Marks of a Healthy Church: A Biblical Understanding of God
Marks of a Healthy Church
Mark Two: A Biblical Understanding of God
by William Klock
We’ve all probably had one of those conversations about God where someone disagrees with us and says something like, “Well, my God isn’t like that!” People are prone to creating their own image of who God is and what he’s like. Let’s be honest; people like the loving God of Christmas who sent his Son for our sake. They’d rather ignore the God who sits in judgement on the Last Day. And when we do present a full and biblical picture of God, the response is often, “Well, my God….” Brothers and sisters, “My God”? Yes, if we are in Christ, we do belong to God and we can talk about him as “my” God, but when someone starts throwing around words like “My God is…” or “My God only…” it ought to send off alarm bells. It’s been a rare day when I’ve heard someone start a sentence with those words and haven’t then heard them go on to describe an idol, a false god, they’ve created in their minds. I said last time, that to know God—to know him and his ways and his will for us—we can either look to Scripture or we can make it up. But friends, the made-up images of God won’t save us. Sincerity in your beliefs isn’t enough. You have to sincerely believe in the God and the gospel message presented in the Scriptures. This is the second mark of a healthy church: a biblical understanding of God in his character and his ways with us. This morning I want to look at the main lines of the great story of the Bible so that we can see God more clearly and understand him better. Before I start, let me summarise the main story line of the Bible with five headings; this is what the Bible teaches us about God: that he is creating; that he is holy; that he is faithful; that he is loving; and that he is sovereign. As we look at the Bible’s presentation of these characteristics of God, consider that if any one of them is missing, the gospel itself falls apart and we end up worshipping an idol of our own making.
First, starting at the very beginning of Scripture, we see that God is a creating God. He made the universe, the world, and created a special people in the world.
The Bible begins with nothing, but by only the third verse, God turns nothing into something. It’s an amazing thing. It violates everything we understand: nothing turned into something. God is a creating God. Only a few verses later he turns that something into the world and fills it with life and eventually makes man and woman in his own image and puts them in the middle of it.
The Bible tells us the story of Eden and Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. From there it all goes downhill from Cain to Noah. Then there’s the flood, and after Noah it all goes downhill again to the tower of Babel. But then God calls Abraham and the Bible tells us a story of God creating a special and particular people for himself. Even then, the good times didn’t last. God’s people ended up slaves in Egypt. But God led them back to freedom, he gave them the law, and took them into the promised land.
We see God’s people in confusion in the time of the judges, then living under great kings like Saul and David and Solomon. After Solomon’s death there was a civil war and the kingdom split. Bad king followed bad king. The people fell into idolatry. Through the Assyrians, God destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and then the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians a century later. We see the Jews exiled to Babylon. But a few decades later we see thenm return to Judah where they rebuild Jerusalem and God’s temple. That’s where the Old Testament leaves off, with the story of this remnant of the Israelites, needy, pitiful, and reduced to complete dependence.
In all of that, I hope you see that the Old Testament doesn’t give us an abstract theology about God. It doesn’t just give us a bunch of doctrines or philosophies. No, it’s a very specific, earthly revelation of who God is and what he’s like. In a sense it’s God’s résumé. It’s not just a bunch of abstract truths. It’s an account of what it’s like to live with God and to know him and interact with him. It shows us what it means to be God’s people.
It’s critical that we understand the truth that Scripture teaches us about God. Sound teaching in our church has to include a clear commitment to the Bible’s teachings, even if some of those teachings are neglected or ignored by other churches. It means that we have to come to grips with teachings that are difficult or even potentially divisive, but that are key to our understanding God. A biblical understanding of God isn’t just abstract or academic—it’s a mark of a healthy church.
One of the things that becomes very obvious even in our quick run-through of God as Creator is that he created and chose a particular people as his own. I hear people say all the time that God’s choosing of certain people isn’t fair. But friends, “unfair” is not a word that we can apply to God. And even if we could, you and I are not the ones to apply it. We have too much of our own self-interest involved to be so arrogant as to determine that we can decide when God, our Creator, is being fair or unfair.
The history the Bible gives us shows very clearly that God is a creating God and that he is an electing God. Even if we can’t grasp everything that involves, it is undeniable that this is what the Bible teaches. We may not fully understand all the implications of that, but we have to at least understand that it means that salvation ultimately comes from God, not from we ourselves. It affects how we understand God and how we understand ourselves.
We must acknowledge that God is the Great Initiator, the Great Giver, the Creator of the world, the Creator of his people, and the Author of our faith. That is what God is like.
Second, the Bible also shows us that God is a holy God. If we’re going to understand the story the Bible tells us, we need to know that our God is a creating God, but we also have to know that he cares about holiness. It’s popular today to think that God doesn’t care what we do. The Bible makes it clear that isn’t true.
Consider that Jesus instituted his Supper with those words, “This is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). That language of covenant comes straight from the Old Testament—it’s a language of personal relationship. Think about marriage, the most intimate relationship any of us is likely to experience, is a covenant commitment made before God to love and to care and to give. When we read in the Bible about God’s passion for holiness, it’s in the context of his covenant with us—of his commitment to having a loving relationship with us.
We especially see God’s passion for holiness in the problem that sin causes humans in relating to a holy God. This is where the language of atonement comes in. Atonement literally means “at-one-ment”—a means of reconciliation between sinful men and a holy God. Now, this idea of placating a deity wasn’t unique to the Old Testament, but what is unique about the Bible is that it puts it in the context of a relationship. We need reconciliation because sin separates us from God. According to Scripture, all men and women are sinners, and at the same time we also find out that we have no way to deal with our sin ourselves. Sin is an offence against God—against his commandments—and it needs some kind of reparation. In the law, God provided sacrifices as the way to make reparation and restore the relationship. But notice in the Old Testament, it’s not just people trying to placate an angry volcano, but it’s the Living God. And he has spoken and provided a way of reconciliation. This atonement is the way to establish reconciliation.
Now, there are all sorts of themes and commands in the Old Testament that have to do with atonement, but I want to look specifically at the sacrifices. Something about sacrifices seems to be innate in God’s people. Even Cain and Abel were offering sacrifices. Think of the Passover Lamb. It was to be slaughtered and its blood used to mark the houses for salvation from God’s just requirement of the lives of the firstborn, who were representative for the whole family, so we read in Exodus 12:13, God saying “…when I see the blood….” The point of the sacrifice was the satisfaction of God.
The book of Leviticus emphasises the restoration of the people’s relationship with God. Notice that the offerings had to be voluntary, costly, the offerer’s own, and had to be accompanied by confession of sin according to God’s prescription. And notice that in the Bible, sacrifices were not to be brought by the grateful, but by the guilty. That was very different from the pagan peoples. The offerings weren’t brought by the ignorant, but by the instructed. The life of the animal victim, symbolised by its blood, was required in exchange for the life of the guilty human worshiper. The sacrifices showed that sin was serious and it costs life. In the Old Testament God was implanting in his people’s minds, symbolically, the idea of the innocent being given in place of the guilty. The sacrifices taught that sin was defiling. That’s why the temple was designed the way it was, with no access for the people to the holy of holies. It taught them that sin hinders our access to a holy God. The sacrifices also showed that purification was needed and that sin is so serious that death is needed to atone, so any salvation or forgiveness is costly.
God’s passion for holiness is especially seen in the Day of Atonement, which centred on a special sin offering for the whole nation. It served as a reminder that all the other regular sacrifices did not atone for sins. The high priest as representative of the people, entered the holy of holies one day of the year for access to God; and this atonement had to be made in the very presence of God, bearing the blood of the goat, the sin offering. First he made atonement for himself, because he himself had to be clean, then for the people. And consider this: Who could see that blood in the holy of holies? Only God. The second goat had the sins of Israel symbolically laid on it and was then released to symbolies the removal of sin by alienation and estrangement.
It’s also interesting that this had to be repeated each year. The pagans only tended to offer sacrifices if things weren’t going well, but the Israelites had to sacrifice annually, regardless of the situation, good or bad. The annual sacrifice showed that the people were in a state of sin and that there was no perfect sacrifice. It emphasised that God is holy and that sin separates us from God and that he provides a way of access back into his presence through the just forgiveness of our sins.
What does this mean for us? It very practically raises the question: are people basically bad or good? Do they just need their self-esteem built up or do they need forgiveness of their sins and a new life? Brothers and sisters, we’ll plan our church differently depending on how we answer that question. We need to know that God is a holy God and that we by our nature are dead in our sins and trespasses and justly stand under his condemnation. Our God is a God of holiness.
So God is a creating God and a holy God. Third, he is also a faithful God. All this brings up a question that you might say is the riddle of the Old Testament. We find it in Exodus 34:6-7, where the Lord said to Moses:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…
Those last couple of phrases don’t seem to fit together. How can God be abounding in love and faithfulness, forgiving sin, and yet he by no means clears the guilty?
If we want to understand the God of the Bible, we need to understand the promise of hope for redemption of his people. The biblical picture isn’t of an uncaring, grim, and condemning God. No, God is not only holy and just in his unwavering commitment to oppose and punish sin, but he is also faithful to his promises. Throughout history, he planned and promised to reveal his glory to his people; and he did. But if that’s the case how could the Lord forgive wickedness, but still not leave the guilty unpunished?
The answer was not in the Israelites, but in God and his promise—particularly in his promised person. You see, in the Old Testament we’ve seen that hope requires an atoning sacrifice, something to satisfy the righteous wrath of God. We see that it requires a substitution of suffering and death on the part of the innocent for the deserved punishment of the guilty. And it would require some relationship between the offerer and the victim.
In Jesus day, people knew that their hope was in the coming of the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed one. But when this One came, he took everyone by surprise. Jesus not only came as the king, but he also came as the suffering One who had come to be rejected and to suffer in the place of his people. He brought together the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah king with these other Old Testament prophecies of the Lord’s servant, who would suffer in the place of the people. The Old Testament teaches us that this promise is our only hope at all. And you see, this is the very centre of the New Testament. It is God’s faithful fulfilment of these promises in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The collection of 27 books that compose the New Testament begins with four books that tell us the life of Jesus the Messiah. That is really what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are doing: presenting the great news that the Messiah has actually come, the one for whom God’s people had been waiting. Where Adam and Israel had failed, Jesus survived temptation without sin. Here is the prophet promised by Moses, the king prefigured by David, and even the “son of man” of Daniel. All these came in Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, our prefigured substitute, the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of his people. Jesus was the faithful fulfilment of God’s promise. Our creating God and our holy God is also an amazingly faithful God.
Fourth, God is a God of love and with a special love for his covenant people. God himself, coming in Jesus can display his own image, but you’ll remember that God has made us to reflect his own image to his creation. Earlier I mentioned the covenant language of the Old Testament and how it was the language of relationship. What we find in the New Testament as we celebrate Communion is that Christ came with a purpose—to make a new covenant in his blood, a new relationship for his people with God. We asked a minute ago how the Lord can forgive sin while not leaving the guilty unpunished. The answer is in Jesus. He taught his disciples after the resurrection, as it says in Luke 24:
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:27, 45-47)
The Lord through Isaiah had prophesied this:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
This is what Christ did in his love. As he taught his disciples, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
St. Paul too, said in Philippians, describing Jesus as the one
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
On the third day he rose again. As St. Peter said in the first Christian sermon:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God withmighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan andforeknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.(Acts 2:22-24)
So you see, in the New Testament, the promises made have been kept in God’s love for his covenant people. And if we’re Christians, they’re kept in us today too. In all of this we need to know very practically what it means to be a part of God’s covenant people. What happens when someone becomes a Christian? Is it just a matter of making a decision? Do we need to repent and believe? If we do repent and believe, how do we do that if we’re dead in our sins and transgressions? It must have something ultimately to do with love—and not primarily with our love, but with God’s. As St. John wrote, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins….We love because he first loved us.” The God of Scripture is a God of amazing love!
Finally, we find that God is a sovereign God and that in his sovereignty, even Creation itself is to be involved in the renewing love of God. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Have you ever stopped to wonder what that means?
Some people limit their hopes to the things they can get for themselves, but Christianity isn’t like that. We have a hope that extends beyond ourselves and exceeds anything we bring about on our own. St. Peter wrote, “We are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). This points to the fulfilment of that final and first hope of the whole world being put right, as God’s sovereign plan in the New Testament extends from Christ to his covenant people to creation itself.
This is what we find at the very end of the Bible. The book of revelation picks up the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, but with some changes. Revelation is the consummation of God’s plans to have a people in right relationship with himself. As the church militant becomes the church triumphant, the heavens and the earth are re-created. We see the climax of the fulfilment of God’s promises to his people. The holiness of God and his people is finally complete. The Garden of Eden is restored. The presence of God is once again with his people. The Holy City is shaped like a cube, like the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament where God’s presence was, only now it includes all of his people, from all times and places. The whole world becomes the Holy of Holies.
This is the great news that we as Christians have to offer. In our waiting time, it’s appropriate that the New Testament closes with this book. This book, written by an old man in exile, desperate and dependent, and full of hope in a sovereign God. The promises made of all the earth being filled with the knowledge of his glory, would be kept in his new creation. His promises were made and they would be kept. You see the importance of this is that God completes his purposes and fulfils his promises. If we’re here as Christians this morning, we need to be certain that God will continue to care for us and that his continuing care is not based finally on our faithfulness, but on his.
Friends, do you see that all these questions about God are important? And not just for theologians, but for ordinary Christians. If we change our belief about even one of these attributes of God, it changes how we live out our faith and how we function as a church. Faithfulness to Scripture demands that we speak about these issues with clarity and authority. We’ll never understand anything about the Bible if we don’t understand the God it tells us about. God himself is the framework. What he reveals about himself is how we understand everything else.
The end result of getting any one of these things wrong, is our thinking that we can somehow go it on our own. It leads us to either downplay our sin or it leads us to think that we can overcome our sins by our own doing. And friends, that’s when we’re at our most dangerous spiritually. We need to know that God is at his most holy in his just and right condemnation of us and our sins. We need to know that God in Christ offers us another way, if we will only rely on his righteousness and not our own. That is when we find the way to peace with God.
If we’re honest we know that that kind of trust doesn’t come to us naturally. Like little children in the dark, we cling with all our might to what we have in this world, as if it’s going to last forever. But if we’re God’s children, we know he has something better prepared for us. As good as the best things may be in our lives now, God has something even better waiting for us. If you are God’s child, the end he has in mind for you is unimaginably good. St. John wrote, “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:3-5).
This is the God of the Bible—creating, holy, faithful, loving, and sovereign. He’s the one who makes promises, and Scripture shows us over and over how he always makes good on his promises. Those same Scriptures call us to respond by trusting him and his Word. That’s what Adam and Even failed to do, but it’s what Jesus did perfectly. As we hear and believe God’s Word, we begin again to have that relationship with him that he made us for. This is the God whom we can trust and should trust, because his Word will not disappoint. Trust is the only way. Will you believe him? Will you trust him?
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, give us—your Church—a passion for you and a desire faithfully to know you as you really are; as one who is creating, holy, faithful, loving, and sovereign. Let us never distort that image. Let us never fall into the worship of any idolatrous gods of our own making. And as we are faithful to you, shape us and our ministry to conform to your ways. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
This series of sermons is adapted from Mark Dever's book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Crossway, 2004.