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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attribute of goodness. Dr. Spencer, last session was a theodicy, which is a defense of the goodness and omnipotence of God given the fact that evil exists. But there is a related question we did not discuss that I suspect a number of our listeners may be wondering about, which is this, “How did evil first enter into creation?” In Genesis 1:31 we read that when God finished his work of creating, there was no evil present because, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: Well, not only was all that God created very good, but this is also a very good question. It is also one of the hardest questions you could ask. The Bible doesn’t tell us a great deal about the origin of sin, but as we consider the topic we must carefully guard against a couple of very serious errors, as Wayne Grudem points out in his Systematic Theology.[2]

Marc Roby: What errors are those?

Dr. Spencer: The first one is the error of blaming God for sin. Deuteronomy 32:4 tells us, “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.” And in James 1:13 we are told that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone”. In light of these Scriptures, and many others, it would be absolute blasphemy to think that God is the author of sin.

Marc Roby: Yes, I agree, which is why the presence of sin is so puzzling. What is the second error we need to guard against?

Dr. Spencer: It is to think that God was not able to prevent sin. In other words, to think there is some equally powerful evil force at work in creation.

Marc Roby: Sort of the like the dark side of “the force” in the Star Wars movies.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would be sort of like that if it existed, which of course it does not. God is absolutely sovereign over all creation, which includes Satan and his demons and everything else, and God is completely good.

As we discussed last time, God allowed sin to enter into his creation because it allowed him to more fully demonstrate his multifaceted glory. But the key word in that sentence is “allowed”. God was not the creator of sin, but he is absolutely sovereign over sin. He could have prevented it and he is able to prevent every single instance of sin that has ever occurred or ever will occur.

Marc Roby: That is a difficult notion to accept given some of the truly evil things that have been done throughout history. It is frightening to think, for example, that God allowed the Holocaust.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely, which is why we have to think very carefully and biblically or we will get into trouble. If God were not absolutely sovereign over everything that happens in this universe, we could never trust that he would be able to make his promises come true. In addition, his promises would then be lies and he would be a liar. These are absolutely unthinkable heresies. The only answer I can give, which comes from the Bible as we discussed last time, is that God allowed sin into creation for his own greater glory. But that does not mean that he is responsible for it, or that he approves of it in any way, or that he cannot control it.

Marc Roby: Which is, again, why something like the Holocaust is so hard to reconcile with God’s goodness.

Dr. Spencer: It is. But, as we labored to show last time, you need to realize that God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory and that there is an eternal reality that awaits all people and all angels. In that eternity there will be no injustice. Everyone will be treated either with perfect justice, or perfect mercy. In light of this eternal reality, a Christian’s troubles here are easy to deal with – even the most severe troubles we can imagine. Which is why the apostle Paul wrote, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Marc Roby: That’s an amazing verse on two accounts. First, that Paul could call our troubles “light and momentary” given some of the terrible troubles he himself experienced. And secondly, it is amazing to consider what our eternal glory will be like if it far outweighs any possible trouble in this life.

Dr. Spencer: It is hard to imagine, but it is true. We again have to reckon with the fact that eternity is infinitely longer than this life. Let me give an analogy to help us grasp this truth.

Marc Roby: Yes, please do.

Dr. Spencer: Think of someone who gets cancer when he is 10 years old and he is told by the doctor that he will certainly die within a year if it isn’t treated. But if he undergoes radiation and chemo-therapy for six months it can most likely be cured.

Marc Roby: That is a very unpleasant thing to consider, especially in somebody so young.

Dr. Spencer: I chose that age deliberately, as you’ll see. Now let’s further suppose that this young boy goes through the treatments. That will be an extremely miserable six months. But let’s further assume that the treatments are successful and he goes on to live a healthy life and die at the ripe old age of 95. That is 85 years past the date when he was told he had cancer, and 84½ of those years were healthy and happy. The six months of misery amounts to less than 0.6% of those 85 years. I think we would all agree that it was worth it in the end.

Marc Roby: Yes, I have to agree with that statement.

Dr. Spencer: OK, so now think about eternity. Even if God calls me to be one of those who suffer for Christ in this life, it doesn’t matter if I suffer for 1 year or 100 years, it is literally zero percent of the time I will spend in heaven.

Marc Roby: I see your point. And, of course, suffering can also produce beneficial results in this life.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it can. I think we have all experienced or heard about a situation where some painful trial produced a good harvest in terms of either leading someone to saving faith, or driving someone away from some besetting sin, or in just making them a better person. God also frequently uses troubles to cause his people to stop trusting in themselves and this world and to look to him in humility and prayer.

In Romans 5 Paul says that we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God and then adds, in Verses 3 through 5, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Marc Roby: That verse also fits with Romans 8:28, which says, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: It fits with that verse very well. And I can personally testify that I am a better person for having gone through the pain of needing and then having two hip replacements. For example, I am more thankful, less proud and more compassionate toward others.

And our greatest joy in heaven will be contemplating the glory of God, so if our misery in this life helps in any way to make that glory manifest, either directly because we suffer for the name of Christ or just by making us better people, and therefore better witnesses for Christ, just imagine the eternal joy we will receive from knowing that.

Marc Roby: I have to admit that makes it easier to see how sufferings could be considered inconsequential by Paul. Although they may still be terrible to endure in this life.

Dr. Spencer: They can be terrible, and God knows that. All suffering, ultimately, is the result of sin. And God is not pleased that sin exists. In fact, in Ezekiel 33:11 we read that God commanded the prophet, “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’” This verse, and others, tell us clearly that God does not take pleasure in the fact that sin must be punished. But because he is infinitely holy and just, it must still be punished. God cannot act contrary to his own perfect nature. So, I’m going to borrow a phrase from John Murray and say that allowing sin was a “consequent absolute necessity” for God.[3]

Marc Roby: I think that phrase from Murray needs some explanation.

Dr. Spencer: What I mean is that allowing sin into his creation, while certainly not something that in itself brings any pleasure to God, was absolutely necessary as a consequence of his having decided to create anything. Because God is perfect, his creation is perfect. And that means that the purpose for that creation is the best possible purpose, which we have noted is the manifestation of his glory. And the full manifestation of his glory must include his holiness and just wrath in addition to his love and mercy. Now I’m drawing a deduction at this point, rather than stating something that Scripture tells us clearly, so I could be wrong. But if sin did not have to exist to accomplish God’s perfect purpose, I don’t believe he would have allowed it since sin, in itself, something that God hates.

Marc Roby: I am going to meditate on that thought for a while.

Dr. Spencer: And I hope our listeners do as well. The more we think about God and what he has done and his revelation to us in his Word, the more we see how our own views have to change. That is why Paul commanded us in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Paul isn’t suggesting that we are able to “test” God’s will in terms of passing judgment on it, that would imply that we are greater than God, which is patently absurd. But he means that to the extent our thinking is transformed we will be able to “test and approve” because we will have come into conformity with God’s perfect will.

Marc Roby: And, of course, being conformed to the likeness of Christ, who is God, is the purpose for which we were predestined, called, justified and will be glorified as Paul wrote in Romans 8:29-30. And that conformity will certainly include our thinking.

Dr. Spencer: And our understanding of what is good, since God is the ultimate standard for what is good.

Marc Roby: I can see you’re trying to get us back on our topic, which isn’t a bad idea. But my question about the origin of sin still stands. You’ve argued, and I think successfully, that we need to avoid the ditches on both sides of the road; that is, the ditch on one side of thinking that God created sin and the ditch on the other side of thinking that he’s not able to prevent it. But you haven’t yet addressed how it came into this world, which was originally declared to be “very good”.

Dr. Spencer: Well, as I said at the outset, that is an extremely difficult question, and God has not chosen to reveal much of the answer. God has told us that the original creation was very good, as you just noted, so we know that there wasn’t any sin present in the beginning. God has also told us about Satan coming and tempting Eve, and through her Adam, to get them to sin. We can conclude from that passage that Satan himself had already become sinful. So, there was a fall of Satan and his demons that occurred before the fall of man. Grudem has a good discussion of this in his Systematic Theology.[4] And there are also some passages in Scripture that speak about Satan’s fall.

Marc Roby: The first one I think of is 2 Peter 2:4, where we are told that “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment”.

Dr. Spencer: Another New Testament reference is Jude 6, which says, “the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.”

These two verses tell us clearly that there were angels who sinned and that God judged them. The fact that they are in dungeons, or darkness and chains, does not mean that they have no influence on this world, but rather that God has absolute control over them.

Marc Roby: And a good example of that is seen in Job 1:6-12, where we read of Satan receiving permission from God to test Job.

Dr. Spencer: And in Luke 22:31 Jesus told the apostle Peter that Satan had asked to sift him as wheat. But in the next verse, Luke 22:32, we have that wonderful statement of Jesus “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Marc Roby: I can only imagine that after Peter had denied Christ three times and then Christ was crucified this statement must have provided great comfort, although I’m sure Peter didn’t understand at that time exactly what Christ meant. In fact, Peter must have felt like his faith had failed.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But the wonderful thing is that Christ didn’t say “And if you turn back, strengthen your brothers.” He said “when you turn back”. Christ’s prayers are always effectual, and that should provide great comfort to all Christians because in his great high priestly prayer we read, in John 17:15, that Christ prayed to the Father about his people and said, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”

Marc Roby: That is very comforting indeed.

Dr. Spencer: And that statement, along with Satan having to ask permission to sift Peter and the story of Job, show that God allows Satan and the other fallen angels to operate in this world for a time. In fact, in Ephesians 2:2 Satan is called “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” So, we know that Satan and some other angels fell and are under God’s judgment, that they are allowed to oppose God’s people in this world for a time, but they are completely under God’s authority.

Marc Roby: Which is good news, because Jesus told us, in John 8:44, that Satan was “a murderer from the beginning” and he is “the father of lies” and the New Testament consistently portrays him as the mortal enemy of God’s church. But what about the fall of Satan himself?

Dr. Spencer: There are at least two passages in the Old Testament that many good theologians think refer to Satan’s fall. One is in Isaiah 14, where the prophet is speaking about the King of Babylon, and the other is in Ezekiel 28 where the prophet is speaking about the King of Tyre. In both cases the descriptions of the kings go beyond what could reasonably be said about any human king, so many theologians think that the prophets were weaving together descriptions of the human kings with the fall of Satan from heaven. This weaving together of human and heavenly events that are related in some way is not uncommon, as Wayne Grudem points out.[5]

In any event, these passages, if they do apply to Satan as many think they do, tell us that he became proud and wanted to take his place on the throne of heaven.

Marc Roby: Yes, in other words, he failed to humble himself and take account of the Creator/creature distinction, which we have pointed out numerous times is central to a proper understanding of who we are.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And he used the same temptation that caused him to fall to snare Adam and Eve. Notice what he said to Eve. After contradicting God and saying that she would not surely die if she ate the forbidden fruit, he then said, in Genesis 3:5, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Marc Roby: It’s ironic that he should tell them, “you will be like God” since Adam and Eve had been created in God’s image. So, in one sense, they already were like God, and their listening to Satan actually resulted in that image being terribly distorted.

Dr. Spencer: It is ironic. But it is also clear that Satan was implying they would be like God in some deeper sense than just being made in his image. He may not have been implying that they would become gods themselves, but it was something close to that. Also, as we noted earlier, our final destiny as God’s children is to be conformed to the image of Christ.

John Murray made an interesting observation in this regard. In writing about the sanctification of believers, he wrote that “likeness to God is the ultimate pattern of sanctification. The reason why God himself is the pattern should be obvious: man is made in the image of God and nothing less than the image of God can define the restoration which redemption contemplates. … [but] it must not be thought that likeness to God is absolute. There is a sense in which to aspire after likeness to God is the epitome of iniquity.”[6]

Marc Roby: That is very interesting. So we know that Satan fell from his exalted place because of pride. He rejected the fundamental Creator/creature distinction that we must always keep in mind. I think that provides a reasonable answer to the question I posed at the beginning, but it also raises another one, which we will have to wait for next time to deal with because we are out of time for today.

Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we’ll do our best to respond.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 492

[3] Murray uses this phrase in to speak of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 12).

[4] Grudem, op. cit., pp 412-414

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 413 (he cites Ps 45 as an example)

[6] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, Vol. 2, pg. 306

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attribute of goodness.

Dr. Spencer, at the end of our last session, you said that we need a proper biblical perspective to understand how a completely good and omnipotent God can allow evil into his creation. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to spend more time on the topic of evil and its relation to the goodness of God because it is an extremely important and difficult topic.

I noted last time that many people in history have argued that the existence of sin and suffering prove that God must either not be good, or not able to prevent evil, in other words, not be omnipotent. I also pointed out that that argument is wrong because it assumes the unbiblical, that is to say, incorrect, idea that the purpose of creation is, or should be, to maximize our pleasure in this life.

Marc Roby: Perhaps we should mention that a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence given the fact that evil exists, that’s called a theodicy.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I think it’s good for people to know that term. And that is exactly what I want to do today. I want to explain, or justify, how it is possible for evil to exist in a universe ruled by an all-powerful, or omnipotent, and all-good, or omnibenevolent, God.

Marc Roby: You noted last time that a proper biblical perspective requires us to recognize that God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory and that we also need to recognize that there is an eternal destiny for human beings. In other words, this life is not all there is.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right, this life is definitely not all there is and we’ll deal with that more in a minute. But first, let me say a little more about the first of those two points, God’s purpose.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: We spoke in both Sessions 2 and 67 about God’s purpose in creation, but it would be good to give just a couple of Scriptures at this time to support the claim that his purpose is the manifestation of his own glory.

Marc Roby: I agree, what Scriptures would you like to cite?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin with the prophet Isaiah. God spoke through the prophet about his redeemed people, meaning the church, and in Isaiah 43:6-7 we read that God said, “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” [1] There are many other verses as well that tell us God’s purpose in creation and redemption is the manifestation of his glory. But to give just one more example, Psalm 19 famously begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)

Marc Roby: I think it is also helpful to remember one other thing you said before, that there is no better purpose for creation than the manifestation of the glory of God. He chose the best possible purpose.

Now, returning to the second point, that this life is not all there is, it’s also pretty easy to come up with Scriptures that support the idea that human beings have an eternal destiny.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, the first one that pops into my mind is the 25th chapter of Matthew.

Marc Roby: Where Christ describes the final judgment.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And after separating the sheep from the goats and telling the goats that they must depart from him, he ends, in Verse 46, by saying, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” And the same exact Greek word for eternal is used in both places in that verse, which makes it clear that it is exegetically impossible to believe in eternal heaven and deny the existence of eternal hell.

So, getting back to your statement that this life is not all there is, we can go further and say that that is, in fact, a gross understatement. When compared with eternity, this life is, quite literally, nothing. There really is only one important question to answer in life, and that is, “Where am I going when I die?” The Bible tells us that there are only two possible places. I will either go to eternal hell and suffer for my sins, or eternal heaven and live in bliss forever in the presence of the perfect God.

Marc Roby: Of course, not everyone is going to agree that those are the only two destinies.

Dr. Spencer: I’m well aware of that, but those are the only two destinies described in the Bible, which is the infallible Word of God, so I’m confident that that is the truth. And I would point out that even people who say they believe that we simply cease to exist when we die frequently speak and act in ways that make it clear they know it isn’t true.

Marc Roby: Yes, especially when someone close to them dies.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely, that is the most common time. You will often hear them say something like, “Aunt Mary will be very pleased to see you graduate” or whatever. But, of course, if Aunt Mary is dead, and if people simply cease to exist, then Aunt Mary can’t possibly know that someone is graduating, let alone be pleased by it.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly heard people say many things that would indicate they know there is some mode of existence beyond the grave.

Dr. Spencer: And not only do they know that, but they also know there will be a judgment. That is one of the major reasons people fear death. They know they will be judged, and they aren’t confident it will go well for them in that judgment.

Marc Roby: Although most people flatter themselves and think they aren’t really all that bad. They might admit that they deserve a mild rebuke for some things they have said or done, but they don’t believe they have done anything deserving of real wrath.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And there are two reasons most people think they will get a passing grade. First, they grade themselves on a curve, in other words, they compare themselves to other people. But God doesn’t grade on a curve. Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Marc Roby: That is definitely not grading on a curve. What is the second reason people think they will get a passing grade?

Dr. Spencer: It’s because they only consider external sins, not sins of the heart. So, since most people have never murdered, or raped or committed grand theft or anything like that, they assume that they are relatively good. And, of course, they may actually be good in a relative sense. But there are two problems with that view.

Marc Roby: What problems are those?

Dr. Spencer: First, as I mentioned, they are ignoring the heart. We are told in 1 Samuel 16:7 that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” And in Hebrews 4:12 we read that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Marc Roby: That’s a problem for us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is a serious problem. And Jesus illustrated just how serious that problem is when he told the people in Matthew 5:27-28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Now many men can truthfully say that they have never committed the physical act of adultery, but how many can say that they have never once looked at a woman lustfully?

Marc Roby: I’d rather not answer that question.

Dr. Spencer: I think you just did. And, of course, adultery isn’t the only sin for which this applies. We are also told that unholy anger is committing murder in the heart and so on. When you apply the true standard, even most law-abiding people do not do very well.

Marc Roby: Alright. You said that there are two problems with the view that we really aren’t all that bad; what is the second one?

Dr. Spencer: The second problem is even more serious. It is that we misjudge sin itself. The worst sin of all isn’t something I do to other people, it is my attitude toward God. If I don’t consciously give him thanks for life and material blessings, and if I don’t live to please him, I am insulting the living God, my Creator. Even if I murder someone, the worst sin involved is not what I did to that person. The worst sin involved is that in murdering the person I rejected God’s law and his authority to command me to not murder. And, even worse, if I live as though I am independent and he doesn’t exist, that is a huge insult to God. Rejecting the sovereign Creator and Lord of all is a very serious offense, it is an offence that deserves God’s wrath.

Marc Roby: That makes perfectly good sense. In fact, the Bible tells us that anything not done in obedience to God and for his glory is sin.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we are famously told, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” And the Greek verb in that sentence is in the imperative mood, so it is a command. And in John 14:15 Jesus told us that “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” We can conclude therefore, that any disobedience is a lack of love for God, which is most certainly a sin because Jesus told us in Matthew 22:37-38 that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Therefore, anything that is not done in conscious obedience to God and for his glory, is sin.

Marc Roby: That is a very convicting, but true, statement. But we were justifying God’s goodness given the presence of evil. How does this all tie back into that topic?

Dr. Spencer: It ties back in in at least two ways. First, because there is an eternal destiny awaiting every human being, we can’t judge what is good in any meaningful ultimate sense by looking at what happens just in this short life. And secondly, if we recognize that the worst sin is not murder, or any thing like that, but rather is rejecting the sovereign God who made us, then we will understand that we all deserve punishment. And if we then receive what we deserve, that is certainly just and we must agree that is good. And when we consider those to whom God has granted repentance and saving faith, we see that they receive mercy, rather than justice, and spend eternity in heaven. And certainly we must agree that is also good.

Marc Roby: I think everyone would agree that bringing people to heaven is good. I’m not sure many people are willing to accept that hell is good, although the fact that guilty sinners deserve God’s wrath certainly argues that it is. But I suspect that many people would ask why God can’t simply show mercy and forgive. After all, God commands us to be merciful and to forgive others.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great question, and we dealt with it in Session 24. I pointed out then that God cannot forgive sin without the penalty being paid because he is the judge of the universe. If I steal from someone who happens to be a judge, he can forgive me on a personal level. But, if the case comes before his court and I am found guilty of the crime, as judge he cannot simply say that he forgives me. Justice demands that I be punished and he must abide by the laws of the state and sentence me appropriately. As Judge of the universe, God must do what is just and right, and the just and right penalty for sinning against God is death—eternal death.

Marc Roby: That helps. And it is also important to remember the fact you pointed out in Session 72, that people in hell do not repent and seek God’s forgiveness, but continue to hate him and rail against him in their hearts, which actually increases their guilt every day.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. When you put all of this together, you realize that hell is good. It is not pleasant, but it is just and fair and right. And so, in a deep sense of the term, it is good.

Marc Roby: But, at the same time, God does show mercy to some and save them. And that brings up another problem for many people. It seems unfair for God to choose some people to be saved while leaving others to suffer for their sins.

Dr. Spencer: That is a very common complaint. You’re speaking about the doctrine of divine election, and we dealt with that doctrine back in Session 15, but we must say a few words again here. The basic problem is that we think we want to be judged based on our own effort. That somehow sounds fair to us because in terms of dealings with other human beings that is, in general, fair. But, as I noted a minute ago, when we consider the true nature of sin, and we judge the heart and not just the external actions, we find that we all have a serious problem. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. So, if we think more carefully, we will recognize that we don’t really want to be judged fairly, or justly, we want mercy.

Marc Roby: And, of course, by definition mercy is not something we deserve, so God is not under obligation to show mercy to anyone.

Dr. Spencer: No, he isn’t. It would be completely just and fair for God to send all of us to hell. The huge surprise, the great mystery and amazing demonstration of God’s love and mercy is that he chose to save anyone at all. Especially when you consider the cost.

Marc Roby: Which was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And we find ourselves right back at John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And this is good in the most profound possible sense of the word, even though perishing in this verse refers to eternal hell. And notice that it is only those who believe who will not perish. In fact, just two verses later, in John 3:18, we read that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Refusing to believe in Jesus Christ is the most serious sin a person can commit it is, ultimately, the sin that sends you to hell. In 1 John 5 the apostle tells us about God’s testimony about Christ and he says in Verse10 that “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.

Marc Roby: Calling the perfectly holy and just Creator a liar is a terrible thing. And I think we have made a good case for the fact that the existence of hell is actually good, given the fact that evil does exist.

We got onto this topic because of the importance of having an eternal perspective in understanding the presence of evil. Can we go back now and tie it all together somehow? Why is it good that God allowed evil to enter his creation?

Dr. Spencer: Because it allowed a more complete manifestation of God’s multifaceted glory. Without allowing evil to enter creation God would not have been able to demonstrate his just wrath against evil, nor would he have been able to demonstrate his astounding merciful love in redeeming some people. I don’t think we can understand it fully, but you have to consider the finished product so to speak. Years ago I read something very profound that is relevant to this topic in, of all places, a devotional my wife and I were reading with our children when they were young.

Marc Roby: What was that?

Dr. Spencer: The author used the analogy of a cake to illustrate Romans 8:28, which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Now I don’t remember the story in detail, but it went something like this; a child had asked the mother about something that wasn’t good, and questioned whether God was good for allowing such a thing. The mother’s response in the story was great. She asked the child, “Do you like chocolate cake?” And, like most children, the child responded, “Of course.” And then the mother said, “Well, do you like to eat flour?” And he said, “No.” Then the mother asked if he liked to eat baking powder, and he said no. Then she asked if he liked to eat salt, and he said no. Then she asked if he liked raw egg and he said no. But she then told him that all of those things were used in making chocolate cake.

Marc Roby: That is a great illustration. The ingredients may not be good in and of themselves, but the final result is good.

Dr. Spencer: And so it is with God’s works. We do not know enough or have a wide enough perspective to properly judge his works. We know that evil exists and we know that evil is not good in itself. In fact, it is the opposite of good. But we know that God is not the author of evil and God is good. In fact, he is the standard of good. He is absolutely, perfectly and immutably good. And he is omnipotent. Therefore, we can conclude that the presence of evil was necessary for the accomplishing of God’s perfect eternal plan for creation, which is good.

Marc Roby: And I think that is a good place to end for today – pun intended. I want to remind our listeners that they can email any questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to answer.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes.

Dr. Spencer, we finished God’s attribute of truthfulness last time. What do you want to look at today?

Dr. Spencer: We’re going to continue following the treatment of God’s attributes in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and he treats God’s goodness next.

Marc Roby: How does Grudem define God’s goodness?

Dr. Spencer: He writes that “The goodness of God means that God is the final standard of good, and that all that God is and does is worthy of approval.”[1] And I think it is important for us to remember that Jesus himself said, in Luke 18:19, that “No one is good—except God alone.”[2] Which certainly agrees with the point Grudem makes that God is “the final standard of good”. No one but God fully meets the standard that he himself sets.

Marc Roby: This idea that God is the standard of what is good is also a repeat of what we saw with regard to truth; that is, God is the ultimate standard for truth as well.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is the same idea, and for the same reason. If we say that God is good, the statement implies that we have some standard by which we evaluate what is good and that we have compared God to that standard and have found him to pass the test. But there is no such standard outside of God. In fact, the final statement in Grudem’s definition, that “all that God is and does is worthy of approval” could be confusing if we don’t allow him to explain what he means by it.

Marc Roby: What does he mean?

Dr. Spencer: I want to let him speak for himself. Remember the first part of his definition says that “God is the final standard of good”. And so he wrote that “Here, ‘good’ can be understood to mean ‘worthy of approval,’ but we have not answered the question, approval by whom?” He then writes that in an ultimate sense, “we are not free to decide by ourselves what is worthy of approval and what is not. Ultimately, therefore, God’s being and actions are perfectly worthy of his own approval. He is therefore the final standard of good.”[3]

We must realize that if we don’t accept God’s revelation of himself as our standard for what is good, the only other possibility is that we use a human standard, either our own, or someone else’s, or a consensus, or whatever.

Marc Roby: That again sounds exactly like what we said regarding both our ultimate standard for truth and our ultimate standard for morality. Which means that if we choose the human standard, we again have the problem that not all human beings will agree.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the problem. If you and I disagree about whether or not something is good, how do we determine who is right?

Marc Roby: Well, I think I’ll go with my view. … But, being serious, I think the popular view is that we should just “agree to disagree.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the modern way to handle it, yes. And it works if we are talking about something like whether or not the San Francisco Giants should trade Madison Bumgarner. We can disagree about that and there are at least two good reasons why it doesn’t matter. First, it isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that serious Giants fans will disagree with that statement.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure they will too, but even they will have to agree that it has no cosmic or eternal significance. And then secondly, I don’t think there is any rational and fool-proof way to find out who is right.

But, when it comes to far more serious issues, for example, whether or not abortion should be legal, I don’t think that agreeing to disagree is an appropriate response. Some decision has to be made. Now of course, the decision has been made for our country at this point in time, but it is just a legal decision and is not something that is irrevocable.

Marc Roby: Which is why there was so much furor over the recent confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely, it was all about abortion, gay rights and a few other hot topics. So, my point is that when it comes to things like that, as Christians we have no right to think for ourselves because we have made the declaration that Jesus is Lord. God’s word must be our standard. It is our standard for morality and it is our standard for what is good in every situation. And the Bible is our standard because God himself is the ultimate standard and the Bible is his infallible revelation to us.

Marc Roby: And, of course, as with truth, God has implanted his image in us, so what the Bible says is good should, in general, resonate with our own idea of what is good.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But it is very important that you said it should resonate “in general”, because it certainly will not agree in every instance. Every aspect of our being is still tainted by sin. And it is when we disagree with God’s standard that we must recognize that it is our view that must change, not God. Whenever I hear someone make a statement like, “My God would never say such and such” or, “My God would never disapprove of such and such” I get very nervous.

Marc Roby: Why is that?

Dr. Spencer: Because very often when someone makes that kind of statement it is not based on a careful analysis of the biblical data, it is based on their own ideas of what God should be like. In other words, they are changing God in their minds to make him conform to their ideas. But, as we discussed in Session 71 with regard to metaphysical truth, God does not need to conform to our ideas of what he should be. He is the Creator and we are the creatures. He alone has the authority and power to define what he should be like and he alone has the authority and power to define what is good. So, when someone says something like, “My God would never say such and such”, if the statement is not based on a careful analysis of the biblical data, it is very likely to be wrong.

Marc Roby: I see your point. But can you give us an example?

Dr. Spencer: Sure, if you say that your God would never lie or cause someone to sin, that’s fine because those statements are based on what God tells us about himself in the Bible. But, if you say, as I’ve heard people say, that your God would never send anyone to hell, or would never condemn homosexuality, then you have a serious problem because neither of those statements agree with what God himself tells us in the Bible. In fact, they are opposed to what God tells us in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Of course, people would usually defend such statements by saying that “God is love”, or something like that.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, that is the common defense of statements like that. And, of course, the Bible does tell us that God is love. But you then need a biblical definition of what love is. A good place to start would be John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Now think about that for a minute. It means that God’s love was the cause of his sending his eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, to humble himself and become a man, and then to give himself as a sacrifice for our sins. It also means that it was God’s will for Jesus Christ to be brutally flogged, nailed to a cross and hung up to die. And while he was on the cross, God the Father poured out his wrath upon him as the just punishment for the sins of his chosen people.

Marc Roby: That doesn’t conform very well to any modern idea of love.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But it does conform to God’s perfect idea of what love is, and that’s all that really matters. We have talked over and over about God’s simplicity …

Marc Roby: The idea that his attributes all work together.

Dr. Spencer: Right. So, in the case of John 3:16 we have to realize that God’s love is a just love. By which I mean that his love does not somehow trump his justice. His love for his people, because it must be a just love, does not allow him to simply wink at and excuse their sin, their sins must be paid for, otherwise God would no longer be just. The problem is that we are not capable of atoning for our sins, the required price is too high.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of Psalm 49, where it says that “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough—that he should live on forever and not see decay.” (Psalm 49:7-9)

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, when the psalmist says that “no payment is ever enough”, he is speaking about payments that could be made by mortals like us. But, praise God, in his infinite wisdom and love he devised a plan to redeem the people he loves. And that plan required his eternal Son to become incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, and then give his life as an atoning sacrifice to pay for the sins of his chosen people. Jesus Christ himself told us in Mark 10:45 that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in Romans 3:25-26 the apostle Paul tells us that “God presented him [referring to Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

Marc Roby: That truly is an amazing passage to demonstrate God’s justice, love and wisdom all working together. He sent Jesus Christ to pay for our sins so that, as Paul says, he can “be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

Dr. Spencer: It is one of the most wonderful examples of God’s simplicity. His plan allows him to “be just”, as Paul puts it, because justice is satisfied. Our sins are paid for. And yet, his plan also allows him to justify those who have faith in Jesus, which means that he declares us to be legally just because our penalty has been paid by another. And so, in that context, John 3:16 makes perfect sense, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And praise God for his amazing, wise and just love.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we absolutely must praise him. And this is the core of the gospel message. There is a legal transaction taking place, or you could think of it as an accounting transaction. It is often called the double transaction, or the double imputation. Our faith unites us with Jesus Christ so that God puts our sins into Christ’s account and then places Christ’s perfect righteousness into our account. As a result, when Christ died on the cross, our sins were paid for. And, even more, when God looks at us, he sees the perfect righteousness of Christ.

This whole transaction is described by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Marc Roby: That is indescribable grace and mercy shown to us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. And it is good. Getting back to our discussion of the goodness of God, the whole plan of salvation, like everything else God is or does, is good. People may not like it, they may find the idea of a sacrifice of atonement to be offensive, but it is good! We need to adjust our thinking to agree with God, not the other way around. In Isaiah 55:8 we read, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.”

Marc Roby: I think there is a question that we should address in relation to this idea that God defines what is good and then, based on that definition, we say that God himself is good. There is a circularity to that reasoning that will disturb many people.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there is. We noted the same kind of circularity in Session 71 when we discussed God’s truthfulness, and we looked at it in more depth way back in Session 4 where I argued that circular reasoning is inescapable when you’re dealing with the ultimate standard for truth.

John Frame points out the same thing in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. In discussing defending the Christian worldview he writes that “no system can avoid circularity, because all systems … – non-Christian as well as Christian – are based on presuppositions that control their epistemologies, argumentation, and use of evidence. Thus a rationalist can prove the primacy of reason only by using a rational argument.”[4]

Marc Roby: That is a clear presentation of the problem. Ultimate standards can only be defended by referring to themselves.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. But Frame goes further. He notes that “Circularity in a system is properly justified only at one point: in an argument for the ultimate criterion of the system.”[5] And he then goes on to argue that using a circular argument to defend your ultimate standard in no way commits you to allowing circular arguments to be used at other points.

Marc Roby: That is an important observation.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And he also deals specifically with the circularity in the argument for God being good in his book The Doctrine of God. He begins by noting that the problem exists for many of God’s attributes. And he then writes that “When we ascribe an attribute to God and also make him the standard for identifying and evaluating that quality, the two statements generate a kind of circularity.”[6] But, as we just noted, this problem exists for all ultimate standards.

Then, in reference to God’s goodness in particular, he writes that “We believe that God is good, then, because God tells us that he is good. So the circularity is present. But it is a broad circularity, not a narrow one. It is a circularity loaded with content, full of evidence, and richly persuasive. We are literally surrounded by evidence of God’s goodness.”[7]

Marc Roby: I like that statement. And it reminds me of what Grudem said about God’s truthfulness, that God “has implanted in our minds a reflection of his own idea of what the true God must be, and this enables us to recognize him as God.” It seems that Frame is arguing something similar here. God has created us with a sense of what is good so that when we look at all that God is and has done, we recognize it as good.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is exactly what Frame is getting at. But, of course, we need the proper perspective, meaning a biblical perspective, in dealing with some of the things that God has done. For example, you need the right perspective to see that it was good for God to allow sin and the suffering it brings to enter into his creation.

It has been argued that the existence of sin and suffering prove that God must either not be good, or not able to prevent evil, in other words, not be omnipotent. But that argument assumes an unbiblical idea that the purpose of creation should be to maximize our pleasure in this life.

Marc Roby: Can you explain how a biblical perspective helps to reconcile God’s goodness and omnipotence with the presence of sin and suffering?

Dr. Spencer: The biblical perspective provides two key pieces of information to help understand how the presence of sin and suffering can be good. The first thing you need to understand is that human beings are made for eternity. When you take an eternal perspective, you realize that if you endure painful trials for 100 years, it is of no great consequence after you been in heaven for 10,000 years, let alone an eternity.

Marc Roby: That’s a very hard thing for us to grasp. What is the second key thing you need to know?

Dr. Spencer: That God’s ultimate purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory. We discussed this in Session 67 in relation to God’s wisdom, but it is absolutely critical here. Allowing sin into this world allows God to display his own judgment, mercy, justice and love to a fuller degree than would have been possible otherwise. In other words, God allowed sin into his creation for his greater glory. So, when you put that together with an eternal perspective, it helps to resolve the apparent contradiction between God being good and omnipotent and yet allowing sin into his creation.

Marc Roby: That perspective certainly helps. But we are out of time for today. So I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 197

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] Grudem, opt. cit., pg. 197

[4] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, P&R Publishing Company, 1987, pg. 130

[5] Ibid

[6] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 405

[7] Ibid, pg. 409

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