Your view of God affects everything about you. It will shape your view of yourself and others. How you treat others will be massively affected by your view of God. It will impact on your view of love, marriage and parenting. It will affect your view of leadership and authority. It will determine your approach to morality and ethics and therefore how you live in public and in private. It will shape your view of ministry and how you serve others. But what happens if our view of God is distorted and defective? Well, so too is our view of everything else. Our society, families, churches and personal lives will all be impacted. Our view of God is hugely important.
Thankfully we don't have to guess about God, He has revealed Himself through His written word, the Scriptures, and the living word, His Son Jesus. Even then, however, the possibility of misunderstanding God’s nature is not removed.
This quotation from AW Tozer says it well: ‘I think it might be demonstrated that almost every heresy that has afflicted the church through the years has arisen from believing about God things that are not true, or from overemphasising certain true things so as to obscure other things equally true. To magnify any attribute to the exclusion of another is to head straight for one of the dismal swamps of theology; and yet we are all constantly tempted to do just that.
‘For instance, the Bible teaches that God is love; some have interpreted this in such a way as virtually to deny that He is just, which the Bible also teaches. Others press the Biblical doctrine of God’s goodness so far that it is made to contradict His holiness. Or they make His compassion cancel out His truth. Still others understand the sovereignty of God in a way that destroys or at least greatly diminishes His goodness and love.
‘We can hold a correct view of truth only by daring to believe everything God has said about Himself. It is a grave responsibility that a man takes upon himself when he seeks to edit out of God’s self-revelation such features as he in his ignorance deems objectionable. Blindness in part must surely fall upon any of us presumptuous enough to attempt such a thing. And it is wholly uncalled for. We need not fear to let the truth stand as it is written. There is no conflict among the divine attributes. God’s being is unitary. He cannot divide Himself and act at a given time from one of His attributes while the rest remain inactive. All that God is must accord with all that God does. Justice must be present in mercy, and love in judgment. And so with all the divine attributes.’1 AW Tozer, (1897-1963)
As Tozer points out, God cannot act according to one of His attributes in isolation, nor is one attribute of God subordinate to another. His love is not subordinate to His holiness or vice versa. His goodness is not subordinate to His power or vice versa. God’s nature is perfectly balanced in every aspect.
Many heresies and theological errors have resulted from an unbalanced view of God. Universalism, the idea that everyone will be saved irrespective of how they respond to the gospel, is one good example. The universalist only focuses on God’s love, and ignores His holiness and righteous judgement that demand sin is punished. Determinism does the same thing. It focuses on the power and sovereignty of God and makes all God’s other attributes subordinate. The holiness of God becomes subordinate to His sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is understood to mean that everything that happens must have been planned and ordained by him. With this kind of divine determinism even sin and evil are ordained by God. Of course, this extreme view of God’s sovereignty minimises and, in the end, contradicts His holiness and goodness so clearly taught in Scripture:
‘The Lord is upright;
he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.’ (Psalm 92:15)
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
upright and just is he.(Deuteronomy 32:4)
The Lord is righteous in all his ways
and faithful in all he does. (Psalm 145:17)
He cannot be the author of sin or evil, they are abhorrent to Him:
There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community. (Proverbs 6:16-19)
The Bible also says God never tempts anyone. All sin is rebellion against His will:
When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; (James 1:13)
Yet God is still ultimately in control, He is sovereign. He allows people to sin without ever condoning it. There is, of course, a huge difference between permitting something and planning it. God’s permissive will and His active will are not the same. There might be many reasons that a sovereign God would allow people to sin.
For example, when God first created people He gave them the ability to chose between right and wrong, knowing that they would choose to rebel against Him. He didn’t make them sin or want them to sin, yet He allowed them to sin. He did this because in His goodness God wanted people to be rational beings with the ability to choose, and so be able to experience and enjoy His love in a voluntary relationship.
God may also use evil things to bring us to Himself, to teach us to rely on Him, or to refine our character. Again, this does not mean that God ordains the evil behaviour of others, but rather He uses it for our good. In this way, sin and evil do not rule over God and His purposes, but actually bring them about. The greatest example of this is the cross of Christ. God used the work of the devil, the betrayal of Judas, the sin of the Jewish and Roman authorities and the crowd, to bring about salvation for the world. He did this without ever compromising His holiness. Actually, when we hold together the holiness and sovereignty of God, far from being diminished both attributes are revealed in an even more glorious way.
In the same way, the love of God can be made to be subordinate to His sovereignty. When this happens, salvation becomes the arbitrary choice of God to save a select few. Individual human choice can be seen to play no part in salvation. It is entirely God’s choice as to who will be saved and who will be lost. Consequently, the love of God for the world becomes diminished to a general thing that has nothing to do with personal salvation. God ends up only truly loving the elect and Christ only dies for the elect. God who, the Bible says, ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’, becomes a schizophrenic, who wants something, and is the only one who can make it happen, yet choses not to. The impassioned pleas of God to lost people to turn to Him and live are meaningless, as they cannot make that choice, only He can. And the grief of God over the condemnation of the lost becomes an act, as in reality He could have saved them all along if He had chosen to.
When God’s love and sovereignty are held in balance then the Bible begins to make sense. God truly loves all people, and sincerely desires their salvation. Christ died so all could be saved if they trust in Him. God sovereignly chose to give all people the ability to respond to the message of salvation. The reason people are not saved is because they choose to refuse the gift of salvation through Christ. God pleads with people to respond to His gracious offer of salvation. He loves them and longs for them to be saved, so He is deeply grieved when they refuse that offer and are lost.
As I said, your view of God will hugely impact how you live. The effect of an unbalanced view of God, where every other attribute such as His holiness and love are made subordinate to his sovereignty, can be profound.
One effect of this faulty view of God might be to diminish our view of what holiness is. If God ordains evil rather thanabhors it, will we see the seriousness of sin in the same way? If sin becomes part of his plan for people, why would we fight to avoid it? If, however, we see that sin is always contrary to God’s will for our lives, that He hates it, then we will not be able to excuse it.
Another effect of this unbalanced view of God might be to create a harsh, detached view of a God who doesn't really care about the suffering of people. If such things as rape, child abuse or even the Holocaust are all part of His design for people’s lives, what might that do for our understanding of compassion for those who suffer? However, if we see those things as totally contrary to God’s will and purpose, while knowing that in His love He is able to bring good out of them for those who suffer, we retain a high view of God’s sovereignty and compassion and hold out hope to the suffering.
A view of God’s sovereignty that just imposes His will on people can lead to a similar view of leadership that doesn’t respect the individual but just imposes its will, even violently. This is tragically illustrated in the life of Augustine, the 4th Century church leader who persecuted believers because they would not submit to the authority of the Catholic Church. His authoritarian view of church leadership is directly connected to his view of God’s sovereign will. Augustine often repeats the argument that in persecuting non-conformists the Catholics are simply following the example of their Lord. Augustine writes the following to a non-conformist who argued against the use of force and for freedom of conscience:
‘You are of the opinion that no one should be compelled to follow righteousness; and yet you read that the householder said to his servants, “Whomever you shall find, compel to come in.” You also read how he who was at first Saul, afterwards Paul, was compelled by the great violence with which Christ coerced him, to embrace the truth; for you cannot but think that the light which your eyes enjoy is more precious to men than money or any other possession. This light, lost suddenly by him when he was cast to the ground by the heavenly voice, he did not recover until he became a member of the Holy Church. You are also of opinion that no coercion is to be used with any man in order to his deliverance from the fatal consequences of error; and yet you see that, in examples which cannot be disputed, this is done by God, who loves us with more real regard for our profit than any other can; and you hear Christ saying, “No man can come to me except the Father draw him.”’ 2Augustine, (354-430)
These ideas went on to influence Luther and Calvin, who also legitimised the violent oppression of those regarded as heretics. If, however, we see that God gives choice to the individual and then seeks to win them over by love rather than force, maybe we will be more likely to do the same.
An overemphasis on God’s sovereignty at the expense of His love can lead to a diminished concern for lost people and a lack of urgency in evangelism. If God does not love all people in an equal way, why should we? If He has chosen only to save a few, why should we be concerned for the salvation of all people? If who will be saved and who will be lost is entirely God’s choice,then why would we seek to persuade people to trust in Christ? If in the end no one who is elect will be lost and no one who is not elect can be saved, then what real difference will our efforts in evangelism make to the salvation of anyone? However, if we see that God loves all equally and sincerely seeks the salvation of all, we will be challenged to do the same. If we understand that God in His love has made it possible for all to respond to the gospel message, we should have a greater urgency for all to hear the gospel. There will never be a lost cause or hopeless case because God in His love treats no one that way.
What you begin to see is that a balanced Biblical view of the character of God is essential to every aspect of our lives. Our view of God will affect our view of suffering, sin, salvation and service.
1 A.W.Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy p.71
2 Augustine, Letter to Vincentius