Why I believe in God (6): the Bible

Resumé of previous articles

  1. None of us argues their way to faith, but after we’ve come to faith, we may well find that we have to justify it to ourselves.  But how?

    1. Because we recognise that the Apostle Paul was absolutely right when he spoke of a sense of deity being indelibly inscribed on every human heart.
    2. Because of the bankruptcy of the alternatives to belief in God.  It is hard to believe that before there was a world there was absolutely nothing; and equally hard to believe that before there was a world there was some eternal, inanimate, self-existent lump of ‘matter’ which exploded to produce the beautiful and ordered universe science explores today.
    3. Because God has left his footprints not only in the physical creation but in human history, and particularly in the story of his people, Israel.    The Exodus and the other great moments of Old Testament history remind us that God not only made the world, but remains engaged with it.  People actually met him and spoke with him. 
    4. Because God personally showed himself in history when his Son, Jesus Christ, took our nature and lived among us a fully human life in which there shines the glory of the divine
    5. Because of the Empty Tomb of Jesus Christ, confirming his claims and pointing to One who can reverse the irreversible at his will.


There remains one further mighty act which helps faith to understand itself: the Bible.  It is a miracle in its own right.

It is not, however, the same sort of miracle as is claimed for the Qur’an by Muslims, who believe that the very words of the Qur’an existed from all eternity, that Mohammed received them verbatim from an angel, memorised them, and then recited them to companions who in turn recited them to others.  No human mind was involved.  The Bible, by contrast, is a miracle that God achieved through human authorship, a point which St. Peter makes with remarkable emphasis when, referring to the prophets, he writes (to quote him literally), ‘spoke from God men’ (2 Pet. 1:21, italics added).  It is more a library than a single book, composed over hundreds of years by a remarkably varied succession of men, each writing in his own style, each reflecting his own temperament and each betraying his own personal flaws.  Moses is not a David, Isaiah is not Jeremiah, and St. Luke is not St. John.  Some were literary geniuses, most were not.  Some were men of profound intellect, some were not.  Almost every one has his moments of self-doubt and near-despair, and each falls at some point or other below the standards he preaches.

Nor is it only the authors who reflect widely varying personalities.  Precisely because the writers and their cultural settings are different, their compositions embrace many different kinds of literature.  There are great historical narratives such as the story of the Exodus, the gospel accounts of the life of Christ, and the record of the growth of the early church which we find in the Book of Acts.  There is great poetry, not only in the Psalms, but also in the lyrical passages which sometimes arrest us even in the middle of long sections of prose (for example, First Corinthians Thirteen).  There are proverbs and parables and even fables (Judges 9:8 – 15). There is the enigmatic Book of Job, recording one believer’s anguished protests against the ways of the Almighty.  There is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, telling us to view life from its Ending.  There are mundane instructions about war, husbandry and hygiene.  And there are the sublime theological flights of John’s Prologue and Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

On some rare occasions the biblical authors are writing to divine dictation: indeed, in the case of the Decalogue the commandments are written by God himself on tablets of stone, and precise details for the construction of the Tabernacle and for the Levitical rituals are also handed down directly by God.  But these are exceptions.  The norm was that the biblical writers had to endure all the travails common to human authorship.  They used the language of their own time and place, they laboured over word-selection, and over the links by which they would move from one topic to another.  They drew on existing sources, oral and written, but selected them carefully and edited them judiciously.  They drew on concepts such as covenant and adoption which were current in the society of their day and even drew occasionally on the writings of pagan poets.  On the other hand they avoid words like eros, the common word for romantic love, because it was open to serious misunderstanding and might convey an entirely false idea of God’s love.  And all the time, whether writing the Book of Genesis or the Epistle to the Galatians, they remain focused on the needs of their original readers and the pastoral challenges facing the church of their own day.  Every book of the Bible was addressed to a specific situation.

Nor are the differences between the biblical writers limited to matters of personality, style and genre.  There also differences in the theological colouring.  Each era and each writer make their own distinctive contribution, as God reveals himself not all at once, and not in monochrome, but ‘line upon line’, teaching each generation as it was able to bear, and building on what they already knew.  This is exactly what we are told in the opening words of the Epistle to the Hebrews: the Scriptures were given at various times and in diverse ways.  Sometimes there were long hiatuses, as in the period between Malachi and John the Baptist, while at other times (such as the age of Moses and the era of the apostles) there is a flood of sacred writings.  But no later age simply reproduces the message of those which have gone before.  Instead, as the sacred writings accumulate and the library is expanded, there is steady progress towards fuller and deeper revelation.  The clearest example of this, obviously, is the contrast between the Old Testament and the New.  Psalmists and prophets saw foretold the incarnation and the cross  with remarkable clarity, considering that they wrote almost a thousand years before the event, but compared to the apostles the light they shed on the life and work of the Messiah shines but darkly; and very often it is only the light of the New Testament that enables us to see the light shining in the Old. 

But even within the same eras each writer has his own concerns and introduces his own concepts: Isaiah with his Servant Songs, Jeremiah with his message of the New Covenant, David wrestling with the lows and highs of personal religion: personal sin on the one hand, the mercy of God on the other.  The same pattern occurs in the New Testament, though within a much shorter time-scale.  Overarching all is the unique ministry of Jesus, distinguished from all others by his Messianic consciousness and his assurance of his own divine identity, but also distinguished by such features as his use of brilliant parables, memorable one-liners, and his habitual reference to himself as ‘the Son of Man’ (a title never applied to him by any of his followers).

The writings of the apostles are, of course, entirely derivative from the teaching of Jesus, and all of them follow the pattern set by John the Baptist in diverting attention from themselves to Christ.  But even as they bore their witness, they were painfully conscious that they knew only in part.  Even though they spoke in words taught by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13) the message transcended both their powers of conception and their powers of expression, forcing them to speak of riches which were ‘unsearchable’ and a joy which was ‘unspeakable’.  But still, each is making his own unique contribution.  Mathew alone gives an extensive summary of the Sermon on the Mount, John alone speaks of Christ as the Logos, and to Paul we owe not only the clearest revelation of the doctrine of justification but also the description of the incarnation as a self-emptying (kenosis) on the part of the eternal Lord (Phil. 2:7).  To the Writer to the Hebrews we owe the description of Christ as priest, fulfilling the symbolism of the Mosaic sacrifices; and to the Revelation of St John we owe not only the visions of apocalypse and cataclysm, but the unforgettable image of the slaughtered Lamb standing in the centre of the Throne (Rev. 5:6). 


Speaking for God

No doubt about it, then: the Holy Scriptures reflect on every page a vibrant yet humble humanity, conscious of its servant-role.  But amid all this humanity and all this humility we encounter an amazing claim.  It was already made by Moses, and it got him into deep trouble.  He claimed that God had spoken to him and that he had appointed him his spokesman.  He spoke for God.  Time and again the claim provoked bitter anger.  Even his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, resented it (Num. 12.2): ‘Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?’   But the same claim pervades the ministry of later prophets, who regularly preface their messages with the words, ‘Thus says the Lord’; and although many modern biblical scholars dismiss the claim out of hand, Jesus endorsed it unreservedly.  ‘Scripture,’ he said, ‘cannot be broken.’ (John 10.35).  It is of inviolable authority.  His apostles took exactly the same view, giving the Scriptures a ringing endorsement.

But before we look at the apostles’ attitude to Scripture let’s pause for a moment over Jesus’ attitude to his own words.  He clearly saw them as absolutely authoritative.  We have already noted one of the clearest examples of this: the language he used in the Sermon on the Mount when he laid down his famous series of ‘antitheses’ to the revered rabbinical tradition.  ‘You have heard,’ he declared, ‘But I tell you …’  (Mt. 5:21 – 48); and what he went on to tell them was that their traditions amounted to nothing less than a dilution and evasion of divine law.  God, he declared, forbids hate as well as murder, and lust as well as adultery; commands love for enemies as well as for friends; commands that instead of demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth we should turn the other cheek; and laid down that in God’s view marriage is indissoluble. 

The language is uncompromising, and it never dates.  Jesus is assuming and asserting his authority to pronounce judgement on the most revered of human insights and traditions, and he underlines this by his dramatic conclusion to the Sermon.  Just as a house built on sand will never stand against flood or storm, so a life which ignores his words will be swept away (Mt. 7:26 – 27).

It goes without saying that the apostles accepted unquestioningly the divine authority of Jesus.  Paul, for example, preaches only what he has received from the Lord (1 Cor. 11:23 – 25, I Cor. 15:3, Gal. 1:11 – 12.   But like Jesus himself (and like every pious Jew of their day), the apostles cherished without reservation the belief that Scripture is the word of God.  In their case, of course, ‘Scripture’ meant the Old Testament and their deference to its authority is clear throughout their writings.  True, it is no longer their only authority.  The words of the Lord are still remembered and have begun to circulate in both oral and written form and, along with the apostolic writings, they would soon be regarded as of equal authority with the Law and the Prophets.  This obviously did not mean that the writings of the Old Testament were now superseded.  Jesus had already made plain that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil and clarify them, and this is why it was precisely to the Old Testament writings that the apostles turned for illustration of their beliefs and proof of their doctrines.  The true position is that the canon which the church inherited, the Old Testament, was augmented by the gradual addition of the apostolic writings, now regarded as Holy Scripture.

But over and above endorsing the Scriptures by constantly appealing to them, the apostles also reflected on the nature of these Scriptures, and their mature views on the subject are recorded in two memorable passages, 2 Peter 1:20 – 21 and 2 Timothy 3:16 – 17.         Peter’s statement, as we have seen, clearly emphasised that the Scriptures were written by men, but it also makes clear his view that, though they wrote and spoke as men, what they said was no mere reflection of their own analysis of events or of their own sagacity and foresight.  On the contrary, they wrote as men who were carried by the Holy Spirit: not only prompted or led, but carried, which means, surely, that they said exactly what the Spirit intended them to say. 

This view of the Old Testament is fully endorsed by St. Paul: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God’ (2 Tim. 3:16).  In the previous verse he has referred to the Scriptures as ‘the sacred writings.’  This immediately means that we cannot accept the view, now so widely prevalent among biblical scholars, that we are to treat the Bible as we would any ordinary book.  Apart from all else, few ordinary books go about proclaiming that they have been breathed out by God.  If the claim is false, we should throw the book away.  If it’s true, then the reader is on hallowed ground.  The Scriptures are, indeed, writings, but to the Apostle Paul they are sacred or holy writings, and totally different in character from all other human literature.


What makes the Scriptures sacred?

But what, precisely, makes them sacred?  The fact, declares the apostle, that they are ‘breathed out’ by God.  The word Paul uses here is theopneustos, and older versions took it to mean that the Scriptures were ‘inspired’ by God, which suggests that God produced the Scriptures by ‘breathing into’ the men who wrote them.  But the real idea is quite different.  Theopneustos means literally ‘God-breathed’, and what Paul is speaking of is not of ‘breathing into’ but ‘breathing out.’  The Scriptures were breathed out by God; this refers to all Scripture; and it refers to them precisely as writings.  The point is not that the men who wrote our Bible were inspired, but that their writings have this unique quality that they are the breath of God.  In other words, whatever is Scripture is the word of God.

Paul doesn’t venture to give any explanation of the nature of this out-breathing, neither does any other biblical writer.  We are told that the writers were carried, but not how; and we are told that the writings were breathed out, but not how.  What we do know is that whatever the nature of the divine action it did not preclude human action or suppress or by-pass the personalities of the biblical writers.  Occasionally, indeed, like a manager dictating to his secretary, he told them exactly what to say.  Sometimes he revealed himself to them in theophanies or in various mighty acts like the Exodus and ‘carried’ them as they described what they had seen.  Sometimes he provided for several different people to witness the same event (the cross, for example), but gave each of them the freedom to express in his own way what he had seen. 

And sometimes, as in the case of the Psalms and the Apostolic epistles, God speaks through the outpourings of the writer’s own soul.  As he writes the Epistle to the Romans, Paul is hearing no voice and seeing no vision, or in any objective sense engaging in conversation with the divine.  Instead, he is thinking, and through his thinking God speaks.  To what extent Paul was what the Puritans called a ‘painful’ author, we shall never know.  It would be fascinating to see his original manuscript and check whether he ever scored out a word and replaced it with another, more precise or more elegant.  Probably not!  Paul writes with passion, and sometimes pours forth his thought in a torrent, careless of grammar and too busy to revise.  But when the resulting product, Romans, is ready, God is prepared to endorse this letter, written to one particular church with its own particular set of problems, as his letter to the whole church, and to the church of all ages.


Dual authorship

What we have in the Bible, then, is a book of dual authorship, human and divine; and if asked what we mean by the inspiration of Scripture all we can say is that it is that mysterious divine action by which God secured that the human word spoken in Scripture is also in its entirety his Word; and in recognition of this I, and every other Christian, believes that whatever it says is true.  That is the essential nature of faith.  But can such a faith give a coherent account of itself?  Is its supported by the understanding?  Or, in other words, if God is the One than whom a greater cannot be conceived, is this book also one than which a greater cannot be conceived?

This cannot be a matter of merely showing that the Bible is free from error or that it is not at variance with science or that its writers were accredited by the miracles they produced or that they had the gift of foretelling great events long before they happened.  It cannot even be a matter of the accuracy of the picture the Bible draws of human nature.  Both history and fiction bear equally eloquent testimony to the depravity of humanity.

No!  Faith finds its coherence in the fact the Bible conforms to what we would expect of a divine revelation.  It resonates with the sense of divinity which exists in every human heart.  It stimulates the seed of religion in every soul.  It presents a God before whom we can fall in both self-abasement and humble adoration.  It is a balm to the wounded soul.

All this resolves itself into one great unifying fact: faith sees in the Christ of Scripture a form of the heavenly with which it is completely satisfied.  At faith’s lowest ebb, and when we see others forsaking him in droves, we say, ‘To whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life’ (Jn. 6:68).   If Christ is not there, if Christ is not God and if God is not Christ, we care for no other.  For us, he has spoiled every other deity.  But when faith is in full sail it looks at him and sings with joy; and we prize the Sacred Scriptures precisely because they bring us Christ and disclose, in and through him, such a knowledge of God as could come only from heaven itself.  The portrait as it stands is matchless and beyond the creative imagination of even the greatest human genius.  If we could not worship him we should have to worship the artist; but then, in this case the artist, too, is divine.  The portrait of the divine Son has been drawn for us by the divine Father, who alone knows him (Mt. 11:27).


The portrait of the divine Son

What are the features of the portrait that faith finds so reassuring?

First, that in it we see God as one prepared to take our human nature and to share our human experience.  As a mere idea this would have been beyond both Judaism and Islam: so abhorrent that it would never have occurred to any adherent of these faiths to invent it.  But in Jesus Christ it becomes a reality.  He became flesh, taking our nature in the low condition in which we have had to exist ever since the Fall.  The Christ of the Bible wasn’t merely a Spirit-filled man.  He was the eternal Son of God in servant-form, not only reflecting the image of the divine (as we all do) but uniting himself to humanity so completely that he had a human body and a human mind and lived, here on earth, a totally authentic human life.  He had human ancestors, he was a member of a human family, he had (and needed) human friends and he lived out his days surrounded by all the sins and sorrows of first-century Palestine.  He experienced what it was like to not to know, and what it was like to fear death, and even to taste death.  It meant that he learned what it was like to be dependent and vulnerable, and to have to live by prayer.  It meant that the Son of God came where he would be despised, rejected, mocked, spat upon and cursed.  It meant his having to face at least one moment (in Gethsemane) which almost broke his mind (Mt. 26:38).  It meant becoming a victim of towering injustice: being betrayed, arrested, flogged, crucified.  It meant that men would have to arrange for his funeral, and women would grieve at his passing.

Yet, truly and perfectly human though he was, he was never a mere man.  Behind his presence on earth lay the mind-set which St Paul describes in Phil. 2:6.  He already existed in the very ‘form’ of deity but, moved by a divine altruism, he renounced his right to come into this world in glorious heavenly majesty and came, instead, in servant-form, humbling himself so far as to hang upon the cross, anonymous, his glory veiled, alone, powerless and contemptible.  This is nothing less than God himself moving towards a whole new range of experiences, and these are now part of the history of God.  The eternal, Living, Loving Intelligence who created the heavens and the earth is now touched with the feeling of our weaknesses. 

Secondly, in and through Christ we see that while God is one, he is not a solitary, eternally alone, unloved, and without relationships.  As we read the story of Jesus’ life, listen to his discourses and overhear his prayers, we learn that the eternal Father has an eternal, uncreated Son, sharing his nature and equal to him in power and glory; and a Holy Spirit, also eternal, and also sharing fully in the divine glory.  This mystery, the Trinitarian nature of God, is revealed at the very beginning of Jesus’ life when, courtesy of the gospels, we have the privilege of being witnesses of his baptism.  The Three are here: the Son is baptised, the Spirit comes upon him, and the Father’s voice proudly acknowledges him as his beloved Son.  Then, in the Prologue to John’s Gospel, we read that at the heart of deity there is with-ness (or, as it is called today, relatedness).  In the Beginning, the Logos,  who would one day become flesh, was already with God: God with God.  Yet at the same time Jesus can declare, ‘I and the Father are one’: distinct, yet one, with a unity that far transcends any unity that can exist between individual human beings.  As one, they act together to conceive, create and preserve the world; as one they communicate, not like us, through words but through an intimacy such that each fully knows the others’ mind; as one the Three are utterly, perfectly happy in each other’s love.  They adore each other, glorify each other and are perfectly fulfilled in each other.  The divine has no need that is not met in this fulness of affective relationship.  Had there never been man, universe or angel, the Eternal Trinity would have been a perfect community of love.   

The three great ‘religions of the Book,’ Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all agree that the world owes its origin to one eternal personal Creator, but both Judaism and Islam recoil with abhorrence from the doctrine of the Trinity: the former because it seems to contradict the bed-rock Jewish belief that God is one; the latter because it seems unable to distinguish the idea of God having a Son from the idea of his having sexual relations with the Virgin Mary.  Even to many Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity seems more of a burden and a conundrum than an asset.

It is certainly a mystery, and from our human point of view counter-intuitive.  But mystery is inseparable from deity.  A God from whom our intellects could expel every element of the mysterious and awesome would be no God at all.  The God of Christian faith certainly cannot be contained within our human creeds and concepts, and even less can he be tidied up by our human words.  The business of theology, it has been said,  is not to solve puzzles, but to identify mysteries.  Sometimes, however, the mystery sheds light on a puzzle, and here is a case in point.  Far from being only an embarrassing conundrum, the doctrine of the Trinity illuminates one of the most central messages of the Christian faith: ‘God is love.’  He never became love, nor did his love ever have a beginning.  ‘Vast as eternity Thy love,’ wrote Isaac Watts.  God was always love, and within the communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit he always enjoyed love.  But if there was no Trinity, if there was no Father, Son and Holy Spirit, no unity of co-eternal and co-equal persons, then God would have been in the same position as Adam before the creation of Eve, and a sympathetic observer, had there been one, might well have commented, ‘It is not good for God to be alone.’  He would have been a monad surrounded by nothing.  But if in God there was always Other, and always with-ness, and always relatedness, then faith can understand how God can be love, and how that love can express itself in a benevolence that wants to communicate his own happiness to beings of another order: beings whose happiness, in the language of Jonathan Edwards, was the aim God had in mind when he created the world. 

And if the Son is One of the eternal Three, then we can understand how, even as he performs humanity, he is the revelation of God.  He is his revelation because he is God, albeit in him God has accommodated his glory to the weakness of our human eyes.   Likewise, since he is God then the compassion that shines through his servant-life is the compassion of God; and by the same token, when the Holy Spirit comes to live in us, it is God himself who comes.  The life of God is in the Christian soul.

Thirdly, in and through the Christ of the Bible we meet a God who not only took to himself our human nature but also took upon himself our human sin.  This was the core of John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (Jn. 1:29).  What is remarkable here is that the Apostle John began his gospel by setting Christ forth as the eternal divine Logos, and now he sets forth this divine Logos as the great sin-bearer, to be sacrificed as an atonement for the sins of the whole world.  God answering for our sin!  God judged in our place!  God carrying our sins in his own body to the cross (1 Pet. 2:24).  God being made sin for us (2 Cor. 5: 21). 


Sin: an immediate turn-off

Why is the very mention of such an idea an immediate turn-off?  The answer is simple: it involves the notion of sin, it is now a sin to mention the word sin, and even when we do mention it we immediately take the nastiness out of it.  Everyone sins, we say; or, our sins are mere peccadilloes, common human infirmities; and in any case, it’s God’s job to forgive them.  Sometimes, even less seriously, it’s what the church is for: to give absolution.  Not lone long ago I heard an Army Chaplain tell of a day when the battalion, just returned from a vigorous day’s training, was being debriefed by its Commanding Officer.  He concluded by ordering the Chaplain to come forward: ‘Come, Padre, and forgive us our sins.’ 

Many will think such a light-hearted view of sin splendidly modern.  In reality, it is as old as time.  Indeed it was exactly this attitude that prompted Anselm in the 11th century to write his great book on the Atonement, Cur Deus Homo?  The book is in the form of a dialogue, and at one point Anselm’s conversation-partner, Boso, suggested that sin might be cancelled by a single act of repentance; to which Anselm replied, ‘You haven’t yet reckoned with the gravity of sin.’   That summed up the mediaeval attitude to sin.  It also sums up the modern one, and precisely because we don’t take sin seriously we have no patience with the idea of atonement or with a God who makes a fuss about it. 

Yet at the same time the ideas of accountability and retribution lie at the very foundation of modern society.  This is why all over the world the victims of crime, oppression, and negligence cry out for justice.  This is why we take with the utmost seriousness any breach of our own civil and criminal laws, and any violation of our own human rights.  And this is why we have our justice systems and our police forces and our prisons.  The very fact that such arrangements exist in all nations and in all cultures points to the ineradicable human belief that breaches of the law deserve retribution. 

But what we guard so jealously in connection in connection with human laws and human governments we deny to God, even to the extent that we refuse to recognise his Court; and this leaves human justice hanging in the air.  If there is no ultimate justice, by what star are our legislators to steer?  And if they don’t have the sanction of the supreme and universal judge, by what right do our petty magistrates dare to deprive a man of his liberty, and even of his life.  The law of retribution derives its rights from God, who will one day call each of us to account.

When that day comes, will any of us be able to plead our innocence?  The divine law is clear: You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and you will love your neighbour as yourself.  Every single one of us has violated it, and we have compounded our violations by brazenly assuming that the first part of it has now been repealed, and that while chanting sectarian songs or using a mobile phone while driving may be very serious offences, blasphemers and idolaters are above the law: which, of course, they are, till we meet the Supreme Judge eye-ball to eye-ball.

Yet the thought of that moment, and the fear of it, can never be entirely eradicated.  Conscience , as Hamlet exclaimed, makes cowards of us all, and the tormented MacBeth cries, ‘Will all great Neptune’s oceans wash this blood clean from my hands?’  This is why human history bears such eloquent testimony to our desperate attempts to appease an angry deity. We have sacrificed countless millions of sheep, goats, lambs and even children; we have done penances, performed rituals, gone on pilgrimages, endured vigils, fasts and self-flagellation; we have renounced the world and disappeared into deserts; we have sold all that we had and given it to feed the poor; and still our consciences have not found peace.

But then into that ancient Graeco-Roma world of countless temples and fierce deities came the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  God no longer demands that we make atonement for our own sins or insist that we can come to him only if we are bearing gifts.  That is the great, core Gospel idea.  We don’t have to earn forgiveness.  It is rich and free; and in a way that is all that need be said.  It is where faith and repentance begin.  The Prodigal can return home just as he is. But it is not all that can be said.  There is more: God is right to forgive sin, not because it doesn’t matter, but because his Son took the guilt of humanity upon himself; and in language chosen by God himself he became the Lamb who bears, and bears away, the sin of the world.  In the name of humanity, and by agreement with his Father, he offered to God the sacrifice of a perfect obedience.  In the name of humanity he bore the judgement our sin deserved.  In the name of humanity, from within its depths, from within its very heart, he so lived and so died as to satisfy God that it was right to forgive sin; and no sinner who comes seeking forgiveness in the name of this Man will ever be turned away.  He is the Way to God.

But, one Man did this?  Yes, one man, in one time, and in one place, but a man whose life and death had universal significance because he was no mere man but the eternal Son of God taking man’s nature and man’s place and man’s liabilities.  In him, the God-man, God himself, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, bore the full cost of redemption so that if we ask, ‘Is atonement necessary before God can forgive sin?’ the answer has to be, ‘No, not for you.  The Son of God has done it all.  For you, grace is rich and free.’

But is such a forgiveness not merely external, leaving our hearts still unchanged and still selfish and ungodly.  No, again!  because here we meet yet another reason for the apostolic superlatives.  Christ by his obedience and sacrifice/life and death has secured not only that our sin be forgiven, but that the Spirit of God should come, take up residence in our hearts and transform us from the inside.  Not only did Christ die for us; by his Spirit he lives in us.  The life of God is in the believer’s soul, and that life bears the fruit summarised so splendidly in Galatians 5:22 – 23.  The forgiven, Spirit-led life is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  


The final outcome

But it’s not only the depth and the cost of God’s love that confirms our faith in him as the One than whom a greater cannot be conceived.  There is another wonder: the final outcome that God had in view.  He wanted his creatures to have eternal life.  This takes us back to where we started, and particularly to the point that ‘in the Beginning was life.’  Before there was sun or moon, man or angel, time or space, there was life: life that never began, that had no origin.  It was eternal.  The nature of that life we have already seen.  It was the life of the eternal Trinity, a life of shared love and unqualified blessedness, and for us to have eternal life means to share in this very life that God had from all eternity.

This takes us to the very limit of our superlatives and to the borders of the incredible.  The life of the Eternal was a life of perfect blessedness; or, to give it  its full emotional impact, it was a life of perfect happiness; and what God wishes for us, and what Christ secured for us, was that we should share in this, the happiness of the divine; share in the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; share God’s delight in his creation; share in the Father’s adoration of his Son.

Why did God create the world?  The traditional Christian answer has been, ‘For his own glory,’ and that will always remain an important truth.  But it should not be the last word.  It suggests that the glory of God depends on his creatures and that he created the world so that it would sing his praises, as if otherwise his praise would go unsung.  But the deeper truth is that he created the world for his own satisfaction, and when it was finished, he looked, and it was ‘very good.’  He was delighted.  It made him happy.  It gave him pleasure; and if that was the purpose of creation it was also the purpose of redemption; or, echoing the words of Isaiah 53:11 (KJV), after the travail of his soul he was satisfied.  His whole plan of salvation was motivated by love, and this meant God doing his very best for the world, and particularly for his church.  It meant that from the very beginning his intended outcome was to present us faultless in the presence of his glory with exceeding joy (Jude). It meant that not in our doxologies only, but in our happiness, God takes pleasure; and to that end he will keep giving himself to us throughout all eternity.

But let’s remind ourselves how we got here or, more precisely, why we got here.  The point of this brief summary of the doctrine of redemption was not so much to explain and defend its main tenets, but to underline the unique nature of a Book that bears such a message: a message than which a greater cannot be conceived, and which is communicated to us through a book than which a greater cannot be conceived.  The Bible itself is one of God’s mighty acts, a key moment in the great succession of the Exodus, the Incarnation and the Resurrection.  It is a visible, tactile miracle which, with gathering clarity and fulness from Genesis to Revelation, tells of a God and of a love such as the human imagination could never have conceived.  It is an enduring divine footprint on the face of creation and it says, God was here.