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Dr. James Montgomery Boice on God’s Amazing Grace

There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. -Romans 3:22-24 (condensed)

In the last study I introduced four doctrines found in Romans 3:21–31:

(1) God has provided a righteousness of his own for men and women, a righteousness we do not possess ourselves;

(2) this righteousness is by grace;

(3) it is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for his people, redeeming them from their sin, that has made this grace on God’s part possible; and

(4) this righteousness, which God has graciously provided, becomes ours through simple faith. We have already looked at the first of these four doctrines: the righteousness that God has made available to us apart from law. Now we will examine the second doctrine: that this righteousness becomes ours by the grace of God alone, apart from human merit.

That is the meaning of grace, of course. It is God’s favor to us apart from human merit. Indeed, it is favor when we deserve the precise opposite. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written, “There is no more wonderful word than ‘grace.’ It means unmerited favor or kindness shown to one who is utterly undeserving.… It is not merely a free gift, but a free gift to those who deserve the exact opposite, and it is given to us while we are ‘without hope and without God in the world.’ ”

But how are we to do justice to this great concept today? We have too high an opinion of ourselves even to understand grace, let alone to appreciate it. We speak of it certainly. We sing, “Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—That saved a wretch like me!” But we do not think of ourselves as wretches needing to be saved. Rather, we think of ourselves as quite worthy. One teacher has said, “Amazing grace is no longer amazing to us.” In our view, it is not even grace.

There is No Difference

This is why the idea expressed in Romans 3:23 is inserted at this point. For many years, whenever I came to this verse, I had a feeling that it was somehow in the wrong place. It was not that Romans 3:23 is untrue. Obviously it is, for that is what Romans 1:18–3:20 is all about. What bothered me is that the verse did not seem to belong here. I felt that the words “there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” belonged with that earlier section. The verse seemed somehow an intrusion here, because Romans 3:21–31 is not talking about sin but about the way of salvation.

I think differently now, however. And the reason I think differently is that I now understand the connection between this verse and grace. The reason we do not appreciate grace is that we do not really believe Romans 3:23. Or, if we do, we believe it in a far lesser sense than Paul intended.

Let me use a story to explain what I mean. In his classic little book All of Grace, Charles Haddon Spurgeon begins with the story of a preacher from the north of England who went to call on a poor woman. He knew that she needed help. So, with money from the church in his hand, he made his way through the poor section of the city to where she lived, climbed the four flights of stairs to her tiny attic apartment, and then knocked at the door. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He went away. The next week he saw the woman in church and told her that he knew of her need and had been trying to help her. “I called at your room the other day, but you were not home,” he said.

“At what time did you call, sir?” she asked.

“About noon.”

“Oh, dear,” she answered. “I was home, and I heard you knocking. But I did not answer. I thought it was the man calling for the rent.”

This is a good illustration of grace and of our natural inability to appreciate it. But isn’t it true that, although most of us laugh at this story, we unfortunately also fail to identify with it? In fact, we may even be laughing at the poor woman rather than at the story, because we consider her to be in a quite different situation from ourselves. She was unable to pay the rent. We know people like that. We feel sorry for them. But we think that is not our condition. We can pay. We pay our bills here, and we suppose (even though we may officially deny it) that we will be able to pay something—a down payment even if not the full amount—on our outstanding balance in heaven. So we bar the door, not because we are afraid that God is coming to collect the rent, but because we fear he is coming with grace and we do not want a handout. We do not consider our situation to be desperate.

But, you see, if the first chapters of Romans have meant anything to us, they have shown that spiritually “there is no difference” between us and even the most destitute of persons. As far as God’s requirements are concerned, there is no difference between us and the most desperate or disreputable character in history.

I have in my library a fairly old book entitled Grace and Truth, written by the Scottish preacher W. P. Mackay. Wisely, in my judgment, the first chapter of the book begins with a study of “there is no difference.” I say “wisely,” because, as the author shows, until we know that in God’s sight there is no difference between us and even the wildest profligate, we cannot be saved. Nor can we appreciate the nature and extent of the grace needed to rescue us from our dilemma.

Mackay illustrates this point with an anecdote. Someone was once speaking to a rich English lady, stressing that every human being is a sinner. She replied with some astonishment, “But ladies are not sinners!”

“Then who are?” the person asked her.

“Just young men in their foolish days,” was her reply.

When the person explained the gospel further, insisting that if she was to be saved by Christ, she would have to be saved exactly as her footman needed to be saved—by the unmerited grace of God in Christ’s atonement—she retorted, “Well, then, I will not be saved!” That was her decision, of course, but it was tragic.

If you want to be saved by God, you must approach grace on the basis of Romans 1:18–3:20—on the grounds of your utter ruin in sin—and not on the basis of any supposed merit in yourself.

Common Grace

It is astonishing that we should fail to understand grace, of course, because all human beings have experienced it in a general but nonsaving way, even if they are not saved or have not even the slightest familiarity with Christianity. We have experienced what theologians call “common grace,” the grace that God has shown to the whole of humanity. Jesus spoke of it when he reminded his listeners that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45b).

When Adam and Eve sinned, the race came under judgment. No one deserved anything good. If God had taken Adam and Eve in that moment and cast them into the lake of fire, he would have been entirely just in doing so, and the angels could still have sung with great joy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8). Or, if God had spared Adam and Eve, allowing them to increase until there was a great mass of humanity in the world and then had brushed all people aside into everlasting torment, God would still have been just. God does not owe us anything. Consequently, the natural blessings we have are due not to our own righteousness or abilities but to common grace.

Let me try to state this clearly once more. If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, you are still a recipient of God’s common grace, whether you acknowledge it or not. If you are alive and not in hell at this moment, it is because of God’s common grace. If you are in good health and not wasting away in some ward of hopeless patients in a hospital, it is because of common grace. If you have a home and are not wandering about on city streets, it is because of God’s grace. If you have clothes to wear and food to eat, it is because of God’s grace. The list could be endless. There is no one living who has not been the recipient of God’s common grace in countless ways. So, if you think that it is not by grace but by your merits alone that you possess these blessings, you show your ignorance of spiritual matters and disclose how far you are from God’s kingdom.

Unmerited Grace

But it is not common grace that Paul is referring to in our Romans text, important as common grace is. It is the specific, saving grace of God in salvation, which is not “common” (in the sense that all persons experience it regardless of their relationship to God), but rather is a gift received only by some through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from merit.

This is the point we need chiefly to stress, of course, for it takes us back to the story of the preacher’s visit to the poor woman and reminds us that the reason we do not appreciate grace is that we think we deserve it. We do not deserve it! If we did, it would not be grace. It would be our due, and we have already seen that the only thing rightly due us in our sinful condition is a full outpouring of God’s just wrath and condemnation. So I say again: Grace is apart from good works. Grace is apart from merit. We should be getting this by now, because each of the blessings enumerated in this great chapter of Romans is apart from works, law, or merit—which are only various ways of saying the same thing.

The righteousness of God, which is also from God, is apart from works.

Grace, which is the source of that righteousness, is apart from works.

Redemption, which makes grace possible, is apart from works.

Justification is apart from works.

Salvation from beginning to end is apart from works. In other words, it is free. This must have been the chief idea in Paul’s mind when he wrote these verses, for he emphasizes the matter by repeating it. He says that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (v. 24, italics mine).

One of the most substantial works on grace that I have come across is by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, and it goes by that title: Grace. In the very first chapter Chafer has a section captioned “Seven Fundamental Facts About Grace.” I am not happy with everything he says in this section, particularly the last two of these points. But I refer to him here because of what he says about grace and demerit:

1.      “Grace is not withheld because of demerit” and

2.      “Grace cannot be lessened because of demerit.”

These are important points, since they emphasize the bright side of what usually appears to us as undesirable teaching.

Most of us resent the thought of “free” grace. We want to earn our own way, and we resent the suggestion that we are unable to scale the high walls of heaven by our own devices. We must be humbled before we will even give ear to the idea.

But if we have been humbled—if God has humbled us—the doctrine of grace becomes a marvelous encouragement and comfort. It tells us that the grace of God will never be withheld because of anything we may have done, however evil it was, nor will it be lessened because of that or any other evil we may do. The self-righteous person imagines that God scoops grace out of a barrel, giving much to the person who has sinned much and needs much, but giving only a little to the person who has sinned little and needs little. That is one way of wrongly mixing grace with merit. But the person who is conscious of his or her sin often imagines something similar, though opposite in direction. Such people think of God’s withholding grace because of their great sin, or perhaps even putting grace back into his barrel when they sin badly.

Thank God grace is not bestowed on this principle! As Chafer says:

God cannot propose to do less in grace for one who is sinful than he would have done had that one been less sinful. Grace is never exercised by him making up what may be lacking in the life and character of a sinner. In such a case, much sinfulness would call for much grace, and little sinfulness would call for little grace. [Instead] the sin question has been set aside forever, and equal exercise of grace is extended to all who believe. It never falls short of being the measureless saving grace of God. Thus, grace could not be increased, for it is the expression of his infinite love; it could not be diminished, for every limitation that human sin might impose on the action of a righteous God has, through the propitiation of the cross, been dismissed forever.

Grace humbles us, because it teaches that salvation is apart from human merit. At the same time, it encourages us to come to God for the grace we so evidently need. There is no sin too great either to turn God from us or to lessen the abundance of the grace he gives.

Abounding Grace

That word abundance leads to the final characteristic of grace to be included in this study. It is taught two chapters further on in a verse that became the life text of John Newton: Romans 5:20. Our version reads, “.… But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” But the version Newton knew rendered this, “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” (kjv.)

John Newton was an English clergyman who lived from 1725 to 1807. He had a wide and effective ministry and has been called the second founder of the Church of England. He is best known to us for his hymns.

Newton was raised in a Christian home in which he was taught many great verses of the Bible. But his mother died when he was only six years old, and he was sent to live with a relative who mocked Christianity. One day, at an early age, Newton left home and joined the British Navy as an apprenticed seaman. He was wild and dissolute in those years, and he became exceedingly immoral. He acquired a reputation of being able to swear for two hours without repeating himself. Eventually he deserted the navy off the coast of Africa. Why Africa? In his memoirs he wrote that he went to Africa for one reason only and that was “that I might sin my fill.”

In Africa he fell in with a Portuguese slave trader in whose home he was cruelly treated. This man often went away on slaving expeditions, and when he was gone the power in the home passed to the trader’s African wife, the chief woman of his harem. This woman hated all white men, and she took out her hatred on Newton. He tells us that for months he was forced to grovel in the dirt, eating his food from the ground like a dog and beaten unmercifully if he touched it with his hands. For a time he was actually placed in chains. At last, thin and emaciated, Newton made his way through the jungle, reached the sea, and there attracted a British merchant ship making its way up the coast to England.

The captain of the ship took Newton aboard, thinking that he had ivory to sell. But when he learned that the young man knew something about navigation as a result of his time in the British Navy, he made him ship’s mate. Even then Newton fell into trouble. One day, when the captain was ashore, Newton broke out the ship’s supply of rum and got the crew drunk. He was so drunk himself that when the captain returned and struck him in the head, Newton fell overboard and would have drowned if one of the sailors had not grabbed him and hauled him back on deck in the nick of time.

Near the end of the voyage, as they were approaching Scotland, the ship ran into bad weather and was blown off course. Water poured in, and she began to sink. The young profligate was sent down into the hold to pump water. The storm lasted for days. Newton was terrified, sure that the ship would sink and he would drown. But there in the hold of the ship, as he pumped water, desperately attempting to save his life, the God of grace, whom he had tried to forget but who had never forgotten him, brought to his mind Bible verses he had learned in his home as a child. Newton was convicted of his sin and of God’s righteousness. The way of salvation opened up to him. He was born again and transformed. Later, when the storm had passed and he was again in England, Newton began to study theology and eventually became a distinguished evangelist, preaching even before the queen.

Of this storm William Cowper, the British poet who was a close friend of John Newton’s, wrote:

God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

And Newton? Newton became a poet as well as a preacher, writing some of our best-known hymns. This former blasphemer wrote:

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds

In a believer’s ear!

It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,

And drives away his fear.

He is known above all for “Amazing Grace”:

Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found—

Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,

I have already come;

’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

Newton was a great preacher of grace. And no wonder! He had learned what all who have ever been saved have learned: namely, that grace is from God, apart from human merit. He deserved nothing. But he found grace through the work of Jesus.

 About the Author:

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.The article/sermon above was adapted from Dr. James Montgomery Boice. The Boice Commentary Series: Romans Expositions vol. 1: Justification by Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005 (reprinted). Pages 355-362.

 

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Is God Responsible for Natural Disasters? By Dr. Erwin Lutzer

Why let the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. – Psalm 115:2-3

I’m told that after an earthquake in California a group of ministers met for a prayer breakfast. As they discussed impassable expressways and ruined buildings, they agreed that God had very little to do with the disaster. They concluded that since the earth is under the Curse from Creation, earthquakes and other natural disasters simply happen according to laws of nature. But even after they made that conclusion, one of the ministers closed in prayer, thanking God for the timing of the earthquake that came at five o’clock in the morning when there were fewer people out on the roads.

So did God have anything to do with that earthquake or didn’t He? How can a person conclude that God is not involved and then thank Him for His involvement? It can’t be both ways.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Our earth is not immune to disasters. So how does God fit in? Intuitively, people know God is in charge. When tragedy strikes, people call out to Him. We know that when something is outside of our control, we need to call upon a higher power for help. But if people intuitively know that God is in charge, how do we explain the heart-wrenching suffering that accompanies such disasters?

 Who Is Responsible?

There’s no doubt about it—natural disasters aren’t very good for God’s reputation. As a result, many Christians try to absolve Him of any and all responsibility for these horrific events. They want to “get Him off the hook” in order to help Him maintain His loving image. Some do this by saying that God is weak—He can’t really stop these disasters from happening, but He will work really hard to bring something good out of them. Others try to give the devil all the blame, saying God is not involved at all in any of the bad things that happen—He’s just a bystander.

Is God Weak?

Let’s begin with people who try to protect God’s reputation by claiming that He is unable to prevent our planet from getting pounded by one calamity after another. These folks fear that if we say God is responsible for natural disasters or that He allows them because of a higher purpose, we will drive people away from the Christian faith. “Why would people want to come to a God who would do such horrible things?” they ask. When we glibly say that “God will bring good out of it” or that “in the end we win,” it does little to comfort those who have lost loved ones or possessions in a disaster.

I agree that glib statements about suffering being part of God’s plan will not immediately comfort the grieving. In fact, it probably is true that giving such answers without any compassion or understanding could indeed drive people away from God rather than toward Him. As Christians, we do need to be very careful what we say to those who are grieving from great loss. Sometimes it is best to remain silent, not pretending that we have the right to speak on God’s behalf, but to act benevolently on His behalf instead. I will talk more about this later in this chapter.

To take the approach that God is weak, unable to handle the forces of nature, is to believe that God is finite. If it is true that God is not all-powerful and must deal with natural disasters as best as He can after they happen, how can a God like that be trusted? If God is helpless in the face of a hurricane, how confident can we be that He can one day subdue all evil? To believe that God is finite might get Him off the hook for natural disasters, but it also puts end-time victories in jeopardy. The Bible does not describe a weak God, however. In fact, just the opposite. God is omnipotent—all-powerful. Consider just a sampling of Scripture that focuses on God’s power over His creation:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. - Genesis 1:1

You formed the mountains by your power and armed yourself with mighty strength. You quieted the raging oceans with their pounding waves and silenced the shouting of the nations. – Psalm 65:6-7

The heavens are yours, and the earth is yours; everything in the world is yours—you created it all. You created north and south. Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon praise your name. Powerful is your arm! Strong is your hand! Your right hand is lifted high in glorious strength. – Psalm 89:11-13

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. – Isaiah 40:26

[Jesus] got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. - Matthew 8:26

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20

It would be strange indeed if the God who created the world were unable to control it. To describe God as too weak to handle natural disasters doesn’t help God’s reputation, it doesn’t get Him off the hook, and it isn’t biblical. The answer to the question, “Is God weak?” is a resounding no! God is all-powerful and completely able to control nature.

 Are Disasters the Devil’s Fault?

The second way some Christians try to exempt God from involvement in natural disasters is to simply blame everything on the devil. God is not responsible for what happens, they say. He created the world and lets it run; nature is fallen, and Satan, who is the god of this world, wreaks havoc with the natural order.

Scripture clearly tells us that nature is under a curse just as people are: “The ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it” (Genesis 3:17). It follows, then, that Satan might indeed be involved in natural disasters. We have an example of this in the book of Job, when God gave Satan the power to destroy Job’s children. Acting under God’s direction and within certain set limitations, Satan used lightning to kill the sheep and the servants and a powerful wind to kill all ten of Job’s children (Job 1). Clearly the devil takes great pleasure in causing havoc and destruction. Take a moment to look at the wretched life of the demon-possessed man before Jesus commanded the legion of demons to leave him. The Gospel of Luke describes him as homeless and naked, living in a cemetery, shrieking, breaking chains and shackles, completely alone, and without hope (Luke 8:26-29). This is a snapshot of Satan’s ultimate goal for living things. Here is proof, if proof is needed, that satanic powers might indeed be connected to the natural disasters that afflict our planet.

So if the devil is involved, does this mean that God is removed from Does He really have a “hands-off policy” when it comes to disasters? Does this absolve God of responsibility? Is it all the devil’s fault? Clearly the answer to all of these questions is no. God has not relegated calamities to His hapless archrival the devil without maintaining strict supervision and ultimate control of nature. No earthquake comes, no tornado rages, and no tsunami washes villages away but that God signs
off on it.

But that conclusion creates its own set of questions…

So What Does It Mean That God Is in Control?

If God isn’t too weak to deal with His creation, and if we cannot put all the blame on Satan, then where does that leave us? It leaves us with the fact that God is all-powerful and in control—and that applies to natural disasters. We must think carefully at this point.

We must distinguish between the secondary cause of disastrous events and their ultimate cause. The secondary cause of the lightning and the wind that killed Job’s children was the power of Satan. But follow carefully: it was God who gave Satan the power to wreak the havoc. It was God who set the limits of what Satan could or could not do. In effect, God said, “Satan, you can go this far, no further. I’m setting the boundaries here.” That’s why Job, quite rightly, did not say that the death of his children was the devil’s doing. Instead, Job said, “The LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away. Praise the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21).

Scientifically speaking, we know that the secondary cause of an earthquake is due to a fault beneath the earth’s crust; the top of the earth’s crust moves in one direction while the levels under the earth’s crust gradually move in the opposite direction. The secondary causes of a tornado are unstable atmospheric conditions combined with warm, moist air. The secondary cause of a hurricane is a large air mass heated and fueled by the warmth of the ocean. All of these weather patterns might or might not receive their momentum from Satan, yet we can be sure that the ultimate cause of these events is God. He rules through intermediate causes and at times by direct intervention, but either way, He is in charge. After all, He is the Creator, the Sustainer, of all things. We sing with Isaac Watts,

There’s not a plant or flower below,

But makes Thy glories known;

And clouds arise, and tempests blow,

By order from Thy throne.

So what does it mean for us that God is in control, even when natural disasters occur? How do we begin to process this?

First, many theologians who agree that God is in charge of nature emphasize that God does not decree natural disasters but only permits them to happen. Understanding the difference between these words is helpful, especially since in the book of Job God permitted Satan to bring about disasters to test Job. However, keep in mind that the God who permits natural disasters to happen could choose to not permit them to happen. In the very act of allowing them, He demonstrates that they fall within the boundaries of His providence and will. The devil is not allowed to act beyond the boundaries God sets.

Second—and this is important—God is sometimes pictured as being in control of nature even without secondary or natural causes. When the disciples were at their wits’ end, expecting to drown in a stormy sea, Christ woke up from a nap and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” The effect was immediate: “Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). Christ could have spoken similar words to the tidal wave in Papua New Guinea or the rain that triggered the mudslides in Venezuela, and they would have obeyed Him. At the word of Christ, the tsunami in Southeast Asia would have ended before it hit the coastlines. Notice how the Scriptures credit tidal waves and tsunamis to God: “The LORD’s home reaches up to the heavens, while its foundation is on the earth. He draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land. The LORD is his name!” (Amos 9:6).

Third, if the heavens declare the glory of God, if it is true that the Lord reveals His character through the positive side of nature, doesn’t it make sense that the calamities of nature also reveal something about Him too? If nature is to give us a balanced picture of God, we must see His judgment, too. “The LORD does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth, and on the seas and in their depths. He causes the clouds to rise over the whole earth. He sends the lightning with the rain and releases the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:6-7).

 God’s Signature

After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, a supposed Christian cleric was asked whether God had anything to do with the disaster. “No,” he replied. “The question as to why it happened demands a geological answer, not a theological answer.” Is he reading the same Bible I am? Or has he read the Bible and simply chosen not to believe it?

Who sent the Flood during the time of Noah? God said, “I am about to cover the earth with a flood that will destroy every living thing that breathes. Everything on earth will die” (Genesis 6:17).

God determined the timing, the duration, and the intensity of the rain. And it happened according to His word. It would have been difficult to convince Noah that God had nothing to do with the weather, that all He could do was weep when the Flood came.

Who sent the plagues on Egypt? Who caused the sun to stand still so that Joshua could win a battle? Who first sealed the heavens and then brought rain in response to Elijah’s prayer? Who sent the earthquake when the sons of Korah rebelled against Moses? This event recorded in the Bible is of special interest:

[Moses] had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel (Numbers 16:31-33).

Can anyone say that God is not the ultimate cause of these disasters? In the story of Jonah, the biblical writer leaves no doubt as to who caused the storm that forced the sailors to throw the stowaway overboard. “The LORD hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart” (Jonah 1:4, italics added). The sailors agonized about unloading their unwanted cargo, but we read that they “picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once!” (Jonah 1:15). It appears that the Bible is not as concerned about God’s reputation as some theologians are. It puts God clearly in charge of the wind, the rain, and the calamities of the earth.

What do all these stories have in common? Notice that God is meticulously involved. Whether an earthquake, a raging wind, or a rainstorm, the events came and left according to God’s word. In addition, many of these calamities were acts of judgment by which God expressed how much He hated disobedience. In Old Testament times, these judgments generally separated godly people from wicked people (this is not the case today, as we shall see in the next chapter). However, even back then, sometimes the godly were also victims of these judgments. Job’s children were killed not because they were wicked, but because God wanted to test their father.

On the other hand, we should also note that in both the Old and New Testaments God sometimes sent a natural disaster to help His people. During a battle when Saul’s son Jonathan killed a Philistine, we read, “Then panic struck the whole [enemy] army—those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God” (1 Samuel 14:15, NIV, italics added). And in the New Testament, an earthquake delivered Paul and Silas from prison: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!” (Acts 16:25-26).

Both of these earthquakes had God’s signature on them.

God uses nature to do His bidding. Directly or indirectly, He can cause an earthquake to happen at five in the morning. God does as He wills.

Is Our God Really Good?

If God is the ultimate cause of all things and if He does as He wills on this earth—including with nature and natural disasters—can we put the blame on Him for the evil and suffering that these disasters cause? How can God be good when He permits (or does) things that seem so destructive and hurtful to human beings? Surely if we had the power to prevent an earthquake, if we could have stopped the tsunami, we would have done so.

Natural disasters are not “evil” in the usual sense of the word. If a tsunami took place in the middle of the ocean and did not affect any people, we would not think of it as evil. It’s when humans are affected, and when death and suffering occur, that such disasters become “evil.”

In light of what I’ve said, should God be blamed for such destructive disasters that create unfathomable human suffering? The word blame implies wrongdoing, and I don’t believe such a word should ever be applied to God. But even asking if God is responsible for natural disasters also might not be best, since the word responsibility usually implies accountability, and God is accountable to no one: “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes” (Psalm 115:3).

Let’s begin by agreeing that God plays by a different set of rules. If you were standing beside a swimming pool and watched a toddler fall in and did nothing to help, you could be facing a lawsuit for negligence. Yet God watches children drown—or, for that matter, starve—every day and does not intervene. He sends drought to countries in Africa, creating scarcity of food; He sends tsunamis, wiping out homes and crops.

We are obligated to keep people alive as long as possible, but if God were held to that standard, no one would ever die. Death is a part of the Curse: “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). What for us would be criminal is an everyday occurrence for God.

Why the difference? God is the Creator; we are the creatures. Because God is the giver of life, He also has the right to take life. He has a long-term agenda that is much more complex than keeping people alive as long as possible. Death and destruction are a part of His plan. “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that natural disasters prove that God cannot be both good and all-powerful. If He were, suffering and happiness would be carefully meted out to all people, each person getting exactly what he or she deserved. Since natural disasters appear to be random, affecting both good and evil people, God therefore cannot be both good and all-powerful. Mill forgets, however, that we don’t receive our final rewards and punishments in this life. Indeed, the Scriptures teach that the godly often endure the most fearful calamities. God always acts from the standpoint of eternity rather than time; His decisions are made with an infinite perspective. Therefore, it comes down to this: we believe that God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heartrending tragedies disasters bring.

Speaking of the earthquake in Turkey that took thousands of lives, pastor and author John Piper says, “[God] has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age” (John Piper, “Whence and Why?” World Magazine, September 4, 1993, 33). God has a purpose for each individual. For some, His purpose is that their days on earth end when disaster strikes; for the survivors there are other opportunities to rearrange priorities and focus on what really matters. The woman who said she lost everything but God during Hurricane Katrina probably spoke for thousands of people who turned to Him in their utter despair. God does not delight in the suffering of humanity. He cares about the world and its people: “But you, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15). God does not delight in the death of the wicked but is pleased when they turn from their wicked ways (Ezekiel 18:23). We finite beings cannot judge our infinite God. He is not obligated to tell us everything He is up to. As Paul described it, the clay has no right to tell the potter what to do (Romans 9:19-21). It is not necessary for us to know God’s purposes before we bow to His authority. And the fact that we trust God even though He has not revealed the details is exactly the kind of faith that delights His heart. “It is impossible to please God without faith” (Hebrews 11:6). In chapter 5 we shall see that this sovereign God has given us reasons to trust Him. Faith will always be necessary, but our faith has strong supports. We do not believe clever fables but rather a credible account of God’s will, God’s power, and God’s dealings with us in the Bible.

Responding to the Hurting with Compassion

The God who created the laws of nature and allows them to “take their course” is the very same God who commands us to fight against these natural forces. Before the Fall, God gave Adam and Eve the mandate to rule over nature. After the Fall, the mandate continued even though the ground would yield thorns and thistles and childbearing would mean struggling with pain. The desire to live would become the fight to live.

We’ve seen it over and over—the relentless compassion of people reaching out to help others who have been faced with calamity. People offer money, goods, services, and their time and labor to bring aid where it is most needed. Charitable giving to the American Red Cross for Haiti relief set a record for mobile-generated donations, raising seven million dollars in twenty-four hours when Red Cross allowed people to send ten-dollar donations by text messages (Doug Gross, “Digital Fundraising Still Pushing Haiti Relief,” CNN, January 15, 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-15/tech/online.donations.haiti_1_earthquake-haiti-haiti-relief-twitter-andfacebook?_s=PM:TECH). This is when God’s glory shines through even in the darkest times.

God uses nature both to bless and challenge us, to feed and instruct us. He wants us to fight against the devastation of natural disasters, even as we fight against the devil, so that we might become overcomers in this fallen world. Although nature is under God’s supervision, we are invited to fight disease and plagues.

We can and should strive for better medical care and clean water and food for the starving in Third World countries. We should be willing to help those who are in distress—even at great personal risk.

Martin Luther, when asked whether Christians should help the sick and dying when the plague came to Wittenberg, said that each individual would have to answer the question for himself. He believed that the epidemic was spread by evil spirits, but added, “Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner John the apostle teaches, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’” (1 John 3:16 and for more on Martin Luther see Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1989, 744).

In recent years, the news media have carried stories of virulent flu viruses that have infected humans in epidemic proportions. Some Christians might wonder if they should help those who are sick, risking their own lives for the sake of others. Disasters such as these make Luther’s comments about Wittenberg plague relevant. Martin Luther continued:

If it be God’s will that evil come upon us, none of our precautions will help us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, “Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; they will be done. I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me in the pestilence in the same way if I were in fire, water, drought or any other danger”  (Ibid, 742).

Yes the plague was “God’s decree,” but we also must do what we can to save the lives of the sick and minister to the dying, We should thank God when He gives us the opportunity to rescue the wounded when a disaster strikes. Tragedies give us the opportunity to serve the living and comfort the dying all around us. Through the tragedies of others, we have the opportunity to leave our comfortable lifestyles and enter the suffering of the world.

Historically, the church has always responded to tragedies with sacrifice and courage. During the third century, the writer Tertullian recorded that when plagues deserted their nearest relatives in the plague, Christians stayed and ministered to the sick.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, churches rose to the occasion to help the victims. Church members prepared tens of thousands of meals for people left homeless and scattered in shelters. One church would help another begin the painful process of relocation and reconstruction. Even the secular press had to admit that governmental red tape did not stop the churches from sacrificially helping in time of need. What the government and the Red Cross could not do, the people of God did. This is how it should be. This is how we become Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.

In the days after the 2011 Joplin tornado, one pastor’s wife wrote to a friend, “It [the tornado and its aftermath] has certainly stretched us. All the things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—marriages in crisis, pettiness, misunderstandings, sins of all varieties—do not go away when the storms come. They do get put on the back burner. They catch fire. Other things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—tireless, selfless, tenderhearted servants who are constantly seeking to please God and serve His church—do not go away either. They catch fire. I am amazed at these people.”

Jesus was touched by the plight that the curse of sin brought to this world. We see Him weep at the tomb of Lazarus, and we hear His groans. “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance” (John 11:38). After the stone was removed, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43) and the dead man came to life in the presence of the astonished onlookers. The Jesus who stayed away for a few extra days so Lazarus would die is the very same Jesus who raised him from the dead.

Like Jesus, we mourn for the horrendous pain people experience on this planet. Like the weeping prophet Jeremiah, we find ourselves saying, “Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord. Lift up your hands to him in prayer, pleading for your children, for in every street they are faint with hunger” (Lamentations 2:19).

Although modern medicine and technology allow us to stave off death as long as possible, eventually we will all be overcome by its power. Yet in the end, we sin! Christ has conquered death.

Responding to God in Faith

If there is still some doubt in your mind that ultimately God has control of nature, let me ask you: Have you ever prayed for beautiful weather for a wedding? Have you ever prayed for rain at a time of drought? Have you ever asked God to protect you during a severe storm? Many people who claim God has no control over the weather change their minds when a funnel cloud comes toward them. The moment we call out to Him in desperate prayer, we are admitting that He is in charge.

It is also vital to understand that if nature is out of God’s hands, then we are also out of God’s hands. We should be nothing more than victims of nature and thus die apart from His will. Jesus, however, assures His children that He will take care of us. “What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7). The God who cares for the tiny sparrows and counts the hairs on our heads is in charge of nature.

The ministers in California were right in thanking God that the earthquake came early in the morning when there was little traffic on the expressways. They were wrong, however, for saying that God was not in charge of the tragedy. Of course He was—both biblically and logically.

There is, perhaps, no greater mystery than human suffering, so let us humbly admit that we can’t determine God’s ways.

The eighteenth-century English poet William Cowper put the mysteries of God in perspective:

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessing on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain (William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Cowper’s Poems, ed. Hugh I’Anson Fausset. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1966, 188-189).

“Grieve not because thou understand not life’s mystery,” wrote a wise man. “Behind the veil is concealed many a delight” (Quoted in Charles Swindoll, The Mystery of God’s Will. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999, 115).

The trusting believer knows this is so.

 About the Author:

Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.

Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Dr. Lutzer and his wife, Rebecca, live in the Chicago area and are the parents of three grown children. The article above was adapted from Chapter 2 in the short and insightful book by Erwin W. Lutzer. An Act of God: Answers to Tough Questions about God’s Role in Natural Disasters. Wheaton: Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 2011.

 

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St. Augustine Was Baptized On This Day – April 25 in 387

Series: On This Day in Christian History – “Raised to New Life”

 By A. Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves

“And we were baptized and all anxiety for our past life vanished away.” With these joyous words Augustine recorded his entrance into the church on this day in 387.

It had taken Augustine thirty-three years to get to the public confession of Christ that was represented by his baptism. He was born in North Africa in 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father. He became a student in Carthage at twelve years of age. At sixteen, he began to teach grammar.

While he was young, he became promiscuous. He tells in his famous Autobiography that he boasted of sins he had not had the opportunity to commit, rather than seem to have fallen behind his peers.

His mother, Monica, was determined to see him converted. He was equally determined to have pleasures. He took a mistress, and she bore him a son, whom they named Adeodatus, which means “gift of God.” For awhile Augustine resented the lad but soon became inseparable from him.

When he was twenty-nine, Augustine’s restless spirit drove him to Italy. His mother decided to accompany him so that her prayers might be reinforced by her presence. But Augustine gave her the slip, sailing away while she knelt praying in a chapel.

In Rome he taught rhetoric for a year, but was cheated of his fees. And so he looked for a more fertile field of labor and settled on Milan. His mother caught up with him and prevailed upon him to attend the church of St. Ambrose. Augustine found that Christian singing moved him deeply, and in spite of himself he began to drift toward his mother’s faith. He found the writings of the Apostle Paul deeply stirring and more satisfying than the cool abstractions of philosophy. He wrestled with deep conviction but was unable to yield himself to God because of his strong attachment to the flesh.

Finally he reached a day when his inner struggles were too great to bear. He tried reading Scripture but abandoned the effort. Unable to act on the truth he knew, he began to weep and threw himself behind a fig tree. “How long, O Lord,” he cried. And his heart answered “Why not now?” A child’s sing song voice came clearly to him, repeating over and over, “Take it and read it.” It seemed a message from God. Augustine snatched up the Bible and read Paul’s words:

“Let us behave decently…not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:13-14).

Faith flooded upon him. He immediately thrust aside the sins of the flesh that had held him in bondage. “But faith would not let me be at ease about my past sins, since these had not yet been forgiven me by means of your baptism.” He entered the water and was relieved.

After his mother’s death, Augustine returned to Africa, where he founded a monastery and became the bishop of Hippo and a brilliant and prolific theologian. More than any other man, his imprint was stamped upon the medieval Church.

Other Significant Events on April 25th in Church History:

799: Pope St. Leo III’s eyes were stabbed and his tongue torn out in a conspiracy by the nephews of an earlier pope. He recovered and crowned Charlemagne emperor.

974: Ratherius, who raised a ruckus to end clergy marriages, died on this day.

1475: A young Savonarola left home and walked to Bologna, taking the family Bible with him. He became a monk and later a reformer. He was eventually martyred for his faith.

1800: William Cowper, a depressed but original poet and hymn writer, died. He is remembered for his friendship with ex-slaver John Newton and for his hymn “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

1879: Joseph Barber Lightfoot, considered the greatest biblical scholar of his day, was consecrated as bishop of Durham. He was a godly man and became one of the greatest bishops of the day.

1911: A rare Gutenberg Bible sold for $50,000, the equivalent of at least $500,000 today.

Adapted from the April 25th entry in This Day In Christian History, edited by A Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications

 

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