables of the treasure hunter and the pearl collector (Matthew 13:44 - 46) , who gained their deepest desire by giving all to gain what they discovered. The wonder, of course, is that these were people who found something rare and truly worth everything to them, and the items discovered are gained by means of costly purchase. We often think, perhaps, in terms of our giving everything to gain a spiritual reward (the kingdom of heaven) when we read these parables, but, in truth, we are not the ones doing the buying!

In the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul begins by writing of the fact that in God's Son, we have been blessed with every blessing (vs 3), and he then goes on to tell us why. Long before the Lord made the storehouses for wind and snow, or caused the stars to burn in space, Paul tells us the He predestined us to be adopted in love through His beloved Son (vs 4 &5). It was through His Son that we would be given redemption from a world gone mad and the forgiveness of all of our sins, purely because of His amazing grace, which, Paul says He richly  'lavishes upon us' as He makes known to us the splendor of this purpose - to untie all things, in Jesus Christ, by this grace - all things in heaven and earth (vs 8-10), that everything might express this glory (vs 14).

Because of evil and sin, we don't see ourselves as we truly are. The universe has been tarnished by calamity, but amidst the deepest darkness - at the very point where there is only the weight of alienation, just condemnation and death, it is there, at the finality of a cross, that we find Jesus Christ, dying in our stead, carrying our sin, and our judgement, and telling us "it is finished" as He dies and rises again to life, purchasing us as the treasure, the pearl, because of the Father's great love for us, before anything had even begun.

Paul goes on to the Ephesian Christians that his desire is that they might truly revel in the glorious splendor of the immeasurable goodness that has been given to them in God through Christ (vs 15-19), for by this alone (2:8), we have been brought from death to life (2:1-6) that we might share in such riches of grace forever (vs 7).

If there's a great theme for us to dwell upon today, surely it is this. Before all that we know was, there was a Father who already loved us, and a Son who would, by the power of the Holy Spirit, do all to show to us and all of creation, the heights and depths of that love, which has become our inheritance, forever.