Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 3)

August 29, 2017

(If you haven’t read the previous two entries in this series, please do so: Part 1 and Part 2.)

In my previous post, I made it through three paragraphs of John Piper’s controversial blog post from 2007 on the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, not far from Piper’s church. Recall that Piper has just said that the “appointed” reading for his family devotional the night of the disaster (I assume he was using a devotional book or calendar of assigned readings) was Luke 13:1-9. As I said last time, I agree with Piper that this was “surely no coincidence.” This scripture ought to be a go-to passage when natural or man-made disasters occur.

But even believing that some mundane event is “surely no coincidence”—which most of us Christians believe at least occasionally—requires a degree of God’s control that we otherwise deny when we say that everything doesn’t happen for a reason, and that some events fall outside of God’s providential plans.

In the fourth paragraph, Piper writes:

Jesus implies that those who brought him this news thought he would say that those who died, deserved to die, and that those who didn’t die did not deserve to die. That is not what he said. He said, everyone deserves to die. And if you and I don’t repent, we too will perish. This is a stunning response. It only makes sense from a view of reality that is radically oriented on God.

Has Piper correctly interpreted Jesus’ words? Did Jesus imply that everyone deserves to die—and “perish” eternally?

Let me consult one liberal mainline commentary—Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock’s The People’s New Testament Commentary. Boring and the late Craddock were professors at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, the seminary I attended:

People, especially religious people, want a satisfying explanation for tragedy. Those killed were sacrificing at the temple in obedience to the biblical command. Were they perhaps actually hypocrites, so that Pilate’s outrageous slaughter was the just punishment for their sin? Jesus offers no explanation but eliminates the false idea that tragedy is God’s punishment for sin.[1]

This is deceptively close to being true: Among other things, Jesus is saying that tragedies aren’t necessarily God’s punishment for sin. I can buy that. But this passage can’t rule out all tragedies. In fact, the Old Testament is rife with tragedies that, we’re told, are God’s punishment for sin.

And what about the New Testament? The cross itself was the greatest tragedy: to say the least, it represents God’s punishment for sin—although the punishment wasn’t suffered by those who deserve it. Jesus warns that the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 will, in part, be punishment for sin. I’m sure that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 were tragic to their families, yet these too were punishment for sin. The death of church members in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 for receiving the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” was punishment for sin. The Book of Revelation obviously reports many tragic events that have resulted or will result from sin—not only eschatological events, but also churches whose “lampstands” will be “removed from their places” on account of their sin.

How, then, can Boring and Craddock arrive at this inductive inference except by reading this passage in a vacuum? I admit their interpretation sounds nice to modern ears: The “nice” liberal god of mainline Protestantism rarely if ever punishes anyone for sin, so of course his hands are clean when disasters occur.

But at what cost does this “nice-ness” occur? We can infer the answer in their next paragraph:

There are no explanations for such tragedies, but they still point us to the reality that we live in a world in which we are not in control, and constitute a call to repentance. Jesus’ hearers are urged to avoid constructing an explanation for the evils of life and to see such calamities as reminders of the fragility of life; anyone, relatively good or evil could find himself or herself standing before the final Judge without any advance warning.[2]

I agree that tragedies remind us that life is fragile and they “point us to the reality that we live in a world in which we are not in control,” but does that imply that “there are no explanations for such tragedies”?

Have they thought it through? Have they never found comfort in the assurance that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28)? Does “all” not mean all? If God allows something that he might otherwise prevent (assuming, as classic Christianity always has, that he has the power to do so), then it’s untrue to say that “there are no explanations for such tragedies” (beyond blind physical forces and ungoverned human will). There are explanations for all tragedies; it’s just that one of those explanations isn’t necessarily “because the ones who died were sinners, and the ones who survived weren’t.”

In fact, we’re all sinners (Romans 3:23), and the Bible warns us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). And not just physical death—spiritual death, eternal separation from God. Jesus came to save us from that consequence.

Isn’t this the plain meaning of Jesus’ twice repeated warning, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”? In other words, Jesus’ hearers were likely going to remain safe from tragedies such as the ones that befell the worshipers in the Temple when Pilate murdered them, or those victims of the tower’s collapse. For all we know, they would live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Does that mean that they were O.K. with God? No, Jesus warns them: None of you is O.K.! You all must repent or face judgment and hell.

Why? Because we’re all sinners who deserve death, judgment, and hell. Which is precisely what John Piper says.

1. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 2009), 231.

2. Ibid.

6 Responses to “Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 3)”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think I agree with everything you say here! 🙂 I might go further and say something you would also likely agree with–all GOOD things that happen to anybody are divinely ordained. Sometimes it is because they are doing good things, and sometimes not, but always for some purpose.

    At the same time, however, it is also true that God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. I might refer to that as “general” providence. In other words, sometimes God acts in a “general” manner that affects a lot of people. (Like the flooding in Houston.) God still works in the individual lives of all those who are affected while those things happen, but we might hesitate to say that these events were “specifically designed” as to each such person, I would think. In other words, God may well work faith and patience, etc., in the lives of believers who are affected, and punishment in the lives of those opposed to the gospel, but I don’t know that we can go so far as to say that person X or person Y was the specific reason the flood happened. What do you think about that?

    I would also throw in one anecdote from my own history. While I was going astray and my family was praying for me to come back, I visited the family. My parents at that time always did a family devotional using a devotional guide. My Mom started to read it, but could not because she was crying. So my Dad took it, and read the title: “Doubting Thomas.” Was that devotional being at that time specifically designed that way for me? Or, was it rather specifically designed by God that I would visit at that time so as to have the effect that it did as to me? Likely the latter. So, God was clearly acting providentially (to my mind) as to me, but it may be that he was acting “generally,” and then “working out” something in particular in my family’s life at the time from that “general providence.” See what I mean?

  2. brentwhit Says:

    “In other words, God may well work faith and patience, etc., in the lives of believers who are affected, and punishment in the lives of those opposed to the gospel, but I don’t know that we can go so far as to say that person X or person Y was the specific reason the flood happened. What do you think about that?”

    I think I agree: Not one specific reason, but one reason among possibly thousands or millions. If you get a chance, read C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles—specifically the Appendix to it. That appendix did more to shape my thinking about God’s sovereignty and providence than anything else. He talks about how God answers individual prayer petitions with big events that affect many people. So even some mundane request—”Lord, give us good weather for the church picnic”—is a petition that God grants when the weather turns out fair. Of course, God could then be doing a million other things with that same weather for thousands of other people. But he is, in a way, giving this weather “for you.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Likewise, God knew that when some author was writing that devotional guide, he was going to use that night’s devotional to affect you—and a million other people. But in a sense, he did it for you. I guess I’m saying it’s not “either/or”; it’s “both/and.”

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Help me out here. Wasn’t death introduced by Adam and Eve’s disobedience? Prior to sin; no death. After sin; death. But, Jesus conquered death for those who choose Him. So, when Jesus said that “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”, he was speaking of man’s general fallen sin condition, and the need for repentance.

    Have I got this right??


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