Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Four Ways the Gospel Comes: Grace Found in 1st Thessalonians

For the moment, I am breaking away from the "Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen?" series so that I can publish this third post in our Sovereign Grace series that will continue our search for all the references in the New Testament that points to our being sovereignly chosen by God to be His children. We’re continuing down the chronological timeline of when the books were written in history.

The third book that was written in the New Testament was a very special letter from the Apostle Paul to one of his most beloved congregations, the Thessalonian Church. He wrote two letters to this church as most of us may know and obviously 1st Thessalonians was the first one. This was the place that motivated him and encouraged him more than any other. In fact, he didn’t have anything bad to say to this church like he did to other churches in his other letters, i.e. the Corinthians.

Right away, in verses 2 and 3, he starts off with a very loving and endearing encouragement. “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Why do I mention this? Paul continues right on with the reason as to why the Thessalonian Church was so faithful.

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

The Greek word for chosen, here, is eklogh (Ekloge), which means “the act of picking out or choosing; Of the act of God's free will by which before the foundation of the world he decreed his blessings to certain persons the decree made from choice by which he determined to bless certain persons through Christ by grace alone; A thing or person chosen.”

This is the first instance in 1st Thessalonians that we see God’s sovereign choice being revealed by the Apostle Paul. Here, there is no guessing, no pondering, no speculating, no conversation about whether or not the Thessalonian believers were God’s chosen children. Paul is authoritative and clear: For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you…”

How is Paul so sure of this? Well, as we will find out in his other letters to various churches, he already has a strong stance on God’s sovereignty in salvation. He does give some indication, though, as to how it could only be God who selected these people.

In verse 5 he says, “Because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

This portion is so rich and so compelling when you understand what Paul just said. He said the gospel didn’t just come in his articulation, which is the first way that it is presented, it came in power, it came in the Holy Spirit, and it came in full conviction. Let’s just unwrap the significance of this.

What does it mean that the gospel came in power? As Paul indicates in his later letter to the Romans, he was not ashamed of the gospel “because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”

Paul says to the Thessalonians that he knows they were chosen because the gospel came not only in Paul’s word, but in power! The power of God was at work in the gospel. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. To the Corinthian Church, he wrote to them saying “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Again we see the crucial underlying point here that these people weren’t convinced or persuaded with anything humanly clever. The only way people respond to the Gospel in faith is when God works his power through the unadulterated and un-watered down Gospel.

Remember what else he told the Corinthians in his first letter?

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (2:1-5)”

This is a beautiful and harmonious summary of a legitimate Gospel presentation and it takes us right to the second point that Paul mentioned earlier in our 1st Thessalonians passage. Paul says that the Gospel also came to the Thessalonians in the Holy Spirit. This passage we just read brings light to the fact that the gospel is effective because of the Holy Spirit, the power of God.

In the case of the Thessalonians, Paul can say that he knows that the Thessalonians were chosen by God because of how it took hold of them in power and the obvious work of the Holy Spirit. It was not just because Paul presented the gospel in some kind of lofty and persuasive speech, which caused people to dedicate their works of service to the local church. It was deeper than that. It was divine. It was true repentance and faith in Christ for salvation from sin and death.

Paul’s final point was that the gospel came to them in full conviction. Again, this is a revealing indication that the Lord God had opened the hearts of the people to be receptive to the message, which convicted them greatly. This is why Paul knows they were chosen by God because God did the work and initiated the relationship with them and convicted them with the gospel message, which again is the power of God Himself and the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul happened to be the humble vessel that the message came in, for as it says later in Romans 10, “How are they to hear without someone preaching?”

Paul knew it wasn’t him that made it happen. It wasn’t Paul’s words that won them over, though he did preach the Word, which is necessary for people to hear it (Rom. 10:14), but he knew that the real work of conversion and repentance was because of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just as we saw in James, how our assurance of salvation can only come from understanding this powerful work of God, we can see here that it helps us to not place our faith in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

What does Paul indicate here in the beginning of his first Thessalonian letter? That these people were clearly chosen because they heard the Word of God and were moved by the Spirit of God in the power of God and were genuinely convicted and moved to repentance and salvation. Amen.

This first verse had so much richness to it that I am going to stop here for now. The next post will touch on the other areas of 1st Thessalonians and we’ll continue to see how much the doctrine of election is weaved through Scripture.

Stay tuned!

Feel free to post any comments relating to the topic at hand. Stuff like this is oftentimes best “discussed” to get a good grasp on it and to clarify anything that needs to be clarified. God bless!

In His Sovereign Grip,


Friday, December 2, 2011

Why Does God Allow Bad Things To Happen? Part 3: Natural Disasters, Terrorism & Miscarriages

In just the last 10 years, we have witnessed, or personally experienced, some record-breaking, mind-blowing tragedies. You can probably guess from the title of this post, which ones I’m referring to.

No matter who you are or what you believe, there’s generally a typical response to the “Breaking News” of a devastating event, which usually starts with some jaws dropping and ends with some lips moving to the tune of, “I can’t believe this is happening!” or “Why?!”

We all know these things happen and are merely natural events, or better put, natural disasters, but when we see the carnage and wreckage that Hurricane Katrina wove through the south-eastern states by demolishing enough homes to displace over 1.5 million people we can only stand aghast.

When we see the ravaging waters of a tsunami sweep into the countryside of Japan and reach metropolitan areas, killing 20,000 people, we stand helpless, glued to the TV wondering why it has to happen.

Then we watch in horror as innocent young children and babies are pulled from the rubble of a massive earthquake that struck the country of Haiti, killing roughly 230,000 people total. Again, helpless we stand watching and wondering.

Then we think of things like cancer, which according to the American Cancer Society killed over half a million people just this year so far. Why is it that cancer is so prevalent, yet so incurable? Why do such wonderful people have to die such an agonizing and painful death? Even if they survive, then why the anguish in the first place? What’s the point?

Finally, as Americans, we get furious when we remember the events surrounding September 11, 2001. An act of sheer hatred, malicious intent, and blood-seeking terrorists does not get forgotten easily, especially for those who will forever be affected by the loss of a family member or friend.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed. Nearly 3,000 children lost a parent that day. 1,717 families received no remains of their lost loved ones. About 422,000 New Yorkers are suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder as a result. The economic loss to New York in the month following the attacks was $105 billion. This day was unreal.

People of all faiths are demanded an answer by a world that has largely rejected the concept of a sovereign god, let alone the God of the Bible. All faiths are giving answers and asking questions at the same time. It is a time of trial as we wrestle with how such terrible events can happen to such innocent bystanders who were either poor already, or had no defense whatsoever.

Larry King was interviewing a religious panel on CNN once when he asked the question, “What Happens After We Die?” The panel consisted of a number of people from various religious beliefs and faiths, including reformed evangelical pastor, John MacArthur, of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA.

Throughout the conversation, John MacArthur had mentioned that death for a Christian is ultimately a good thing because they inherit eternal life with God in Heaven. The question of 9/11 came up and Larry wanted to know why God would let that happen. He asked, “Where was God on 9/11?” You can see that a couple of hot topics were in the air of the CNN newsroom that day.

John MacArthur responded:

“I’ll answer that very simply. No one died in those towers who weren’t going to die anyway. Death is a reality and the message is that you don’t know when you’re going to die and you better be ready. Jesus told a story: there were some people worshiping in a temple and Pilate’s soldiers came in and sliced them up and their blood mingled with the sacrifices [Luke 13:1-3]; it was Passover. They said to Jesus, ‘Were they worse than everybody else?’ Jesus said, ‘You better repent or you’ll also die and perish’. And they said a tower fell over and killed 18 people in Siloam [Luke 13:4-5], ‘Were they worse than everybody else because they were crushed?’ and Jesus said, “You better repent, or you’ll likewise perish.’ The Bible says you die, then after this, the Judgment, then Heaven and Hell. You’re not going into eternity as energy, you’re going as a person.”

MacArthur took the emotions out of the questions surrounding the event and centered on one central truth that cannot be overlooked: We all die, but we do not know when, so we better be ready for Judgment. This is something that we must remember when dealing with a question like “Why does God let bad things happen?” Aside from the fact that God is sovereign and we do not understand all of His ways (which we covered more thoroughly in Part 2), we must remember that no matter the method of death, we will still someday face it. This is inevitable. This will take some of the wind out of the sails of being mad at God for letting something bad like 9/11 happen.

Even if a dear loved one was killed in cold blood, or a small child was trampled by a herd of gazelles in Africa, this does not mean that God is less good, loving, or just. We will all die anyway. When we really think about it, when we question God’s goodness because of an “untimely” death, then we are really trying to usurp His authority and sovereignty with our own, which is a silly thought all at once. We are forced to ask ourselves a few questions: When will I not question God’s goodness or love when He takes the life of someone I love? When is the perfect time for someone to die, in my opinion? When would I be content to lose a loved one?

You see, when we ask these questions we feel a little sheepish for even considering them, but this is the corner we force ourselves into when we decry God as unjust and unloving for taking the life of a baby, a parent, or a friend at a time we don’t expect. How is it that we are more content with someone dying at a ripe old age, who had no health issues, but died from natural causes, than we are a young one who couldn’t live a longer life? Is it only because we don’t think it’s fair for us? Emotionally it isn’t fair, is it? But who are we to make an large claim about how God is less good because of it?

Now let me just say that I am in no way saying that there is no validity to grieving the loss of a loved one. Romans 12:15 says to mourn with those who mourn. Emotions are real manifestations of our feelings, which God gave us to be good stewards with, like anything else. However, what I really want to be clear here is that you ought to read and try to understand these things from an eternal perspective. From God’s sovereign perspective, as best you can. We have to break away from our personal circumstantial perspective in order to get close to wrapping our minds around such horrific events that this world faces.

I lost a dear grandpa a number of years ago who had a vital role in my adolescent life. He was a hero in a sense to me because of how he stepped in for my family when it seemed like nothing else was going for us. When he passed away, I was very sad by it. He had smoked for many years and contracted lung cancer and I witnessed him becoming more and more frail. The grandpa that used to hike Mt. Rainier with me in Washington State was becoming a grandpa who had to have breathing apparatus on in order to stay alive. I was sad when he died. It was an odd feeling thinking that someone who was just among you is now incapable of any more communication. He was just gone.

While my heart was saddened by his death, I expected it. I always knew he would probably get lung cancer from smoking. When he finally contracted it, I knew he would certainly not live as long as other grandpas I had. I knew that he was old and he was severely sick. His death was more imminent than others, it seemed. When he finally passed it came as no surprise and I was somewhat prepared for it. I was not asking the question “What’s the point of this death?!” “Why did this have to happen?!” I expected it. He was not going to live forever even if he hadn’t contracted lung cancer.

Contrast this with when my wife and I lost our baby. Different story.

People may argue about the degrees of severity for the different points in pregnancy for when you lose a baby, but when it comes down to it, it is a crushing feeling. My wife and I lost our first pregnancy when she was two months pregnant. The process is nothing that anyone would want to go through, whether at home, or at a hospital. We were at home and the impact was mainly on my wife who obviously had a much more personal connection to this little one than I did. It devastated her and all I could do was give her my shoulder and try to console her tears. We wanted kids so bad and were so excited for this one to come! Now we had to start all over…?

While I never cursed God or found myself mad at Him, per se, I was greatly perplexed for a while. I did ask the question “What was the point of that?!” “Why would God let us get pregnant, just to lose the baby?” “Why did this have to happen?”

Well, I learned quite a few things through the whole ordeal and I’m not sure how else the lessons learned could have been more poignant, or meaningful, had this not happened. Does this take away the sadness? Of course not, but it sure brings clarity and perspective to a dismal situation when we think of things like this in the light of eternity and God’s sovereignty.

So what was the purpose? Why does God allow things like this to happen? One day I was driving along in my car listening to Mercy Me and their song “Bring the Rain” came on and I almost cried once I really paid attention to the words of that song, especially the chorus:

Bring me joy, bring me peace
Bring the chance to be free
Bring me anything that brings You glory
And I know there'll be days
When this life brings me pain
But if that's what it takes to praise You
Jesus, bring the rain

I underlined the last four lines because they capture the essence of the why behind what God does many times. We tend to think from a very self-centered point of view when it comes to asking why something so terrible would happen. I use the words self-centered because oftentimes we are not Christ-centered in our examination of the circumstances in our life. We, in short, forget His sovereignty in the bad things. Again, this doesn’t mean that our grief is wrong, but we cannot forget about the big picture of what God is doing. It is not going to be a wasted trial.

I find great solace and comfort in King David's words when he lost his son: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Keep in mind that David's baby was only a few days old, yet he knew he would see the baby again in Heaven. My wife and I look forward to seeing our baby someday. For the Christian, we can find peace in the midst of these circumstances. Like David, we should recognize God's hand in the birth and death of every person.

Isaiah the prophet also said something remarkable in chapter 48 when speaking of how God was refining Israel to become more pure. That process was not always easy for that rebellious nation as the purity consisted of getting rid of their false gods and pagan worship. God says through Isaiah: “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another (vv. 10-11).

Effectively, He says “I have afflicted you to refine you for your benefit, but for My glory.”

Israel was a nation handpicked and created by God to be His special people. Only Israelites served the true God. All other nations were considered pagan and idolatrous. What God is saying here is that he purposely tried them in the furnace of affliction to refine them. This reminds me of Hebrews 12:6 where it says that the Lord disciplines those that He loves. In this case, we are seeing the affliction as an act of discipline, or a wake-up call for the nation. We need to understand that “bad” things happen sometimes for the sole purpose of drawing us closer to God, be it discipline, or not.

A little further back in chapter 45 we read, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord who does all these things” (vs. 7). Put simply: the Lord does what the Lord wants to establish the Lord’s will. Sometimes, His will is not known. Sometimes it is. He creates prosperity as well as disaster. He is sovereign over all these things. What we cannot do is equate calamity and dark times with evil. Just because something bad happens does not mean that evil is around us. We must be careful not to mush these concepts of evil and bad circumstances haphazardly.

God always has a purpose and that is something that we cannot lose sight of. He always has a purpose. Lamentations 3:31-33 says: “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.”

He doesn’t randomly afflict people with no purpose in mind. God is just and sometimes His character trait of being truly just needs to be remembered more than the fact that he is loving and merciful. Why? When we remember that he is sovereign and just, then the bad things do not shake our faith in the fact that He is also loving and merciful. Like this passage said, “though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

If we do not consider God as sovereign or just, then we will doubt His love and goodness when something bad happens. However, if we do consider God as sovereign and just, we will never doubt His love and goodness, even in the midst of affliction and great trials (Psalm 23:4).

Going on into verses 37 and 38 it says, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”

This is a perfect nutshell articulation of God’s sovereignty, again. When we ask the question “Why does God let bad things happen?” or “Where is God now?!” then we need to remember that “bad” events do not immediately indicate a lack of the presence of God.

Again, let’s consider the hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. When they occur, we should never think that God isn’t there or doesn’t care. He was going to take their life someday anyway, right? No one lives forever. These very events should wake us up to the fact that we do not know what the next hour holds. We must be ready to face the Judgment of God. Once we die, there is only Heaven or Hell left for the souls who repented and believed in Christ, or did not. Don’t let the methods of dying and how “fair” they may or may not be, become a distraction from the eternal reality that every soul will face.

Pay attention to Amos 3:6b: “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” or to Job 9:6, saying that God “shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble.”

Nothing is done without God’s sovereign control and will in power. While the fact that natural disasters have and will continue to happen, this does not mean that the nations inflicted are necessarily being punished by God in discipline. The very fact that there is sin in this fallen world, however, indicates the curse that is on every nation’s piece of land, which could be viewed as a punishment of sorts for Adam’s original sin. In either case, that is beside the point we are making now.

Paul says in Romans 8: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (vv. 18-22).

I remember when right after the Haitian earthquake, Pat Robertson, American televangelist and host of “The 700 Club”, said that Haiti was "cursed by one thing after another" since they "swore a pact to the devil." He was convinced that they were continually being punished for that deal. He also linked 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to the possibility of retribution for the abortions committed in the United States.

Listen, it is a little presumptuous to say that a specific disaster was related to a specific “deal” of sorts with the Devil. That is nothing short of speculation. The world is cursed to begin with and Satan is causing problems everywhere anyway. Additionally, as we have seen, God is the only one in control of the weather and everything else in our lives, even Satan. We do not always know the purpose to these disasters, though they do inevitably turn our minds and eyes to Him, don’t they?

Jesus tells us in Mark 13:8, when speaking of the signs of the end of the age, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.”

These kinds of things are inevitable and they certainly invoke hardships on its victims and their families and friends. If we pay attention to history, we’ll see that it has shown us that 100% of people die. Sometimes we see God using “natural” disasters for specific reasons and other times we see Him referring to them as signs of the end of the age, or as examples that you don’t know when you will die, so the moral of the story is to be ready!

In either case, these events do get our attention. John MacArthur says in his book Hard to Believe:

“Sometimes God has to shock us into obedience by knocking us off our foundations. Possibly the only good thing about earthquakes in our California community is that they drive people to Christ. Rich or poor, famous or anonymous, they are petrified by their inability to control even the ground on which they walk. They come face-to-face with their powerlessness over the Creator Lord. Church attendance always goes up after a big quake, and in every case we see individuals, families, and couples come to Christ. Of course, some merely go through the motions, but for others it’s the final push they need to repent before God’s power.”

Fox News posted an article on the one year anniversary of 9/11, titled, Church Attendance Back to Normal. In it, they say that “a surge of spirituality occurred as Americans examined just how fragile life was and evaluated what was really important. Answers were hard to come by in the months that followed the attacks, and many sought solace in a higher power.”

Of course, in just two months following the attacks the attendance went back down to almost exactly what is was before. Events like this rattle our core and shake us in ways that we didn’t think possible. We either look to God in reverent fear, or curse Him for our bad situation. In both cases, we seem to have God at the forefront of our minds for some period of time, which seems to be indicative of the fact that He does indeed have control of such things!

The thing we should not do is to consider why God lets bad things happen with a mindset that “bad” things are not fair. This would be missing the point entirely and, again, subverting God’s will to our own, which is an amazing waste of time.

A final piece of clarity and hope that we can have in the untimely death of people in the world is that God has always known who are His and who are not. If you have not come to grips with God’s sovereign work in election, then I highly encourage you to do so. He will never lose one of His sheep. If someone dies suddenly, that doesn’t mean that they had no chance to repent and turn to God in faith. It would be a type of oxymoron to say that God would kill someone who He meant to call to salvation. That doesn’t happen.

Aside from this breakaway series on “How Could God Let Bad Things Happen?” I am working through the New Testament books on where they refer to God’s sovereignty in salvation. I’ll tell you what…nothing has helped me more in my faith in God than by really learning and believing in God’s sovereign election. I’ve written some prior posts on it and encourage you to stick around for upcoming ones as well.

As far as our current question, the two biggest takeaways from a study like this are: 1) We will die but we won’t know when; and 2) God can use anything to turn our attention to Him, even natural disasters and hate crimes. While this is probably the weightier of the posts so far, I think it will be important to talk about how the bad things are sometimes inherently good, when viewed eternally. I will do this in the next post.

For now, let’s look at the big picture and remember that life is indeed short and precious and we have a responsibility to be ready for whenever God takes our life. The way that we die and the means to that end is of no consequence. When we’re dead, we won’t be thinking about how unfair it was for us that we died so young or that we left family and friends behind. It won’t matter that a plane flew into our cubicle window at the 95th floor or that our whole village got wiped out by a tsunami, etc. Our final and eternal destination will be in view and will suddenly far outweigh the life on Earth we left behind.

For the unsaved, they have the wrath of God to face. For the Christian, they have the glory of God’s presence to behold. That is what it all comes down to.

Why does God let bad things happen? To fulfill His purpose and will.