From Earth or From Heaven?
The Babylonians of Ezekiel's day worship a god named Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14). This god, the Babylonians believed, died yearly when the paddocks turned brown and came alive again when the paddocks turned green. To be more precise, Tammuz came alive and therefore the paddocks turned green again. But to ensure that this god in fact came alive again (and therefore the paddocks turned green and crops would grow), people had to bewail his death at the time the paddocks turned brown. The point: the trigger that made this god come alive again was what happened on earth.
This little theology lesson from Babylon raises a critical question for the world today. It's this: is reconciliation with God something that starts in heaven or on earth, with God or with men?
The question allows for only two possible answers. Of the two possibilities, all religions of the world, be they old or new, answer the question alike: reconciliation with the Deity/deities begins on earth.
The only exception is the faith of the Bible. Not, let me hasten to add, that everybody who calls himself a Christian admits that reconciliation with God begins in heaven and not on earth. Roman Catholicism, for example, though it is considered Christian, has adopted the mindset of the heathens and officially teaches that the trigger for reconciliation with God lies on earth: you through your good works win the approval and favor of God… Arminianism in principle says the same.
Why I raise the topic today? Human nature wants to keep the trigger in our hands, want control of the reconciliation process and the honor of having achieved (or contributed to) reconciliation. Free Reformed people are not above this craving. That is why I take the opportunity to invite you to look with me at God's word on the point – lest we no longer have the defense required to resist the flow of thinking so acceptable to mankind and so common in our society.
I refer first simply to the picture drawn in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, after their fall into sin, did not seek God; in fact, when the Lord came to them in the cool of the day they ran to hide among the trees of the garden. But God pursued the sinner, God called after him: “Adam, where are you?” The church confesses the point plainly in Article 17 of the Belgic Confession: “when [God] saw that man had … plunged himself into physical and spiritual death …, our gracious God … set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him.” No one can appeal to Genesis 3 to argue that the trigger for good relations with God lies in our hand.
John draws the same picture in his gospel. He tells his readers that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). 'Word': our thoughts are directed to heaven, where the Word had His eternal home (cf. vs. 1ff). 'Flesh': now our thoughts are directed to earth, where God has given finite man – flesh – a home. And see: John links the two, links heaven and earth, for he says that “the Word became flesh.” The word 'became', we understand, is here a reference to Christmas. Christ's birth was not people reaching up to God, but God reaching down to people.
John repeats that same downward action from heaven to earth a couple of chapters later. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Notice: “God gave.” The action-to-salvation takes place in heaven and not on earth, is the work of God and not of man.
Admittedly, one could argue that while the movement in these passages is from Up to Down, this says nothing about where the trigger for the movement is. Baal worship said that rain fell from the heavens to the earth, but the trigger for the rain was in the temples, in the prostitution rituals enacted there. But the Bible is clear on the point. Said Jesus: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” The action is in heaven: “God … gave.” But the trigger for the action is equally in heaven: “God so loved the world that He gave…” That is: God's action of reaching out to the earth lies in His love. And that love is not His reply to our first loving Him; no, His love comes from within Himself (cf. 1 John 4:90). And that is to say that the trigger of all contact between heaven and earth lies in God alone.
The fact that reconciliation with God comes from God and not from us has two consequences for us. The first is that we have no grounds for any pride or smugness. There is not a thing that we on earth can do to move God in heaven to bestow on us some sort of favor – be it in making our crops grow or blessing our children or taking away strife from our homes. We are completely and totally deserving of wrath of God, and in no way can we turn that wrath away. Wailing as the women did for Tammuz will not help, even if it's wailing over our sins. Cultic ceremonies as the Canaanites did for Baal will not help, even if it's putting big money into a collection bag or praying at length in church. Doing particular deeds as the Muslims must do for Allah will not help either, even if it's obeying every one of the Ten Commandments to the point of laying down your life. Nor will meditating as the Hindus do help in any way, even if it's 4 hour reflection over an open Bible. Reconciliation with the God we offended in Paradise moves from Heaven to Earth, and not from Earth to Heaven! We are dependent on God's grace, and not on our works, in any way, shape or form. The sola gratia principle of the Reformation leaves no room for human contribution and therefore no room for human pride. So our whole approach to God – and therefore to all of life – needs to be cloaked in humility.
There's a second consequence. Exactly because reconciliation with God comes from Heaven and not from Earth does the gospel of Jesus Christ give enormous comfort. For God is not like man. We begin a project (be it building a boat or making a puzzle…), and after some time we lose enthusiasm and give it up. But not God! He began a work of salvation, set out to reconcile sinners to Himself, and what He began He will bring to completion (cf. Philippians1:6; Psalm 138:8). That gives us the assurance that reconciliation with God is in fact real, is achieved. If be rains didn't come and the crops didn't grow, the Baal worshipper could only conclude that he had to offer more, more, had to conclude that his efforts on his high places weren't good enough – and so he had to try harder, harder. Luther had the exact same struggle in Roman Catholicism; he didn't feel reconciled to God and so concluded he had to do more, more, try harder, harder. But it was a slavery; trying harder, harder, gave no peace. And it can't give peace, because reconciliation is then tackled from the wrong side, from Earth instead of from Heaven. God insists reconciliation is completely His work, and since He completes what He began may His people have comfort, the assurance that Yes, there is peace with God. Peace, not because we try so hard or because we hold the trigger, but peace because God took the initiative, and God did the acting. He acted, and so “…to us a Child is born. To us a Son is given. And on His shoulders He shall bear All power in earth and heaven” – power strong enough to bear the burden of God's wrath against sin and deliver us from it forever!