How Easter relates to suffering: five reflections on living in light of sin and evil – Part II
Third, in God’s plan of redemption, God not only demonstrates that he is sovereign over sin and evil, but also that in his sovereignty, holiness, justice, and grace he is rooting out sin and evil in the cross work of Christ, thus demonstrating that he is perfectly good and trustworthy. Scripture teaches that in redemption, God is not indifferent to our suffering and plight. Even though we do not deserve anything from him but judgment, God has displayed his grace and has acted to defeat sin and evil. In fact, it is precisely because he is the sovereign and gracious Lord that we can have real hope, help, and comfort since he is able to sympathize with us and powerfully to save us. Is this not what Scripture teaches? In the coming of Christ, the promised “age to come” has dawned and in his death and resurrection he has defeated sin, death, and the evil one and won for us our salvation (e.g. Rom 3:21-25; Col 2:13-15; Heb 2:14-15; 1 Cor 15:56-57; Rev 5). In so doing, God has demonstrated that he is utterly trustworthy, just, and good. We might not know all the mysteries of his ways, yet we do know that the truth of God’s sovereignty and goodness is beyond question. In our redemption, God is not sitting idly by, without care or concern for his people. In the cross and resurrection we have the greatest demonstration imaginable of God’s sovereignty over evil and his willingness to identify with us in order to save us from sin, evil, and death. In our facing suffering there are many questions. But as we think of our sufferings in light of Christ and his cross, we learn how to trust. God the Son has suffered unjust suffering and when we remember this, we learn that God is for us and not against us, and that he stands opposed to sin and evil in a far greater way than we can even imagine. After all, what does the incarnation of God’s Son, his life, death, and resurrection teach us if not that God hates sin and evil and that he powerfully acts to destroy it, even though it is part of his foreordained plan (Acts 2:23). Thus, if we can trust God in using evil for good purposes in Christ, we can certainly trust him in all other events, including our lives.
Fourth, given the biblical balance between God’s sovereignty over sin and evil, creaturely responsibility for it, and God’s goodness and utter determination to defeat and destroy it, we must also fight with all of our might against sin and evil, in line with what God himself is doing. A strong view of divine sovereignty does not negate this conclusion. Scripture teaches both God’s sovereignty over evil and his complete opposition to it and we must hold both together simultaneously without ever letting them go. In this regard, John 11:33-35 is a very important text. As Jesus approaches the tomb of Lazarus in sovereign power to raise him, he is literally “outraged in spirit, and troubled.” Jesus, as God the Son incarnate, is outraged at the death of his friend, and thus sin which has brought death into this world. He is not outraged with himself as the Lord, even though sin, evil, and death are part of God’s eternal plan and why he is going to the cross in the first place. Rather, he is outraged by what sin has wrought by creaturely actions, which he has come to defeat and destroy. Jesus in all of his sovereignty stands in complete opposition to sin and evil, and we must do likewise. When moral evil takes place, we do not blame God or respond in a laissez faire way. Rather, we fight sin and evil by proclaiming the Gospel, and by God’s grace, seeing people made new; by standing for justice and righteousness and punishing evildoers, through the appropriate authorities, for their responsible actions. We never justify sin and wrong actions by appealing to divine sovereignty at the expense of human responsibility, nor do we reduce God’s sovereignty in light of human choices. We hold the depth and breadth of biblical teaching together as we fight with all our might against sin and evil, in line with what God himself is doing.
Fifth, what about specific suffering in our lives? Often when we go through suffering we wish that God would have allowed us to go through something else. Why do we experience specific suffering? Why do some escape specific tragedies and others do not? There are many points that could be noted, but I finish with these thoughts. John 21:15-23 reminds us that God calls all of us to different callings in life. When Peter asked about John’s future, Jesus never answered him directly but instead said, “Follow me.” Our lives are part of God’s sovereign plan and most of the time we do not know what the Lord has ordained for our lives. For us, as Christians, we are assured that even in our suffering in this life, which is part of the fallenness of this world order, God never allows us to experience anything we cannot bear by his grace and power (1 Cor 10:12-13). Sometimes the suffering we experience is due to persecution for the Lord’s name, which we should consider joy (Mk 8:34-38; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 4:12-16). Other times it may be due to the discipline of the Lord (Heb 12:1ff). Yet in many cases, we experience difficulties related to the abnormality of this world and we do not know why the specific events have occurred. However, what we are assured of is this: our God is sovereign and the defeat of sin and evil is accomplished in Christ. We live our lives in full conviction that in Christ, we have every assurance that God is sovereign over evil and that until he returns, we can live confidently, trusting God’s promises and Word.
Stephen J. Wellum is a professor of christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.
He received his Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and he is the author of numerous essays and articles and the co-author of Kingdom through Covenant (Crossway, 2012).
*This article was originally published in the winter 2013 issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.