When ‘Penal Substitution’ rears its ugly head. . .

If you find yourself in a room full of theologians and/or pastors, you can probably gather a lot about their personalities and beliefs by asking one simple question: What Atonement Theory do you subscribe to?

Take this little gem for example:

For those of you who don’t know, John Piper is the controversial preacher, author, and founder of Desiring God Ministries. He’s known for making bold and scary claims about God and his wrath, and this tweet is no exception.

Piper subscribes to what is known as the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.

I should probably back up a bit because I bet half of you are wondering what an atonement theory even is.

For starters, let’s define atonement. Atonement is the sacrificial death of King Jesus on our behalf. When King Jesus died, he atoned for (made amends for) the sins of the world.

Now, atonement theory is essentially a stream of thought that attempts to answer a few questions simultaneously. First, why was the atonement necessary (beyond simply that mankind needed salvation from sin)? Second, what took place “behind the scenes,” as it were, when King Jesus died? Third, what is the nature of the transaction that took place at the time of King Jesus’ death? Fourth, how does his death reconcile humanity to God?

There is a wide range of atonement theories, and I don’t think any single one of them hits the mark completely, nor does any single theory miss the mark completely. I have very few misgivings about most theories, with the exception of one: Penal Substitution.

Piper subscribes to the Penal Substitution theory, and that subscription can be seen in statements like the above tweet.

Penal Substitution (or perhaps, more accurately, the popularized version of Penal Substitution accepted by the modern evangelical church, particularly the branches dominated by the “new calvinists”) presents the picture of a God who is angry with humanity, and in order satiate his anger, he must punish humanity. Instead of punishing humanity however, his Son steps in and takes on that punishment.

Is God so juvenile that he needs to be satiated? This theory gives off the image of God as an angry, drunken child abuser who’s so pissed off at his children that he has to beat them senseless.

And then the Piper quote.

God isn’t a child abuser. He’s a wife beater.

But this doesn’t line up with the God that I read about in the Bible. Humanity is not God’s enemy. Humanity is the very thing God is trying to rescue. He’s not angry with us; he’s angry with sin.

Sin is the universal invader, destroying the home that God built, tearing his children apart, and breaking apart his goodness.

God doesn’t have wrath against his wife. (If you didn’t catch the metaphor, his “wife” is the Church—the universal collection of believers.) He didn’t pour out any wrath on his Son Jesus either. Jesus came to pay the debt that we owe to our slaver. Sin owned us, and Jesus came to buy us back. But we owed sin our lives, and so Jesus came to pay with his life instead of ours.

Top Ten Posts. . .

Since my thirtieth birthday is coming up in three days, I thought I’d celebrate by compiling a top-ten list of the most visited posts from restoredtograce.com over the years.

Hope you enjoy some Monday morning memories!

1. Some thoughts on Noah. . . – April 4, 2014. I’m honestly a bit surprised this one was the most visited all time on the blog. It’s a newer post and hasn’t had the time to pick up the readership of some of my older posts. That said, I’m really glad this one is at the top.

2. To my future bride (whoever you may be). . . – June 25, 2009. This one is still going strong after almost five-and-a-half years, though it has been dethroned as number one by my Noah post.

3. Rob Bell vs. John Piper. . . – March 2, 2011. This one was a little interesting to go back to because it reveals a little bit of my past reformed leanings. I even wrote, “I would affirm the truths set forth by [Mark] Driscoll, [John] Piper, and [Justin] Taylor.” Oh how much I’ve changed in just three years.

4. Rob Bell’s Love Wins. . . – March 21, 2011. Here’s another one I would probably write very differently now. Thanks to my rather in-depth study of the New Testament guided by N. T. Wright’s writings, my tune on this topic has changed quite a bit. Still, it’s fun to see where I once stood theologically.

5. Fear in love. . . – September 1, 2009. Ouch. I think 2013 me could’ve learned a thing or two from 2009 me.

6. Shorts and flip flops at church. . . – June 28, 2008. I wrote this one about a year after returning to Christ and less than a year after leaving fundamentalism. Even back then I was stirring up controversy!

7. An odd story. . . – December 10, 2013. I’m simultaneously sad and encouraged that this one has been read as often as it has. It’s an unfortunate truth about my alma mater (and other Bible colleges and universities like it), but I believe these truths need to come to light. That’s why I’m grateful that G.R.A.C.E. is about to publish their report about the abuse that has been taking place at the school.

8. Non-Christian missionaries. . . – September 26, 2011. Missional methodology and praxis are things that have fascinated me over the years. I still struggle to reconcile my own church-going habits with my beliefs about how we’re supposed to approach and engage the non-church culture. I’m thankful for my friend Mike from Christian Associates who has mentored and taught me as I explore this facet of theology.

9. What does true love look like?. . . – March 17, 2009. This one was a bit startling to read. It’s encouraging to find posts from my pre-reformed days. My thoughts made so much more sense back then.

10. Always. . . – March 21, 2010. When I re-read this post, I felt like someone else had written it, and I was resonating with their heart. This is still one of my favorite posts. I pray that you can relate to this one too.

Stories. . .

I love stories.

I believe that stories are the most powerful ways to convey truths. To be honest though, I’m not very good at crafting stories. I enjoy writing, even creatively, but for some reason I haven’t been able to tap into that ever so elusive great story.

That’s not to say that I haven’t written any stories. During my undergraduate years I wrote numerous stories for my short-story writing, novel writing, and script writing classes.

Maybe I exhausted all my awesome story ideas in college. Or maybe I’m just a lazy writer.

But I digress.

I bring up stories because I’ve begun seeing Scripture as a story. Not as a divine rulebook by which Christians are supposed to structure their lives. Certainly not as a message that contains the cypher through which we can unlock the mysteries of the future.

It is a narrative. A story, if you will, of a God who is trying to break into human history and reveal to his creation just how much he loves us.

He speaks our languages, he steps into our worlds, and he endures our hardships. This is a God who yearns to know and be known by his creation. It’s a beautiful tale. It’s a wonderful, compelling, and powerful story.

But here’s where things start to get a bit messy. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

I know. Let that settle for a bit. I realize I just screwed with your mind a bit. I probably made you uncomfortable, maybe even angry.

I’ll say it again because I probably live under the delusion that repeating myself will make you believe me more. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

It’s important that we understand this fact because it will help us alleviate a lot of the weird tensions that exist when we read the Bible. For example, there are confounding and inexplicable discrepancies—contradictions, even—among the four accounts of the Gospel.

That’s not even mentioning the frightening notion that God ordered the slaughter of an entire race of people (the Canaanites) for no other apparent reason than that they were occupying territory that he wanted to give to Israel.

This is perfect justification for Richard Dawkins’ scathing rebuke of God. This “God of love” needlessly commits genocide multiple times throughout the Old Testament.

Christians have quite a few ways of reconciling this atrocity. I’ll just list a few. (I have to thank Peter Enns and his book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It for most, if not all, of what’s in the next few paragraphs.)

One way Christians try to explain this is by appealing to God’s sovereignty. He’s God. We’re not. Stop questioning him.

But at the end of the day, is that really the kind of God you want to serve? Is that the kind of God you feel compelled to talk about? Is that good news to a dying world? Get under God’s good graces or he’ll be angry with you and send you to eternal damnation!

As Enns puts it, “This really isn’t a solution, anyway. It’s simply restating the problem: God orders his subjects to kill Canaanites. The question remains, “Why is God acting like Zeus or a fascist dictator?”

Enns continues, and so will we.

Another way Christians try to explain this is by comparing Canaanite slaughter to eternal damnation. Basically, why is killing Canaanites such a terrible thing when Jesus talks about throwing people into hell for all eternity?

Unfortunately, this doesn’t explain things either. As Enns and other scholars, writers, and theologians have pointed out, the modern Catholic and Evangelical idea of “hell” is rather outdated and has more in common with medieval notions of the afterlife than what Jesus was actually referring to.

Be that as it may, Jesus’ references to “hell” weren’t statements about “hell” at all. He was using the term Gehenna, which was a Greek word translated from the Hebrew phrase that means “Valley of Hinnom.”

The prophet Jeremiah (who’s my personal favorite prophet for some reason) talked about the Valley of Hinnom. Here’s what he had to say:

The people of Judah have done what displeases me, declares the Lord. They have corrupted the temple that bears my name by setting up their disgusting idols. They have built shrines at Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind.

Did you catch that? The Valley of Hinnom was where the Israelites were sacrificing their children to foreign gods.

Later in that passage, Jeremiah pronounces judgment on those that committed child sacrifice. Their corpses would rot in the Valley of Hinnom.

Jesus knows his audience and uses this symbolism to describe what would happen to those who reject God’s Messiah. And that very thing happened less than a century after Jesus left this earth.

Anyway, we’re off topic now. In a nutshell, what Jesus was talking about when we think he’s talking about throwing people into hell is not at all what he’s really talking about.

Enns writes, “‘Hell’ doesn’t get God off the hook because it’s off topic.”

(There’s actually an incredibly beautiful story about Jesus’ interaction with the only “Canaanite” mentioned in the New Testament. It’s kind of relevant to this topic, but it will take us down a rabbit trail, so I’ll save it for another post.)

One final way (there are several more, but I’ll stop at three) that Christians try to justify Canaanite genocide (or any atrocity that’s attributed to God) is by saying something like, “We have to balance God’s darker side in Scripture with his merciful, gracious side.”

Umm. . . really? Would you say that about anyone else? Sure, your honor, that guy murdered people, but you have to balance that out with all the good he’s done. He donates to charity, cares for sick people, and recycles. In light of all that, can you really sentence him to a life in prison just for a few murders?

Here’s where things need to shift. (I promised in my previous post an avenue for reconciling “angry Old-Testament God” with “gracious New-Testament Jesus,” and I’m about to deliver, but I have a feeling you might not like it.)

Something we need to keep in mind when we read Scripture is that every word was written by someone who lived in a completely different world than we do and who spoke an entirely different language than we do.

And by language I don’t simply mean syntax, words, grammar, etc. I mean an entirely different way of communicating thoughts and ideas, prejudices and beliefs. The ancient Israelites did not recount events the way we do. They didn’t value the same things that we do.

In other words, it’s entirely likely (probable, in fact) that God never told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites.

The Israelites were an ancient tribal people who lived among other ancient peoples. All the nations surrounding them had epic origin tales, and Israel had to tell their story.

I won’t go into all the historical-archeological detail, but just understand this: while these events aren’t historically accurate by our standards of accuracy, they are still 100% true. The truth is in what these stories are trying to convey.

Here’s what I see when I read these stories. I see a God who allows his children to tell their stories. I see a God who allows his character to evolve through the pages of the Bible because his creation is evolving in its understanding of who he is.

And then Jesus steps onto the scene. God is no longer simply the centerpiece of Israel’s mythology and religion. He is no longer bound by ancient storytelling and oral traditions. No, God has stepped into the world and transcended mere language. God has become more than just part of Israel’s story. He has become a Man. And that Man has become our King.

Our good, wise, loving, self-sacrificing, and perfect. . . King.

What God is like. . .

I’ve occasionally been accused of making a big deal out of small things. For example, as was evident from my ebook, I made a fairly big deal out of the Calvinism-vs-non-Calvinism thing.

There’s a reason for my “soapboxing” though. It responds to the question, “What is God like?”

Is God angry, vengeful, and misogynistic? Is he genocidal and vindictive?

If we take descriptions of him seriously (particularly those that paint him as the kind of God that would randomly wipe out an entire race of people simply because they were occupying the territory that he wanted to give to his chosen race), do we come to the conclusion that he’s the kind of God that is so angry at his people, his Son has to appease that anger by sacrificing himself on humanity’s behalf?

How then can we say with confidence that “God is love”?

Is the God we trust to rescue us the same God who ordered the killing of the entire population of Canaan, including the women and children?

Can we trust God to rescue us if he is also in absolute control of everything, including those events that hurt us, destroy us, and even cause us to commit unspeakable atrocities?

I would submit that no, we don’t trust a God who ordered the slaughter of entire people groups. We don’t put our faith in a God who dictates and determines the evils that exist in the world.

I’ll wait for my next post to provide thoughts regarding how to reconcile what we see about God in the Christian Old Testament with the type of Man we see in Jesus. But for now, let’s just take a moment to look at what Jesus shows us about God.

We see a God who heals the sick.

We see a God who feeds the hungry.

We see a God who welcomes children.

We see a God who spends time with the broken and marginalized.

Jesus’ death wasn’t to appease the anger of his Father, it was to show us just how far God was willing to go in order to rescue his children from captivity.

Jesus’ outstretched arms call out to us as he breathes his last, “This is how much I love you.”

That’s the kind of God who rescues us.

That is what God is like.

New eBook. . .

My essay that was once titled “An Irenic Rebuttal of the TULIP Soteriological Schema
 or
 Why I’m Not a Calvinist” has been renamed and converted into an eBook!

coverIt’s now called Deconstructing TULIP: A Former Calvinist Examines Calvinism’s Soteriology, and you can download it by clicking here.

Enjoy!

He is worthy. . .

I saw that there was a scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The scroll was written on the inside and the outside, and it was sealed with seven seals. I saw a strong angel announcing in a loud voice, “Does anybody deserve to open the scroll, to undo its seals?” And nobody in heaven or on the earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look at it. I burst into tears because it seemed that there was nobody who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside it. One of the elders, however, spoke to me. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

~ Revelation 5:1-5, TKNT

Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne. When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They took up a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood
you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language,
people, and nation.

You made them a kingdom and priests
to our God,
and they will rule on earth.”

~ Revelation 5:6-10, CEB

I think we’ve all said (or heard it said) at some point in our lives, “Jesus is worthy of my worship.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I sometimes find myself asking, “Why is he worthy of my worship?”

Is it simply because he is God, and that’s how it should be? We’re supposed to worship God, right? That’s just the way things are. We’re finite, and God is infinite. He’s infinitely powerful, infinitely just, and infinitely holy, so that in itself is motivation for worshiping him.

The book of Revelation is admittedly a very difficult book. And that’s okay. Apocalyptic literature is never easy to figure out, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t wrestle with it. Here’s what I (and by “I,” I mean, “theologians and scholars that I currently agree with”) think is going on here.

First question: What’s the deal with this scroll? What is it and why is it so important?

Answer: There are a ton of ideas about what this scroll could be, and many of them contradict each other, but here’s where I land currently. All of Scripture is the story of God’s interaction with the world. He created a home in which to dwell and placed his children into the world to be its overseers. But these children decided to move in their own direction apart from the Creator’s design and sent this world—themselves included—into a tailspin. God set into motion a plan through which he would restore everything to its rightful relationship with him. The scroll in Revelation 5 appears to be God’s plan to redeem and restore his creation to its rightful state of perfection, even unbroken relationship with him.

Second question: Why can’t God the Father open the scroll and unveil this plan of restoration?

Answer: Each of the seals that hold the scroll shut appear to be part of a series of judgments that will purify the earth and eliminate the wickedness that runs rampant upon it. No one in the throne room seems to be capable or qualified to break the seals and purify the earth. No one, that is, except the Lamb (Jesus). Why is the Lamb qualified? The text says, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain” (emphasis added). We can infer a few things from this qualifier. First, the Lamb entered the human condition. He suffered and died. That means that he can identify with us, and the judgments he pours out don’t come from someone who is detached from humanity, but someone who can sympathize and empathize with us in our plight. His purification of the earth is not arbitrary or unfeeling.

Second, he was motivated by love. John wrote that God is love, and what better way to show love than to give your life up for the object of your love? Jesus did that, and when he judges the earth, he is motivated by a self-giving love, the depths of which we cannot possibly fathom.

Third, death—and by extension, resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Jesus—is incredibly important. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the very thing that qualifies Christ is his self-sacrificing action on the cross. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes the following:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There’s a lot here, but we can infer that the operative principle when considering the Messiah’s worthiness is his incredibly humble attitude. Paul tells his audience that this attitude—this humility—is the attitude to adopt. This is why the Lamb is worthy to break the seals of the scroll and begin the process of purifying the earth and eliminating wickedness. This is why the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls and set in motion the restoration of all things.

Because he is uniquely humble.

Third question: How does any of this change how I worship God?

Answer: Maybe it doesn’t. But I would submit that the reason we worship God should be brought into examination. The Greek word translated in 5:9 as “to take” (“You are worthy to take the scroll”) is the same word translated in 5:12 as “to receive” (“Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing”): λαβεῖν. The parallel shouldn’t be missed. The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals in the same way that he is worthy to receive honor and glory. His humble, self-sacrificing death qualifies him.

This realization should change things. Think of the following exchange:

“Why do you worship Jesus?”

“I worship him because he is worthy.”

Where do you think it could go from there? I think we need to be cautious of an answer like this because it can quickly and subtly turn into something to the effect of, “I worship him for no reason that I am truly aware of or can accurately and/or succinctly articulate right now.” That can lead us to an artificial or unsustainable worship of Jesus that may last for a season, but that will falter because we can’t find a good reason to worship him.

Or consider this possible ensuing exchange:

“Why is he worthy?”

“Jesus is worthy because he is all-powerful, completely just, perfectly holy, and infinitely wise.”

Fair enough, but for starters, I think Scripture is far more explicit about why Jesus is worthy of our worship, and while those attributes are given in Scripture, I don’t think they’re used as motivation for worship (though I could be wrong about that; this is, after all, a blog and not a dissertation).

We become like that which we worship, and I believe that can be also be stated as this: we take on the attributes we hold most dear of that which we worship.

That’s why when we see people who obsess over God’s power, justice, and wrath, over and against God’s love, we often find people who are arrogant, dogmatic, and unloving. (Though ironically they often say things like, “I’m only saying this because I love you like Jesus loves you.” If you truly loved like Jesus loved, you’d be setting your agenda aside and laying your life down for the sake of that other person. . . but I digress.)

But when we see people who obsess over God’s love, we find people who always set aside their own comforts and ideologies for the sake of those around them. It’s almost as if they’ve taken ownership of the Messiah’s words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

So why is Jesus worthy of my worship?

He is worthy because he was slain. He is worthy because he emptied himself. He is worthy because without his death on the cross, the scroll would remain closed, and the restoration of creation would be unattainable.

“But thanks be to God, who in the Messiah constantly leads us in a triumphal procession and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of what it means to know him!”

Celebration. . .

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful!
Let Israel celebrate its maker;
let Zion’s children rejoice in their king!
Let them praise God’s name with dance;
let them sing God’s praise with the drum and lyre!

I often feel more worshipful at a wedding than I do at a church gathering.

The dancing, the laughter, the sheer joy that exists in that environment. There’s almost the sense of God’s celebratory joy overwhelming the place when everyone hits the dance floor.

I’m not a big Chris Tomlin fan, but I can’t help but think of these words from his song:

I feel alive
I come alive
I am alive on God’s great dance floor

And then for some reason, when I’m at my church gathering, I don’t celebrate. I look around me, and I see few people celebrating. It’s as though people have been lulled into near mundanity.

I almost want to stand up and shout, “The universe’s Creator and King LOVES US. He died for us, but now he LIVES AND REIGNS VICTORIOUSLY! Let’s sing! Let’s dance! We have LIFE!

And I wonder if that’s on us. Maybe, as leaders, we need to change the culture a little.

I live and work in New Jersey. We wear our cynicism like a badge of honor and proudly display it wherever we go. But as Christians, we have an incredible joy that should spill out into everything that we do—especially our corporate worship response!

In many cases I think we’ve allowed our cynicism to infiltrate our worship. It could be our cynicism, it could be our pride, or it could be our unwillingness to be vulnerable. It could even be a combination of all three. I used to think (read: come up with the excuse) that this lack of expressiveness in worship response is an attempt at contextualization, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was closing off a part of my heart when I sing words like, “Jesus Christ, you are my one desire. Lord, hear my only cry—to know you all my life,” and keep my hands in my pockets.

Yes, the area to the left of the Hudson River is known for its disenchantment, but I believe that as Christians, we shouldn’t be giving in to any of that. God himself rejoices over his people.

The LORD your God is with you. He is a hero who saves you. He happily rejoices over you, renews you with his love, and celebrates over you with shouts of joy.
~ Zephaniah 3:17 GWT

The Hebrew phrase translated “he happily rejoices over you. . . and celebrates” looks like this: יָגִ֥יל The word celebrate here literally means, “to spin around under the influence of violent emotion.” God is dancing over us!

So if that’s how God feels about us, shouldn’t we at least try to respond to him similarly?

I went to visit my brother’s church, and—say what you will about churches with 10,000+ attendees—there’s a celebratory atmosphere there that is pretty rare in churches. Here’s a video of my brother leading his congregation in one of my favorite new celebration worship songs.

Who am I? . . .

For years, he crafted an identity. His parents’ deaths gave him the identity of orphan. Hunger gave him the identity of thief by necessity. Repeated escape attempts from prison hardened him, and he earned the identity of criminal. Nearly twenty years as a prisoner transformed him into a desperate and broken man.

Then a chance encounter with grace introduced a new story, and following the guilt and shame he experienced after spitting in the face of the gift he’d been given, he began to work on a new identity.

No longer the thief, no longer the criminal, no longer the escaped convict known as Jean Valjean, he took on a new name. Monsieur Madeleine, he called himself. A new name, a new life, and a new city to call home.

But it wouldn’t be long before his previous life caught up with him. His former jailor, now an inspector with the police, sees something familiar in M. Madeleine and decides to investigate further.

When it seemed inevitable that he would be exposed for the thief and criminal he once was, a man bearing his face emerges as an escape from the ghosts of his past.

He soon faces the question of his own identity. Is he the criminal of so many years ago? Is he M. Madeleine, the benevolent mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer? Or is he someone completely different?

At some point in life we face the same questions Jean Valjean faced. Am I [insert sin here]? Or am I [insert accomplishments here]? Or is there something else that defines me?

Valjean’s conundrum in Les Misérables represents the problem that the world imposes upon each of us: what you do defines who you are. At work, you arrive at your position based on how much effort you put into your job. On your career path, you often receive your title based on the degree or certification program you completed before entering the workforce.

If you constantly make mistakes, you’re a failure. If you fight a losing battle with sexual immorality, you’re filthy and lustful. If you give in to your vices over and over again, you’re an addict.

How you live dictates who you are.

But for God, the complete opposite is true. Scripture tells us that who we are dictates how we live.

We are daughters and sons of God (Romans 8:14-15), so we can be joyful and grateful.

We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), so we share the incredible news that our King has come.

We are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3), so we can live freely because we have nothing to fear.

Suddenly we don’t have the pressure of living for something. Instead we can live from something—joy, peace, freedom.

Suddenly finding our identity is as simple as looking at our King.

Just know that even though it’s simple, it’s far from easy. This world is screaming other identities at us so loud that it can drown out the voice of the King. But if you listen, not for another deafening scream, but for a whisper, a “still, small voice,” if you will, you’ll hear him.

“You’re mine. Your identity is in me. You are my child, and I love you.”

Love and glory. . .

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

from the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what glorifying God looks like. How do we do this? What does it mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been pulled into these musings is that it’s been a recurring theme coming from those in the neo-reformed camp.

Glory.

“Give God the glory.”
“Don’t rob God of his glory.”
“God gets all the glory.”

There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away when I considered the idea of glorifying God: God is self-serving, and interested only in his own glory. At some level, I suppose, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, if you’re the most powerful, magnificent, and other being in the universe, who else would you glorify?

But the deeper I dug into this thought, the more uncomfortable I became with it. Questions started to arise in my mind that I was afraid to address. Was God so insecure that he would demand (read: dictate, determine) the praise of his creatures? What exactly was it about him that needed to be glorified or magnified? Power? Holiness? Distinctness? Sovereignty?

Is that what set him apart from all other deities?

I began to grow weary of the pat answers that did little more than create an image of a god who was after nothing more than his own glory.

Then again, why shouldn’t he be? He is God after all.

But isn’t there something inside you that balks at the thought? Isn’t there something in all of this talk of glory that, despite all the logical consistencies of something like TULIP, makes God frightening? Or worse yet, unloving?

What if we took a step back and looked at what God is trying to communicate to us through the whole of Scripture? There seems to be a story unfolding that reveals a most unusual central character.

As he reflected on the story, St. John wrote, “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love” (emphasis added). So this is who God is.

Obsession with one’s own glory hardly looks like love, and if love is how God defines himself, shouldn’t that be how we see him?

I turn at this point to N. T. Wright, who said it far better than I could have said it myself.

“[John Piper] sees [God’s righteousness] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love—God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply ‘for the sake of his own name.’ But ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynē theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring, out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and ‘God’s righteousness’ is a way of saying, ‘Yes, and God will be true to that character.'”

This truth cannot be overstated.

God is, by definition, love. All other attributes and actions that God possesses and commits must conform to this standard. It is who he is, and that is what remains unchanged and unchangeable about him.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament wrote the following concerning 1 John 4:8: “‘God is love.’—This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

What then does this say of God’s glory?

John Piper famously said that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Not necessarily untrue, but if I understand John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:13, and Philippians 2:5-11 correctly, then this statement would be far truer if styled, “God is most glorified in us when we most explicitly model his self-giving love to those around us.”

God’s glory is found in his love.

Just trust. . .

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of “God’s will for my life,” and what makes me a bit sad is when I see people around me (and often, I confess, myself) agonizing over what God’s will is in one circumstance or another, particularly with regards to decisions that we make in life.

Should I pursue a relationship with this girl or that one? Should I take this job offer or the other one? Should I stay in this town or relocate somewhere else?

I suppose one could take comfort in believing that God has it all mapped out and planned anyway, so we can just trust that whatever decision we make will be the one God decided for us ahead of time. Frankly, that belief leads me down the path towards determinism and eventually fatalism (If I make a destructive decision, was that God’s will for me? How can God be loving, or even good, if he determined that I would make a self-destructive choice?), but if that brings you comfort, hold tightly to that.

But if you’re like me, and you don’t believe that about God, how can you feel safe making decisions? How will you know what God’s will is for you? There’s an old adage I heard often when I was in school: “If you follow God’s daily will for your life, he’ll reveal to you his long-term will.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it always true? What if I’m doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly with my God everyday, but when I face that life-altering decision, I still don’t know the answer?

Here’s where I find comfort. God asks us to trust him. He loves us, and he has our best interests at heart. The more we get to know him, the more we’ll discover what he desires for us. It may never be specific, but here’s the cool thing. No matter what we choose, God is there.

Maybe that’s what it means to believe. Maybe it’s knowing that God has given us the freedom to use our minds and hearts to make good decisions, and that in whatever decision we make, God is there. So trust him.

Pull the trigger and trust him.

Because we could easily think ourselves into paralysis, killing our effectiveness.

So when you come to that fork in the road (I know, I’m tossing in unexpected metaphors that weren’t alluded to at the beginning of this post, but I’m just thinking on the fly here), go left or go right. Don’t just stand there and wonder which one is God’s will.

Because God’s will is that you trust him whether you go left or right. He’ll be there if you turn left, and he’ll be there if you turn right.

Trust the Lord and do good;
live in the land, and farm faithfulness.
Enjoy the Lord,
and he will give what your heart asks.
Commit your way to the Lord!
Trust him! He will act
and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
your justice like high noon.