God's Love

 

Every preacher likes to know that his listeners are actually "listening."  Tragically, some people in our audiences on Sunday morning and some in radio and in television audiences only half listen.  They have their minds attuned to other matters and hear very little the preacher says.  These were probably the people James had in mind when he wrote: They behold themselves in the mirror of God's word, go their way and forget what manner of people they were (Jas. 1:24).  In other words, they see but do not see.  They hear but do not understand (Lk. 8:10).  They do not understand because they are not concentrating on what is being said or read.  They want to appear religious but without giving much attention to their religion.

 

It is refreshing to receive a letter from a man who apparently has given much thought to our lessons on the International Gospel Hour.  He disagrees not only with what is being preached but also with the spirit in which it is being preached.  Let me say as plainly and yet as kindly as I am able: Although I believe his criticisms are uninformed and poorly reasoned, I am grateful for the letter.  My initial reaction was to throw the letter in the wastebasket, but on further reflection I decided to respond on the air to the letter.  If my correspondent has some objections to the content of the sermons and the manner in which they are preached, maybe there are others in my audience who have the same criticisms.  The letter challenges me to examine the hundreds of sermons I have preached on this program in the last five years and inspires me to make my sermons as scriptural and compassionate as I am able.

 

My correspondent says that love is missing from our broadcasts.  He adds: "I hear a lot of criticism of other Christian personalities and denominations, but there is none of God's love contained in the words you expound."  It certainly is possible for others to disagree with how much emphasis is placed on certain topics.  How many sermons should I devote to God's love?  I sat down before preparing this message on God's love and reviewed every sermon I have preached on our thirty-minute programs.  Obviously, I cannot list all the topics I have used in the past five years, but I do want to mention a few.  My very first sermon on this program was "Why Choose Jesus?"  My second was "Jesus Is Lord."  In the first year I spoke on "The Grace of God," "The Death of Christ?" "God's Image in Man," "The Claims of Christ" and `The Inspiration of the Bible."  Every other topic during that year was either directly or indirectly related to God's love for man and man's love for God.  When I addressed the topic, "Do We Focus on the Man or on the Plan?" I was exalting God's plan for saving man.

 

Over the past twelve months beginning in September of 1999, I have discussed "God's Love for Fallen Man," "John 3:16," "What Does God Demand of Us?", "Abounding in the Work of the Lord," "Why Did My Savior Come to Earth?", "Who Speaks for God?", and many other topics-all of which were intended to show God's love for us and to challenge us to love God with all their hearts, souls and minds.  Maybe other preachers would have emphasized different themes, but I have chosen every topic because I sincerely believed it was desperately needed.  For example, I spoke recently on churches' appointing women preachers.  There are few topics more relevant to modern life than that.  It is dividing churches all over the country, including some left-leaning churches of Christ.  Am I ignoring God's love when I speak on that topic?  If the Bible means what it says about women preachers or elders or deacons, would I not ignore God's voice as revealed in the Bible if I did not discuss it?  Can I ignore the plain teaching of God's book and pretend to love God?

 

My correspondent probably has not read widely enough to know that scholars and preachers from most religious groups speak out against what they consider to be soul-condemning error.  If time permitted, I could give you hundreds of examples.  I shall give you just a few examples.  John Shelby Spong, former Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey, has written extensively on biblical themes.  Spong is one of most radical theologians in the world-an assessment he would not deny.  In his book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), Spong quotes Jerry Falwell's beliefs about fulfilled prophecy.  He then says, "That quotation will hardly stand the world of biblical scholarship" (p. 58).  Spong speaks very disparagingly of those who disagree with him.  Yet he claims to love God and to enjoy God's love.

 

Dr. Norman Geisler, the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, has authored or co-authored more than sixty books.  One of his latest books has the title, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1999).  Dr. Geisler severely criticizes men he calls “extreme Calvinists," such as, John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, John Gerstner and R. C. Sproul (p. 47).  If Dr. Geisler believes he has the truth on God's selection of sinners to salvation, does he trample under foot the love of God by exposing and opposing these "hyper-Calvinists?"  Does the love of God prevent a man's preaching what he honestly believes the Bible teaches?

 

D. R. McConnell, a Pentecostal preacher, has written an excellent book with the title, A Different Gospel: A Historical and Biblical Analysis of the Modern Faith Movement.  McConnell’s book contains a devastating critique of the teaching of Kenneth Hagin, Charles Capps, Fred Price, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland.  He quotes E. W. Kenyon, one of the so-called “faith teachers” as saying, “What I confess, I possess” (p. 137).  According to McConnell, “In faith theology, a personal loving God does not determine what comes into the believer’s life.  PMA (positive mental attitude) and positive confession do” (p. 140).  Does God’s love prohibit Dr. McConnell from showing the error of the modern faith movement?  McConnell’s book is not radical and ugly-spirited.  But he believed—and I wholeheartedly agree—that he had an obligation to show the error of the faith movement.  How could he live with himself if he did not condemn what he believes is error?

 

            I have no idea how many books Dr. John MacArthur, president of the Master's College and Seminary, has written.  I have at least twenty of Dr. MacArthur's books and have reviewed one of them-Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993-on the Freed-Hardeman University annual lectureship and in The Spiritual Sword, an excellent journal published in Memphis, Tennessee.  While I vigorously reject Dr. MacArthur's Calvinism, I have to say to you that I have profited greatly by reading all of his books.  In his book, Ashamed of the Gospel, Dr. MacArthur objects the George Barna's emphasis on "market driven ministries" and "user-friendly churches" (pp. 45-66).  Dr. MacArthur criticizes Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner for their pragmatic approach to church growth.  Dr. MacArthur has a number of books dealing with religious error, at least, "religious error" as he understands it.  Has Dr. MacArthur ignored God's love by showing how false some doctrinal positions are?  Could he do otherwise and be true to himself?

 

Dr. Thomas C. Reeves teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.  His outstanding book, The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity (New York: The Free Press, 1996), documents how liberal churches, including his own denomination, are in the process of dying.  Dr. Reeves asks, "Do churches, well, really matter any more" (p. ix of the Preface)?  He says he has belonged to a mainline denomination all his life.  He affirms that the attitudes and actions of the mainline churches are "leading toward the serious debilitation, if not extinction, of these historic churches" (pp. x-xi of the Preface).  Dr. Reeves says that morale among the mainline denominations is very low.  One survey showed that only 27% of Protestants gave their churches an excellent rating (p. 13).  I have a question for the man who wrote to me about my not emphasizing God's love.  Does Dr. Reeves love his own people less because he points out the error that is leading them extinction?  Would he love them--more if he did not show how seriously flawed their approach to scripture is?  Do we fail to show God's love for fallen men when we help prodigals-both individuals and churches-return to the Father?

 

            I wonder if my correspondent has ever read Old Testament prophetic writings.  Does he believe God's spokesmen under that covenant stressed the love of God for his people?  The prophet Isaiah said to the Jews: "Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children who are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy one of Israel to anger, they are going away backward.  Why should you be stricken any more?  You will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.  From the sole of the foot even unto the heard there is no soundness in it; but wounds and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment....Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah" (Isa. 1:~6, 10).

 

Isaiah's words admittedly are very harsh.  Calling the prophets, priests and kings "rulers of Sodom" and the Israelites "people of Gomorrah" probably cut to the very heart of the Jewish nation, that is, if the Israelites still had any moral or spiritual sensitivity.  They may have become so hardened to sin that the Lord's word through Isaiah did nothing but further harden their hearts.  Was love missing from the preaching of Isaiah?  All of the faithful prophets of the Old Testament loved God and his people to the extent they would have gladly died to do the will of God.  But there were times when those great preachers had to speak bluntly and harshly to awaken the people to their sins against God and against their fellowmen.  Some of the so-called "positive preachers" may resent that kind of language, but the prophets and preachers of Bible times knew they had to do it.

 

Jesus Christ came into this world to make God's love known to man.  He accomplished that goal in a number of different ways.  He voluntarily died on the cross to redeem fallen men from their sins.  Jesus lived in such a way as to show men how much God loved them and had provided for their every genuine need.  His words also demonstrate God's gracious provisions for our salvation.  Would my correspondent agree that all of Christ's words and works reveal God's love for us?  But some of the harshest words ever spoken came from the mouth of Jesus Christ.  How could one who loved all men so much say to his own people: "You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of lies" (John 8:44).  How can anyone harmonize this very abrasive language with the love of God?

 

Our Lord's most intensive and extensive criticism of any group in the New Testament appears in Matthew 23.  If you think love prohibits a preacher from criticizing other religious groups and their leaders, please read the entire chapter.  I shall read a few brief excerpts from Matthew 23.  "Woe unto you, scribes, and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for you neither go in yourselves, neither suffer them who are entering to go in.  Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: therefore you shall receive the greater condemnation.  Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! For you compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.  Woe unto you, blind guides, who say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is debtor! You fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold" (Mt 23:13-17).  If Jesus condemned religious error because he loved God and his own people, am I ever justified in opposing error?  Am I not safe in imitating the greatest preacher who ever lived-the Lord Jesus Christ?

 

Do you have any doubt about Paul's love for the Corinthians?  The greatest treatise in the world on love is 1 Corinthians 13.  Even the enemies of Christianity, such as secular humanists, praise Paul's chapter on love.  Have you bothered to examine Paul's first letter to the Corinthians to ascertain how love operates when Christians are in danger of being lost?  Should not Paul have been more tolerant of the errors in teaching and in life that were in the church at Corinth?  How could Paul show God's love for the Corinthians by telling them: "And I, brethren, cold not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.  I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto you were not able to bear it, neither yet now are you able.  For you are carnal; for whereas there is among you envying, strife, and divisions, are you not carnal, and walk as men" (1 Cor. 3:1-3)?  Am I failing to show God's love when I use Paul's teaching in this chapter as a model for my preaching against denominational error?  I have preached against denominationalism for fifty-seven years.  I plan to keep on doing it as long as there is any breath in my body.  How can I do otherwise and have the Lord's approval of my preaching?

 

The Lord's supper is a vital part of the our regular worship to God almighty.  Very few people who identify themselves as Christians would dispute that fact.  But there were people at Corinth who had perverted the purpose for which God's people had come together to worship. There was inexcusable division and confusion around the Lord's table.  I can understand why Paul would be upset by that situation.  But did he have to blast the Corinthians to the heavens for their behavior?  Could he not have been a little more positive?  These are Paul's inspired words: "For first of all, when you come together in the church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it....When you come together therefore in one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper.  For in eating everyone takes before his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunk.  What?  Do you not have houses to eat and to drink in?  Or do you despise the church of God, and shame them who have not?  What shall I say unto you?  Shall I praise you in this?  I praise you not" (1 Cor. 11:18, 20-22).

 

Do you see God's love coming through in these words?  Many modern people think that such preaching is too negative, too intolerant and not loving enough.  But what if Paul had shared these foolish notions?  What if he had allowed them go on in their rebellion against God?  We do not have to wonder about the answer to those questions.  Paul urged the Corinthians to examine themselves and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. "For he who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.  For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep" (1 Cor. 11:28-30).  Paul's love for God and for his brothers and sisters at Corinth demanded that he tell the church what it needed to hear.  Did his preaching alienate some of the Corinthians?  We are not told, but it probably did.  But he had no choice if he would be faithful to his calling as an apostle and as a gospel preacher.

 

The little epistle of Jude warns of the false teachers who were doing so much damage to the cause of Christ.  He knew that some members of the church would be deceived and led astray by the false teachers.  So he pled with his readers: "Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.  And on some (that is, on those who were in danger of falling away or who had actually fallen away) have mercy.  And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted with the flesh" (Jude 21-23).  Could those early Christians have kept themselves in the love of God if they had neglected to help their wayward brothers and sisters?  Can I please God almighty if I fail to tell men and women that grace alone through faith alone is not God's plan for saving man?  If I neglect to warn about the evils of division, will God be pleased with my preaching?

 

I have tried through fifty-seven years of preaching to do what Paul recommended, that is, to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4: 15).  I am sure I have not always been able to do that.  When I hear a man on radio or on television promoting doctrines that clearly and unmistakably contradict the plain truth of scripture, it is not easy to remain dispassionate about such teaching.  I sincerely want to love the sinner and oppose his sin, but that may not always come through on radio or even in the pulpit.  Paul became angry when he saw the world's most intellectual city devoted to idolatry (Acts 17:16).  The King James Version says Paul's spirit was stirred with him, but the Greek is considerably stronger.  The word translated "stirred" means to sharpen, to stimulate, to irritate.  The New Revised Standard Version renders the Greek Paul "was deeply distressed."  How can any Bible student keep from being distressed when error is being preached?

 

Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334