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Sinners in the Hands of a Good God:  Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy

by David B. Clotfelter (Author)

 
 

INTRODUCTION:
THE STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND GOD'S JUSTICE

                                       

 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.

                                                                                                    --John Newton, Amazing Grace


                                       What is required [for finding theological answers] is a pure heart, eyes that have been opened,
                                       child-like obedience, a life in the Spirit, rich nourishment from Holy Scripture.…

                                                                                                   --Karl Barth[1]




          As a young teenager I used a simple argument to convince myself that God does not exist. A good, all-powerful


 God would never permit the evil and suffering we experience in this world. A being who was only good or powerful


—or one who was neither—would not be God. The simplest and most reasonable conclusion for a thinking person to


draw was that there is no God and that all that exists, including suffering and what we call "evil," is the product of 


mindless and amoral natural forces.


          I was in college before I began to seriously question this logic and in graduate school before God drew me, 


much astonished, into trust in Jesus Christ. But even then the problem of God's relationship to human suffering 


continued to dog me. I was no longer so troubled by the existence of suffering in general, since I could see that a good


God might well permit evil in the short run for the eternal good he could bring from it. Instead, what now bothered 


me was the evidence, from the Bible, that God himself brings suffering on people, and that in the case of the 


impenitent he intends to continue doing so forever. Worse yet, I found passages in the Scriptures that appeared to 


state that it is God who ultimately determines who will and who will not believe and be saved. This was staggering. 


Could it really be possible that God brings certain human beings into this world for the sole purpose of damning 


them? I had had a taste of God's goodness and a glimpse of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; I knew that he is 


incapable of doing wrong. Yet there were times early in my Christian life when I was so horrified by the doctrines of 


hell and predestination that I found myself near despair. From that despair, God appeared a demon, human freedom a 


grotesque illusion, and life a charade. It took me several years to find peace.


          It is because of the intensity of my own struggle over the justice of God's dealings with human beings that I 


have chosen to write on this topic and to do so in a more personal way than is common for theological books. I do not 


wish to arouse doubts about God’s goodness in the Christian reader who has not already felt them; indeed, if what I 


have written thus far strikes no chord in your heart, I suggest you put this book aside and forget it. Again, the non-


Christian who thinks me a fool for even worrying about such matters would be well advised to return the book to the 


shelf and find something more interesting to read. But I know from my own hard experience that for the person who 


has wondered seriously about the goodness of God, essays that gloss over the difficulties do not bring satisfaction. 


The reader who struggles wants help from a writer who has struggled. If I can assist one such person to make 


progress in understanding the ways of God, I will give thanks for the privilege.



FROM GEORGE MACDONALD TO JONATHAN EDWARDS


          While I discuss many authors in this book, two names are especially prominent. This is because the men behind 


them have for me come to represent two radically different ways of thinking about the justice of God. The first man, 


George MacDonald, may possibly be known to the reader as the author of many delightful novels and fantasies and 


the man whom C. S. Lewis viewed as his teacher, although he never knew him personally. MacDonald is justly 


acclaimed for his Christian fiction, but I encountered him first as a preacher and theologian, in an edited edition of his 


Unspoken Sermons[2] which came into my hands a year or so after my conversion to Christ. Because I loved C. S. 


Lewis, it was natural for me to turn with an eager and open heart to the man Lewis claimed to have quoted in every 


one of his books. The second man, Jonathan Edwards, is probably known to most people only as the author of the 


most famous sermon in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” although among scholars he is 


also recognized as undoubtedly the greatest theologian and philosopher America has yet produced. I found my way to 


him largely through the writings of John Piper.


          George MacDonald despised the theology of Jonathan Edwards. In fact, as far as I know, Edwards was the only 


writer whom MacDonald censured by name in print:


                       I desire to wake no dispute, will myself dispute with no man, but for the sake of those whom certain                 

           believers trouble, I have spoken my mind. I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. From all copies               

           of Jonathan Edwards's portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring                   

           pigments, I turn with loathing. Not such a God is He concerning whom was the message John heard from                      

           Jesus, that He is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.[3]


Since Edwards died sixty-eight years before MacDonald was born, we have no rebuttal from his pen. But it is 


clear from the overall tenor of Edwards’ writings, as well as from the many places where he directly refutes opinions 


that would later be espoused by MacDonald, that Edwards would have been no more appreciative of MacDonald’s 


ideas than MacDonald was of his.



How Can We Understand God?


          My struggle to come to grips with the justice of God can be described as a long and difficult journey from 


George MacDonald to Jonathan Edwards. MacDonald introduced me to a God whose ways with human beings were 


understandable and reasonable. MacDonald's theological method was simple: he took any attitude or action that 


might be attributed to God and asked whether it seemed compatible with God’s self-revelation in Jesus or with the 


image of a heavenly Father. Would a good and loving father ever condemn his children to endless punishment? Of 


course not! Well then, neither would God. God might well punish people, but only out of love and in order to bring 


them to repentance; his sole concern would always be to draw his creatures out of their sins and into his embrace.


          Again, would a good father ever punish one child for the guilt of another, meanwhile letting the second go 


free? Heaven forbid! Well then, the traditional understanding of the atonement must be mistaken, for it portrays God 


as transferring the guilt of sinners to the sinless Son of God and punishing him for what he had not done. 


MacDonald’s way of constantly measuring traditional ideas against what he understood to be God’s revelation of 


himself in Jesus and in ordinary human behavior impressed me, and for several months I found myself a whole-


hearted follower of his method and of his theology.


          Soon, however, I ran into difficulty. As much as I liked MacDonald’s view of God, I couldn’t see that it really 


squared well with Scripture. MacDonald himself seems to have been convinced that he was interpreting the Bible 


correctly, but I increasingly found points of conflict. I wanted him to be right. Indeed, I wanted it so badly that for a 


while I preferred his sermons to the Bible. And I vastly preferred them to such a book as J. I. Packer’s Knowing God


which I read for the first time at about this point. MacDonald’s God was easy to understand; one had only to reason 


from human fatherhood or from the behavior of Jesus in the Gospels to know what he would or would not do. 


Packer’s God was complex; to know him one had to approach him from all different angles, looking at his attributes 


one at a time and accepting a considerable amount of apparent contradiction among them.



The Priority of Scripture


          The problem--the irritating problem--was that Packer’s view seemed more biblical. And in the end I knew that I 


could build a Christian life only on the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As attractive as MacDonald’s ideas 


were, if they didn’t match the teaching of the Bible, they would have to go. After much turmoil and with great sense 


of loss, I laid aside my copy of his sermons and turned back to the Bible and the hard work of making sense of God’s 


justice in its pages. In this work many writers were of help to me, but none so much as Jonathan Edwards.


          Edwards’ work, like that of MacDonald or of any other thinker or writer, must itself be judged against the 


Bible. Edwards was certainly not infallible. But what came to impress me about him was the clarity of thought he 


brought to the problem of divine justice and his boldness in following the teaching of Scripture even when it led far 


from common human understanding. That is why Edwards represents the other end of the spectrum from MacDonald: 


not because their theology differs on every point (indeed it does not), but because their approaches to God were 


diametrically opposed.

          

          Although he would deny it, MacDonald sought to accommodate the justice of God to the sentiments of man. 


He was confident that he knew what a good God ought to do, and he was not greatly disturbed by the existence of 


biblical passages that contradicted his theories. Confronting such passages, his usual response was to insist that 


whatever they might mean, they obviously could not mean what they appeared to mean! Edwards's approach was 


quite different. He recognized that man’s sense of justice has not been completely destroyed by the fall and is 


therefore in some measure a guide to the ways of God, but he sought always to subordinate human reasoning and 


feeling to the teaching of Scripture. MacDonald told me to trust my instincts about God; Edwards told me to distrust 


those instincts and cast myself on the Bible.


          Because the tension between the theological positions of MacDonald and Edwards was so important in my own 


efforts to think through the justice of God, I have quoted both of them fairly liberally, especially in Parts I and III. I 


quote MacDonald because he states powerfully and memorably the positions I found I needed to reject, and I quote 


Edwards because he gave me the keys I needed to make sense of the Bible. Yet I do not assume that the reader has 


any prior knowledge of these writers, and I am not primarily interested in the contrast between them. My concern is 


with the teaching of Scripture; I bring MacDonald, Edwards, and other writers into the discussion purely as a means 


to the goal of elucidating the Bible’s own presentation of divine justice and mercy.


          I like to think that in heaven, at some point since the death of George MacDonald in 1905, MacDonald and 


Edwards have met one another and made peace. I envision MacDonald humbly asking Edwards’ forgiveness for 


maligning him. I also envision MacDonald admitting that Edwards’ theology was sounder than his own, and Edwards 


expressing appreciation for MacDonald’s superior imaginative powers. I see the two men embracing and joyously 


moving further in and higher up into the beatific vision. In heaven there are no more rancorous theological disputes. 


But that is heaven. Here in this world we continue to struggle to know the truth and to discard falsehood. And the 


stakes are high. Is there an eternal hell? Can a good God really send people there and leave them there? Doesn’t he 


have the power and the goodness to save all people? If so, then why doesn’t he do it? These are the concerns of this 


book. My answers are not new. The path I have traveled is old and well worn. But it is a path that each new 


generation of Christians must walk, and so I have tried to leave a few marks along the way to help those who may be 


just a few steps behind.



REVIVAL AND THE HOLINESS OF GOD


          I have already said that I am writing to help people who, like myself, find the biblical presentation of divine 


justice difficult to understand or accept. I must now add another purpose for the book. We evangelicals—and 


especially we evangelical pastors—yearn for revival. We have read of times when the church has been powerful, 


when conversions have occurred in the thousands and all of society has been transformed by the power of the gospel, 


and we want to see the same thing happen in our own day. And so we have, quite properly, focused much attention on 


calls to fasting and prayer.


          In addition, though, many of us have also entered into a frustrating and fruitless quest for the “key” to revival. 


We have attended conferences and learned to market our churches. We have imitated the cell-church movement. We 


have spoken in tongues, listened to self-proclaimed prophets, and pursued signs and wonders. We have changed our 


worship styles to cater to our culture’s impatience with doctrine and its desire for immediate emotional gratification. 


We have studied the art of communication and learned to craft sermons that provide well-balanced doses of humor, 


insight, and comfort. We have incorporated drama and multimedia presentations into our worship, taking at face 


value the claim that only by doing so can we minister effectively to modern, visually-oriented, television-conditioned 


church attendees.


          But it seems to me that there is one thing we have not generally done, and it is the most crucial thing of all. We 


have not, by and large, exerted great effort to make sure that the message we are preaching is really the gospel. We 


are good marketers and good moralists, but too often we are shallow theologians. We are fearful of preaching the 


doctrines that offend, in part because we don’t wish to drive people away and in part because we have never felt the 


power of those doctrines ourselves. God, as David Wells has argued, seems “weightless” in the modern world and 


even in the modern evangelical church.[4] His hatred of sin does not pierce us. His wrath does not terrify us. His     


sovereignty does not humble us. And so, instead of presenting his truth in all of its shocking angularity, we massage 


the gospel to smooth its way in our world. Instead of giving people strong doctrine, powerfully presented and closely 


applied, we give them tips for successful living. Instead of confronting them with the hard fact that they are headed 


for perdition, we flatter them that they are very fine people who lack only faith to make their lives full. And yet, in 


spite of this failure to understand and proclaim the gospel, we continue to hope that somehow, by means of some new 


insight or book or technique, we will “release” God’s power for revival.



No Key to Revival


          The truth is that there is no key to revival. Charles Finney and all who have followed him have been utterly 


mistaken: revival is not something we create or even something we “pray down”; it is a sovereign work of God, given 


in his timing and for his purposes and glory. We are more likely to produce rain by dancing than to produce revival by 


the use of our methods and techniques. If we really desire revival, we must turn to God. And that means both that we 


must pray to him earnestly and humbly, recognizing that there is no power in our prayers but only in the God to 


whom we pray, and also that we must be certain that it is the gospel we believe and the gospel we preach.


          When God has given revival in the past, it has generally been preceded and attended with preaching that 


sounded the depths of human sin and divine grace. During the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards discovered 


that it was his sermons on the sovereignty and righteous wrath of God that seemed to do most to promote God's work 


among his hearers. Decades later, in the Second Great Awakening, that same truth was rediscovered by a new 


generation of preachers.[5] We may be sure that if God chooses to send revival today, it will be both accompanied 


and encouraged by a greatly deepened awareness of his implacable hatred of sin and his astounding, free love for 


sinners. These emphases stand in complete contradiction not only to the spirit of liberal Christianity but also to most 


of what passes for evangelicalism, in which the love of God is often so sentimentalized as to be utterly devalued. Yet 


without these emphases, the gospel is not rightly known. The grace that is truly amazing is a grace first causes hearts 


to fear and then brings relief—not one that persuades them that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first 


place. The love of Christ as expressed in his death on the cross is a love that is inevitably misunderstood until it is 


seen against the backdrop of the crushing issues of sin, wrath, hell, and divine sovereignty.


          My hope, then, is that this book can make some small contribution to the efforts of Christians to come to grips 


with the holiness of God, and to the efforts of their leaders to do the kind of preaching that has historically been found 


most conducive to the revival of the church, the awakening of the lost, and the promotion of the Christian missionary 


drive.



THE SCOPE AND ARGUMENT OF THE BOOK

          This is not a book for professional theologians, who will surely feel that I cover too many topics and cover 


them too lightly. Instead, I am writing for the ordinary believer who wants to see how the Bible’s teachings on divine 


justice may be brought together and harmonized. And so I make no apology for covering a lot of ground. That is the 


only way the job can be done! We can never be at peace about God’s ways with us until we have thought about a 


range of matters: God’s attitude toward our sin, his plan to punish the guilty forever, the relationship between his 


grace and our faith, the meaning of Christ’s death, the change in our status that occurs when we believe, and God’s 


original purposes in creation. At least in my mind, these issues are so closely related that they simply must be viewed 


together. It is that conviction that explains the structure of the book.


          Part I sets forth the truth that God regards us as guilty sinners and defends eternal punishment against the 


theories of universal salvation and annihilation of the lost. Part II takes up the topic of predestination: I first consider 


some alternatives to the Calvinistic view of election, and then explain why that view is the one most consistent with 


the Bible. Part III then examines the meaning of the cross in the light of our guilt and God’s sovereignty. I argue that 


by his life and death Jesus fully satisfied the justice of God for his chosen people, so that those who believe are not 


only forgiven but also given a title to eternal joy. The final chapter of the book attempts to draw all the threads of the 


discussion together by considering God’s ultimate purposes in creating the universe and establishing this strange, 


wonderful drama of salvation.


          A final word: the prayers at the ends of the chapters represent the cries and yearnings of my own heart as I have 


meditated on the topics discussed. I include them for just one purpose: to emphasize the truth that the study of 


theology—and especially the study of the vexing, soul-wrenching issues considered in this book—should never be 


undertaken without prayer. Unless the Holy Spirit enlightens us, we can never truly understand God's ways no matter 


how much we may study. And unless our growth in knowledge of God leads to a deepening of our love for him and 


for other people, it is fruitless. I hope that regardless of whether you agree with my theology, you will pray for greater 


light on the subjects discussed and for an ever-increasing hunger to know God and seek his kingdom.




          Father, you have graciously brought me to a point in life where there is nothing so important to me as to know 


you. I wish to give myself to you wholly and without reservation, and I want to trust perfectly in your perfect 


goodness. Give me courage to face hard questions about your ways with your creatures. Make me too tough-minded 


to settle for simplistic answers. Strengthen my powers of reasoning that I may make sense of your self-revelation in 


Christ and in the Bible. And grant that as I grow in knowledge of you, I may also grow in knowledge of myself. Open 


my eyes to my pride and rebellion; deepen my repentance, my humility, my dependence on your saving grace, my 


gratitude, and above all, my love. In Jesus' name, Amen.





[1] Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum, trans. by Ian W. Robertson (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1960), 34.

[2]MacDonald, George, Creation in Christ, ed. Rolland Hein (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976).

[3]MacDonald, p. 81. MacDonald's protest is reminiscent of a similar comment attributed to the poet John Milton: "I may go to hell, but such a God (as that of the Calvinistic teaching) will never command my respect" (quoted by Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics , Vol. II/2, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley et al., [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957], 13).

[4] David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 88-115.

[5] My favorite author on the theology of revival is Iain H. Murray. See especially his Pentecost Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998).

 
 
 
 



Sinners in the Hands of a Good God: Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy 

by Senior Pastor David Clotfelter can be purchased at *Amazon.com.  










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