Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan

I suspect that most modern audiences would find the intense religious self-reflection of Bunyan, which was typical of the Puritans, somewhat neurotic and maybe even misguided. This, however, may reflect shallowness in our examination of life in light of the Word of God as much as it does excess on the part of the Puritans. This book is a window into the Puritan mind as it examines life in light of the Bible. Despite our modern conveniences, nothing fundamental has changed in human nature and so this book remains a treasure trove for any who struggle with reconciling what they know of the Holiness of God with the realities of their own thoughts and actions. Bunyan colorfully illustrates the various phases of the Christian experience through the lens of his own remarkable life.

This audiobook version was excellent. 17th century English can be a distraction for many listeners but the narration by Simon Vance was wonderful. Vance’s clear command of the rhythm and flow of the language highlights the beauty of Bunyan’s prose and adds warmth and depth to the work. Unlike some other readings from this period I have heard, this one was a pleasant listen.
The fact that Bunyan first published the book in 1666 and it is still being read gives us a hint as to its insightfulness. Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography is among the classics of Christian literature. Standing in the tradition of Augustine’s confessions it is an object lesson using the life of the author to illustrate great and urgent theological truths. We may wince at Bunyan’s occasional allegorization and his frequent proof texting but there is no denying the power of his lesson. He not only describes how the Word of God converted him, shattered the pride of his shallow confession, terrorized him, and finally comforted him, but also ministers to us where these same needs are present in our own hearts. It is an honest and practical, yet theologically deep examination of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

The authorities ordered Bunyan to stop preaching and imprisoned him because he refused. In the providence of God, this gave him time to write Grace Abounding and other works (while he was not preaching to the other prisoners) that have blessed generations of readers. Grace Abounding has reached far beyond the audience he had for his sermons. This book will be a great blessing and help to any believer who wishes seriously to examine his or her own faith and life. It will also be a help to any who are struggling with spiritual depression over their own sinfulness. Bunyan addresses all ends of the spectrum and leaves the reader/listener focused on the love of God and His Word. I recommend it and pray it is an encouragement to you.

* I received a free copy of this book from as part of their Reviewers Program. Reviews are not required to be positive and the opinions I have expressed are my own.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Is God a Bloodthirsty Killer?

As long ago as the year 177, the philosopher Celsus attacked Christianity using the argument that the Old Testament describes a murdering, bloodthirsty God who is very different from the loving, merciful God Christians like to talk about. The argument has remained in the arsenal of critics ever since. Steve Wells, the author of the Skeptics Annotated Bible, has been particularly influential in popularizing this argument on his blog Dwindling in Unbelief and in his book Drunk With Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible. Wells seems to take pleasure in the apparent shock value of comparing the number of people that God has killed or ordered killed vs. the number that Satan has. In his book Drunk With Blood, Wells explains his purpose in making these comparisons. On the first page he writes, “It is my hope that as God’s killings become better known, people will know better than to believe in the Bible.” According to Well’s calculations; God is responsible for 2,476,636 deaths in the Bible while Satan is responsible for 60. Wells argues that if the prophesies of Revelation are included, the Bible presents 24,634,205 scriptural deaths at the hand of God verses 60 at the hand of Satan.

Is Wells correct about these numbers? If so, is it a good argument against believing in the God of the Bible?

Wells uses estimates to develop the numbers, as the Bible often does not record exact figures in these cases. I have not bothered to evaluate the estimates but it is clear even from a cursory reading that the Bible attributes far more loss of human life to the agency or command of God than to anyone else. If this is shocking, it is only because of a deficiency in the popular understanding of God’s character and holiness. In fact, the actual number of deaths attributable to God is far higher than Wells estimates. Death is the result of God’s judgment of sin (Gen. 2:17, Rom. 5:12, Jas. 1:15). Every funeral home, every cemetery, and every mausoleum is a testimony to the sinfulness of humankind and the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:23, 6:23). It is therefore wise to live tempered by the knowledge that we too will die and face judgment (Eccl. 7:2, 11:9). The sovereign God determines when our earthly lives will end (1 Sam. 2:6, Job 14:5). Therefore, in an ultimate sense, God has taken the life of every person who has ever died.

Since Wells seems to be correct that God takes human life and even sometimes uses other humans to do so, is it true that God is immoral? Is his argument against Christianity persuasive?

Although it may have emotional appeal, it is not a very strong argument. As Dr. William Lane Craig observed, “it [is] ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so [there is] no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong. As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, “The universe doesn’t care.” So at most, the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency in affirming both the goodness of God and the historicity of the conquest of Canaan. It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists.”

The argument must assume some standard of morality by which to judge God. Atheistic materialism can support no such standard. Ironically, the standard often assumed is the moral standard derived from the Bible. If the argument is intended to charge God with moral inconsistency then it is necessary that each of the events be considered within the broader context of the biblical teaching.

First, the Bible teaches that God is the creator and His character is the source of truth, love, and justice. As a result, it is not possible to appeal to any moral standard outside of God without first denying the biblical understanding of who He is. It is impossible within a Christian worldview to define any moral standard apart from God Himself. God, Himself, is the ultimate basis upon which any judgment of truth or morals can be made. We simply have no standard by which we could judge what He Himself does. Whatsoever He does is assuredly just on the basis that He does it. On this basis, the argument ultimately degenerates into more basic questions of apologetics, namely, is the Bible true and does God exist.

Second, the most violent Old Testament events that these critics call attention to occur within a particular context within the broader story of God’s plan to redeem a people for His own glory. None of those whose life God takes was “innocent” or undeserving. Rather than be shocked by their judgment, we should be amazed at His patience with us. The transgression of men and women brought about curse and only the guilty fall under its power.

Furthermore, God in His gracious love has saved from this curse those who by faith are united to Christ who paid the penalty of death we deserved while we were still His enemies (Gal. 3:13, Rom. 5:8). Keep in mind that God repeatedly warns people that He will judge sin. The coming judgment is usually not immediate, giving people an opportunity to repent. Eventually, the judgment comes, but in each case, God spared a remnant of faithful people. These historical events are a foreshadowing of God’s final judgment and salvation. We do well to recognize that we are currently living in a period of restraint whereby we have an opportunity to join to the faithful remnant. It is because of God’s grace that He records His terrible judgments for our instruction.

God is not bloodthirsty but He is holy. Well's argument is only persuasive if we, who are sinners, are bold enough to put ourselves in a position to judge God rather than accepting His judgment and appealing to His loving mercy with faith and repentance.