Last time, in episode 233, you gave us a brief summary of events during your three-week trip to Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Knowing you, Pastor John, I presume you returned with some fresh theological thoughts simmering in your mind. So is there anything theologically you want to share from your trip?
One of the things that keeps simmering since I got back — and it probably is the most significant theological, missiological insight that I got on the trip, which was like an education for me — came out of a lecture I was giving on the sovereignty of God. I mean, I really stressed God’s absolute sovereignty over all things. He controls all things for the good of his people and the glory of his name. And a questioner raised his hand, and he said, “Now that sounds a lot like the Muslim view of God’s sovereignty.” And you hear, here in the UAE, “If God wills, if God wills, if God wills,” all the time. And in the Muslim view, God can do anything he wants. And they actually use the name “Capricious” for God.
Allah’s Capricious Nature
I was standing in the second biggest mosque in the world in front of the biggest wall of the one hundred names of God under the biggest chandelier of its kind standing on the biggest handwoven carpet (this is all the ways they describe it when you are there). And my friend Mike was there explaining them to me. He was just pointing out name after name written in Arabic. And he said, “That one up there is usually translated capricious, which means God is free; he can do anything he wants.”
Now here is what I realized as I tried to think through it: What is the difference between my view of the biblical sovereignty of God and the Muslim view of God as capricious? Other names of God that they have on that wall are Wise and Just and Kind and Compassionate. And I thought to myself, You know, the name Capricious virtually cancels those out because if God can do anything he wants — meaning if you are standing before him, and he can just flick you off to hell or flick you off to heaven capriciously without reference to his kindness, without reference to his justice, without reference to his compassion — then what good are those names? They are meaningless if there is this overarching sense of capriciousness.
And I think that on the street that really governs a lot of what Muslims feel. They know that God is like that and, therefore, que sera, sera: At the end of the day, I will do the best I can with my five acts of devotion, but he can do with me whatever he wants, and I may go to heaven, or I may go to hell.
God Vindicates His Justice
So here is the new insight. At the center of our religion, at the center of Christianity, is Romans 3:25 which goes like this: “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness [or justice], because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
Now right there is the center of our faith. God sent Christ, and he sent him to die in order to be a propitiation — that is, to remove his own wrath. God loved us by removing his own wrath from us by having Jesus, in his blood, absorb the wrath which was owing to our sin. There is the heart of the Christian gospel. And he says the reason he did it was to show his justice or his righteousness. Why did he need to show his justice and righteousness? “Because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
Now think that through and what it means for God’s sovereignty. God had been passing over sins. He had been forgiving Abraham and forgiving David his adultery and his murder of Uriah (see 2 Samuel 11). He had just been passing over these sins. Now what did that look like? Well, Paul said it looked like he was unjust, because it looked like he was accepting the belittling of his glory, which is what sin is: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
So, here is God acting as if the belittling and the dishonoring of his glory didn’t matter. And that is unjust of God. That is unrighteous of him to treat the infinitely valuable glory of God as though it were not valuable. And therefore, God, in order to vindicate his righteousness and demonstrate his just allegiance to the value of his glory, sends his Son to fix that. Now that is something that in Islam would never be necessary, because God doesn’t have to do anything to fix anything. God is free to take up a person like David and say, “I will just let your murder of Uriah and your rape of Bathsheba go. I am free to do that.”
God’s Perfect Attributes
Well, what I realize now is that the sovereignty of God as the Bible presents it is that it is in the constellation of other attributes of God — his justice and his mercy and his grace and his wisdom, so that when God passes over a rape and a murder, something has got to give. Something has got to be done in the universe not just to say, Well, God is capricious and he can do what he wants, but, rather, God is just, and he is holy, and he doesn’t let sin be swept under the rug of the universe and, therefore, what will he do? He will send his own Son into the world in order to demonstrate the righteousness of God.
So the upshot is that Christian views of God’s sovereignty and Muslim views of God’s sovereignty are profoundly different, because in the Christian view, his sovereignty is being guided or shaped by the other attributes from within God. Muslims tend to feel like if God has to yield to some sense of justice or some sense of righteousness or mercy or compassion, then he is limited. But the answer is, he is not limited because those attributes are not outside of him governing him like controllers from another source. They are inside of him. They are who he is.
And so it was a great illumination to me that right at the center of our faith is an active God that shows how his sovereignty coheres with his righteousness, and I think this is one of the reasons why Muslims find the gospel — the substitutionary death of Christ — so difficult to understand. It is not just that in their tradition Christ didn’t die and didn’t rise from the dead. I think all of that is quite secondary to the fact that given their view of God, such a thing is preposterous, that God, being as free as he is, would never need to send his Son into the world to die in order to vindicate his righteousness.