“Cutting little deals with God”

March 3, 2014

In my sermon yesterday, I borrowed an analogy from Tim Keller to speak about our idolatrous impulse to “fill up our spiritual tanks” on some “fuel” other than the things of God. “Everything we need to fill up our tanks,” I said, “comes from God alone—and he doesn’t charge us for it, and we can’t pay him for it, and we don’t have to earn it. It’s all grace.” Continuing:

I’ll be honest: As a man, I have a hard time trusting that my value, my worth, comes from Christ alone by grace, and not from my own strength, my own work ethic, my own intellect—not from anything I can do or accomplish or pay for. It wounds my pride to have a debt that I can’t pay. So I sometimes live my Christian life as if I am earning God’s love, as if I am paying him back.

And then when I fall short and sin, I feel terribly guilty! Like how could God forgive me this time—I mean, sure, I needed God’s grace to forgive my previous 14,326 sins, but I’ve been paying my own way since then, and somehow I’m still in the red with God. Surely God will grow weary of continuing to bail me out, right?

Of course not—the cross of his Son Jesus has covered all my sins, past, present, and future. So when it comes to sin, we repent and move on, confident that God nailed every sin of ours to the cross of his Son Jesus!

Have you noticed I’ve been preaching the cross in nearly every sermon I’ve delivered over the past few years? I confess it feels a bit unfashionable—certainly nothing I learned at mainline Protestant seminary prepared me to do this—but I don’t care: On the cross, God did something objective, once and for all, to pay the debt of our sin for those who accept his gift of forgiveness. I care less for what particular theory of atonement you hold (though I have my strong opinions!) than that you affirm that the cross is the objective means by which we are reconciled to God.

In a series of helpful blog posts, the Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax (a Southern Baptist) has been reflecting on issues pertaining to atonement theology, including this one about propitiation. I’ve heard a few seminary-educated United Methodists argue passionately that Christ was not offered as propitiation for our sins. I guess it gets back to that old “cosmic child abuse” caricature of penal substitution—who knows? The idea of Christ as propitiation seems uncontroversial to me.

I especially liked this part from his blog, which reminds me of what I said in yesterday’s sermon. Indeed, we are not “big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God,” and our sin “isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings.”

One reason it’s so important to grasp what biblical propitiation is, is so that we can make sure our plan is the biblical one rather than one of our own devising.

In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.

Don’t do this.

To lapse into pagan modes of propitiation is to take way too much onto your own shoulders (you’re not big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God) and attempt to solve it with entirely inappropriate resources (your sin isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings).

Everybody needs a plan for getting on the right side of the gods. But if the true God has made his character known as it is found in the Bible, then there’s only one way of propitiation: the one that God himself put forward in the blood of Jesus, to be received by faith, the one who is his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

6 Responses to ““Cutting little deals with God””

  1. Chad Says:

    Amen! I’m so glad to hear that you preach the cross as much as you do. It makes all the difference!

  2. jwlung Says:

    An objective atonement and the present experience of the benefits of that reality is the key to Aldersgate and the energy and vitality of early Methodism. By all means, keep preaching the Cross.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I of course am a big fan of and believer in the atonement, as you are. However, I don’t know if I can quite go along with the position (if you are advocating it) that our behavior as Christians has no impact on how God acts towards us. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” “Husbands, be careful how you deal with your wives, lest your prayers be hindered.” “Weep and howl over your sins,” James says.

    The unmitigated blessing of the atonement (at least for those who believe you cannot “fall from grace”) is that the eternal relationship, once entered into, cannot be broken. No amount of subsequent misconduct will break the bond. You will go to heaven. (However, at the same time it seems clear that anyone who simply goes on sinning with an unrepentant heart needs to “examine himself, whether he is in the faith.” A person must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” to become a disciple in the first place, Jesus himself says.)

    So, I can’t avoid the conclusion from the scriptures as I read them that we can “quench the Spirit” by how we “treat him” (seeing that he indwells us–we are his “temple”), much as we may strain our marriage relationship by how we treat our spouses (or the child and parent relationship as well). Hopefully there will be no “divorce” (or “disinheritance”), but I just cannot see how relationships will not become “strained” if we “mishandle” them.

    • brentwhite Says:

      No, that’s not what I intended to say. God may discipline us for our sin, by all means. But we can repent and move on, confident that forgiveness for all our sins is made possible by the cross.

      I’m not meaning to suggest that we have a lax attitude toward sin once we’re saved. Personally, I tend to beat myself up about sin, however, and that’s inappropriate if we have a Savior who has given everything to make us his own.

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