Monday, March 6, 2006

Thy Will Be Done: The Role of Tragic Events in Bringing about God’s Will of Salvation

God’s will: Victory only?
When watching or listening to the popular Christian media, it would seem that God only acts in the life of the Christian by granting blessings of wealth, position, and victory. “God’s will” is made out to be that he desires to grant Christians an easy life, big houses, luxury cars, private jets, and of course, no problems or trials. Tangible victory and success are seen to be evidence of God’s blessing and the lack of them is seen as a failure to believe or take hold of what God wills to give. If one faces a bump in the road, much less a major tragedy, then that person must have severely failed to believe or must have some great secret sin hidden in their lives for which they are being punished. A theology where we earn blessing from God by our belief, positive thinking, or any other work is set up, and trials, tragedy, or suffering are made the results of failure in one’s Christian life.
[1] Giving to money to their ministries is promised to bring a return of the money many times over, and poverty is attributed as a failure to give to religious organizations and believe for the financial return promised.[2] God’s will in this theology is to work synergistically with the believer to grant financial returns to the giver in exchange for that believer’s obedience and giving.

God’s will: Purely Punishment?
On the other end of the spectrum, opposite the theology where God only works through victorious circumstances is another error. There is a tendency in many to follow our soul’s natural inclination toward the law and focus solely on God’s judgment. Natural disasters and personal tragedies are seen as God’s merciless divine punishment for actions which have offended him. This can be seen in the reaction of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the September 11 terrorist attacks. They credit God for this destruction and claim as his reason the “secularization of America,” homosexuality, abortion, and the like.
[3] Similarly, many blamed the devastation Hurricane Katrina brought on New Orleans on abortion, homosexuality, and that city’s reputation for wild partying such as Girls Gone Wild and Mardi Gras.[4] One of the most extreme examples of this is Westboro Baptist Church, and its pastor, Fred Phelps. He travels with his followers around the country to protest funerals of US soldiers killed in the Middle-east because, according to him, God killed them because they defended a nation which harbors homosexuals.[5] Phelps is slightly different from the others in that he seems to have abandoned all reason in his endeavors, as he lists even the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod as a “fag church” and lists president Dean Wenthe as an enemy of God.[6]

God’s Will in Lutheranism: Salvation
As opposed to those who see God’s will only one-sidedly as either purely to grant victorious circumstances or purely to punish the wicked, we as Lutherans, in keeping with the scriptures see God’s will differently. We understand that God’s will is that people would hear the Gospel and be saved from sin, death, and the devil. In bringing about this will, God my bring either victory or tragedy into our path as is needed to carry out His will. In our synod’s explanation to the Luther’s Small Catechism, the question “What is the good and gracious will of God?” is answered with, “It is God’s will that His name be kept holy and that His kingdom come, that is, that His Word be taught correctly and that sinners be brought to faith in Christ and lead holy lives.”
[7] John 6:40 “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." (ESV) and 1 Tim. 2:4 “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (ESV) are cited as support for this conclusion.
When discussing the will of God, Pieper also centers the will of God on salvation. His entire discussion of the will of God in the doctrine of God in volume 1 speaks about justification. Whether he is speaking about God’s primary and secondary will, the resistibility or irresistibility of of God’s will, God’s mediate and immediate will, or God’s revealed and hidden will, the entire subject revolves around salvation.
[8] Luther makes the distinction between God’s revealed and hidden will. God’s hidden will, we cannot know, but we do know that His revealed will is to save all men.

"Scripture has clearly revealed this fact. According to Scripture, God does not approach men with a two-fold will, that is, with a will to show His love and mercy to a part of mankind, and with a will to demonstrate His wrath and avenging justice to the other part, as Calvinists wrongly teach; but, according to Scripture, God wills to magnify His grace in all men, for God 'sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.'"[9]

The reason behind tragic events is certainly part of God’s hidden will, but if we look at these events in light of God’s revealed will to save all men, we can have confidence that the God who controls all things is working always for the salvation of mankind. When discussing the goodness of God’s will, Pieper characterizes tragic events in the world in this way:

"The repeated occurrence of great catastrophes, such as earthquakes, floods, wars, panics, is viewed by some as denying God’s goodness. But these ravages are employed by God in the interest of His saving goodness. They are a call to repentance for all men (Luke 13:3,5)."[10]

Pieper references Jesus Words “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” as evidence for this purpose of tragic events. Jesus answer to the disciples question as to whose sin caused the man to be born blind in John 9 also contribute to this understanding of tragedy and suffering. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) Tragedies and suffering do not come upon God’s people as vengeance for sin or as a result of a lack of faith. They occur to call God’s people to repentance and so that God can use the events of our lives to further His will that people come to faith in Christ.
An older edition of the Missouri Synod’s explanation to the small catechism, while not stating salvation as the definition of the will of God in the same way as the previously quoted explanation, adds a helpful point to the question of the role of tragic events. In response to the question, “What does the good and gracious will of God include?” the third point, after God’s will that we be saved and follow the commandments, is “everything that God wants us to suffer patiently according to His good pleasure.”
[11] In concluding this, they refer to Acts 14:22 “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (ESV) and Hebrews 12:6, 11 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives…For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (ESV)

God’s Will acted out through Old Testament Events
Based on this knowledge that the will of God, as we look back at the Old Testament, we can safely conclude, in harmony with the New Testament statement, ”all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) that through the events of the Old Testament, whether victorious or tragic, God was working for the salvation of the world. Since the salvation of the world comes specifically through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it follows that the ultimate focal point of all events of the Old Testament lies in Him, and God’s actions in the Old Testament are for the purpose of carrying out His will of saving the world, which ultimately is done by preserving a line of people faithful to God’s promise who will give birth to God’s Son, the Messiah.
Knowing the outcome that Jesus was born, died for the sins of the world, and rose again proclaiming his victory over death, we can see throughout the Old Testament that God’s was working His will of salvation throughout all of the unfolding of its events. From the patriarchs through the birth of Jesus, it can be seen, looking back, the way in which God worked to preserve and discipline His chosen people so that He would ultimately save the world through His Son born of their human lineage. It can be seen in the victories that God gives His people over their neighboring nations who seek to destroy them, but it can also be seen in the tragedies that come upon His people when they fall into the spiritual adultery of idolatry. It can even be seen through the role that personal and family tragedies eventually play their own roles in forming the human genealogy of Jesus. Throughout the events of the Old Testament, God is at all times working to bring about the salvation of the world, whether by victory, by tragedy, or even by turning around the results of sinful actions of His children to work His will within the plan of bringing about His Son’s incarnation.
God’s dealings with the people of Israel in the Old Testament differ fundamentally with his dealings with the other nations. When God deals with His own people, he is seeking to return them by repentance to faith in Him. This may require that he place some serious challenges in their path and that they endure great suffering, but all is centered around making or keeping them faithful to Him and the promise he has given to them. When we see tragedy fall upon the nations who war with Israel and oppose God, it is understandable why they are faced with total defeat and destruction. Some might ask how a God who “wants all to be saved” could destroy or place suffering on anyone, but that is not the topic here. When viewed through the knowledge that God must preserve Israel as a nation and keep them faithful to Him, the defeat of other nations is necessary for the preservation of God’s People.
At other times, we see these nations prevailing over God’s people. This is when we see God disciplining Israel for their idolatry when they turned from faith in Him. In Leviticus 26, we see both the threat of this judgment against God’s people for their discipline as well as the purpose behind that judgment, which is to bring the people back to faith in God. After promising all the blessings that God intends to give the people who are faithful to Him in Leviticus 26:3-13, He then lays out the suffering that will fall upon Israel if they turn away from faith in Him. The plentiful harvests, safety from predators and enemies, and abundant offspring promised to the faithful in the first verses are reversed in verses 14-39 into sickness, famine, defeat, and cannibalism of one’s own children for those who forsake faith in God.
Throughout all the verses describing God’s punishment, however, God does not portray himself as wrathful for the sake of being wrathful or over the offense of being forsaken by His people. Instead, he shows that he is a God who seeks to restore His people to Himself. He introduces the punishments upon Israel with such phrases as “And if by this discipline you are not turned to me” and “But if in spite of this you will not listen to me”. The punishments are not intended as revenge against Israel for their sin, but are for the purpose of bringing Israel to repentance for their faithlessness and to return them to faith in God. The chapter closes by revealing the outcome if the discipline has its intended outcome in verses 40-45. God promises that if they confess their sins God will restore them, and even while they are exiled in a foreign land and under discipline, God still has not forgotten them. The remain his people in spite of their sins, and God is still preserving them, even if through means that seem as if he is destroying them.
Throughout the History of Israel, God often did have to discipline his people with military defeat in this way. Because of their faithlessness in Him, God deserted or fought against His people. The defeat of a King or an army of Israel or Judah is often directly attributed to God for bringing the army against them.
[12] The victory of these other nations is not for their benefit, though, but for the correction of Israel. When defeat for Israel is foretold by the prophets, it is as if God was using the other nation as a tool for His will to return His people to Himself.
When an empire appears in our historical field of vision…God who is at work in the background seems shadowy and uncertain. For us to define God’s relationship to and activity with this world power and its activity taxes our sense perception with insuperable difficulties. Just the opposite is true of the prophets! That empire beyond the Euphrates is nothing at all; it is a borrowed razor, nothing more. It exists as though it had no will of it its own, no power of self-motivation; all activity proceeds toward God.

"But God’s sovereignty in history is hidden; it mocks the most clever and profound human criteria and confronts man with impenetrable riddles. But in that which seems senseless to man, like an agnonizing round of affairs, God is mobilizing history for his great future."

Even though God fights against his people using the armies of the nations, he still does not seek to destroy them, but to return them to Him. “For Israel, the warfare of Yahweh against His own people was never to destroy utterly, but to chasten and restore.”
[15] We can see these results, even in the most tragic of the defeats of God’s people in the Exile. Jerusalem is destroyed, many are exiled to Babylon, but when they are permitted to return to the land, their first act is to begin rebuilding the temple for the worship of God. Even though events may appear to be tragic failures, God is still working his plan through them to save the world.
Looking at the pattern of the Kings of Judah in the Chronicles, we can see evidence of this purpose behind God’s inflicting tragedy upon His people. David commits idolatry with Bathsheba and causes the death of her husband, but even though he must face the death of his son because of the sin, he lives out his years as a faithful king. Reheboam, Jehoshaphat, and Manasseh all turn away from faith in God at some time in their reign, but after facing tragedy by defeat or personal pain, they are returned to God and end their lives as faithful kings. Twelve other kings in the Chronicles, on the other hand, do not return even though God attempts to correct them by defeat or suffering. For them, God preserves His people by bringing death upon them and replacing them with another. In some cases, the next king is a faithful king. In others, it takes 2 or 3 generations where kings are defeated by God to be replaced by a faithful king, but through all these events, God preserves his people for Himself by defeating or correcting their kings up to the point of the exile, where the faithlessness has progressed to a point where, following the pattern of Leviticus 26, he must bring even more devastation upon them to bring them back to Himself.

Tragic Family Circumstances in the Genealogy of Messiah
Many of the kings in this line are members of the Genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1). Looking elsewhere through the Old Testament ancestors of Jesus, we can see God working through tragic events of a more personal or family nature or even men’s sins to bring about the birth of His Son to save the world. In the family of Jacob, who himself received his father’s blessing by trickery, Joseph, his favorite son, is sold into slavery by His own brothers. Years later a famine in their land forces them to seek out food in Egypt, where they find their brother as an official of Pharaoh. The tragedy of selling their brother into slavery is turned around by God’s guidance of circumstances so that the same brother now saves his family, including Judah, ancestor of Jesus, from death by famine.
Judah himself becomes part of the next event of this type. After the death of his sons, he is tricked by his daughter-in-law into fathering twin sons. Even through Judah’s sinful act of seeking out a prostitute and his unknown sin of committing incest with his daughter in-law God sees fit to preserve the genealogical line from which His Son will be born. In the book of Ruth, first, a famine drives a man and his wife away to Moab. Then the man and his sons all die, leaving 3 women as widows. This circumstance leads Naomi to return to her own land and Ruth to follow her, meeting a man named Boaz who eventually takes her to marry him. Their great grandson is then David, and Messiah’s line is preserved even through the tragedies of famine and death. David himself takes part in this same pattern as mentioned earlier through His tragic sins of adultery and murder, and after the death of his first son, Solomon becomes the king who rules over Israel’s greatest era and the ancestor of Jesus. Matthew highlights four of these events in his genealogy of Matthew by naming the women who bore the children (the only times he does so), namely Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “Uriah’s wife” or Bathsheba.
These serve to merely touch the surface of the events where God can be seen working throughout the Old Testament through even the most tragic of events to accomplish His will of saving the world through bringing about His Son’s incarnation. One could point to any of a number of other events in Israel’s history to further demonstrate this activity of God. For further evidence of God working his will of bringing repentance or strengthening faith through personal tragedies, one could look to Samson, Job or many other accounts. The way the prophets often speak shows God as the actor in bringing these tragedies upon Israel and that their goal is the discipline of the nation toward repentance rather than blind vengeance or its destruction.[17] These examples could be explored further but this paper seeks to focus on events which closely influence the Messianic line.
Through these events and many others in the Old Testament, we can see the pattern at work where God brings about His will to bring His Son to this world as a man. This is the event through which all of the Old Testament is viewed for us as Christians, and it is the ultimate goal of all the history leading up to its occurrence. Through all things, regardless of how they appear to God’s will is being done.
For that reason we can never read and understand all these statements and this enormous history without thinking of our Lord Jesus Christ, for they are all concerned only with him and his appearance in the world, and with the light that falls on our world with his coming.

In saving mankind from their sins, God does not exempt even himself from suffering through tragedy. This can be seen mostly clearly in the Old Testament through Isaiah’s prophesy of the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12 ESV). This prophesy of Jesus shows him as the one who would suffer pain and sorrow and experience a most tragic end. His appearance was “marred beyond human semblance” and he was “despised and rejected by men” and “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.” By doing this, he “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He “was wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.” Jesus, God made flesh, suffered the greatest suffering which a person can experience—being forsaken by God—during His death on the cross. By His suffering at His crucifixion, He won freedom from eternal suffering. His death, which appeared to human eyes to be a tragic failure of a wise teacher, was, in reality, the act that won the victory over sin, death, and the devil for all people.
The events of Old Testament history repeatedly drive home the point that God works through events of all kinds to work His will in the world. Sometimes the Christian will see after the fact, even if years later, what end the sorrows in their lives and the tragedies of their nations play in working God’s will of saving mankind. Other times, the part these played will remain a mystery to all human minds, being known only to God Himself. Even then, this repeated pattern of God’s working in Old Testament events, and similarly through the crucifixion of Jesus demonstrates that in all things, regardless of appearances to the contrary, God is working to save mankind. In the events listed here, it is seen through the contribution of tragic events of all scopes toward bringing about the incarnation of Jesus Christ. While we cannot know what the hidden will of God is, knowing that the revealed will of God is to save all men, we can have faith that all events which occur in the world are guided by the all-powerful Triune God toward the good of the souls of His children, whether to bring them to faith or to keep them in the one true faith.
Those who would portray God as working only through victory and prosperity do not understand the will of the God of the New Testament, for he is the same God as that of the Old. That God works all things for the good of those who love Him does not necessarily mean that all things work toward His children’s earthly pleasure or prosperity, but that all things work toward His goal of saving their souls from eternal death, and this is through all events, not only through those which appear beneficial to our human minds.
Those who portray the Christian God as one who blindly executes vengeance upon a city or a nation, believer and unbeliever, pimp, murderer, mother and child alike, out of vengeance over disobeying His law, understand no more about the God they claim than any pagan whose God hands out reward and punishment based solely on human works, without grace. America is not the new Israel and New York or New Orleans are not the enemies of God. America is neither a “fag nation” nor a “Christian nation. Within this nation and those cities are found both believer and unbeliever, saint and sinner alike, and to blame the tragedies that befall them upon them because the sin of the few is parallel to declaring them saved because of the faith of a few. The church exists within this country’s boundaries as it does all over the globe, but this nation is not chosen by God more than any other. The God shown to us in the scriptures works all things in keeping with His will to save mankind and give His gift of forgiveness of sins to all who believe in all places and times.
Knowing that the Lord’s thoughts and ways are indeed higher than our own (Is. 55:9), we can only have faith that He who knows all things is working through all of history to save mankind from its sins, in spite of what appearances may seem to indicate otherwise. Our God who endured in His own body the eternal suffering deserved by mankind may use the suffering of our lives to call us to repentance and strengthen our faith through trials, but in all things he works for the good of our souls and our salvation, so that the sufferings of this world may one day end for us when we enter into eternity with Him in the mansions of the Father’s house.

[1] Representative examples of this theology would include:
Joel Osteen
Kenneth Copeland
Jesse DuPlantis
This evaluation of their theology can be confirmed by reading any of a number of sermons on their websites or watching their television broadcasts.
[2] See “Partner Praise” in the right-hand side panel at for one or more examples.
[3] "You Helped This Happen" 700Club Transcript of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson responding to September 11, Dated September 13, 2001
[4] “Hurricane Katrina Destroys New Orleans Days Before ‘Southern Decadence’" Dated August 31, 2005
[7] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1991, p. 181.
[8] Pieper, Francis, Christian Dogmatics, volume I, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1950, pp. 453-456.
[9] Ibid. volume II, p. 40.
[10] Ibid. volume 1, p. 463.
[11] Luther’s Small Catechism, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1943, p. 157.
[12] Gard, Daniel, “The Case for Eschatological Continuity” in Show them no Mercy, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003, pp. 1120-123
[13] Von Rad, Gerhard, God at Work in Israel, tr. John H. Marks, Abingdon, Nashville, TN, 1974, p. 165.
[14] Ibid, p. 167
[15] Gard, p. 123
[16] Lenski, R.C.H., The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, The Wartburg Press, 1943, pp. 28-29.
[17] Sanders, Jim Alvin, Suffering as Divine Discipline in the Old Testament and Post-Biblical Judaism, Rochester, New York, Colgate Rochester Divinity School1955, pp. 83-87.
[18] Von Rad, p. 174.