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Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. 202 pp. $13.99.
There is a reason why Cornelius Plantinga’s treatment of the doctrine of sin has, after more than a decade since it won Christianity Today‘s Book of the Year Award back in 98, continued to be a standard book in college and seminary classrooms. Using vivid imagery, ample illustrations that captivate the reader, balanced perspective and witty logic, all within a Christian worldview, Plantinga’s treatment of the subject of sin is as entertaining as it is enlightening. One finds it easy to agree with the author’s opinion that the subject of sin needs “constant sharpening” due to a widespread dumbing-down of the notion in contemporary culture. In popular magazines, for example, over indulging in food, as in a “Peanut Butter Binge” or “Chocolate Challenge,” is considered sinful while “lying is not” (x).
“Know Thyself,” said Socrates – Even Christians—many who have a biblical awareness of the doctrine of the fall and even total depravity—tend to be more aware that they are desperate sinners in need of God’s grace than they are of their own particular sin-chemistry and how it might be working itself out in various areas of their own lives. We Christians all too often mistake our abstract theological understanding of sin in general for knowledge of the particular forms that nature takes in our day to day lives and the lives of loved ones; like a pastor who finds his escape from the pressures of family responsibilities in long hours of preparation for a sermon series on sin. Christians tend to have more expertise when it comes to dealing with the sins of their unbelieving culture than in knowing their own sin chemistry and how best to overcome it; like a Christian lawyer who becomes so critical of the corruptions in the legal field that she becomes vulnerable to apathy and irritability which in turn takes a toll on her marriage.
The author helps all to see the contours of that most deceitful and often most subtle enemy that reaps destruction without giving a news flash that it has come and gone, leaving the sinner hung out to dry. Therefore, just about anyone will benefit from reading Plantinga’s breviary of sin. Unbelievers will be likely to get a smack in the face as the reality of sin becomes unavoidably clearer with every chapter. Believers will benefit, among other ways, by recognizing the sins Plantinga so vividly describes in their own lives with every new lens the author uses to sharpen our vision from a different angle.
Note: Although Plantiga’s approach is to treat sin from a different angle in each chapter, I will only comment on three of his chapters: chapters 1, 2, and 8. His ten “angles” which correspond to the ten chapters are as follows: 1) Sin as Vandalism of Shalom, 2) Sin as Spiritual Hygiene and Corruption, 3) Sin as Perversion, Pollution, and Disintegration, 4) Sin as The Progress of Corruption, 5) Sin as a Parasite, 6) Sin as a Masquerade, 7) Sin as Folly, 8) Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction, 9) Sin as Attack, 10) Sin as Flight [from God and fellow man].
Sin as Vandalism of Shalom: Why it gatta be like diss?
With his pithy maxim, “God is for shalom and therefore against sin,” Plantinga manages at once to be both simple yet profound (14). This is the basic idea of his first chapter and rightly so. It is the perfect place to start. Unless one is able to recognize that God is not a kill-joy; that he is not out to make rules against sin arbitrarily, but that he actually has the good of his entire creation in mind—how will one properly appreciate the motives for divine imperatives? To understand God’s motives behind his rigid imperatives is to better identify with his more ultimate concern. This axiom may be the most profound statement in Plantinga’s entire book.
Perhaps this truism is profound precisely because it is thoroughly biblical. The principle is made glaringly obvious when Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Salvation is described as “eternal life” not “eternal obedience,” because obedience gives true life while sin destroys it (Jn 3:16; 10:10). Although following Jesus may involve hardship and self-discipline, he appeals to his listeners by tapping into their desire for finding true fulfillment in life (Lk 17:33; Jn 4:10). By highlighting that God is against sin because he is for shalom, the author speaks to the ultimate concern of every human being for having a complete, whole, and fulfilling life. Individuals, as well as societies, all have the ultimate desire to enjoy life to the fullest. Shalom, as the author defines it, includes this fullest sense of life. Desire for this shalom should fuel evangelism because evangelism is the catalyst for shalom. The spread of the gospel begins the process of restoring all of creation back to its maker (2 Cor 5:12-20). The ultimate future for all believers is a restored creation (Isa 2:2-4; 11:1-9; 32:14-20; 42:1-12; 60; 65:17-25; Joel 2:24-29; 3:17-18) and one is to understand that this new creation has already begun in those who are reconciled, for they are reconciled to become an agent of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).
Because this element of the doctrine of sin is so often underscored in Scripture, every pastor should make constant appeal to the desire of the congregation to have abundant individual and communal life, to establish peace in their communities so far as they can, to play a role in the restoring of God’s creation to its proper ends. Comprehending the shalomic state as the chief and proper end that most glorifies God also makes it easier for one to trust and obey the God who gives life as a reward for such obedience (Rom 2:6-11). This careful clarification about the nature of sin—it is vandalism to the shalom that all humans crave—strikes at the heart of human motivation and is a mighty weapon for mobilizing laity for just about any just cause.
Sin as Corruption: Spiritual AIDS
Defining corruption as “an unhappy cluster of spiritual perversion, pollution, and disintegration,” the author appropriately describes the process of corruption as something similar to the process of the AIDS virus, a “progressive attack on our spiritual immune system that eventually breaks it down and opens the way for hordes of opportunistic sins” (33). In keeping with his thought in the previous chapter, Plantinga also recognizes that these corruptions make life “progressively more miserable” so that the very sin of corruption, as St. Augustine once put it, “‘becomes the punishment of sin'” (33). Certainly this is the biblical teaching. God gives sinners over to their sin as punishment (Rom 1:24-28). The “great law of returns” (68-72) promises that sin will reap destruction (Gal 6:7). General revelation quickly yields specific cases in which one sin or set of sins leads to many more vices—like a spiral of death—and these vices in turn produce various undesired side effects (cf. 130, 134).
The author also gives satisfying attention to the inward nature of sin. The opposite of corruption is “spiritual hygiene” defined as “wholeness of spirit” that fits “the universal design” (34). Basic to such hygiene is internal longing for such hygiene (34). The ideal person, though she may fluctuate in her passion levels for holiness and go through dry spells, “longs to long again” during her wait in the wilderness (34). Furthermore, such a person overflows with gratitude and “passed-on-kindness” (35). Coming to grips with the emotional nature of spiritual hygiene helps one to see that “sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing.”
If this is true, mortal combat with the “diseased root” (33) will involve first and foremost a battle for the affections. If, as Plantinga suggests, sanctification is the cure for corruption, then true gospel ministry must primarily target the human heart in preaching, counseling, small groups, and all other means to life transformation. Holiness must not be thought of primarily in terms of “dos and don’ts,” as though holiness is to be equated with action. Rather, both mortification and sanctification must focus on the human heart above all else. Given the great law of returns and the nature of sin as spiritual AIDS, sin should be presented in the church as something awful and destructive. Testimonies should underscore this aspect of sin; the preacher should look for examples of drastic consequences in the local newspaper; counselors should look for ways to present a horrible picture of the alternative to faithfulness; Christians in general should not be afraid to “scare” people about sin, since such a scare would be appropriate to the nature of sin itself and consistent with the biblical language about sin and its consequences.
Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction: Goin’ for what you Know
The densest of all Plantinga’s chapters has to be the chapter on Addiction. Within the span of about twenty pages, Plantinga tackles some of the toughest questions while critiquing some of the most prevalent thought about addiction (129-149). The category of addiction is certainly biblical. Deacons are not to be “addicted” to much wine, for example. The offered definition of addiction as “a complex…attachment to a substance or behavior in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood” seems fair enough (130). However, the author seeks to wrestle with the more practical questions about the nature of culpability in relation to addiction. He concludes that one oversimplifies the nature of addiction by thinking of it as either “simple sin” or “inculpable disease” because of the actual complexity of the interplay between external influences and internal culpability. This contention does justice to the complexity of reality and is therefore worthy of acceptance (140). On the other hand, the author certainly takes this principle too far when he suggests that a depressed person who slides into substance abuse may not be culpable for her addiction (144). Certainly external circumstances may reduce the degree of culpability, but they do not erase culpability.
With that caveat, certainly Plantinga is right to think of addiction as not merely a moral malevolence but also a true tragedy. Thinking of it this way greatly promotes pastoral compassion in the local church for those suffering with addictions. As the author himself points out, as a result of this paradigm, “We therefore want to accuse him and also to sympathize with him” (140, emphasis mine). Addiction should be presented in the local church with sensitivity to the suffering of the addicted, the complexity of the causes and degrees of addiction, as well as the culpability of the addict. Furthermore, where possible, pastors should seek to remove the addict from environments and circumstances that tend to feed the addiction.
The reader of Not the Way its Supposed to Be will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the complexity of questions revolving around the nature of culpability as well as a keener ability to discern the subtlety of sin and how it might easily get a foothold in one’s life while in stealth mode. The preacher will find plenty of juicy illustrations for sermons on sin. All in all, Plantinga’s writing style and taste for relevant questions and interesting illustrations make his book the best I have ever read on the subject.
 Paul David Tripp, Instruments In the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002), 67.
 Here the author seems to assume that depression is a mere physical evil, not a spiritual one, for he says: “Cases of intrauterine addiction, for example, belong in the former category, as do any other chemical or process addictions innocently contracted…. Perhaps some addictions in these cases qualify as physical evils rather than as moral evils” (44).
Although there are many mini-principles that flow out of Tripp’s paradigm, there are a few meta-principles that guide his book. The most important of these meta-principles, and perhaps the principle that all the other principles in his book are intended to carry out is the principle of the centrality of the heart to life-transformation. Tripp believes that the heart of the matter is the heart and that the heart matters more than anything else. He continually drives home that the goal of counseling is heart change. This primary principle can be seen from several angles in his book. Tripp adopts a distinctively Edwardsian view of the heart, for he sees it as a fount of competing desires (79-80). It includes the entire scope of the inner person—spirit, soul, mind, will, and emotions (59).
Tripp’s Language About Worship Underscores A Heart-Centered Approach
Situations Don’t Have Causal Powers? – The ingredient of Tripp’s book which most commonly strikes me as unhelpful is his insensitivity to the complex interplay between life circumstances and heart chemistry. After telling a long story about his getting angry when his hopes for a nice Cuban meal were spoiled, he concludes: “My anger was not caused by the people and situations I encountered. My anger was caused by completely legitimate desires that came, wrongly, to rule me” (82). Tripp seems to assume that since his heart had a key role to play in determining whether he allowed the circumstances to make him angry, therefore the circumstances did not play a key role in making him angry. He thus perpetuates the false dichotomy common in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) between external causation and internal causation. One’s sin, according to typical BCM mantra, is not caused by external circumstances. Rather, it is caused by internal dispositions of the heart. Although Tripp effectively demonstrates that external circumstances are not always a sufficient cause and explanation for why we do what we do in a given situation, and that “any attempt to examine the causes of conflict must begin with the heart” (78), he does so by denying external circumstances a key role in determining human behavior (77, 82-83).
 Some might say, “Well, certainly circumstances play a role, but they do not cause a person to sin.” Language of causation is too tricky for a detailed philosophical inquiry into the nature and language of causation in this brief book review. However, it is worth considering the fact that Christ threatens those who “cause” (skandalise) the little one’s to sin (Mt 18:6).
There is a running joke between me and a friend of mine. When in the midst of deep theological conversations, we will say jokingly as a way of comic relief, “It all comes back to limited atonement!” It’s a way of poking fun at Calvinists who place too much importance on this doctrine as if it were at the heart of the gospel itself.
NEWS FLASH: Calvinism is not the gospel. The basic message of the gospel is not dependant on Calvinism. However, for some reason, the doctrines of Calvinism are always a hot topic no matter where you go (except where people have not been exposed to the different positions). Calvinists get passionate about it because their view is so often misunderstood. Arminians get passionate about it because they see Calvinism as a system which undermines the free love of God for everyone, and nowhere is this undermining clearer to them than in the “L” in TULIP–Limited Atonement.
Did Christ die for everyone or just the elect?
Of all the points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the hardest to demonstrate biblically. For this reason, four-point Calvinists are a common phenomenon. I was a NOEL (no “L”) Calvinist for about 3 or 6 months (back in like 02) while wrestling with the biblical issues involved. I was convinced that Limited Atonement was more of a philosophical or logical extension of the other four points of Calvinism than it was a biblical teaching. Therefore, I rejected it. I have since changed my mind.
I now hold to a view which I prefer to call Actual Atonement, although it is virtually the same as what has misleadingly come to be called the limited view of the atonement, also known as effectual redemption and particular redemption. There are at least five good reasons to hold to an actual view of the atonement. First, it is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement. Second, the logic (not merely the words) of certain biblical passages seems to make the effectual view of the atonement necessary. Third, many passages affirm a limited group of people as the intended benefactors of the atonement. Forth, most biblical objections to the limited view of the atonement are easily answered by a closer examination of the range of meanings for words like “all” and “world” along with a closer look at the context in which these words are found. Once one sees the alternative interpretation for these verses to be consistent with the meaning of words and the context of the passages, such texts fit quite comfortably with a doctrine of Actual Atonement. Finally, philosophical objections to limited atonement, such as the objection that it ruins the sincerity of a universal offer of salvation, are based on clumsy logic and are easily answered.
First, What Does “Atonement” Even Mean?
First, the Actual Atonement position is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement than the general view of the atonement. Unfortunately, general and limited views often speak past one another over the extent of the atonement on account of a failure to first agree on the nature of the atonement itself. Before I can make this claim, I should first clarify my understanding of the two most popular views. The general view holds to a dual intentionality in the atonement: “Christ’s sacrifice was intended both to provide salvation for all and to procure salvation for all who believe” (i.e. the elect). The so-called limited view of the atonement holds that “Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only [all those who believe] and actually secured salvation for them.” One should notice that the latter view of the atonement does not contradict the former, but rather affirms the second intention contained in it: “to procure salvation for all who believe.” Therefore, the real question is whether the language of the atonement in Scripture includes both the idea of appeasing wrath as well as the idea of provision, or whether it has a narrower meaning that only includes the appeasing of wrath. In other words, does the atonement language include the notion of “providing salvation for all” or as Geisler puts it, the notion that “everyone is potentially justifiable, not actually justified” by the atonement? Since this is the real issue, the two views might be best understood as differences over the actual nature of the atonement itself—whether it includes possibility or whether it only includes actuality.
Since the Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement is an actual satisfying of God’s wrath (hilastērion, Rom 3:21-26), it is difficult to understand how the accomplishment of a theoretical possibility would be included in such a propitiatory sacrifice. What is more, one finds not a single verse that teaches that atonement was made possible, provided for, or made available, through the death of Christ. Instead, all passages which address the nature of the atonement itself either explicitly teach or take for granted an actual atonement that secures salvation and redemption. In short, Christ came to actually save sinners (i.e. actually appease the wrath of God), not make this salvation possible, provide for atonement, or make atonement available. For this reason, Geisler’s assertion that “the issue is not whether everyone is actually saved but whether the sacrifice of Jesus made salvation available to all,” is unperceptive as a response to this contention. The Dual Intention view (Geisler and others argue for) that understands God to be providing the possibility of atonement for the sins of all but only applying it to some must also have a dual definition of atonement. When Geisler says “the Atonement is both unlimited in its extent and limited in its application,” he commits the fallacy of equivocation by changing the meaning of the word “Atonement” mid-sentence. The first meaning is a theoretical atonement (atonement made possible) and the latter actual (atonement made actual).
Therefore, those who hold to a dual intentionality must redefine the meaning of the atonement in unbiblical categories if it is to escape the equivocation fallacy. Atonement cannot mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath and yet not mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath at the same time and in the same sense. As John Murray put it, “The doctrine of the atonement must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are the heirs of eternal life. In that event we should have to dilute the grand categories in terms of which the Scripture defines the atonement.” Since the biblical teaching is clearly that the death of Christ satisfied God’s wrath, and since there is not a single verse which speaks of a theoretical atonement which makes redemption “possible,” the Actual Atonement view is to be preferred to the General and/or Dual Intentionality view on the basis of having greater accord with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement.
Second, certain passages make a limited view of the atonement necessary. For example, Paul guarantees the future security of all those for whom Christ has died on the basis of Christ’s accomplished atonement (Rom 5:8-10). On Paul’s logic, if the atonement was made for all people without exception, Paul’s promise of eternal security necessarily applies also to all people without exception. A limited view of the atonement seems to be the only way to escape vindication of a universalist hermeneutic. In another passage, Paul guarantees eternal security and glorification (“all things”) for everyone for whom God did not spare his own Son (Rom 8:32-34). On Paul’s logic, if God gave his own Son up for everyone, then everyone is sure to receive “all things” (i.e. universalism). Perhaps those holding to the general view of the atonement could appeal that Paul has in mind only one of the two intentions in this passage (the intention of securing salvation for all those who believe), but this is precisely the point made in my first reason for believing in an actual view of the atonement. Paul seems to have this effectual intention in mind as “the” meaning of Christ’s death.
Third, Many Texts Seem To Affirm A Limited Atonement Outright
Third, many texts simply affirm that Christ died for a limited group of people. The doctrine of unconditional election provides secondary affirmation so long as one understands that God has atonement in view as the means for saving the elect (Rom 8:29-32; 9:17-23; Eph 1:4-6; 1 Thess 5:9;1 Tim 1:9). If only a limited number of people are intended to be eternally saved—the elect—we should naturally expect that only the sins of a limited number people—the elect—should be eternally satisfied by Christ’s atonement.
Fourth, What About John 3:16 and Other Passages?
Fourth, passages which seem to contradict a limited view of the atonement do not actually contradict it. Some of these passages do just the opposite. For example, consider the classic proof text for a general atonement: John 3:16. This passage teaches that God gave Christ to the world so that believers might be saved. All believers are elect and all the elect eventually believe. Therefore, even John 3:16 teaches a limited intention for sending Christ into the world—to save the elect (i.e. all who believe). One does not need to interpret “for God so loved the world,” to mean “for God so loved the elect,” for this to hold true. The purpose clause “so that” is limited to the elect regardless of how broad the scope of meaning for the term “world.”
John Owen notes that the meaning and usage of those terms which are universal in form—such as “world” and “all”—must be weighed very carefully for this reason: “Upon these expressions hangs the whole weight of the opposite cause, the chief if not the only argument for the universality of redemption.” Once the full range of meaning for these words is closely examined, however, the biblical objections to limited atonement are less convincing. The word “world” (ho kosmos) in Scripture does not always refer to every person in the world without exception. There are many passages where kosmos simply cannot mean every individual human being (Jn 7:7; Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 4:9; 11:32). If one is to believe that Christ died for everyone without exception on the grounds that the Bible says he died for the sins of the kosmos, she unwittingly gives good reason to think that everyone alive in the first century was a follower of Jesus, since the Pharisees exclaimed, “Look, the world [ho kosmos] has gone after Him” (Jn 12:19).
Even more important, kosmos often refers only to those who believe. For example, Paul taught that Israel’s sin of rejecting Christ means “riches for the world” (ploutos kosmou, Rom 11:12). Can we say then, that every person in the world without exception has received the ploutos Paul has in mind? It seems clear that Paul is using the word “world” to distinguish between Jew and Gentile, and that he would intend us to understand only those who believe in Christ as the recipients of the riches Paul has in mind in this context. Such an interpretation, however, leads us to conclude that kosmos actually refers to a minority group among the people in the world—the few that find the ploutos in Christ (i.e. the elect). When the apostle John admonishes his readers not to think of Christ’s death as for them only but for the “whole world” (1 Jn 2:2), the grammatical structure is strikingly similar to statements found in his gospel (Jn 11:51-52). On the basis of this parallel one might conclude that “whole world” in his epistle simply refers to God’s people, the elect, scattered throughout the whole world.
Although many passages describe the death of Christ as being for “all” (pas, Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14-15; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Heb 2:9; 2 Pt 3:9), like the word “world,” the word “all” in Scripture does not always refer to everyone, but it must be determined by context. Sometimes the word “all” simply refers to all those within a certain group defined by the context. For example, Romans 5:18 teaches that just as one sins led to condemnation for “all,” so one act of righteousness results in justification for “all.” Here, even within the very same context, one must interpret the former reference to “all” as virtually universal, and the latter as limited only to believers. Without allowing for such fair distinctions based on context, the interpreter has no way to object to the conclusion that all people without exception are justified before God. Paul’s statement in 1 Tim 2:6 that Christ was given as a ransom for all can simply mean “all kinds,” (indiscriminately with respect to Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free). In fact, Paul’s usage of the word “all” is best understood this way based on the way he uses it in the context (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2). “All” in Titus 2:11 can be taken in a similar way based on context (cf. Tit 2:2-4, 6, 9).
Finally, philosophical objections to Actual Atonement are sloppy mistakes in logic. Perhaps the most common is the objection that a limited view of the atonement makes the universal offer of the gospel insincere. First, we might say that if the Bible teaches on the one hand that God only intends to eternally redeem the elect, and on the other hand that we should offer salvation to all, we should conclude that God’s offer must be genuine even if our pre-conceived philosophical understanding makes the legitimacy of such an offer a genuine mystery. Second, this objection misunderstands the nature of the offer. The universal offer of salvation is always contingent. The offer is not intended to benefit everyone, only those who repent and believe. Thus, the nature of the offer itself astronomically limits the scope of its intended benefactors by virtue of its built-in conditionality. The offer, therefore, is just as genuine as the offer “Whosoever meets the requirements for enrollment to SBTS, as well as the requirements for discounts on tuition, will be able to receive such benefits.” The offer is intended for, and voiced to, all seminary students indiscriminately, but the benefit is only intended for a select group. This contingency does not ruin the genuine nature of the offer.
Many of the other objections leveled against an actual view of the atonement are really objections against Calvinism as a whole—that it contradicts the concept of a loving God, that it is unfair, that it prohibits people who sincerely desire to be saved from actually being saved. These objections impose philosophical definitions of love, justice, and grace that are foreign to the Bible. They also misunderstand the nature of responsible Calvinism.
 Limiting the atonement sounds negative. Most Calvinists do not limit the worth of the atonement as the language often suggests to some. Furthermore, everyone who is not a universalist limits the atonement in some way (whether its absolute efficacy or its extent), thus the designation does not strike at the heart of the differences in views of the atonement.
 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume Three, Sin and Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), 379.
 For a summary of the controversy over the meaning of hilastērion, along with the conclusion that it employ’s propitiatory cultic terminology of blood sacrifices see Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1998), 191-195. Schreiner points out that expiation and propitiation are not mutually exclusive categories. I might add that the presence of expiation in the passage would seem to depend ultimately on the grounds of the concept of propitiation. Schreiner says “The death of Jesus removed sin and satisfied God’s holy anger.” It seems this is true only because the death of Jesus removed sin by satisfying God’s holy anger.
 Mt 1:21; 20:21; Rom 3:24-25; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:12, 15, 26; 1 Jn 4:10; Rev 5:9, cf. Lk 19:10; Jn 19:30; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:30; 6:20; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Gal 1:3; 3:13; Eph 1:7, 14; 2:15-16; Col 1:13-14, 20-22; 1 Tim 1:15; 3:5-7; Heb 13:12; 1 Pt 2:24; 3:18).
 E.g. Mt 26:28; Jn 10:11, 15; 11:50-52; Acts 20:28; Rom 8:32-34; Eph 5:25-26; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:15, 28; Rev 5:9.
 John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1999), 190.
 I owe this insight to John Piper. John Piper, Tulip: The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Desiring God Ministries), 31.
Ways to Distort the Biblical Teaching about Emotions – The numbers of angles through which this truth can be supported are so overwhelming that a denial of it can only be respectively achieved by running the emotive language in the Bible through a foreign philosophical grid. Such philosophical intrusion takes place on at least three accounts. First, as we have already seen, Thomistic theism creates unnecessary stumbling blocks to the importance of emotion by denying their existence—and therefore importance—within God himself. Second, non-cognitive views of emotion in philosophers such as Plato (who contrasts emotion with the intellect), René Descartes and Schleiermacher (who equate emotion with the physical effects of emotion), David Hume (who understands emotions as animal like), Immanuel Kant (who argues that emotions have no role in ethics), in evolutionary scientists who follow the non-cognitive theories of Charles Darwin (who argues that emotion developed before cognition as an adaptive survival behavior independent of the will), and especially the James-Lange theory of emotion in psychology (which reduces emotions down to changes in physiology) have made great headway in confusing the masses about the nature of emotion itself. This confusion has resulted in an unnecessary dichotomy between ethics and emotion, and has greatly influenced New Testament interpretation.
Third, certain popular philosophical notions of culpability make adherents uncomfortable with the idea that God would command an emotion. Such conceptions of culpability rely on the premise that God can only command that which the subject of that command is actually able to do. By extension, it is assumed that God would not make demands of humans with respect to realms over which they have no immediate control. Attempts to come to terms with culpability paradigms have caused many interpreters to exclude the possibility that emotions are commanded in the New Testament since humans are unable to have direct control over them. According to this culpability model, then, love, which is the central virtue and fountainhead of all ethics, cannot be an emotion since God commands it repeatedly. There are many other reasons why interpreters have a vested interest in de-emotionalizing the biblical language of human emotion. Although by no means do these three philosophical trespasses exhaust the complexities of anti-emotion bias in handling the biblical text on human emotion, I have offered a brief critique of the first of these three philosophical disorientations and will also offer a brief critique of the second and third.
Non-Cognitive Theories of Emotion Don’t Cut It – Several cases could be made which would be sufficient in themselves to doubt whether non-cognitive theories of emotion do justice to either the human experience or the biblical texts. These cases could be grouped into at least three categories: cases made from philosophy, the sciences and the biblical text. Arguments from philosophy and science might be summed up with this brief affirmation: cognitive theories of emotion excel in philosophical explanation and scientific research where non-cognitive theories are woefully deficient. Elliot points out further that 1) “there has been no definitive success in differentiating the emotions on the basis of physiology,” 2) “even if each emotion were linked to different physical reactions it would not prove that the non-cognitive approach was correct. This would only show that different cognitions have different physiological reactions,” and 3) “from our knowledge of neuroscience, the brain structures used for emotion and cognition cannot be readily separated.”
Let Philosophy Bow Down to God’s Utterance – There at least three ways of handling the objection that emotions cannot be commanded if the subject has no immediate control over them. The first is authoritarian. If the Scriptures are the ultimate authority and they everywhere command emotion, we must bow down to the mouth of God and conform our petty philosophical construals to fit more comfortably with God’s flawless utterance. The second rebuttal is both philosophical and theological in the sense of being a philosophical argument that fits comfortably within a Calvinistic theological framework. If faith and repentance are emotional in nature (and they are), then God’s holding people responsible for coming to Christ in faith and repentance—even though they are not able without the effectual drawing of the Holy Spirit—demonstrates that capability is not a necessary condition of culpability. The third refutation is more philosophical and is based on a cognitive view of emotion. Simply put, the argument is this: “If emotion is cognitive, love is about something, can be commanded and is emotional.” In other words, if emotions are cognitive, they reflect our belief system. Consequently, our emotions are indicators of our value system—what we believe to be most valuable. Inasmuch as we are responsible for our belief system and our value system, we can likewise be responsible for our emotional dispositions that necessarily result from them. These are only a few of the arguments that demonstrate that emotions can happily fit within the category of imperatives without biblical, theological, or philosophical strain.
Let Words Mean What They Mean: A Call Back to Sober Linguistics – Arguments from the biblical text are less complicated, yet more authoritative. Since the stumbling block has consisted mainly in the error of reading philosophical ideas onto the biblical language, one might push the burden of proof on those who interpret passages in such a way by challenging them to demonstrate whether or not their philosophical ideas about emotion are either explicitly in the text or likely to be inherent in the meaning of the emotive language of the Bible. An evenhanded search for such foreign concepts, however, will inevitably leave the seeker disappointed. In New Testament studies, for example, there were both cognitive and non-cognitive views in the Greco-Roman world, the latter “stresses the unreliable nature of emotion and the need for it to be controlled by reason,” while the former “underscores the need to change harmful emotions by correcting false beliefs.” While non-cognitive Greek ideas about emotion can be seen alongside Jewish ideas about emotion in the writings of Second Temple Judaism, even the most Hellenistic of these writers still rejected the stoic idea of emotional extirpation. Furthermore, some of these same writers found Old Testament views of emotion in tension with Greek Philosophy. The writings of the New Testament are in sharp contrast with more developed ideas about the “passions” from Greek writings that explicitly stress the use of reason and use emotional language pejoratively. Simply put, neither a study of the original languages, contemporary backgrounds, or the context in which emotive terms are used provide sufficient warrant for depleting the emotional words in the original text of their controversially emotive content. On the contrary, they afford merit to do just the opposite.
Although starting as far back as the church fathers, the emotions of God have been seen as metaphorical by many, such erroneous ideas about divine emotions ultimately have their roots in Platonic philosophy, not the sacred Scriptures. “We have been told that God’s emotions were ‘anthropomorphisms’, described like those of humans. In reality, human emotions are in the image of God himself.” From the prophets of the Old Testament whose prophetic lifeblood resided in provocative metaphors to get emotional responses from the people through “shock value,” to the emotional letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament—even down to the pervasive emotive language about God and from the lips of God himself—the Bible is unabashedly emotional. Even more important, if one desires to take the humble path to discerning what most glorifies God and most impressively reflects his image, one cannot find a more sure route than the commandments of God himself. When Jesus boils the whole law down to love for God and love for people, he virtually places all worship, all obedience, all attempts to glorify God, and all social ethics in an all-encompassing God-like emotion (Mt 22:36-40, cf. Mk 12:28-31, Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13:1-3, 13; 16:14; 1 Pt 1:8; 4:8; Js 2:8; Heb 13:1; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:10-24; 4:7-5:4). Since God is in nature a spirit, one should not be surprised that emotions—which are attributed to the spiritual realm—are the most customary characteristics of God and take center stage in the biblical cinematics of redemptive history. Since mankind is in the image of God, it should not be surprising, then, that the most important of the God-like features of creatures in his image should be their participation in those vigorous exercises of the heart that everywhere define their obedience, holiness, and relationship to God—namely, their emotions.
As far as making a case for the centrality of human emotions to the biblical picture of godliness and spirituality, Jonathan Edwards’ treatise, The Religious Affections, has not been significantly improved. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001 Edition). The only exception to this might be the developments made by John Piper in the ethical nature of pleasure and its relation to obedience. Piper, Desiring God. It would be laborious to rehash the multitudes of texts and arguments for this position in this brief paper. Sam Storms has attempted to make Edwards’ work of the affections more accessible to modern readers in Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007).
Edwards concludes “they who would deny that much of true religion lies in the affections, and maintain the contrary, must throw away what we have been wont to own for our Bible, and get some other rule by which to judge of the nature of religion.” Edwards, Religious Affections, 35.
Non-cognitive theories either define emotion exclusively in terms of the following three elements or put greater emphasis on one of the following three elements: 1) conscious experience, 2) emotional behavior, 3) physiological events. Non-cognitive theories create sharp dichotomies between cognition and emotion. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 20.
Here I follow the summary given by Matthew A. Elliott in his chapter “What is Emotion?” where he gives an overview of the history of theories on emotion with specific attention to the inadequacies of non-cognitive views of emotion in ethics and psychology. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 16-55.
The noncognitivist metaphysical view is philosophically responsible for denying that moral judgments had any meaningful reference to actual properties of actions, persons, policies and other objects of moral assessment and at best only expressed one’s personal attitudes toward something. Decognizers understand moral judgments to be incapable of being either true or false. David O. Brink, “Emotivism,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, gen. ed. Robert Audi (New York, New York: Cambridge Press, 2006 Printing), 260.
Elliot’s book to a large extent is a cataloging of these errors and the beginning of a new explicitly cognitive approach to interpreting emotions in the New Testament. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 124-235.
From ancient times the so-called “passions,” have been understood as passive from the perspective of the one who experiences them—that is, that emotions happen to a person. They are not something a person consciously chooses. The emotional pain, for example, that may result from an insult, might be compared to the nose bleed that may result from a punch in the nose. People do not make a conscious decision about whether to have a nose bleed when punched, it is demanded by the nature of physical chemistry. Likewise, our emotional responses are like necessary effects of our spiritual chemistry. In either case, emotions are, in a significant sense, out of the subject’s control. Robert M. Gordon, “Emotion,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 260.
“Many others have agreed by defining love in non-emotional terms. This has often been in response to trying to answer the question of how love can be commanded. … This is also a prevalent misconception on Old Testament studies.” Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 138. Elliot’s work goes a long way in exposing the prevalence of these errors.
Elliot lists the following philosophical problems with the James-Lange theory: 1) The problem of naming specific emotion without reference to cognition: “Whereas the James-Lange theory implied that each emotion must have a unique physical manifestation, experimental evidence points to the fact that there are identical physical responses for different emotions,” 2) the James-Lange theory is woefully deficient in providing a framework in which motivational theory makes sense, 3) the same physical sensations can be interpreted as different emotions in different circumstances, leaving the means for differentiating different emotions in the James-Lange theory inadequate, 4) the failure of the non-cognitive framework to provide evaluation of emotion, that is, to provide a framework for judging whether an emotion is appropriate or inappropriate, right or wrong. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 23, 27-28.
This would include argument like these: Aristotle, who understood human emotion as the result of intellectual realization, had a better understanding of emotion than Plato, 2) Descartes created a false dichotomy by holding that emotion was not caused by cognition but was first felt and then interpreted (or labeled) in cognitive categories, since both are quite capable of coexisting as different stages of the emotional experience, 3) Darwin’s theory of macro-evolution from which he posits a theory of the development of human emotion is vulnerable to critical scientific cross-examination and should not be taken as “pure” and authoritative science, 4) William James’ comment that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble,” flies in the face human experience of emotive causality, 5) the James-Lange theory of emotion is laden with anomaly where cognitive views of emotion excel in providing coherent explanation, 6) although the James-Lange theory of emotion held sway in the beginning of the 20th century, more recent work done by Cannon, Schachter and Singer have proven many of the details of the James-Lange theory false and represent a shift toward a more cognitive view of emotions in recent psychology. A close look at philosophy and the sciences actually demands for a cognitive theory of emotions and thereby takes the rug from underneath all philosophical theories relying on non-cognitive views of emotion (William James’ comment is quoted by Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 22).
Arguments against non-cognitive theories of emotion abound also in physiological evidence as set forth by Antonio Damasio:
1. Even when logical facilities are completely intact (as measured in numerous tests) an unfeeling person is unable to function normally or make good practical decisions. People who function as almost a logical computer, having a pronounced lack of emotion in normally emotional circumstances, are unable to function rationally;
2. It is beyond doubt that many different parts of the brain, both higher and lower brain sections, play an indispensable role in emotion;
3. It is probable, based on empirical evidence, that specific emotional responses are learned and not innate [Ibid, 29-30].
As Elliot puts it: “The fact that these things are commanded is not disputed. What is at issue is: (1) are emotions actually commanded in these passages, and; (2) what do these commands mean in practice? The burden of proof is upon those who would argue that these are not commands of emotion. The meaning seems very straightforward. Whether or not we believe it is logical to command emotion, the simplest interpretation of these passages is that the biblical writers do, in fact, command emotion. … There is no evidence from the texts themselves that these terms have been redefined by the writers as theological concepts that do not contain an emotional core. On the contrary, the evidence points to these words retaining their usual meanings of simple emotions. The arguments of those who deny that emotion can be commanded seem to come from a desire to be consistent with their own philosophical understanding of emotion and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the writers of the New Testament. We must challenge the tenability of this position.” Ibid., 141.
See Piper, “Conversion,” in Desiring God, 53-74. Beyond Piper’s demonstration, it might be added that repentance must be defined in terms of the changing of one’s heart with respect to the law of God, which law might be summarized by the most important commandments to “love” God and people (Mt 22:36-40). Repentance might be seen, then, as primarily an emotional change in the heart of the individual who goes from loving sin (idolatry) to loving God and people in his image (reconciliation). This understanding is impressively confirmed, among other texts, by Ezekiel’s description of New Covenant conversion (Ezek 11:19-21, 38:24-27).
Roberts, being influenced by Solomon’s proposal to redefine emotions as judgments, uses similar language define emotions as “concerned-based construals … they are states in which the subject grasps, with a kind of perceptual immediacy, a significance of his or her situation.” Roberts, “Emotions and Christian Teaching,” Spiritual Emotions, 11. For his argument on how this helps understand why emotions can be commanded see his chapter entitled, “Emotions and Christian Character,” Ibid., 22-31. Defining an emotion as a “judgment” or “construal,” however, seems to take the cognitive position too far. Rather, it seems more helpful to understand emotions as intense internal experiences based on one’s judgments/construals. With this sort of definition, one has the ability to maintain the distinction between the judgment itself and the emotion which results. Appreciation of this causality is lost when an emotion is understood as cognition (judgment or construal) rather than an experience based on cognition.
Sandy believes that shock value was the prophetic strategy of metaphorical language because “metaphors speak with more emotion.” D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 70-73. The emotive and translucent nature of Old Testament judgment and blessing language leads Sandy to conclude that prophetic utterance was not mainly to inform the people concerning the future, but to provoke an emotional response that would arouse their hardened hearts.
The different positions typically discussed under the imago dei such as the substantive views (the image of God resides in a quality of combination of qualities), the relational views (the image of God is primarily having to do with mans experience of a relationship with God and fellow human beings), and the functional views (the image of God primarily consists in something someone does) easily overlap in fundamental ways and none of them do justice to all the ways in which we are like God if considered to the exclusion of the others. It seems better to accept each as a different angle on the imago dei rather than pitting them against one another. After all, Christians largely agree that our relationship with God is what is most important and that this relationship works itself out both through human capacities and human action. No matter how one slices the anthropological cake, growing in our heart-felt love for God and our sincere love for others is the surest way to the restoration of the image of God in us. However, since any action of the body is void of moral virtue unless it is attended by love (1 Cor 13:1-3), we must admit that moral action derives its ethical value from God-centered emotions. Not only is emotion the ultimate ethical priority, but also that which gives any and all action its ethical dimension. In this sense, while it is harder to see any of the imago dei views as the most God-like characteristic in degree, we can certainly affirm that emotions are the most prominent of the God-like characteristics in importance. Since all people are in relation to God whether they like it or not (either good relations or bad ones), reciprocating love between God and man is more basic to the image of God than mere relation. For a concise summary of the three major views see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006 Printing), 520-529. For a lengthier treatment of the doctrine see Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapdis, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994 Printing).
Although Elliot’s work may anticipate a resurgence of the Edwardsian paradigm for the importance of emotions to true spirituality, it is long overdue. Elliot’s work demonstrates that much work and thought is desperately needed in the study of emotions. He understands his work as only the beginning of a basic outline. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 237. This work includes further untangling kinks in biblical exegesis, biblical and systematic theology, Christian philosophy, church history, historical theology, and most importantly, practical theology. For example, although writers in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) have progressed in the amount of importance they place on emotion, I am convinced that their writings are still plagued with misunderstandings and false dichotomies with respect to the role of emotion in obedience in the Christian life. For example, the false dichotomy which is reflected in the approach which asks the question, “Are one’s sinful habits a result of one’s past or sin nature?” fails to grapple with the role of our past in shaping our emotional dispositions (including our sinful dispositions). The most prolific writer for BCM, David Powlison, however, still operates with this false dichotomy. Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, 155. In spite of such errors, however, Powlison cannot avoid basing his whole motivational theory on the emotion of desire. His chapters entitled, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire,” and “What Do You Feel?” show how central emotion is in a practical approach to Christian counseling. Ibid., 145-62, 211-23. It is also my perception that much of the tension between secular psychology and biblical teaching that creates strong dichotomies in the counseling wars could be smoothed out with a mature development of emotion theory from a biblical perspective.
“I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after idols.” – Yahweh (Ezek 6:9)
“This [Thomistic] concept of God, I believe, does have serious problems and requires modification. My own study has indicated those points where alterations could be made. Pure actuality, impassibility, and simplicity could be eliminated, …” Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 114. “In light of the nuanced understanding of divine immutability, it is necessary to reject divine impassibility. The king who cares experiences real emotions; he sympathizes with our pains and can rejoice over our joys.” John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001), 277.
For example, there are no passages that say, “God’s heart is not moved,” or “For I am the Lord, and nothing can harm me or excite my heart to pain,” or any such passages that would force us to question whether God experiences true emotions in the way an affirmation that God is a spirit forces us to conclude that God does not have body parts.
This analogy between the way we think of God’s thoughts and the way we think of his emotions came to me when I realized that just as one’s search for truth is an attempt to attain God’s thoughts (or think God’s thoughts after him), so our desire should be to feel the way God feels about everything we perceive. “So, we learn to pursue God’s pursuits after him, to act God’s acts, feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires. … No, we will never be all-knowing, or all-powerful, or all-present. But yes, we will be wise and loving, true and joyous. We will weep with those who weep.” David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003), 10.
Just as human wrath burns from “within” the human heart (Est 1:12, cf. Ex 32:19, Jd 9:30, 14:19, 1 Sam 20:30, 2 Sam 12:5, Job 32:3), so God’s “anger burned” against Israel and those who sinned (Num 32:10, 13). Just as humans are said to have fierce wrath (Gen 49:7), the same language is used to describe God’s wrath (Dt 29:28; 1 Sam 28:18; 2 Kgs 23:26). Even rage is found in God (Ezek 5:15). Human jealousy so closely corresponds with God’s, it is said to be the same as God’s jealousy (Num 25:11). His rejoicing over his people is compared to a bridegroom rejoicing over the bride (Is 62:5, cf. Zeph 3:17). This compassion is surely to be thought of as an emotion, for his compassion is described as being “just as” the humanly compassion of a father for his son (Ps 103:13, cf. Jonah 4:10-11) and they are described as the stirrings of his heart (Is 63:15). Matthew Elliot appropriately affirms, “God’s love is like a parent’s love for their child,” and asks: “Is there any stronger emotion?” Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2006), 106.
For a discussion on how God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his unshakable happiness, see “The Happiness of God” in John Piper’s Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 31-50.
“Set in the context of eschatological salvation, the NT macarisms have great emotional force. Often there is a contrast with false happiness.” F. Hauck, “makarios” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged Version, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003 Reprint), 549. Although makarios can have a broader meaning than just “happiness,” and may convey something more like “favored,” the emotive term “happy” is still inherent in the meaning, and thus translating makarios as “happy” is a good way to convey the cash value of the idea of “favor.” The concept of being favored or fortunate fundamentally depends on the concept of being happy. Who would want to be blessed if it amounted to pure misery? Being blessed only has its ultimate attraction in the happiness that necessarily coexists with it. Language of favor and blessing plays to our God-given desires for happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
Although I will argue later in this post series that there is no legitimate reason to deny that love (or any other emotional term in the Bible) is an emotion, for a detailed examination of the various words translated “love” and the common anti-emotion bias which seeks to suppress the emotive content these words, see Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 135-164.
It is often said that Christianity is not about emotions. Even if one is willing to admit that emotions should not be altogether ignored (for such advice would seem impossible to human nature), we are warned by pastors and Christian teachers that they are not to become our main concern. We are told: “We must avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch upon feelings. Above all, avoid the terrible error of making them central.” “When we describe someone as ‘an emotional type,’ we do not intend to give a compliment.” It would seem that our emotions lead us into all sorts of trouble, and in lieu of such trouble it might seem like the best plan of action is to suppress them altogether and seek rather to be guided by our reason, or some other virtuous aspect of our nature. After all, does not the Bible itself teach that being “enslaved by all kinds of passions” is characteristic of the pagan lifestyle at odds with the new creation (Tit 3:3)?
A.A. Hodge quoted by Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 26. Italics are added by Culver.
But how are You at once both merciful and impassible? For if You are impassible You do not have any compassion; and if You have no compassion Your heart is not sorrowful from compassion with the sorrowful, which is what being merciful is. But if You are not merciful whence comes so much consolation for the sorrowful? How, then, are You merciful and not merciful, O Lord, unless it be that You are merciful in relation to us and not in relation to Yourself? In fact, You are [merciful] according to our way of looking at things and not according to Your way. For when You look upon us in our misery it is we who feel the effect of Your mercy, but You do not experience the feeling [emphasis mine]. Therefore You are both merciful because You save the sorrowful and pardon sinners against You; and You are not merciful because You do not experience any feeling of compassion for misery.
Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 91.
Footnote # 1: Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 614. This seems to be the reason why Adams is always trying to ground everything he says—even when he is giving extra-biblical wisdom—in some verse or biblical doctrine (even when it is not in the text).
Footnote # 2: Ibid., 615.
Footnote #3: “This approach to secular and other non-Christian thought is best explained by his adherence to a biblical coherence theory of truth [as opposed to a correspondence theory of truth], just like VanTil’s.” Ibid.
Footnote #4: Ibid, 616.
1. I affirm that a biblical under- standing of divine providence is sufficiently accounted for in the following propositions: 1) All creation is absolutely dependant for its existence at every moment on the existence of God (Neh 9.6, 2 Pt 3.7, Heb 1.3, Col 1.17, Acts 17.28, Job 34.14-15; cf. Ps 104.29). 2) God’s eternal decree extends to all things (Eph 1:11) and has been [since creation], is [now], and will be [evermore] continually executed in the created order through a) natural laws (causes and effects set in motion at the creation of the universe) and b) supernatural creation of and intervention in the created order.
Recalling Job – After God makes a deal with the devil concerning Job’s family and wealth, and God takes everything from Job, Job’s now classic response was this: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed by the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). And the scripture adds, “Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God” (Job 1:22).
But round two saw to it that Job’s health was taken from him so that he had a miserable physical existence. Job’s three friends came “to sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11). They stayed quiet for seven days, “for they saw that his pain was very great” (Job 2:13).
“Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? … Or like a miscarriage which is discarded, I would not be, as infants that never saw light. … Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter of soul, who long for death, but there is none, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice greatly, and exult when they find the grave? Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, and whom God has hedged in? For my groaning comes at the sight of my food, and my cries pour out like water. For what I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, and I am not at rest, but turmoil comes.” (Job 3:11, 16, 20-26).
Job Had a Suicidal Mentality, And His Friends Were in Hush Mode – Clearly, Job would rather be dead than experience such emotional and physical pain. This is the suicidal mentality that inevitably flows from a miserable existence. When you are in so much pain that you cannot rejoice, cannot find hope, cannot see things getting better, and cannot live a normal life due to the pain, why even live? Especially for Christians—why not be at home with the Lord where all our pain is gone? This makes suicide especially attractive to believers—they know where they will go if they kill themselves. Yet, it is precisely the Christian who desires to be with Christ that also desires to please Christ and therefore not commit such a grave sin as suicide. This makes the struggle all the more complicated for a believer.
Two things I desire to point out about the book of Job so far. 1) Job wanted to die. Although God testified of Job that “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil,” when suffering of such great magnitude came upon him, though he still loved and had God to hope in, he nevertheless wanted to die. He cursed the day of his birth and was utterly depressed. 2) Job’s friends were silent when they saw Job’s calamity was great. Even these men—who assumed that Job must have sinned for God to allow such great calamity to fall upon him—even they held their tongue at the sight of Job’s suffering.
It’s funny how one minute you can feel on top of the world; full of hope; favored of God; full of life and love, and the next, like your sufficating from fear, depression, anger, unforgiveness, feelings of betrayal, feelings of lonliness, weakness, pain, and despair. It can happen. At the blink of an eye, it can overtake you. When you least expect it. Just when you thought life was getting better; just when you were getting ready to take the next step on the ladder of fulfillment, the next step can crack and send you back to the bottom of the ladder; back to the rock bottom of the sea of despair where the sharks of temptation swim around your head and snap at your flesh.