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Charismatic Puritan

Right doctrine leads to right thinking, and right thinking leads to right living.

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Location: Gaithersburg, MD, United States

Jealous for the truth, beauty and majesty of our glorious risen Savior.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

When God becomes an idol

“My God is…” is one of the expressions I hear Christians say that often makes me nervous. That is because what often follows is a statement about who God is or how God behaves that may or may not be biblically sound, or even biblical. When we substitute “My God” for God, I believe we risk making God into an idol.

We can never fully and completely know God because we are finite creatures. Even in the new heavens and earth, when our relationship with the Triune God will be perfect, we will not know God completely. We will spend eternity searching Him out, just as the Holy Spirit does now. However, we can fully and completely know what God has revealed about Himself to us through Scripture, and therefore can have a true and correct understanding of what we can know about God.

In John 17.3 knowledge of God is essential to, no, actually, the definition of, eternal life. Clearly this must be a correct knowledge, for we are to worship God in spirit and in truth and he has spent a lot of time in His revealed word to us telling us about who He is and what He does. Muslims worship “God,” even the God of Abraham, and they revere and love Jesus, but we should deny them as a true religion because they do not worship a correct understanding of God and they completely redefine Jesus. We can fall prey to they same heresy, only in subtler ways, when we decide that “My God” is better than God.

We constantly use metaphors for God. He constantly uses metaphors for Himself. They are an essential way of trying to understand someone who is transcendent and, therefore, completely other - but we must consider all of God’s metaphors for Himself when we seek to define Him. If my metaphors or examples of God become my definitions of God, or I am deliberately excluding or prioritizing some of God’s metaphors for Himself such that I ignore or distort the full clear revelation of God in scripture, then I have created a lesser, and inherently false, god.

God’s attributes are not only a characteristic of some part of God or a temporally variable expression of emotion or reaction. They are descriptions of God Himself and therefore describe all of God. We discuss Him in parts because we are finite creatures and are severely limited in our capacity, but God is infinite in presence and knowledge and IS all of Himself, always.

“We must remember that God’s whole being includes all of his attributes: he is entirely loving, entirely merciful, entirely just, and so forth. Every attribute of God that we find in Scripture is true of all of God’s being, and we can therefore say that every attribute of God also qualifies every other attribute.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. pp 178-79 (emphasis in the original).

God is a “completely unified integrated whole” (Grudem) who is infinitely, perfectly existent in all of His attributes all of the time. Although it is absolutely true that we see, or are able to recognize, some of His attributes more than others, this is a function of His deliberately revealing or concealing parts of Himself to or from us, or our inability to see all of His attributes at once.

This is not to say that we have to worship all of God all the time. That would be impossible. We can spend hours, days, weeks even, contemplating and studying a particular attribute of God. A new believer can worship God truthfully in their limited knowledge of God. I am not considering either of those circumstances, that is, unintentional ignorance, and purposeful meditation and study. I am talking about deliberate ignorance and purposeful neglect.

The doctrine of God’s unity – that He is not divided into parts but is a completely integrated whole – is at the core of the difference between either/or vs. both/and kinds of thinking (thank you, Scot, for continuing to emphasize that). The former, a reductionist approach, is at times useful for us as finite beings. Though it is frequently flawed and its limits must be recognized from the outset, there are times when it is absolutely correct – either God cannot sin or He is not holy. There are other instances when it is completely false, such as either God is just or He is merciful. More frequently, I would argue, He is both/and, that is God is both emotional and responsive to human action in time and space and fixed and unchanging in His secret will and plans for all eternity.

This both/and reasoning that describes the fullness of who God is has its ultimate expression, as is usually the case, at the cross of Our Savior. There God demonstrated that He is, completely, both just and merciful, both loving and wrathful. Jesus took the wrath that I deserve so that I can receive the love that He deserves. He experienced the just punishment from a righteous judge that I deserve so that I could experience the grace and mercy of His heavenly Father that He deserves. God demonstrated all of Himself there. But it is God’s wrath in particular that I find many Christians neglecting or misrepresenting, or outright denying.

The God of the Bible is an unchanging God. He is love and wrath and judgment and mercy and peace and jealousy and light, and more, and He is all those attributes simultaneously and always. He will never cease being a God of wrath; it is an essential element of who He IS, not just what He does. His wrath will be justly poured out on Satan, his angels and unrepentant sinners who are Satan’s children, for all eternity. It will not end. I do not revel in God being a God of wrath, I fear it and dread it - although not nearly enough - but I am thankful for it. It should be our further motivation for evangelism and a further instigation of love for our Savior since He took the wrath that was meant for us. It should also give us confidence that God really does always and forever with absolute perfection and infinite intensity, hate sin. I and all my Christian brother’s and sisters will never experience God’s wrath, but there is a world full of people who will.

There is no attribute that can be singled out as more important (except maybe that God is holy if we were to include in that definition that His holiness is the perfect sum of all of His attributes). We may highlight God’s expression of one attribute for the purposes of teaching, study, meditation or prayer, or because of a particular emphasis of a biblical text, but to place one attribute above another in importance, perfection, completeness or essentialness to the wholeness of God would be wrong. The intentional or unintentional disregard for all of who God is, I would suggest, is the heart of idolatry and a root of all sin going back to the very first.

If I am only willing to consider one or a few attributes of God, or I refuse to consider or purposefully neglect one of God’s attributes, I have created a new definition of God and have made a false god. If I, as a man, like to define God as a warrior who fights for and protects His people, I am not wrong. But if that definition distorts or obliterates the many other attributes of God, such as His mercy and steadfast love, then I have made God into an idol of my creation. If I was a woman and liked to define Jesus as a bridegroom who woos and wins my heart, but have feasted only on that aspect of God, then I have made Jesus my substitute for a boyfriend or husband and have made an idol out of Him. Jesus does win our hearts (though we could have a long talk about the correct interpretation of The Song of Songs here), but He is the same Jesus that will also come back with eyes of fire, the same Jesus whose robe will be soaked with the blood of His enemies. When I worship and delight in God in only some of who he is and what He has done, but have no concern for the rest, I have redefined God to suit my purposes or preferences. I have created “My god.” Intellectually, spiritually, practically, it’s no different than carving a stick.