Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Trusting God When Your Loved Ones Reject Christ

In the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition where I find myself, we believe very much that God works in families and that he not only saves individuals, but promises his salvation to their whole families as well (see, e.g., Acts 2:39: "For the promise is for you and for your children . . . ."). In fact, among the chief means God uses to raise disciples is the care and instruction of parents and fellow church members.

Sadly, however, we have all seen many examples where this doesn't work out right. A child may be brought into the church and given God's promises in baptism, and his parents might faithfully teach him the faith and pray for him day and night, yet he may never come to know the Lord. (Of course, the Bible says we're not merely neutrally unconvinced about Jesus. Unbelievers, rather, actively spurn and reject him in favor of their preferred idols.) Does this mean God has failed? One can hardly blame a parent when he grieves and is upset toward God when his children drift away or fail to embrace Jesus as their Rescuer and Lord. Is God impotent? Aloof? Cavalier? Arbitrary?

As I've been reading through Romans again lately, these questions find their answers. Of course I do not intend to suppose these will satisfactorily calm all the travail a loving Christian parent will surely experience, but I know that they are true. And I might as well impress these lessons upon my own heart now, should I later find myself in this same predicament. So here are three explanations from Romans 9-11 as to why children raised in a godly home and/or in the church fail to grasp Christ.

God has not chosen some for salvation (Romans 9:1-29). In this section of his letter, Paul addressed the question of why the Jews have pretty much cart-blanche written off Jesus as the Messiah. If God promised to save his people and make them a blessing to the world, why then have the Jews failed both to obey the Law and also to trust Christ and so be saved? Haven't God's promises failed? some might ask. An emphatic NO! is his reply. "But it is not as though the word of God has failed" (v. 6). Paul goes on to argue that while God's salvation was truly promised to all of Abraham's descendants, only a portion or remnant of his offspring--"the children of the promise"--are chosen by God. The reality Paul lays out is that God, in his freedom as Creator, has not shown the same mercy upon all people. Why not? It is so that the world will see that salvation lies not in their own abilities and desires and deeds, but in God's. "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy" (v. 16; cf. v. 11).

God does have "mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whom he wills" (v. 19). But this is no injustice. In the Bible, when someone is spoken of being hardened in his sin, this is always God's act of judgment by which he simply gives sinners what they've wanted all along: their own kingdom apart from the Lord's rule. Paul uses the example of Pharaoh, who already hated and rejected God, as one whom God hardened. Likewise Paul shows that God lets people feel the full weight of their sin (1:24, 26, 28), as they wish. By even invoking the word mercy, Paul shows that the natural state of anyone is as a wrath-deserving rebel. If you weren't already an enemy of God, why would it be then mercy which God sheds on you? So in saving only some people, God is simply being more merciful to them than to others.

Unbelievers are simply that--unbelievers (9:30 - 10:21). Paul makes it evident that salvation doesn't demand jumping through spiritual hoops or figuring out some enigmatic metaphysical puzzle. Rather, it's as simple as trusting the message about Jesus Christ, who is near all through the gospel. When Jesus is proclaimed, we are called to believe in him in our hearts and to confess his name publicly. It's as simple as that (10:5-13).

What this means is that as a parent or friend, if you have spoken often and clearly to that person of repentance and faith in Christ and prayed for his salvation, it's not your fault that person doesn't know the Lord. It's his. God's call and his promises are for everyone in the church, all who hear, but some refuse to believe. And in the end, that's the fact. They personally failed to obey the gospel (vv. 16-21). And their faithlessness does not nullify God's faithfulness (3:3-4). They simply rather love something more than the faithful God.

Now this may be seem at odds with the fact that no one believes unless God graciously gives them faith (Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). But despite the mysteries of election and God's sovereignty, the reality is that God also freely offers eternal life to all through the gospel (John 3:16). God's offer is no less real, neither is their rejection of the gospel and their failure to repent.

God has a good and wise plan, even when we don't understand it fully (11:1-36). Paul finishes his argument for God's fidelity by pointing out that God hasn't given up on Israel even though only a few Jews now believe. Rather, he has for a time opened the door wide so that people from all nations might belong to God. And in due time, Jews again will embrace their Messiah and find their home in the church. But Paul calls this plan a "mystery" contrary to our own human wisdom (v. 25). In the fullness of God's perfect, superior wisdom and purposes, what looks like a puzzling failure or injustice on God's part actually is serving to make his mercy as far-reaching and expansive as possible (vv. 30-32). This leads Paul to break out in praise:

Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (11:33-36)
Compared to God, our wisdom is but an infinitestimal droplet. And this must be, in the end, what we take to heart. Yes, God calls all to believe in the gospel of his Son, and only those who believe are saved. Yet at the same time, this belief in Christ is ultimately only granted by God to those whom he has chosen. What to do with this seeming antithesis? We have to look to and trust in God's perfect wisdom.

Where is his divine wisdom most fully put on display? It is seen nowhere more radiantly and clearly than in the Cross of Jesus Christ. "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:22-24; cf. vv. 30-31; Luke 11:31; Col. 2:3). When you look at the Man of Sorrows carrying the world's sickness and sin, hanging on the cross in shame, and dying to bear God's wrath and shed forgiveness upon a world of sinners, do you not see there God's love? His mercy? His goodness? His grace? Can you look at the cross and see in it an evil God, lording his might over the world and wantonly crushing sinners under his finger without a care? No! So we can trust that even when it seems like God is aloof or injust, or even powerless, he is working each of us into a wise plan conceived in the benevolence of his heart. We cannot see it now, nor will it make sense or ease our griefs. But we can continue to hope in the goodness of God.

"To the only wise God be glory forevermore though Jesus Christ! Amen" (Rom. 16:27).

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