The Lie That God Is More Tolerant Than He Used To BeErwin W. Lutzer | September 26, 1999
Selected highlights from this sermon
God has not changed. If God could change, He couldn’t be trusted. Therefore we can be sure that His truth, His standards for justice are the same today as they were from the beginning of time.
So, just because we don’t see the immediate effects of our sin, don’t think that God is more tolerant.
There will be a day of judgment. That judgment can fall on your own shoulders—and you’ll pay for it for all of eternity. Or you can believe and trust in Christ that the judgment you deserved fell on Him, worshiping God with awe and reverence, in His peace for eternity.
“I’m sure glad that nobody believes the Bible anymore. In fact, if they did, they’d stone us.” Those are the words of a gay activist, speaking to a Christian who was quoting verses of Scripture to him. The activist was referring to the fact that in the Old Testament practicing homosexuals were supposed to be stoned. As a matter of fact, years ago when I studied the Old Testament on this topic I discovered that there were at least a dozen various crimes or sins that necessitated capital punishment. It wasn’t just for homosexuality. It was for immorality and for adultery. Rebellious children who spoke back to their parents (who cursed their parents) were supposed to be put to death. Spiritists, who were into the spiritual world, the psychics, the channelers - the people who were doing those sorts of things, were also supposed to be put to death.
Well, as you know, of course, things have radically changed. Today homosexuals are invited into our churches, adulterers are given extensive counseling, and parents who have rebellious children are told that perhaps you’re the one with the problem. You should love your child with unconditional love. And as far as spiritists are concerned, they can earn a lot of money, at least in today’s society, trying to predict the future and trying to contact the dead and all the other things that happen. Here you have prostitutes stoned in the Old Testament, and Jesus is sitting down to have dinner with one in the New. How do we account for that? Has God changed?
Years ago it was said of the Christian church that the church was very legalistic. Now that word means that the church really kept on top of all the scruples and had various lists of rules of what you could do and what you couldn’t do. Nobody today accuses the church of that. We’re free. We can not only be free to ski in Colorado or free to romp the beaches in Hawaii, but we are free to see movies, we’re free to drink, we’re free to be as greedy as the next guy, and we think we are free to sin. Are we?
Let me ask this question: Is it safer to sin today than in Old Testament times when, if you disobeyed and you were found out, you were put to death? Is it safer today to sin? That’s one of the questions we want to answer in this message. And then a related question that comes on the heels of it is this. Is it safer for other people to sin? I’m speaking to those of you who have been raped and abused and hurt, or you’ve been swindled out of your money because of some unscrupulous person who came to your door or whatever. And you’re saying to yourself, “Am I ever going to get justice? Is God ever going to do something, or has the justice due me escaped the attention of my God?” which is what Israel said. Those are the questions that we’re going to talk about today. Is it okay? Is God a little more lenient?
Now the question is, of course, why is it that we do have this great difference between the Old and the New Testament? Bill Moyers, in a CBS special, was talking about God. He has a panel discussion, and the consensus of the panel, apart from one or two, seemed to be that when you come to the Flood, for example, God sent this terrible, terrible flood in the Old Testament. It was a natural disaster to the highest power, and God did it, and then later on He gave the rainbow because He kind of relented and said to Himself, “You know, I think I overreacted.” They said He would be like a child building a castle on a seashore and then in a fit of anger demolishing it, and regretting it later. So afterwards God regretted it and said, “Boy, I have to learn from this because I was out of control for a moment.” Is that the God that you and I worship? You see, the assumption is that the Bible is nothing but a record of people’s ideas about God, so as we become more tolerant, presto! Would you believe it? But God is more tolerant because as we shall see in this series of messages, man is continually refurbishing God and refashioning him according to man’s own desires.
Well, that’s not an acceptable solution for you and for me. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and so the question is, “How do we account for the difference? Has God changed?” You know that this is a series of ten messages entitled Ten Lies About God, and how you already may be deceived. Lie number one we’ve already considered – the idea that one can come to God in many, many different ways.
Lie number two: He’s more tolerant than He used to be. And that’s what we’re talking about today.
Well, first of all what I’d like to do is to establish the fact that God has not changed. God unchangeable! Have you ever asked the question, “Where did God come from?” If you have children you know that they ask questions. It is said that the average child asks a half million questions by the age of six. Our oldest daughter reached that at the age of three and a half. (laughter) Question, question: Where did God come from? Answer: He is the eternal existent one – I am that I am. And we say, “I can’t get my mind around it, and of course, you can’t, but think this through logically. Unless God existed eternally, you and I could not exist. Unless something existed eternally there would be nothing in existence today because out of nothing, nothing comes.
So God is the eternal one. “Before the mountains were born or You brought forth the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.” And I want to show you today that God has not changed. I want to get that in your mind before we talk about all of the other issues that we’ve raised. First of all, His nature is unchanged. It’s impossible for God to change. Can you imagine? Would God become a little more powerful as the years go by? No, because He’s already all-powerful. Would He become a little wiser throughout the years? No, because He already and always has had all knowledge. So He doesn’t become wiser.
If you say that God changes, wait a moment. How does He change? Does He change for the better? Impossible because He’s already perfect! Does He change for the worse? No reason to do that in a perfect being. God is unchangeable. James says that every good gift and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness or shifting shadows. What would God be like if He couldn’t be trusted because He would change even if that change were gradual throughout the centuries? The simple fact is that His nature has not changed.
His truth has not changed. We read in the book of Isaiah that all flesh is as grass, and the flower of man is the flower of the field. The grass withers. The flower fades, but the Word of our God shall stand forever. Psalm 119:89 says: “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.” God’s truth does not change.
Do God’s standards change? No. It says in Psalm 119:152, “You established your statutes to last forever,” and he’s talking about the Law. God has not changed. God cannot change. We all have garments, don’t we, that change? It says that Thou in the beginning have laid the foundations of the earth. The heavens are the work of Thy hands, but they shall perish, but Thou remains (the text says) and as a garment Thou shall fold them up and they shall be changed, but Thou are the same and Thy years shall not fail.”
What about Malachi? Could he put it any clearer? “I, the Lord, change not!” And then you think of the sign behind us here at The Moody Church. Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, today and forever. Years ago there was a group that wanted to use this church for a graduation ceremony, and they were discussing it with the trustees and they saw that sign, and they said it would be unacceptable to have that sign so maybe we could cover it. Well, I hope you know what the trustees thought about that. (laughter) If we ever get some trustees in this church that say it’s okay to cover that sign, I hope this place burns down. (applause) Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, today and forever. Even if it’s off the charts in terms of political incorrectness, God does not change.
You know, it’s that truth that thrills me, to think that that connects me with all the saints in the past. You see, the God of Abraham, the God who came and said, “Abraham, leave and go to the Ur of the Chaldees, and to a land that I’m going to show you,” is the God called me when I was on a farm in Canada. The Jesus who revealed Himself to the Apostle Paul as Paul was on his way to Damascus is the Jesus who saved me in that farm home. It’s the same Jesus.
Henry Lyte was going to leave his congregation. Because of ill health he had to leave it. He had been there many, many years, and I believe it was Devonshire, England, and he wrote them a song – a poem that we have sometimes sung, and it’s difficult for a pastor to leave his congregation. I don’t look forward to that day when that’s going to have to happen here but the statistics are such that inevitably someday it will. But he wrote these words:
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
when other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Oh Thou who changes not, abide with me.
God does not change. He’s not changed a single opinion that He’s ever had about any sin or any virtue.
Well, you say then, “Pastor Lutzer, but why this difference? Why did they stone them in the Old Testament, and seemed to be able to bless them in the New? I mean, what are we talking about here?” Listen carefully. God has not changed but His administration has changed. That’s true. He’s decided to run the world on different principles without (and I’m going to show you this) compromising one bit of His attributes or without in any way lowering His standard for justice. It will be as meticulous as it ever was despite the change in administration.
In order to illustrate that and to teach it I now need to ask you to turn to Hebrews 12 where we see three important contrasts between the Old and the New. And then we’re going to see how God’s attributes transcend all of those changes, and how God has not changed. And we’ll discuss the question of whether or not it’s safer to sin today under grace.
The first change is the change between the earthly and the heavenly. Look at the text. I’m picking it up at verse 18 of Hebrews 12: “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
What a contrast! What he’s saying is, “Today we don’t go to Mount Sinai.” Oh, I wish we had time to read the passage when God came and the mountain shook, and there was the storm along with the lightning, and there was thunder in the clouds, and God was there. And God said, “Stay away!” In fact, if an animal was loose and happened to touch the mountain, they could not retrieve it. God said, “Stone it or shoot it with a dart, but don’t you dare touch this mountain.” God was coming in holiness, and God was saying, “This is my holiness that is unveiled in the presence of sinners who do not yet have a mediator, who do not yet have an acceptable sacrifice, and who do not yet come through the blood that has been shed, and you had better stay away because this is terrifying.” Moses said, “I quake with fear.” Wow!
It’s not just that the physical distance between them and the mountain represented the moral distance between them and God, but it was also the distance that God was coming from above, and He was descending in power and glory. And God said, “You had better stay back.” What a contrast! Zion!
When David conquered what turned out to be the city of Jerusalem, he called it Zion. It’s really a little hill that’s south of the city of Jerusalem today, but it’s a poetic name that really later on was attached to the entire city. We sometimes sing, “We’re marching to Zion.” Zion is Jerusalem. It’s the city from which salvation is going to come. Jesus was crucified outside of its walls.
So what he’s saying is, “Look at how different it is for us. You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem.” My, we are already citizens of heaven even while we live on earth. It is the city of the living God. You have come to thousands and thousands of angels in joyful assembly. Did you know that angels were present at Sinai too? Who do you think blew the trumpets? It says in Galatians 3 that the Law was mediated by angels. But they were there too and those who were present could not possibly rejoice with them because those angels were there in the presence of God and all that the people could do was fall on their faces and say, “God, we’ve had enough,” because they were afraid of being incinerated by His awesome holiness and power. But today we can rejoice. The angels rejoice because sinners are converted, and we rejoice along with them. We come to myriads and myriads of angels. We come to the church of the firstborn that is the redeemed company, both here on earth and in heaven.
You know, it used to be that years ago when you drove through the countryside you could actually see these little country churches, and the church was on top of a hill, but around that church there was a cemetery. Now we don’t do that today but that was a powerful theological lesson. It was talking about the church militant, the church alive, and the church triumphant. And you walked right past the cemetery because God was saying, “I want you to walk past the alumni association before you get to the undergraduates.” (laughter) And he says, “We come now to the church of the firstborn, to God, the judge of all.”
If you were with us last time you know that we spoke about approaching God and how to do it, and now we can come into the most holy place by the blood of Jesus, the very place from which they were forbidden, that very citadel where the awesome holiness of God resides. We come to God, the judge of all, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, possibly the Old Testament saints, and then to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant whose blood is so much better than that of Abel. Abel’s sacrifice was provisionally accepted but he died, you remember, at the hands of Cain, his brother. But Abel’s blood was of no value to atone for Abel’s sins, much less could it atone for the sins of anyone else. But we come to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that has a much better message connected with it than the blood of Abel or the blood of any human being could have.
Do you see the contrast? Sinai, stay away! God’s presence is not mediated. Therefore you cannot endure it. Zion! Jesus has come. Come! Come to the city of the living God. Come into the very holy place. Jesus is here. That’s the first contrast. You say, “Well, is God more tolerant?” You’re asking the question too soon. You have to stay with me.
Secondly, there’s another way to describe this contrast, and that is between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. It says there in verse 24 that Jesus is the mediator of a New Covenant. Now, in the Old Covenant you have to understand that God made a covenant with the whole nation. In fact, even there at Sinai they all said, “Whatever the Lord has said we will do.” Mind you, they went back on their word within a matter of days, but they meant well at the moment.
Now, God said, “I’m going to make a covenant with the whole nation, and the whole nation has to obey Me.” And the Lord says, “There’s not going to be any freedom of religion. I want you all to worship the same God, and if you follow false gods, you should be stoned, and I’m going to rule through the prophets and through the kings directly, and I’m going to look at Israel as a nation. And if you sin, you are going to receive some very severe immediate penalties.”
The New Covenant is entirely different. In the New Covenant we discover that God is no longer going to deal with the nation. He’s going to deal with individuals, and He’s going to pluck them up from the different countries of the world and save them and form what we call the Church today, with both Jew and Gentile. God is going to bring them together to form this new spiritual nation. And furthermore, the Church is going to be an island of righteousness in a sea of paganism. And therefore we are to obey those who have the rule over us even if they are pagan, even if they don’t accept our viewpoint. Unless it conflicts with a matter of conscience, we are to be good and obedient citizens.
Now, look at this. This is an amazing passage in 1 Corinthians. Either you need to turn to it or listen carefully. Paul is talking about our relationship with the world in this new era. And this is what he says in 1 Corinthians 5:9: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people (and then he clarifies), not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world who are immoral or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.”
What if you worked in the Loop and said that you are not going to eat with anyone who is sexually impure or anyone who is greedy, anyone who is a swindler, anyone who is immoral, anyone who does these things? You’d probably be eating your lunch alone.
So Paul says, “That’s not what I mean. Of course you have to eat with these people.” But he says, “Now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.” See, he claims to be a believer. He claims to be a member of the church, and so you don’t associate with somebody who is living like that.
Verse 12: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” God is going to take care of those people. What he’s saying is, “Expel this wicked man from your midst.” They had somebody in their congregation who was having an immoral relationship with his mother-in-law or what shall we say – his father’s wife, at least, it says. That’s the way to say it in chapter 5, verse 1.
So what Paul is saying is, “You know, our first responsibility isn’t to clean up the world morally because that’s impossible.” I mean, we have many campaigns here in America that try to do that, and they are moderately successful, but that’s not our primary responsibility. It is to have a pure church, not a pure world. That’s impossible. But as we purify the church, the church begins to share the good news of the Gospel and has power in the world. Notice what Paul is saying. He’s saying, “What you ought to do is to discipline the people within the church who don’t live like Christians.”
You say, “Well, what about all those dozen things in the Old Testament that you told us about for which people should be stoned?” Those are the very things for which churches should discipline their people. We don’t have the power to put people to death because we do not have that Old Testament theocracy, but we do have power to (What shall we say?) relegate people to spiritual depth by cutting them off from the congregation and recognizing that God has not changed His mind about any of these things and therefore condemning all of the things that are mentioned in the Old Testament that are worthy of death. They are still things that God hates, and we have to recognize that. So Paul is saying that what you need is a purer church in the midst of a pagan world.
One day a woman came to her pastor and said, “You know, I am living in sin, but I’m a Christian, so it’s different.” He said, “Yeah, it sure is. It’s far worse. You claim to be a believer. Your name is enrolled in heaven. You’re associated with a holy Jesus. You have become one with Him, and you’re living like the people of the world. It is very serious. As a matter of fact, if the Church does not discipline you, most assuredly God will because the book of Hebrews says that He scourges every son whom He receives. And if you are not disciplined for your disobedience, it is proof that you are not a child of God, no matter what aisle you walked or what card you signed.” This is serious stuff. It’s the contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
But there’s a third way to describe the contrast, and now finally we’re going to find an answer to the question with which I began the message. Is God more tolerant? Is it safer to sin today than it was back then when people were so harshly treated? Well, let’s look at the text, and what a passage this is! We’re back in Hebrews 12, beginning with verse 25: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken — that is, things that have been made — in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Wow! What’s the third contrast? It’s the contrast between immediate physical judgment and future eternal judgment. In the Old Testament, when you disobeyed, the great emphasis was on losing your life. You were put to death. You were stoned. It’s true that there was an eternal aspect to the punishment as well, but that was not the emphasis. If you didn’t obey God, the earth opened and in the case at least of some, they fell into it as a judgment of God.
New Testament – entirely different! God allows the sins to accumulate. It says in the book of Romans that there are people who store up wrath for the day of wrath. Furthermore, it talks about the fact that that judgment shall be much greater.
Now let me give you three very important principles, and I shall mention them briefly, and these are the ones now that will tie it together in our minds and hearts. Listen very carefully.
Number one: the greater the grace, the greater the judgment for those who refuse it. If they did not escape because of Sinai, what do you think is going to happen to the world because of Calvary? Wow! If they did not escape, how much less will we when He’s speaking now from heaven through His Son. The greater the grace, the greater the revelation of God, and the greater the judgment that is still future.
In fact, then He shook the earth. He came and Mount Sinai trembled and it shook and the people were scared, but the day is coming when He is going to shake not just the earth, but the whole heavens. As a matter of fact, He’s going to shake the Universe. God is going to come. The God of Sinai is going to come in judgment, and you can imagine what that judgment will be like.
Now I want you to know that I think in the Old Testament that those penalties that were so harsh to us were actually very gracious because people saw the immediate effects of their sin. They knew that if they disobeyed (claps) instantly they’d be punished. Today people say to themselves, “Oh, it’s not that bad. God’s not doing anything.” And therefore they think to themselves that He’s more tolerant and understanding because Jesus has come, and you know, nothing’s happening. This leads to the second important conclusion.
The greater the grace, the greater the judgment! Secondly (And now this is from my heart to yours. Everything I’ve said is from my heart to yours, but this especially.), never interpret the silence of God as the indifference of God. Don’t you ever think that because God is silent He’s indifferent to what’s happening! In fact, it says in the book of Ecclesiastes that when the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong. I like the translation that says that when God does not execute His judgments quickly people think it is safe to do wrong. They say, “It’s safe because nothing is happening. We’re getting by.” Don’t be deluded.
Sometimes we say that justice delayed is justice denied. That’s true for human courts. Not for God! It doesn’t apply at all because God, you see, loses no information over the centuries. God is the one who is going to resurrect, and He is going to try people, and all of the wrongs are going to come out. That which was spoken in the house is going to be shouted upon the house top, and in the end we will be able to sing, “Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints,” and we will see that the God who we think was far too harsh in the Old Testament is a God who is the God of the New Testament. And His justice and His judgments will be just.
C. S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia tells children’s stories really. They are fantasy stories but they are beautiful stories about the Christian faith. And in one of them, and maybe some of you remember this passage, you have Aslan the Lion, and he’s going to be met by some of the children who are really scared to meet this lion. Aslan represents Christ in the novel. And so these children are talking with, I think it’s Mrs. Beaver, and I think it’s Susan who says something like this. She says, “I’m scared. I’m nervous to meet Aslan. Is he safe?” And Mrs. Beaver says, “Well, everyone who meets Aslan is afraid. They are either braver than most if they aren’t, or else they are just plain silly.” And then little Lucy pipes up and says, “But I want to know whether or not he’s safe.” And Mr. Beaver says, “Safe! Are you kidding? Of course he isn’t safe, but he is good, and he is the king.”
Is God safe? Of course he’s not safe. The book of Hebrews says it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Of course he’s not safe, but he is good. And if you come to Him through Christ, He’ll accept you. God’s silence should not be interpreted as the indifference of God.
Thirdly, either your judgment in the future will fall upon your own shoulders, and it will be a terrifying judgment. It will be a judgment that will make Sinai look like your typical picnic out in the park. Either that judgment will fall upon you and you’re going to have to bear it, or else you’re going to have to find a substitute, somebody to bear it for you, and there’s only one person who can do that, and that’s Jesus. And when He died there on the cross, He suffered for us. And by the way, the next message in this series deals with the lie that God has never personally suffered. We’re going to talk about the suffering of God on the cross. But when Jesus died there, you see, He bore our eternal penalties and He bore our sins so that justice can be assumed in our relationship with God, so that we can come into His presence, so that we can inherit that which He wants to give us.
Notice what the text says. Oh, this is grace. We’re free! Right? It’s not that bad. Oh? “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” The God who came there in fire on Sinai is the same God of Zion. Of course He’s the same God. Of course His standards have not changed. Of course in judgment it’s all going to be meted out to prove that not one scintilla of what He ever thought about sin would somehow be mitigated or lessened.
There is a story that comes to us from the days when the prairie stretched from one part of the horizon to the other. A man and his daughter, as the story goes, were walking along and in the distance they saw a prairie fire that was coming in their direction. At least they thought it was. It was still miles away but they thought maybe it would come there by nightfall or by morning.
So the story is that the man began a fire right where he was. He’d burn a patch and then he’d spread it, and then he kept spreading this patch and he was burning as big an area as he possibly could and staying out of the flames. When the fire did come, and his daughter was so terrified, he said, “No dear, I’ll tell you that if we stand where the fire has come, the flames won’t get to us because we’re standing where the fire has already been.”
When you and I come to Calvary, when we come to the cross and the One who hung there for us and bore our penalty and the fire of God, when we come, we’re standing where the fire already was because God is a consuming fire, and He isn’t safe, but He is good because of Christ. And so we come. And now we come into His presence and we say to ourselves, “I can enter because:
The terrors of law and of God
With me they can have nothing to do
Because my Savior’s obedience and blood
Hides all of my sins from view.
My name on the palm of His hands,
Eternity cannot erase.
Forever there it stands,
A mark of indelible grace.”
See to it that you do not refuse Him who speaks, for if they did not escape who heard Him there on Sinai, what makes you think that they will escape now because of the grace of Calvary? He shook Mount Sinai, but He’s shaking the universe. Therefore, we come in humility and we come to Jesus who can save us, and we worship God with reference and awe because He is consuming fire.
Let us pray.
Father, forgive us for thinking it’s safe to sin. Forgive us for thinking that throughout the years maybe You have changed, and that maybe it’s not as bad as the Old Testament paints it to be. Forgive us, Father, and we pray that in these moments You might draw us to Yourself as Christians, first of all, to be cleansed from that which You hate. And for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, would they flee to Christ at this moment to be where the fire has already been?
And before I close this prayer, if you’ve never received Christ as Savior, you can do that right now. Simply say, “Lord Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner, and I flee to You for forgiveness and for protection. I accept You as my substitute.”
Would you tell Him that at this moment? And for those of you who won’t, why won’t you? Are you refusing Him who speaks? You talk to Him.
Father, do not give up until all the work that You desire to do in the hearts of all of us is accomplished. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.