Coloratura Christian

I sought the LORD, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. (Psalm 34:4-5)

Friday, July 07, 2006

The "Elder Brother Syndrome"

I have often heard it said that God would be totally just in sending every person to hell.

I totally agree with this statement. However, if I'm being honest, it does nothing to stir my heart in praise. It does cause my heart to fear, though, especially if I dwell on this thought for any length of time. And how can you dwell on this fact for long without also dwelling on the fact that God is merciful, compassionate and loving. Both justice and mercy are intrinsical to Him. Even though God would be totally just in sending every person to hell, because of His mercy, many are saved.

Unbelievers also have some understanding of God's justness (as evidenced by their conscience), and His kindness (as evidenced in loving relationships, the beauty of creation, and every other good thing on earth that they enjoy.)

This leads me to ask the question, "How is the believer's understanding of God fundamentally different from an unbeliever's understanding of God?" While I'm sure the answer is not one dimensional, the answer that presses foremost on my mind is that a believer is intimately acquainted with God's love and mercy, and therefore finds comfort in the fact that God is just and will not go back on His word.

An unbeliever cannot possibly believe that God is merciful and loving and still remain His enemy. Perhaps they would say that God's love is fickle and whimsical, if there at all. Therefore, He is not truly just, and his judgment is something to be greatly feared (or vigilantly ignored).

Even though I have known God's intimate love, there are times that I am tempted to think of Him as a cold, distant judge; even an unjust judge. You know those times when you say, "Father, I have tried to live faithfully, and to serve you as best I can. Why have you withheld ____ from me?"

I have recently heard an excellent sermon by Sinclair Ferguson entitled Christian Service: Slavery or Sonship. In it he talks about what he calls "the Elder Brother Syndrome." In Luke 15 after the prodigal son returns home and is received with joy by his father, the elder son says to his father (v. 29), "Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends."

Ferguson warns against the error of seeing God as a harsh task-master. Satan set out to "assassinate the character of God in the garden," and since then, the natural disposition of mankind believes that service to God is slavery. According to Ferguson, Christians are not totally immune to this lie. We can easily slip into thinking that God is unforgiving, unappeasable and unfair.

Ferguson says some of the manifestations of "the Elder Brother Syndrome" in the Christian life are self-righteousness, a critical and cynical view of others (which he says reflects our view of God), and a personal confinement which he describes as, "inability to have a heart that is opened to the reassurances of the Heavenly Father that we are accepted in his grace in Jesus Christ, and that he will supply all of our needs out of the riches of His grace."

I believe that God's justness and holiness cannot be divorced from His mercy and love in describing his character. It paints a picture of a cold and distant God as opposed to the passion and intimacy that is brought about in Jesus Christ.

Conversely, this intimacy cannot be appreciated without first understanding the great holiness of God. Far too often God's love is disgustingly cheapened in Christian circles because God is brought down to the level of a boyfriend or buddy. However, we cannot shy away from the truth that God is mercy. It is true that God would be totally just in sending everyone to hell. But He will not, because He is merciful.

Believers must cling to the fact that we are completely forgiven, and that God's wrath is completely appeased by the blood of Jesus Christ. We must not be overcome by false guilt, and never feeling 'good enough' to please God. As Ferguson says, "When we don't believe that we are fully and finally forgiven, we are easy prey for Satan's blackmail." We need to remember that God has indeed saved us, and cares intimately for us as a Father does his son or daughter, and that "he will supply all of our needs out of the riches of His grace." There is truly nothing that can separate us from the love of God.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins ... and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2)


  • At July 09, 2006, Blogger The Armchair Theologian said…

    I was reading and re-reading your post, looking for something to say, but now I'll just say "word". Fantastic thoughts.

  • At July 10, 2006, Blogger JLF said…

    "However, if I'm being honest, it does nothing to stir my heart in praise"

    Perhaps the more appropriate thought for stirring out hearts into praise is "God would be absolutely just in sending me to hell."

    Sometimes when we think of God being 'just' in sending the whole world to hell, we get overwhelmed by the sadness and grief... we think of loved ones and people who never heard the gospel... we get caught up in trying to reconcile our feelings to what we know to be true of God.

    But when I think about myself--my own heart, my own sins and my own sinfulness--I know that I deserve hell. I know that I was 'conceived in sin' just like David. It's much easier for me to reconcile God sending me to hell than it is for me to reconcile God sending others (whose hearts I simply can't see...) to hell.

    When I think about my own sin and what I rightly deserve, and then--as you said--tie that in with the wonderful mercy and grace that I have received... that stirs my heart to praise!

    Thanks for the excellent post!

  • At July 10, 2006, Blogger Christel said…

    Hello Armchair Theologian and Julian,
    Thanks for your comments!

    Julian, I totally agree with everything you are saying. Although, I have to admit that I was actually thinking about myself when I made that statement. Perhaps a better heart than mine could give praise at the thought of being justly punished by God, but I cannot. The thought of being separated from Him for all eternity just makes me want to cry. I do rejoice in God's justness, but only in light of the cross. If God hadn't make a way of salvation and instead took His just wrath out on me, I do not think I could be praising Him while receiving His just punishment for my sins.

    However, like you said, it is easier to see my own sins as being worthy of punishment than those of the ones that I love.

  • At July 12, 2006, Blogger Marlene S. said…

    Christel, thanks for your post. It brings up many different thoughts. Primarily, the joy that I experience at being chosen to spend eternity with God, at being saved from my desperate condition of sinner, and at having a God that is indeed completely holy, completely just, plus completely merciful, completely loving, and completely gracious. (Okay, my brain just popped! :)

    Following Sinclair's sermon on the "Prodigal Son's Elder Brother", you may want to try and find John MacArthur's sermon on the same passage. We have the CD, if you need. He preached it at the Shepherd's Conference this past March, as well as on the radio in... May? It was a very eye-opening study of the passage, for me. Dan says it is one of John's best. Anyway, blessings as you keep getting to know your God and the "mystery" of His salvation.

  • At July 21, 2006, Blogger Christel said…

    Thanks Marlene!

  • At July 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous in Korea Ha Ha said…

    Ya, We can add to Marlene's comment
    Karmyn and I just listened to the MP3's and it was phenominal! Best stuff I've heard from Mac in a while, and that's saying something!

  • At July 24, 2006, Blogger Christel said…

    Thanks Bro,
    I'll try and find them online. BTW when you're trying to be anonymous, don't mention your wife's name. It might give it away. :) lol


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