Judgment and the Love of God

I like to do daily devotions; for example, last year I did A Year with C. S. Lewis. If for no other reason than to make sure that, in addition to my daily Bible reading, I’m receiving daily instruction and teaching. This year I’m going through My Utmost for His Highest and a few days ago I read a passage that I found really inspiring (I’ve underline parts that really resonated with me):
The Christian servant must never forget that salvation is God’s idea, not man’s; therefore, it has an unfathomable depth. Salvation is the great thought of God, not an experience. Experience is simply the door through which salvation comes into the conscious level of our life so that we are aware of what has taken place on a much deeper level. Never preach the experience— preach the great thought of God behind the experience. When we preach, we are not simply proclaiming how people can be saved from hell and be made moral and pure; we are conveying good news about God.
In the teachings of Jesus Christ the element of judgment is always brought out— it is the sign of the love of God. Never sympathize with someone who finds it difficult to get to God; God is not to blame. It is not for us to figure out the reason for the difficulty, but only to present the truth of God so that the Spirit of God will reveal what is wrong. The greatest test of the quality of our preaching is whether or not it brings everyone to judgment. When the truth is preached, the Spirit of God brings each person face to face with God Himself.
If Jesus ever commanded us to do something that He was unable to equip us to accomplish, He would be a liar. And if we make our own inability a stumbling block or an excuse not to be obedient, it means that we are telling God that there is something which He has not yet taken into account. Every element of our own self-reliance must be put to death by the power of God. The moment we recognize our complete weakness and our dependence upon Him will be the very moment that the Spirit of God will exhibit His power.
I can’t help but see three distinct takeaways from this passage:
  1. The beautiful reality that salvation is God’s idea; not ours. For me, this liberates me from any type of works-based salvation. Salvation is God’s idea and, therefore, God’s gift.
  2. Authentic appreciation of the gift of salvation grows out of an understanding of God’s judgment. I truly believe that we don’t understand the value of God’s gift unless we understand the cost of God’s gift.
  3. Because this gift is something we did nothing to earn (in fact, it’s impossible for us to earn) we must realize that self-reliance is foolishness. It is in our weakness that God shows His strength most clearly.
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Why such harsh discipline?

I’ve heard it asked many times and in many different ways: “Why is God so harsh in the Old Testament?” Or perhaps it’s phrased like this:  “How could a loving God command His people to kill ‘innocent’ women and children?” One buddy of mine even suggests that the God of the Old Testament is not the same God as the one of the New Testament.
Does the punishment fit the crime?

For example, consider the story of Achan:  In Joshua 6:18 the people of Israel (Achan included) were told to keep themselves from the things devoted to destruction, otherwise they would bring trouble upon Israel. Then in Joshua 7:1, Achan decides that rule doesn’t really apply to him, so he took some of the devoted things. Next in Joshua 7:11-12, God is pronouncing Israel guilty of breaking the covenant and declares that they will be unable to defend themselves in any military engagement. For a group of desert nomads who just entered enemy territory, this is a death sentence!
Stoning of Achan
Joshua 7:24-25:  “The Stoning of Achan”
In order to satisfy God’s wrath, everyone in Israel stoned Achan and his entire family (Josh 7:24-25). All this because he took some silver, a cloak, and a bar of gold (Josh 7:25). Does the punishment fit the crime? Many skeptics use stories like this to claim that God is not good, but I think they fail to take everything into account.
However, before answering this question, I would like to point out what I believe to be a fatal flaw in its logic. In order to even ask this question, you have to assume that you have the authority to question the will and actions of God. You have to assume that you somehow have the authority to demand an explanation of God. I know this statement won’t be popular, but I believe that reveals an arrogant heart. So if you’re a believer, consider whether or not you have any authority to question God. If you’re a non-believer, then consider that, if there is a Creator-God, then why wouldn’t he have the authority to make these demands? Also, whether you’re a believer or a non-believer, ask yourself who gets to define what is and is not “loving.” People will often phrase this question “How could a loving God…” as though they understand what love is and God needs to correct His behavior to match our definition. The Bible says that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Do we define what “love” is and then demand that God conforms to our definition, or do read the Scriptures in order to better understand God and, when necessary, make adjustments to our definition of love?
Before answering the questions posed at the beginning of this post, it’s important that you examine your heart to determine why you think this is unjust in the first place. And one last thing before we get into our answers:  it’s easy to take one small instance like this out of context and try to use it as “ammo” against God. In order to do this though, you have to ignore the 40 years that God was patient with a stiff-necked, faithless, disobedient people. You have to ignore the parts where God patiently and repeatedly spares the nation of Israel. You have to ignore the parts where God miraculously parts the Red Sea, saves His people, and within a week they’re already complaining about how much better it was in Egypt. You have to ignore the parts where God faithfully provided daily bread for His people. In order to find these nuggets of “ammo” you literally have to sift through a mountain of evidence for the grace of God. This is intellectually dishonest. So, with those two digressions out of the way, let’s look at the rest of the story.

God had clearly demonstrated His power to His people for His glory.
Read what happens earlier in the story, consider who these people were, and let’s look at just three miracles they had witnessed:  the bread, the sea, and the fall of Jericho.
Achan and his generation of Israelites were a group that had grown up subsisting primarily off of God’s manna. If anyone should have known to trust and obey God, it would have been a generation that had lived their entire life wandering in the desert, with God in their midst, living off his daily bread. At this point in Achan’s life, God should have earned at least the benefit of the doubt. Instead, Achan decided that God wasn’t really trustworthy and that he could make his own decisions for himself.
This group had also crossed the Jordan River; in fact, it had stopped much like the Red Sea (Josh 3:16-17). What I find most amazing about this account is that—as far as I can tell—it looks like the priests literally had to step out into the water and as their feet were coming down the water stopped and dry ground appeared. There was an element of “stepping out” that they were responsible for. Achan would have been one of the people who walked across the dry ground where a river had just been. Achan would have witnessed undeniable evidence of God’s power over nature and authority over all creation. What excuse would Achan have for denying such power and authority?
Next this group witnessed the walls of Jericho fall as the result of them shouting and playing some musical instruments; clearly the work of the Lord (Josh 7:20). There’s no way they could explain this except that the hand of God had been working for them. It’s likely they expected some brilliant military strategy to be revealed to them from God once they entered the Promised Land. But God wanted Jericho to fall in a way that would make it clear that He was responsible for the victory. God says as much in Joshua 6:2 when He tells Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor.” God had clearly demonstrated His power to His people for His glory.
Suicide.

Which brings me to a question:  After God had so clearly revealed Himself to His people, shouldn’t Achan have known better?
Wouldn’t it be foolish to disobey God after He had provided so many undeniable revelations of Himself? Who could deny both God’s power and His authority after literally subsisting off His daily bread, witnessing His supreme authority over creation, and witnessing His unstoppable power in war? It would be suicide to rebel against such authority—indeed, it proves to be just that. Achan, once he’s revealed as the traitor (by God, no less) readily admitted his guilt (Josh 7:20). Achan knew he was doing wrong and he knew Who he was disobeying. It’s honestly quite foolish, isn’t it? It’s suicide, isn’t it? Ravi Zacharias put it this way when he came to Alaska:  “Where there is a dramatic display of his power in the miraculous, there is an equal dramatic judgment when that miracle is disregarded and violated. To whom much is given, much is required.”
While doing a little background research for this post I ran across another good explanation for a similar account in Numbers 15 where a man is stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The argument basically goes that it’s not our place to determine which commands from God are important to follow and which are optional. Imagine if God’s people saw this man breaking the Sabbath so they decided they could also disregard many of the sanitary and dietary laws. In the long run, it’s not hard to imagine that thousands of people would have died as a result of infections, epidemics, food poisoning, and the like. Thus, it was far more merciful to kill one law breaker as an example to emphasize the necessity of following God than to be “merciful” and let thousands of people kill themselves through disobedience.
Another perspective is found in Daniel 4:34-35: 
For his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
   and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
   and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
   and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
   or say to him, “What have you done?”
Of course, we don’t like that explanation, do we? “How dare God assume any authority over His creation. How dare God assume that He can command us. We have rights! Doesn’t God know we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Duh, God; get with the times. It’s the 21st century! That authority thing is so out-dated.”
Just reading it like that should make you realize how ridiculous that mentality is. The truth is that the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and God does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, “What have you done?”  (Pastor Matt Chandler did an amazing series about authority that I would highly recommend.)
So here are—in my opinion—three good answers to why God was so “harsh” with Achan:
  1. Achan had seen God’s power in undeniable ways and knowingly signed his own death warrant when he denied God’s authority.
  2. Achan’s selfish trespass could have easily led to the deaths of thousands of others had they witnessed his disobedience go unpunished and decided to imitate his rebellion.
  3. Achan lacked any power or authority to question God or to stop Him.
The good news is that God is merciful and patient with us, but it’s certainly not because we deserve it.

Excuses?

excuses
Image courtesy of Jim Rohan
Something you should know about me: I’m really mean. For example, if there’s an established standard that people know about and have had adequate time to prepare for, I think they should be held to it! 😉

The standards are there for a reason.
A while back, at the gym, I watched a lady take her Physical Training test (PT test). She didn’t look like she was overweight or injured or anything like that. She just looked like she wasn’t very good at running. In fact, at one point she stopped running and had to walk; she couldn’t even finish the run portion of her PT test. I didn’t think things were going to end well for her, and sure enough, as I was leaving the gym I saw her sitting down on a bench near the exit with her head in her hands, looking very upset.
I don’t bring this up to make fun of her, instead I bring it up to make a point. When we are faced with a standard, all of our excuses will be revealed as inadequate. It’s easy two months before a test to slack off and to take it easy: “I’ve got plenty of time until my test!” But then it suddenly sneaks up on you. It didn’t matter how great her excuses were for her PT test, she failed. The standards are there for a reason; they matter.
The standard is non-negotiable; and it’s perfection.

The same thing applies to us and the Law. God made a clearly established standard. It’s been clearly and specifically communicated to us through His Law. It’s been intuitively communicated to all humanity for all time through the conscience. The standard is non-negotiable; and it’s perfection.
God makes this clear when He gives the Law in the Old Testament. Thrice He tells His people to consecrate themselves and be holy (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26). According to my good ol’ Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, consecration means: “Separation of persons, utensils, buildings, or places from everyday secular uses for exclusive dedication to holy or sacred use (511).” And, just to make sure we perfectly understand what God is asking of us—and to make matters far worse—holiness is described as such: “In the OT, holiness as applied to God signifies his transcendence over the creation and the moral perfection of his character (984).”
Sweet! So now we understand what’s required of us: absolute, unwavering, lifelong devotion to God and God alone in the form of moral perfection. Jesus always had a way with words; in Matthew 5:48 He summarized it like this: “Be perfect.”


The exception to the rule!

“Wait, what?! Isn’t that a little high?” Yeah, it is. It’s real high. You better get to work.
“Are there any exceptions to this rule? I’m pretty sure I’m the exception.” Ha-ha, you’re funny; there are no exceptions. And by the way, everyone thinks they’re the exception almost without exception! We all say that standards are good to have…for other people; but they shouldn’t apply to us!
“Why is the standard so why? I’ll never make it.” That’s a good question; the standard is so high to show you that you’ll never make it on your own. We all would likely claim that we’re not perfect, but that we’re still a good person. The problem is, being a good person (or trying your best) is not the standard. I just showed you the standard: perfection. Is that something you can live up to? Me neither…

The Good News.
The truth is, there is one exception to the rule. The truth is, because of the finished work of Christ I get to be the exception of the rule; and so do you! The “Good News” is that we can have someone stand in our place when we’re judged against the standard of perfection; we can be the exception to the rule because someone has met all the requirements of the Law on our behalf.
How is this not good news? It sorrows me to see so many people trying to earn their way into Heaven. It won’t work! At The Resurgence, I recently read a great article entitled Moralism’s Cruel Stick and Carrot by Matt Johnson. While we can train for and meet the standards of our PT test, the standards of the Law are impossible for us to meet.
God, in His grace, has given us a chance to be the exception to the rule; will you take it?