The Stuff of Martyrs

by Darrel Cline

Chapter Four: The Martyr and The Misty Mountains

The Problem of Unbelief

Sufficiency must have a backdrop. When we say that the martyrs knew the sufficiency of their God, we are also saying that they had a backdrop against which they compared their God. There are two major reasons that men do not walk in purity of devotion to Christ: one is that they are ignorant of the specifics of His promises and thus, do not have a valid backdrop for their consideration of Christ; and the other is that they have enough of an understanding of what He is like to be absolutely terrified of being led down the same paths (after all, He DID allow Himself to be viciously abused and shamefully treated, and men can SEE that). The problem in both cases is a level of unbelief (caused by a too-shallow grasp of the truth) that permits one to see illusion as fact and fact as illusion.

The Love of God

In this chapter we want to begin to study what the Bible says about the backdrop against which we are to measure God. If we are not going to walk with Him, let it be hardness of heart and not ignorance that causes it. On the other hand, if we long to walk with Him, let it not be ignorance that makes us stumble. God has spoken in words and in history. We do not have to be ignorant of Him and His ways and goals.

Ultimate Objectives

The first question of a legitimate measuring device has to be the question of ultimate objectives. What is it that God is about? On this all other matters stand or fall. If a man is going to choose to be loyal to Christ, he must know what it is that Christ is most interested in. On the other hand, if a man is going to take up the sword against Christ--to be His avowed enemy (and James 4:4 says these are the only options open to us)--he ought to take up that sword because he knows what it is that Christ is going after and what it is that he must stop Him from accomplishing. So, in this chapter, we want to pursue the question of the love of God. What, or who, is it that God is so primarily committed to that He will enter into significant sacrifice for?

The Theologians and the Misty Mountains

When we raise the issue of ultimate objectives, we are raising the question of the essence of a certain kind of love. This can be misty, cloud-covered mountain peak stuff. In other words, it is an area in which we can easily get lost--and one which most people do not spend much time thinking about. But it is fundamental to our perception of God. So, we first turn to what the theologians have said in the past. Now, obviously, we cannot discuss all of the answers of all of the theologians. There are far too many of them, and, quite frankly, most of their answers do not deserve even passing mention because they are too foolish. Most theologians are not biblicists--and thus are unbelieving propounders of nonsense.

But there are a great host of evangelicals out there who have pondered this question of ultimate divine objectives for years and years. Since they have made the truth their goal and the Bible their source, we can discuss the major answers they have given to this question.

The Mists of Soteriology

One great block of evangelical theologians has decided that what God is up to is the salvation of mankind. This is called the soteriological intent. This answer claims that God is primarily interested in saving human beings. This answer claims that all that the Bible has to say can, and must, be understood in the light of His intent to save mankind.

But this answer bogs down in too many places in the Bible. For example, Jesus said, "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat; because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:13,14, KJV).

This is a plain declaration that more people will perish than will be saved. Therefore, if God's ultimate objective is the salvation of humanity, He will clearly fail to achieve it. Another simple biblical fact is that Satan and his demonic hoard are just as personal as men--and they will suffer in like manner as men in Hell--and yet have not been given even the opportunity to be redeemed. This means that God is not opposed, in an ultimate sense, to sending personal creatures into a future that is indescribably horrible. The salvation of personal creatures, simply because they are personal creatures and have an indescribably horrible future awaiting them if they are lost, cannot be God's ultimate objective.

The historical reality is that most men in every generation have no opportunity to even hear the Gospel. Over half of the people alive on planet earth today will die without ever even knowing a Christian--not to mention being able to see a persuasive example of the benefits of trusting in the God of the Bible. Since the Bible says that we must hear the Gospel before we can believe in it to be saved, it is obvious that most generations of men have, in majority part, perished from lack of faith and lack of hearing. This is silent, brooding testimony that God must have something in mind that is greater than the salvation of mankind.

By any standard of scripture or history, if God is primarily interested in saving created persons, He is not accomplishing His objective and thus, cannot possibly be considered sufficient for the task.

Now I can hear the objections already! Some will say that God has set a self-imposed limit upon the accomplishment of the task. He has made it the Church's responsibility and privilege to take the message to every nation, kindred, language group, and tribe. So, if the world is not hearing the message, it is because of the failure of the Church.

For the sake of argument I won't disagree with that.

But when we speak of God setting a self-imposed limit on a stated objective, we are actually speaking of God having a higher priority than the stated objective. In other words, no one in his right mind would say that God did not say that the Church was to take the message to every inhabitant of the planet. But if He is willing to permit our salvation to be contingent upon the obedience of the Church, then the obedience of the Church is more important to Him than our salvation. And we are writing of what is most important to God.

Others will say that God has restricted salvation to those who are willing to put their trust in Christ of their own volition and desire. If that be so, then salvation, as an objective, takes a back seat to the objective of maintaining our right to make our own choices out of our own desires. We are writing, not of things that are important to God, but of the most important thing. If our personal choice is more important than our everlasting salvation, then salvation will be subject to the higher priority of our freedom of volition.

Therefore, this entire block of theologians, who argue that God's ultimate heart-beat is the salvation of created persons, are in error. That God cannot possibly be ultimately interested in the salvation of Adam's race must be accepted as a fact if we are going to have a legitimate backdrop for measuring the sufficiency of Christ.

The Mists of Doxology

On the other hand, there are those theologians who claim that, in the high mystery of the wisdom of God (the cloud-covered mountain peaks of wisdom and understanding), God's ultimate objective is His own glory. This is what is called the doxological intent.

God is out to glorify Himself. This answer to the question of ultimate objectives claims that all that God does He does to the final end of self-glorification. This means that God has it ultimately in mind to reveal to creatures what He is like. This is another way of saying that God's ultimate objective is self-revelation to creatures who could not otherwise know what God is like.

Now, this answer has several things in its favor. First, it side-steps all of the problems encountered by the soteriologists. For example, God is glorified by the absence of salvation of creatures--for His wrath is thus revealed forever and ever. His justice, wisdom, righteousness, anger, vengeance, etc. are all known more clearly when demonstrated by the condemnation of sinful creatures. How would any creature ever know the wrath of God if it were never to be manifested?

Also, God is glorified by the condemnation of Satan and his hoards--without their ever having an opportunity for redemption. In this is seen the mighty rejection of sin by God and a certain, fearful hardness that does not balk in the face of the imposition of eternal death upon creatures who will exist in conscious awareness of the torment of that death forever and ever. If God really is like that, men certainly need to know it! So, His manifestation of these realities is necessary. And the necessity is met by the fact.

And also, God is glorified by the salvation of all who believe--for God's mercy and great grace are hereby seen clearly. And the fact that His glory is revealed by salvation means that salvation is a means to a greater end. Thus, say these theologians, self-glorification is the greater objective.

A second plus for this view is the fact that self-glorification as an ultimate objective is adaptable to the question of His sufficiency because it can be shown that everything that happens reveals truth about God. Thus, He is able to make everything be a statement about Himself: this is sufficiency.

However, this answer is not ultimately biblical. Revelation is not an end in itself. Self-revelation is not an end in itself. God is heavily into self-glorification, but it is not His ultimate goal. What is missed most quickly by those who promote this view is that the biblical statements that God does all things to His own glory (such as Ephesians 1:6, 12, and 14) are not statements of ultimate objectives. That they state a divine objective is clear. That it is the ultimate objective is certainly not clear. Self-glorification is one of God's objectives. It certainly is more important to God than the salvation of Satan, demons, and unbelieving men. But to say that it is the final objective is to say that revelation is an end in itself. It is not. Even fallen men know that revelation is a tool--an instrument of a higher objective. When men go about glorifying themselves, they do not do it as a final objective. They do it to achieve something else; most notably to gain a superior advantage over their fellow men so that they may bask in the pleasure of being somebody. For them, then, self-revelation is a means to the pleasure of status.

If fallen men know this, redeemed men ought to know even better that God has not revealed Himself simply to have Himself known. Redeemed men ought to know that God has revealed Himself to make Himself known to them for their pleasure. For redeemed men, the knowledge of God is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3). Thus, life is the outcome of God's self-glorification. Thus, life is a greater objective than glory. Life is a greater end than knowing, and knowing is a greater end than revealing. Self-glorification, therefore, cannot be an ultimate objective. It is amazing to me that serious men have set forth as God's ultimate objective an objective that turns men's stomachs. If a man says that his goal in life is to glorify himself, we turn away in disgust. Then we turn right around and say that God has that goal! It is no wonder that many have turned away from God in angry disgust. They have measured Him against a backdrop that says that He, ultimately, is as self-centered as they are--and they do not want a god like that.

The Mist-Removing Scriptures

So, what does the Bible say is the ultimate objective? The question of ultimate intent is the question of the ultimate priority. Another way of saying this is that ultimate intent is a question of what God loves the most. The term in the Scripture for the issue of priorities is the word agape. There has been a lot of loose thinking and talk about agape-love in our generation. It has been variously and erroneously called many things from God's kind of love to unconditional love to the highest form of love etc. A simple word study will reveal that this term is attributed to fallen men who loved the chief seats in the synagogues. This means it is not God's kind of love because He does not exalt things over persons. It also means that agape love is not necessarily unconditional because the men who loved the chief seats in the synagogues only did so because of what those seats got them. This is totally self-focused love. And it also means that agape is not the highest form of love because highest form is simply another way of saying what we believe is the best, and it has not been established that setting priorities is better than the emotional experience of love. It could be argued that life is more related to emotion (joy) than it is to decisions (pursuing priorities). The word agape simply denotes priorities and implies the various levels of effort put out to achieve them.

But the point that needs to be made is that when one asks the question of God's ultimate objective, he is simply asking what God loves the most.

That means that our task is to ask the question of the Bible, What is it that God loves the most?. And, when we do we will find that there are two ways in which the answer is given. First, there are several key places in which the love of God is the subject of the text. Therefore, we should be able to find some help in these key places. But there is another way to discover what it is that God loves the most: take a peek at the end of the Book. Whatever endures is what God is committed to.

The Best Known Statement of God's Love

Let us begin to get a biblical answer by considering a classic statement of God's agape. It is the most often quoted John 3:16. Being the most quoted also makes it the easiest to run past without understanding. So, let's attempt to approach it with some curiosity. What did Jesus really say when he said that God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever would believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life?

Many things.

To begin, consider that at the root of Jesus' statement is the inherent idea that God's love (His ultimate objective) is not a self-focused matter in the negative sense of that term. Jesus said plainly that when faced with a tremendously painful loss (His only begotten Son), God did not hesitate.

This needs to be understood. Too many times too many of us tend to relegate God's losses to a brief hiatus in history that had its really desperate painfulness limited to only one part of one day. In other words, though we hesitate to say it out loud, many of us write Jesus' words off as insignificant because God's loss was too brief to be significant. Jesus was only on the cross for a few hours and He was raised to glory in less than 72 hours. How are we supposed to be impressed with this? We face the possibility of eternal destruction from the presence of God without a diminished capacity to experience the pain--and we are supposed to be impressed with God's love that cost Him a few hours? As I said, this needs to be understood.

But it won't be easy.

Jesus was God in the flesh. He was fully human. He continued to be fully God. How the Father could give up the Son, when both are undiminished deity, is an infinite mystery. Any breach in the Godhead is unfathomable. It suggests death in the Godhead. It is beyond our mental limits. But Jesus declared it was so. So what does it mean? It means this: that God's sacrifice was eternal.

This can be proved in a variety of ways. God is God. What happens to Him He feels forever because He is infinite in knowledge and experience. In other words, God does not have the blunting effect of a diminishing memory. What I feel as extreme pain today will only be a memory next week, and next year it will only be something to talk about when people start talking about the times when they hurt the worst. For me, sacrifice loses its impact as time and memory pass. For God, all things are immediately present to His mind, heart, and feelings. So, His joy is unbounded and His pain is forever.

This is a great mystery, and I only approach it because we need to understand God's love. He knew what it would mean to absorb the pain of our sins for eternity. He knew before He gave His Son that He was taking on Himself the cumulative impact of all of the sins of all of mankind for all of eternity--just so He could set them free of it. And, the Bible calls this the love of God. So, it was not an insignificant thing, nor was it a self-focused thing.

Let's consider this exchange. God is Creator. He is capable of generating all manner of things and persons without diminishing Himself one whit. So, when the children of Adam were plunged into the chaos of eternal death, it certainly would have been a less painful thing to simply replace them. They would not have been in less pain, but He would have been. Thus, the love of God is self-less. But there is another matter also: that God's knowledge is undiminished in detail and His feelings are super-sensitive (infinite). This means that He chose to subject Himself to excruciating pain (the cumulative impact of all of our sins) without the hope of release at some future point (for all of eternity). In a sense we could say that God consigned Himself to an eternal Hell so we could be freely given an eternal kingdom of righteousness, love, joy and peace.

I am amazed at people who choose to refuse to endure any kind of pain for any reason and for any length of time (even if there is a sure promise that it will not last), and still feel free to criticize the God of Heaven. Surely they do not know the love of God.

But what is my point? This: that the love of God as stated by Jesus means that God's personal experience of pleasure is not His ultimate objective.

John 3:16 reveals this.

It also reveals something else. Jesus said that God's extension of eternal life to the offspring of Adam was restricted to those who believe. This means that the exercise of faith is more important to God than the deliverance. In other words, God will refuse to deliver those who refuse to believe. He will banish them into eternal death because of their unbelief. So, though God's love is not self-focused, neither is it carelessly abandoned to mere emotion. We shudder at the thought of persons being equipped to endure forever and then being banished into a living Hell. And when we shudder, we are likely to let our emotions tell us to vacate whatever principles would create that kind of situation. God shudders too. But He does not abandon His plans to emotion. Though He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, He does not draw back from it.

John 3:16 tells us this.

It also tells us, in a sense, why it is so. God has plans of eternal life for those who believe Him. Since it was unbelief in the beginning which introduced the sin and death that is responsible for the pain of the human condition, it is apparent why God insists upon faith before He grants entrance into life. If He were to permit unbelievers entrance into the eternal kingdom, they would bring their chaos and death with them--and thus ruin the kingdom for those who trusted in God's love. This God will not permit.

What does this mean? It means that though God does not love Himself, He does love those who trust in Him. And He will put those who would do them damage into a place where they cannot do that. So, when we ask about the priorities of God from John 3:16, we discover that God's love is upon those who trust Him. They become His greatest priority. They are not mankind in general. They are those among men who have determined to trust the God of Heaven.

So God's love means these things:

  1. It has definite soteriological and doxological overtones.
  2. He does not work things to simply satisfy His own pleasure (as freedom from pain).
  3. He does work things so that those who believe Him end up with eternal life.
  4. He does work things so that those who do not believe Him end up in indescribable death, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

It should be easy to see from this that very high on God's list of primary objectives is the production of eternal life for those who trust in Him. Most, if not all, of His other objectives fit under this priority. Heaven, Hell, the Kingdom of Righteousness, the Heavenly City, the service of the Angels, the judgment of sin and sinners, the manifestation of the manifold wisdom of God...all of these things fall under God's plan to bring those who believe Him to glorious life!

If this consideration of John 3:16 is not persuasive, do what we also mentioned earlier: take a peek at the back of the Book. In the last two chapters of Revelation we have the picture of those things which will endure--and they reinforce what we have just described. It seems that God's ultimate objective is life for His children who believe Him. If this isn't the greatest objective, it is certainly so close to the top that whatever is above it does not unseat our understanding of God's great commitment to believers.

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