What is Christian doctrine? And do words such as eschatology, sanctification, and atonement really have anything to do with our everyday, going-to-class, working, hanging-out-with-friends lives?
Christian doctrines begin as interpretations of the Bible. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have preserved what they believe the Bible teaches. They form doctrines so that they may remember what other Christians have historically believed about God, humanity, and God’s mission in this world.
These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. So we’re offering you brief posts about what Christians have historically believed are the core teachings of the Bible. We hope you find that these historic teachings not only broaden your understanding of Christianity but also deepen your love of God.
No Christian doctrine is more cringe-inducing than the church’s teaching about the sovereignty of God. Why?
God’s sovereignty implies all creation is under divine authority. In other words, nothing happens without the Almighty’s intention or permission. But some people fear the Creator is capricious and believe every human being should be autonomous. Equally distressing to many people is the painful question that’s occupied theologians for generations: If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why do evil and suffering exist? Let’s look at both issues.
One Sovereign God
Sound Christian doctrines about God’s sovereignty are based in the Bible. In the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms, we find statements asserting the sovereignty of God: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). And “God is the king of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7).
In the New Testament, we read of Jesus Christ—God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity—as sovereign over all things: “With all wisdom and insight he [God the Father] . . . set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:8-10). And again speaking of Jesus Christ, the letter to the Colossians says: “He [Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation . . . all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).
Though some people balk at the idea of living under God’s authority, imagine for a moment what the world would be like without God’s sovereignty. Here are just a few examples:
If God weren’t sovereign, then Christ’s divine authority, his ability to hold all things together, would be vulnerable to attack and decay, leaving his sacrifice on the cross of no lasting effect.
Were God not sovereign, our lives would be no more significant than sea foam, for it’s the sovereignty of God, expressed through his love and authority, which gives our humanness its full, relational meaning.
The Bible emphatically teaches that God is sovereign over everything, even those “natural” phenomena that awe and frighten us, such as tsunamis, volcanos, and earthquakes, and those personal threats that baffle and terrify us, such as cancer, senility, and schizophrenia. “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psalm 115:3); he “works all things after the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11)—such is the absolute sovereignty of God. But asserting God is absolutely sovereign brings us to a sobering question.
Why Evil and Suffering?
It’s the question at the heart of human history; the question that obsessively occupies our fine arts and world religions; the question that most expresses the fragility of our humanness and our cosmic predicament. It’s the question that causes us to wake up in the middle of the night, crying out to God, “Why did this happen to me?”
The weight of this question can crush our human spirits, break our minds, and cause us to despair of life altogether. We’re desperate to know why bad things happen to “good” people and why we experience excruciating pain. Surely, we say, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, wouldn’t the Almighty’s power defeat evil and his love remove our suffering?
But evil and suffering are all too real in this world, and in our less-than-faithful moments we are tempted to conclude that God must be either too weak or too unloving to stop the causes of our misery. Christian theologians’ answers to this long-standing problem—called “theodicies”—range from “Who are you to question God?” (Job) to “This world is the best of all possible worlds” (Gottfried Leibniz) to “Be patient. God is learning how to be God. Let the Almighty evolve” (Process Theology).
While both insightful and ridiculous solutions fill in the spectrum of theodicies, the most orthodox Christian answers typically assert that human sin best explains the origin and perpetuation of evil and suffering. Simply stated, we suffer as a consequence of evil, and evil is the result of human sin.
Throughout the history of the church, biblical theologians have concluded that God is good, and that he permits the evil expressions of sin and the catastrophic, “natural” results of our moral fall to demonstrate his goodness and serve his divine will. Obviously, from a human perspective, this world’s sufferings seem unconscionably unjust, but from God’s perspective, our painful experiences serve a glorious, God-ordained purpose, which can redound to our good and advance the kingdom of heaven.
So while the Bible demonstrates that God allows sin, Scripture makes clear he is not sin’s originator, for “there is no one holy like the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:2). At the end of the conversation, we find that no person knows precisely why sin, evil, and suffering exist, but traditional Christian doctrine has always asserted that humanity brought the results of an original sin upon itself through a free-will choice to disobey God, which is for sure a perplexing paradox.
Scripture affirms the paradoxical fact of our free will and God’s absolute sovereignty. But taken together, Jesus’ statements in the Gospels hold in balance this paradox. In one instance Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), from which a reader may reasonably deduce that we come to Christ through a free-will choice. But then in another instance he says, “No one can come to me, unless it is granted by the Father” (John 6:65), from which that same reader may infer that we come to Christ through God’s election. So our salvation is somehow a combination of God’s election and our personal choice.
Likewise, the problem of good and evil in this world is a result of both our free-will choices and God’s sovereign will. As such, God has a purpose in permitting evil and suffering to exist in this world. And while we presently see the meaning of our suffering as it were through a glass darkly, as Christians we trust, despite the paradox, that God is powerful, loving, and good.
So we walk in faith, believing God’s Word in the Bible is true when it tells us of the one triune God who loves us and who is creating through us a glorious kingdom. With such a faith, we can live daily without cringing in fear. And instead, we can walk forward as faithful servants of God, offering hope to people through the gospel of Jesus Christ.