Running Scared

James Morrison, Crosslands tutor and PhD student

If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably been there.

It might be at a social with work. The conversation turns to the never ending cycle of bad news stories. One of your colleagues says to you ‘Hey, you’re a Christian. What do you think God makes of it?’

Perhaps you’re walking through the park with a child. You tell the little one in the pram that God is amazing because he made everything they can see. But, after a few seconds of silence, you hear a little voice ask, ‘If God made all these things, where is he?’

Maybe it’s at a mid-week Bible study.  You’re leading the discussion and not long into the evening people are discussing Jesus’ death on the cross. So far, so good. But then one of the group asks about how God could send his son to save people who were living in rebellion against him. ‘I thought God was meant to be just’, they say. ‘That doesn’t sound like justice. More like a contradiction.’

If you’ve been following Jesus long, you’ll probably have been asked questions like these. Thoughtful questions. Heart-felt questions. It’s just that they’re also questions that can stop us in our tracks.

Running for cover

I’ve been asked more of these sorts of questions than I can remember. But it doesn’t matter how often they come up, my instinctive reaction is usually the same.


I might try and cobble together a half-baked answer.  Yet, it doesn’t matter how I try to spin it, there’s often a nagging doubt at the back of my mind. Maybe the Christian faith doesn’t add up quite so well after all?

The answer to every question

The temptation in these sorts of situations is to stick our head in the sand. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t fit with the faith I profess. After all, Christianity is all about Christ. And time and time again, the Bible tells us that all reality is ultimately about him.

For example, when the Apostle Paul is explaining to Christians in the ancient city of Colossae why he works so hard in his ministry, he tells them that his goal is that they and other believers

may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:2-3).

Christianity is not like the manifesto political parties will be producing in the run up to the UK general election next year. It’s not as if God has sketched out the main points in the gospel, but is still yet to work out the finer details. No, in the gospel, God has given us Christ. And it is in him that every question ultimately finds its answer.

This means that we don’t need to be fearful when someone asks us a question about our faith that we haven’t thought about before. Whilst God doesn’t promise us answers to every question, we can have complete knowledge of the things that we (and our questioners) need to understand in order to know and live for Christ. And this means that, when we do investigate further, the things we can find out will only warm our hearts towards him.

The privilege of theology

This is perhaps the greatest privilege of doing theology. When we look into a tricky question, we can do so with the confidence that it will grow our faith. And that was something that happened to me on the first day of my PhD back in September.

My research is going to be looking at what Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) thought about Jesus and how that impacted other areas of his theology. So after some umming and ahhing, I decided to start by finding out what other people in the 1500 and 1600s thought about Jesus. And as I was reading about what French theologian, John Calvin (1509-1564), thought about him, I came across a heart-warming example of just what I’ve been talking about.

Cross-shaped conundrum

Calvin’s most famous book is his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He published five editions in his lifetime and the final edition, which appeared in 1559, has become one of the most influential works in Protestant theology.

After starting his book by talking about ‘God the Creator’, Calvin goes on to discuss ‘God the Redeemer’. Over the course of 300 pages, the French theologian explains how God has gone about saving people who have rejected him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Calvin’s discussion builds up to Jesus. And, in particular, Jesus’ death and on the cross. He writes,

This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life – as if God’s righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon himself, still hung over us.

For Calvin, not only was Christ’s substitutionary death central to how God had saved sinners. It was also central to how Christians experience that reality in their everyday life.

But that raised a question. And it was the same question that your friend asked at that hypothetical Bible study we mentioned earlier. If God was really so angry at someone because of their sin, how could God be moved from anger to mercy by the offering made by Christ?

Calvin was aware that it might look like a contradiction. He recognised that passages like Romans 5:10 do talk plainly about how we were God’s enemies until we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son. Yet, where we might have been tempted to stick our head in the sand, the French theologian chose to press into the conundrum. And what he found not only answered his question, it also warmed his heart to Christ.

The bigger picture

As Calvin searched the Scriptures, he realised that passages like Romans 5:10 didn’t tell the whole story. Yes, they played a valuable role in shocking our hearts out of their slumber. But, as important as that was, the wrath of God was not the ultimate backdrop against which we should understand Christ’s death on the cross.

After all, only two verses before Paul had told his readers that God demonstrated his love for his people by sending Christ to die for them, even while they were still sinners. God’s love for his people came before their rebellion against him. And this meant that God’s love for his people came before his anger for their sin. Quoting the fourth century theologian, Augustine (354-430), Calvin explained,

Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvellous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

Simply put, God does not love us because he first sent his Son to die for us. Rather, he sent his Son to die for us because he first loved us.

A crucial distinction

The difference between those last two sentences might seem to you like splitting hairs. But it’s actually incredibly important. Not only does knowing that God’s love came before Christ’s death help with the tricky question of how God could be moved to show mercy to those who had rejected him, it also helps us with the tricky business of living life for him.

In his book The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson shows the havoc that wreaks through our lives when we get the love of God and the death of Christ the wrong way round. This is because, when we say that the cross of Christ is the reason that God loves us, we imply that behind the cross God may not actually love us at all.

That is not the kind of gospel that is needed by broken people like you and me. As Ferguson notes,

When people are broken by sin, full of shame, feeling weak, conscious of failure, ashamed of themselves, and in need of counsel, they do not want to listen to preaching that … fails to connect them with the marrow of gospel grace and the Father of infinite love for sinners.

No, says the Scottish pastor. ‘It is a gracious and loving Father they need to know.’

Fear of missing out

We all come up against tricky questions about our faith from time to time. After all, if it happened to John Calvin, it’s certain to happen to you and me. So the next time a conversation catches you off guard, don’t feel like you need to go running for cover. Rather, take confidence. Your faith is in Christ and that means that the things you can find out will only warm your heart to him.

This article is taken from a regular newsletter James is writing on his PhD journey. For more articles and audio, please feel free to subscribe here.