My favorite genre of fiction is mystery. I especially prefer movie and tv mysteries. I grew up on shows like Murder She Wrote and Perot, and the black and white Sherlock Holmes movies. As a kid I even got a Sherlock Holmes hat and pretended to solve mysteries around my house. The last couple of nights, Marika and I have been watching the BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch.
I love these, because I love to watch for all the clues that are given to you. And, in my opinion, what makes a great mystery, is that they give you everything you need to know to make a conclusion. But the worst, are those that throw you a curve at the end, just to through you off, because when that happens, the fun, or the game as Sherlock Holmes would say, has no meaning to it. To know the unknowable of a mystery is an exhilarating experience that challenges us to be more aware of what’s going on in our own lives. This is why I teach my children to answer their questions first by watching and listening, before they ask.
But it’s this idea of knowing the unknowable, that brings us to our fourth week in our counterfeit series. So far in our series we have looked at how counterfeit teachings are not only all around us, but they can sometimes, seep into our own understanding of God. And so, one of the first things we talked about was how we need to be willing to have God root out counterfeit teachings that we believe. We cannot have any sacred cows, or tightly held to beliefs about God, that are not from him, and the willingness to have our lives searched by God to get rid of such teachings, is the beginning of being able to realize what counterfeits are. Because it’s only when we are well aquatinted with the real, that the false can easily be seen.
In our second week of our our counterfeit series, we talked about being on guard to recognize the false teachers that want to move us away from God. In recognizing these false teachers, we looked at four biblical clues that can help us do so. The clues that we talked about were: falser teachers make false predictions, or they call people away from God, or they make predictions that come true, but they are still false if they call people away from God, and finally, if they deny the physical work of Jesus. And so, when even one of these clues occur in the ministry of a pastor or evangelist, or teacher who claims to be speaking on behalf of God, we must reject their ministry as a false one, even if it’s sprinkled with biblical truth.
Then in our third week, we talked about how the slight twisting of Scripture is the oldest work of satan. This is what false teachers do, they slightly change passages or meanings of words to fit a predetermined belief. And so, using the Progressive Church, we saw how this is done. And so, we came away from last week with an understanding that we need to allow the Scriptures to change us, rather than trying to change them to our own predetermined beliefs.
With all this in mind, let’s begin to dive into false teachings from the Progressive Church, as our case in point, and compare them to what God actually teaches through the Bible.
Let’s talk about a foundational teaching, the concept of who God is. From the Progressive Church, I think this teaching can be summed up in the progressive writer, Randall Wehler’s comparison of fundamental and progressive Christian views. He states about who the progressive god is, by writing, “God/human monotheistically one (https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/comparing-fundamental-and-progressive-christianity-one-persons-view/).” What Wehler is saying is that since humans are one individual, God is not a Trinity in the theological sense, but rather one individual god. In a few weeks we’ll see how this effects who Jesus is in their beliefs.
But to add to this, in his book, What does Progressive Christianity Believe?, Delwin Brown writes, “…we ground our progressive Christian vision in the bold good news of the Christological councils, taken to its logical conclusion. The divine is at one with the cosmos and all that is in it. God is in and with the world. God is with the rest of creation, too—fully God, fully world, fully one.”
In other words, there is a sense that there is a blurring of the idea of God with his creation. Though Brown would also write, “God is not reducible to the world; ‘God’ and ‘world’ are not synonyms…”, he does write that, “God’s place in this imperfect place, and it's destiny and God’s are joined.”
This type of framing of God’s link to the creation leads to other teachings such as, God is within and throughout creation, and it reduces Jesus as we’ll later see.
In fact, Randall Wehler would also say that, “God as present panentheistically” and “God [is] within and throughout”. In other words, the god of the Progressive Church is more inline with the eastern pantheistic religion Hinduism, than it is in the roots of Judaism. See, in a pantheistic religion, god is in all and is all. The goal of which isn’t so much to connect with god, but rather a realization of our personal connection as a portion of the cosmic god.
Yet, the God of the Bible, is very different from how the Progressive Church views him. Let’s look at three ways, the God of the Bible is different than the Progressive Church’s god.
First, the God of the Bible is not in all and is all, but rather separate from his creation. In theology, the term contingent and non-contingent is used to help us understand beings that are in need of other things to survive and those that are not. You and I are contingent beings, meaning we need other things in order to survive. We need food, water, human interaction, air, and a whole host of other things to live out our lives. This isn’t true of God. God is a non-contingent being. He doesn’t need anything, because he is self-sufficient.
In his sermon in Athens on Mars hill, Paul says this in Acts 17, “22 People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else (22-25).”
In Psalm 89, the Psalmist Ethan writes, “For who in the skies above can compare with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? 7 In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him. 8 Who is like you, Lord God Almighty? You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.”
God is need of nothing, and his creation is separate from him. If we flip over to the book of Genesis, there is one thing that is universally understood from Genesis 1, when it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We’re told, without being told directly, that God is outside of his creation.
This is the otherness of God. He is not like his creation. He is the one complete unique being in the universe that is need of nothing. And so, when God does something it is never because he has to, or because he needs to, or because he is compelled to do this or that, it is because God choses to act. God chose to create the universe. God chose to create humanity. God chose to give humans a free will choice. God chose to die on the cross. God chose to extend salvation to humanity.
When we conflate or join God together with his creation in a way that blurs the line between the two, we diminish God, and elevate ourselves. This is exactly what the serpent did with Eve in Genesis 3. For those of you who were here last week, we talked about how the serpent twisted the words of God right from the beginning and Eve corrected him by saying, “2 We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”. But following that correction the serpent said this in chapter 3 verses 4 & 5, “4 ‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. 5 ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
The serpent sought to diminish God, by elevating the creation to be on equal footing with it’s Creator. And what happened? Adam and Eve both embraced the false teaching and ate the fruit. We must not buy into the lie that God is all and is in all, but rather he is not like us, and therefore separate from us. God is other, and unique.
But just because God is separate, doesn’t mean that he is absent. Just because God is unique, doesn’t mean that he is uninterested. In fact it’s just the opposite. God cares for his creation deeply. In Genesis 3, we’re given insight into God walking in his creation, “…in the cool of the day…(v.8)”
Hagar in the desert encounters God, and in Genesis 16:13 we get this, “13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” An absent god would not see anyone, but the God of the Bible does.
To Moses in the burning bush, God calls himself this, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. (3:6a)” An uninterested god wouldn’t take time and speak to each of these people, but the God of the Bible does.
In the well known verse from John 3:16, Jesus says, “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.” A god that was completely detached from creation would leave it to it’s own devices and not take time to do anything, but the God of the Bible does.
And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus gives us an insight into God when he says these words, “But while he [the son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)”
God is other, he is separate from his creation, but he is not gone. He is desiring to be in relationship with his creation, especially humanity. And so both are true, God is other, and God is near.
This brings us to our final aspect of who God is. When we describe God, what is the first word that comes to mind? Most commonly it’s love.
In fact, we just stated one of the most popular verses from the Bible which is, 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.”
In the Progressive Church, the love attribute is the core attribute of who God is. From a publishing arm of the Progressive Church called churchpublishing.org, you can read this, “Progressive Christian understandings of God begin with the conviction that love is God’s fundamental character. Love is vulnerable, and the vulnerability of God leads us rapidly away from the concept of a cosmic monarch.” (https://www.churchpublishing.org/siteassets/pdf/what-does-a-progressive-christian-believe/whatdoesaprogressivechristianbelieve-pointsforreflection.pdf)
And so, I asked the question of the Scriptures, what is the most common attribute that God says of himself? In the 686 times that love is used in the Bible, 304 refer to God. The most common by far, use is by humans expressing how good God is in his love. Phrases like, your everlasting love, are common in this. But there are three uses of love that actually speak to attributing love to God as one of his core attributes. 1st John 4 contains all of these three instances.
The first two come in verses 7 & 8, “7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
The third comes from verse 16, “16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”
This gives us a working understanding that Scriptures reveal that a core attribute of God is his love, but one thing that is missing is that God never defines himself this way. Yes, he tells us he loves us, but he never outright says, because I am love.
This is interesting because there’s another core attribute that God does use of himself. The term holy is used 551 times in the Bible. Most of these are references to God making things holy. Out of those, 197 times God is referred directly as holy, with the majority of these being titles, or references by others about God being holy. Like in the case of Psalm 99:3-5, “3 Let them praise your great and awesome name—he is holy. 4 The King is mighty, he loves justice—you have established equity; in Jacob you have done what is just and right. 5 Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy.”
But what’s interesting is this, out of those 197 times that holiness is referenced of God, 26 of those times God calls himself holy. God says things like this in Leviticus 11:44-45, “44 I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. 45 I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”
Or like in Isaiah 43:3, “For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.”
No where in the Bible is one attribute so overwhelming stated by God as being who he is, other than holy. Except for the Holy Spirit inspiring the Apostle John to reveal love as a direct attribute of God, there’s no direct statement by God claiming to be love, but there is of the attribute of holiness. This leads me to conclude that, though love is a foundational way that we experience God, and is a core attribute of him, God wants us to understand his holiness as his primary attribute. This is key, because if we start with love as the foundational attribute of God, as the Progressive Church does, we miss the call of God to repentance for sin, which we’ll see next week that the Progressive Church does.
So all of the calls of God to repent both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, mean nothing. The first words of Jesus’ ministry of, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matthew 4:17)”, means nothing, because Scriptures like 1 Peter 4:8 that read, “…Love covers a multiple sin…” are easily twisted to dismiss the repentance God calls us too.
Yet, if we realize that God’s primary attribute is his holiness, then everything begins to make sense. God’s otherness makes sense. God’s nearness makes sense. His call for us to repent makes sense because a holy perfect God cannot allow sin to continue. His acts of love, primarily Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf, makes sense, because in light of his holiness, Scripture says in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God, “…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
But we need to understand God as he reveals himself to be, and not as we want to interpret him to be. We need to understand that God is not like us, he needs nothing. Yet even though he needs nothing, he desires to be close to his creation, to interact, guide, and now because of sin, save. This is because the foundation of who God is, is his holiness. His perfect otherness, from which stems his love, love that took God the Son out of heaven and put him on the cross to bring us back to himself by destroying the power of sin.
This is how much God desires to be with his creation, though he is holy and perfect, he became like us to bring us back to himself. And this is what we must do, we must repent of our sin. Those things that we do that God calls evil. By choosing our sin, are way fo doing things, over God, we condemn ourselves to spend eternity in separation with God, which we cannot begin to imagine the suffering that will occur from that.
Yet God calls us to repentance. To turn from sin, embrace that we cannot fix our sin, and instead accept Jesus’ free gift on the cross, that says, the punishment and destruction of the power of sin in our lives, was dealt with there. We need to turn to Jesus and follow him. And it begins with words that recognize our sin, and God’s free gift of breaking that sin. And if you would like to speak those words, I would like to speak with you after we’re done here today. Or if you have more questions about what this all means, I would like to speak with you as well.
This week I want to challenge you to take each one of these three aspects of God and mediate on them. Take a day and just think of the otherness of God. Think of the vastness of our world, the universe, and all that is in them. Put yourself into perspective against all of that and how tiny we actually are in comparison. Then the next day, think about the closeness of God. Though he creates all this, he knows the hairs on each of our individual heads. That’s how close he is. Then finally, think of what it means for God to be holy. What it means for God to be perfect, un-needing of anything from us, yet because of that, God moves to show us his love, because we are separate from him due to our sin, and his love is shown best in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins.
We worship God, not because he is a God that we can fully understand, but because the unknowable God, reveals himself to his creation so that we may begin to know him as he desires to be known, as our Father, our Savior, and our friend. Amen.