THE CHARACTER OF GOD AND THE ROUTE TO SALVATION by Tim DeForest

I have good news and I have bad news and I have good news. God created us as creatures with free will so that we could worship and glorify Him. God created us—not because He needed us—but because He thought we were worthwhile and valuable. The Creator of the whole universe took the time to create us in His image and give us the opportunity to live meaningful and satisfying lives in His service. That’s the good news. We messed up. We used our free will to reject God and rebel against Him. We brought sin into the world because of this, with everything (death, war, sickness, suffering, unhappiness) that is part and parcel with sin. God is perfect and just—and we have put ourselves in a position where justice requires every single one of us to spend an eternity in Hell. There is no sin allowed in Heaven. There are no exceptions to this. If you have any sin on your record, then you don’t get into Heaven. You instead go to Hell. That’s the bad news. God is sovereign and omnipotent. He knew we would blow it even before He made us— but He made us anyways. He loved us even before He made us. He wants what is best for us. So He didn’t shrug His shoulders and decide not to create us. He created us anyway, with a built-in plan to offer us eternal salvation. God is just, but He is also merciful. He will punish unrepentant sinners, but He prefers to forgive. And He’ll forgive anyone—it doesn’t matter what our sins might be. He’ll forgive anyone who comes to Him in sincere repentance. He’ll wipe our sins off our records and quite literally let us start over again as a new person. That’s the really good news. “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)

GOD THE CREATOR: The first thing the Bible teaches us is that God created everything. “In the beginning,” reads the first verse in Genesis, “God created the heavens and the earth.”

Why did God do this? He didn’t need to create a universe—or to specifically create us. He’s God. He is complete in Himself and does not suffer loneliness or feelings of isolation. But He created us anyway In describing Jesus in Colossians 1:16, the Apostle Paul writes that “all things were created by Him and for Him.” (Italics added for emphasis.) God created the universe—and created us—to glorify and praise Him. The earth is His temple and we are His priests. And God loved His creation right from the start. Genesis 1:31 tells us that “God saw all that he had made and it was very good.” So here we have the first important aspect of God’s character. He’s a Creator and he creates good things. He loves and cares for the things He creates. We (the human race) are the most important part of His creation. We have been given dominion over the rest of the Earth (Genesis 1:28). God loves us and gives us the responsibility of watching over the rest of His creation. He does this because He knows that a life in His service is the best and most fulfilling life there is. “He holds victory for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.” (Proverbs 2: 7-8) So what went wrong with creation? The world was God’s perfect temple, but now it’s filled with sin and suffering and death.

GOD THE ALL-KNOWING: Did God make a mistake in making us? Was He shocked and disappointed when Adam and Eve disobeyed Him and brought sin into the world? Did He wonder what the heck He needed to do next and scramble to improvise a new plan? The answer to those questions is NO--because another important aspect of God’s character is His omniscience. Psalm 139 has what is perhaps the most direct clarification of this: “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.” (Psalm 139: 2-4) The book of Job reminds us “Dominion and awe belong to God; he established order in the heights of heaven. Can his forces be numbered? Upon whom does his light not rise?” (Job 25: 2-3) And then we have Psalm 147:5, which tells us “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.”

So if God is omniscient, He knew that we would fall into sin even before He made us. He created us with free will so that we could freely choose to follow Him. But this meant we could freely choose to reject Him. God knew we’d take this second option.

GOD THE LOVING FATHER: AND YET HE CREATED US ANYWAY. Because He still loved us even though we would become sinners—because He considered us redeemable no matter how far we strayed from what is good. The apostle John wrote “God is love.” (I John 1:8) This is eternally true. No matter what our sins, God will always love us. The prophet Isaiah wrote “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5) Psalm 145:8 reads “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” The Bible—in both the Old and New Testaments—contains example after example after example of God’s continued love for a fallen creation. We see it pretty much right away in the third chapter of Genesis. After Adam and Eve disobey God and thus fall from grace, they attempt to hide from Him. But God seeks them out. He does not reject them or simply destroy them, even though they had just brought sin and death into the world. There are serious consequences for their sins, but God still cares for them. This is evident in Genesis 3:21, where God personally makes garments for them to both hide their shame and give them the protection from the elements they now needed. We see God’s love again in his willingness to forgive. When the human race becomes so depraved that God has to send a flood to destroy them, he still saves a remnant (Noah and his family) to preserve the race and essentially give us a do-over. We see His love when he called Abram to His service in Genesis 12, promising to make the former idol-worshipper a great nation and use that nation so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3) We see God’s love as an active love when he brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt and out of slavery. He then gave them a system of laws that taught them obedience and selfdiscipline; imposed a balanced system of justice; protected the rights and lives of women and slaves; set up public health regulations; and prophesized the coming of Jesus. We see that God’s love means He had a plan for us all along—even before we actually fell from grace He was laying out our route to salvation. That’s why he called Abram (later Abraham) to His service: because God had chosen him to be the father of a nation, then God used that nation to eventually produce our Messiah.

GOD THE RIGHTEOUS JUDGE: But sin is still sin, isn’t it? We see in the first chapter of Genesis that God created the world in an organized and rational fashion. He created a universe with rules—including moral rules. These rules include a discernable difference between right and wrong--and a moral responsibility for each of us to do right. God made sure we had all the information we need to know what is good and what is evil, then expects us to do only good. If we fail in this, He will punish us. That’s yet another aspect of God’s character: He will punish all sin. The prophet Isaiah knew this: “’See, it stands written before me: I will not keep silent but will pay back in full; I will pay it back into their laps—both your sins and the sins of your fathers,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 65:6-7) That kind of stinks for all of us, doesn’t it? We’re all sinners. We might not be thieves and murderers, but God sets very high moral standards for us. It’s not only wrong to kill; it’s also wrong to get angry with someone. (Matthew 5: 21-22) It’s not only wrong to steal; it’s also wrong to covet. (Exodus 20:17) It’s not only wrong to commit adultery; it’s wrong to simply lust after someone else. (Matthew 5: 27-28) If you do any of this stuff, then you are a sinner. And you don’t get into Heaven if you’re a sinner. There’s no sin allowed there. (Matthew 5:20) That means we’re all doomed. Romans 3:23 clearly states “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And there is nothing in the Bible, in either the Old Testament or the New Testament, about doing good works to make up for your sins. We’re expected to do good works to honor and glorify God, but such works don’t balance out our sins. Sin is sin and must be punished. We see this in Genesis 7 when God used the Flood to punish all of humanity with the exception of the six people on the ark. We see it again in Genesis 10 when God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. We see it throughout the book of Judges, when God used the nation of Israel to wipe out depraved cultures that had degenerated into cruel, oppressive societies that (among many other sins) practiced child sacrifices.

We see it in the New Testament—in Acts 5, when a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead by God for lying. There’s no getting around it. God will punish sin. Can God be bought off, perhaps? The ancient Israelites had a system of sacrifices given to them by God that included a sin sacrifice meant to bring forgiveness, but it is made clear throughout the Old Testament that this offering was symbolic and meaningless unless the person making the sacrifice had a truly repentant heart. I Samuel 15:22, for instance, tells us “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” God spoke about this through the prophet Hosea as well: “I prefer mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) So we can’t bribe God to forget our sins and we can’t do good works to balance them out. We’re doomed.

GOD THE FAITHFUL AND MERCIFUL FATHER: Or are we doomed? Remember that God loves us. Remember that God thought it worthwhile to create us even when He knew we would fall into sin. Remember that he took care of Adam and Eve even after they had sinned. We all deserve Hell, but God would rather forgive us than punish us. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God said “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) This is another very, very important aspect of God’s character—his capacity for forgiveness is literally infinite. So God had a plan—put in place even before the beginning of the universe—to save us from our sins. We see that plan in motion right from the start. First, he calls a man named Abram and tells him “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12: 2-3—italics added for emphasis) So Abram was renamed Abraham. He had a son named Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob, who was remained Israel. Jacob/Israel had twelve sons, whose descendents became the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel.

God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and gave them a system of laws and sacrifices. Some of the reasons for these laws were given earlier, but the important one for us right now is the idea of sacrificing an animal as payment for a person’s sins. The animal being offered had to be without physical defect. There’s two important things to take from this. First, it reminds us that all sin had to be paid for or punished. Second, the sacrificial system was a prophesy pointing to Jesus. One day, a man without moral defect would sacrifice Himself “once for all,” (Hebrews 10:10) and end the need for further sacrifices. God brought Israel into the Promised Land. Here, He again and again shows that he will punish sin, bringing disaster on His chosen nation again and again whenever they fell into idolatry and corruption. But He also demonstrated His infinite capacity for forgiveness, returning His blessings to His people whenever they turned back to Him. For a time, Israel was ruled over by a righteous king named David. God promised that David’s line would sit on the throne for all eternity—yet another prophesy about Jesus. Both Jesus’ mother Mary and his step-father Joseph could trace their ancestry back to David. God used his prophets to continue to pave the way for the Messiah, predicted his birth, death and resurrection. Through the prophet Jeremiah, for instance, God promised that a new covenant would one day replace the system of sacrifices. (Jeremiah 31:31-33) Through Isaiah, God gave us an extraordinarily accurate description of Jesus: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surly he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53: 2-5) The Bible is a history of salvation, starting with the creation of the universe and looking ahead to the Second Coming of Christ and the eventual death of sin. The Old Testament— right from the start—traces God’s plans for our salvation, setting everything up for the birth of our Savior in a manger in Bethlehem. And it is through Jesus that we can be saved from our sins. After a three-year ministry, the only perfect man who ever walked the earth was tried and convicted of crimes he did not commit and was tortured to death through a deliberately brutal method of execution. But this was also part of God’s plan. Jesus is God’s Son. He is God Himself, who “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And

being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2: 7-8) God had come to Earth as a man--doing so merely because He loved us. He suffered all the aches, pains, trials and temptations that we do--doing so merely because He loved us. He willingly died for us, taking our sins on His shoulders—doing so merely because he loved us. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8—italics added for emphasis) So that was God’s plan all along: He sends His own Son to earth as a fragile man. Jesus, though tempted just as we are, did not sin, so He was without defect. That meant He was an appropriate sin sacrifice. At no time did He have to die. He could have summoned legions of angels down from Heaven to save Him. (Matthew 26:53) He could have saved Himself. But He didn’t. Instead, He obeyed His Father and went to His death. In doing so, He took all our sins on His shoulder. This allows God to offer us salvation as a free gift, without cost to ourselves. Because Jesus was punished for our sins, all we need now do is accept this gift. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our lord.” (Romans 6:23) “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.” (John 3:16) And Jesus makes it clear that this is the ONLY way into heaven. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) This is something that our politically correct culture often finds offensive. But God is the sovereign ruler and creator of the entire universe. He’s not obligated or accountable to any of us in any way. He decided, without any input from us, how a person receives forgiveness for their sins. And he made it clear that such forgiveness comes only through Jesus. None of this relieves us from moral responsibility. We are still expected to know the difference between good and evil. We’re still expected to do good and reject evil. But none of that earns us a place in Heaven. But we do need to do one thing: We have to accept God’s gift. He won’t force it on us. He’ll allow us to choose Hell instead of Heaven. But the gift of salvation is always there for anyone who asks. That gift was there for the apostle Paul, who was a religious zealot imprisoning and sometimes killing Christians before himself coming to Christ. (Acts 9) It was there for Peter, who turned coward and denied Christ on the night Jesus was arrested. (John 18) But after Jesus’ resurrection, the Messiah appointed Peter as a leader of

the early church. (John 21: 15-19) Peter served with courage and conviction, eventually giving his life for God. The gift of salvation was there for the thief who was killed on the cross next to Jesus. Here was a man who couldn’t do anything to make up for his sins—he was nailed to a cross and dying in agony: “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into you kingdom.’ “Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23: 42-43) That free gift of salvation is there for anyone, “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10: 14) It’s there for rich and poor. It’s there for the socially important and the social outcasts. It’s there for murderers and thieves. It’s there for those who have cheated on their spouses or cheated on their taxes. It’s there for those who have been bad-tempered and selfish. It’s there for those who have been proud or jealous or mean-spirited. It’s there for those who have lied or lusted or hated or envied. But you have to ask for it. God will never take away your free will. He will hold you responsible for your sins—that’s His duty as your Creator. He will punish unrepentant sins —that’s also His duty as your Creator. But He will let you decide whether this will be necessary. But He prefers mercy to judgment. He’d rather forgive you than punish you. He’s deliberated organized the entire history of mankind to bring you a Savior. All you have to do is ask for that Savior: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” (Romans 9: 9-10)

FURTHER READING: How can we trust the Bible to be true? That’s a perfectly fair question, because if the Bible isn’t trustworthy, everything I’ve just talked about is nonsense. There are a number of excellent and well-researched books explaining the historical trustworthiness of the Bible. The best one to start with is More Than a Carpenter, by Josh McDowell.

Another book to read is The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, by Vishal Mangalwadi. This superbly-documented and researched book traces how literally every advancement made by our civilization—from the definition of family to the abolition of slavery to social justice to music to scientific advancements— have come directly from Biblical thinking. If you want proof the Bible is true, the fact that it has improved society in ways no other religion ever has is pretty telling on its own. What about other religions? Well, most of them—if they promise an afterlife—are works based. Do enough good works and you get to go to Heaven when you die. How Good is Good Enough? by Andy Stanley, very effectively deconstructs this idea and explains just how inherently unfair it is. About the Author: Tim DeForest is a believing Christian who regularly teaches verse-by-verse Bible studies with various small groups in Sarasota, FL. He has also taught through various books of the Bible with Chaplain trainees in South Sudan, having made four short-term trips to that country as of 2010 (with more trips planned for the future). His secular writings deal with various aspects of pre-digital pop cultures. Books he has written include Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology has Changed Popular Fiction in America and Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Literature and Fiction on the Radio. He has published a number of essays that are available as ebooks, including Bogie at War (an examination of the war-time films of Humphrey Bogart) and various episode guides for old-time radio shows. He blogs about these subjects at comicsradio.blogspot.com

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