Holy Week and Easter

I hope you will join us this Holy Week! On Palm Sunday at 10:30 AM our resident New Testament scholar Dr. Daryl Rahfeldt will preach. On Thursday March 28th we will have a communion service at 7 PM, and on Easter Sunday March 31st our worship will feature our choir, brass, children’s choir and praise team. We will also be taking an offering for the support of our missionaries in Mexico and Colombia. Children’s Church will not meet as we desire our families to be together for worship on Easter during this special time. A nursery and comfort room will be open.

I am posting a reflection to help you prepare for a meaningful engagement with God this Easter. It is an essay with references to history and theology more than it is devotional, but I pray that it will be another way that God speaks to your heart.

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

Nearly three centuries ago a Puritan preacher named Jonathan Edwards preached the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It was one of the sparks of a spiritual “awakening” in that period, what we call “revival” today. For centuries before and after Edwards preached his sermon this has been the assumption at the center of Christian theology: that God is as much angry as joyful, that God is as much vengeful as kind.

Just a few decades following the awakening in the colonies and in England, however, “enlightenment” philosophy took root and flourished throughout the nineteenth century. In many ways when we speak of “modernism” and “post-modernism” we are using terms that cannot be understood apart from the enlightenment. The Bible, and with it the dogmas of various Christian denominations, was subjected to scientific study and philosophical analysis. The idea that God could be personally provoked by sin and vengeful in its punishment seemed primitive. Under the momentum of philosophies over the last 250 years, such long-held doctrines as original sin and the depravity of the human being have been questioned.

This has led to a loosening of moral codes and the deconstruction of definitions of sin itself, so that today the chief value upheld in the popular cultures of Euro-centric societies is “consent.” Provided the participants have not been compelled and are of majority age, any conduct should be both permissible in society and blessed by the Church.

We are all products of our times. The discoveries and perspectives engendered by the Enlightenment and carried through the discoveries of science have changed how Bible-believing Christians talk about God, history, and the world. While I am speaking only for myself and not representing denominational views (available at covchurch.org) I believe I can say with integrity that most of my colleagues in the Covenant would not frame the human being’s need for forgiveness and salvation in the same way as Jonathan Edwards. There has been some important corrections on the view of God and God’s emotions that philosophy has helped us to recognize.

These correctives, however, do not add to the self-revelation of God already decisively given in Jesus Christ and the Old and New Testaments.  Rather, these correctives have helped us recover truths that had been diminished in systematic theologies and denominational confessions, to the point that they were being forgotten.  In the medieval period through the 17th century’s “age of Kings” society had laid great emphasis on divine rights and honor in a hierarchical universe. Many of the Catholic dogmas that can be found in Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas, along with the Reformation confessions, reflect the influence of these societal assumptions. Hence God’s attitude towards sinners was akin to an absolute monarch’s attitude towards rebels and traitors– complete with dungeons and torture devices. Dante’s Inferno captures the imagination of the time regarding God’s severity and the torments of Hell.

This view needed correction! And in the correction many, many evangelical preachers, scholars and devotional authors today emphasize the priority of the LOVE of God, the MERCY of God, the GRACE of God, and the FORGIVENESS of sins. This is a recovery of the gospel and the heart of Jesus. But we are in a world where society’s influence is causing many churches and denominations to diminish and thus forget the very real, very Biblical truths of human sin and God’s punishment.

The Evangelical Covenant Church is one of the “evangelical” hold-outs in western society for the more traditional moral definitions and literal readings of the Old and New Testaments. We also have in our heritage a view of sin and God that comes across a little bit differently from how Jonathan Edwards put it. This view comes from the historical and grammatical anaylsis of Biblical texts by a Swedish scholar in the 19th Century — independent of the interpretations of denominational confessions and dogmas.  By asking the question “Where is it written,” Dr. Paul Waldenstrom was able to phrase the answer, “There it is written.”

John 3:16-18 (NIV) states, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned; but whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because (that one) has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

The notion that Jesus Christ came into the world to be abused by God the Father in order to appease God the Father’s feelings of vengeance toward the world, is a medieval concept, it is not Biblical concept. God so LOVED the world that Jesus Christ came into it, in order that the death of a sinless life would break the power of death over humankind. No longer does death need to be our permanent condition; rather, by faith in Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead, our deaths serve to part the curtain between ourselves and God so that we can gaze upon God and join Jesus Christ in eternal life. 

 This is God, this is gift, this is love. The reality of sin in our world was put on full display when humankind took the gift of love, God wrapped in flesh in Jesus Christ, and falsely accused him, beat him, spit on him, dragged him to his death and nailed him to the cross. The abuse of Jesus Christ is not “satisfying” to God, rather it is OUR sin, and shows us the depth of our depravity both as individuals and in society, as John 3:19 (NIV) states: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but (humankind) loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news of God’s love, that Christ came into the world NOT to condemn it but to save it. We have opportunity to participate in that salvation as we repent of our sins. And that means, also, agreeing with God’s revelation concerning sin, as the scriptures clearly state.

Allowing the scriptures to speak on their terms does have an impact on convictions about  moral questions. Many Christians are confused today on these moral questions because they are allowing themselves to be persuaded by society into questioning the reality of sin itself. This should not surprise us. We are all products of our times, and medieval society had once persuaded Christians to describe God as full of caprice and vengeance. 

Allowing the scriptures to speak, to answer the question “Where is it written?” with “There it is written!”  will convict believers in Jesus of other sins that are not polarizing, that are not political hot-buttons or considered “moral” issues. These are sins such as envy and gossip; our world practically depends on people being envious to fuel our consumer economy, and on gossip to keep feeding the media outlets. These are sins such as anger and divisiveness within the congregation, which so many evangelicals seem content to allow in themselves and their churches with no view toward accountability.

The truths of scripture are  timeless truths, decisively revealing the character of  God the Father as spoken by the Word of God who himself became embodied in Jesus Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. The forgotten truths and the confusing truths continue to stand as truth regardless of whether societies or governments or cultures find them convenient or even palatable.

The annual celebration of Resurrection Sunday, what society has called “Easter” for centuries, is the public proclamation that sinners can surrender themselves into the hands of a loving God. For God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and for His sake God will raise us from the dead. The empty tomb is a sign to us that Christ, in the power of an indestructible life, reverses the curse of sin and calls us back to Himself. Will you answer that call? Will you answer that invitation? Here is a prayer for assurance of your salvation in Jesus:

Father God in Heaven, I thank you for loving the world and for loving me so much you sent Jesus Christ to die and to rise again, to defeat the power of sin and death in my life, and to cleanse me of my sin by his blood. I ask you to forgive my sins for Jesus’ sake and to fill me with the Holy Spirit as my promise for eternal life. I ask Jesus to be Lord of my life and to help me to live for him. Amen.