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The Truth about Tragedy

(This is a manuscript of a sermon I've preached in the face of great tragedies)
We live in a world full of tragedy.  And sometimes it is difficult to know how we should react to the devastating things that go on all around us.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves the question, what’s our disaster response look like?  The list of possible responses could be quite long:  from “Why me?”; to “I don’t understand.”; to “They’re getting what they deserve!”  But are these biblical responses?  Let’s look at what Jesus has to say about devastation and disaster.

1. Tragedy strikes all people regardless of who they are (vv.1-2, 4)
A.  Tragedy can be deliberate as with Pilate’s rampage (vv.1-2). Over the course of human history, countless catastrophes committed by man could be recounted.  One of the more recent in memory is September 11.

B.  Tragedy can be natural as in the case of the Siloam tower (v.4).  Again, history is full of persistent natural disasters.  Today, we might could argue that such disasters pay the bills for the media.  A prime example of a tragic natural disaster is the recent Haitian earthquake.

C.  Tragedy can strike both the rich and the poor (vv.1-2,4).  In verses 1-2, we see devastation affecting both the Galileans who were the working class poor (vv.1-2) and the Judeans who were the upper class rich (v.4).  Hurricane Katrina is a convincing modern day example of a disaster that was no respecter of persons.

D.    Tragedy can always be traced back to the will of God.  God’s very nature proves this, His providence being the prime example.  We as Southern Baptist are in agreement on this as made plain in our unifying statement of faith.  In Article II of the Baptist Faith & Message, it says:

God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace. He is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise. God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men.

Not only does our Baptist statement of faith affirm this, but God’s very word declares that God’s will ultimately will be done, and what He did to Jesus is the prime example, for Isaiah 53:10 tells us:

Isaiah 53:10a—“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief;”

The greatest tragedy ever to have occurred on the planet was at the same time the greatest act of God on behalf of sinners, all for His glory and our joy.  Therefore, we can say with confidence that God uses all things, even tragedy, to glorify Himself, and no tragedy is purely accidental or coincidental.  But not only does tragedy strike all people regardless of who they are, but . . .

2.  Tragedy leads believers to abandon all self-righteousness (vv.3, 5)
A.  Tragedy proves that no one is more righteous than another.  This is true for at least two reasons.  Man is incapable of producing his own righteousness.  Man is only capable of producing self-righteousness.  Now he may produce some things that are good from man’s perspective, but the Bible is clear that “none is righteous . . . no one does good” (Rom. 3:10, 12a).

Commenting on Harold Kushner’s book, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People,” someone asked one pastor what he thought the answer to that question was.  He said, “I haven’t met any good people yet, so I don’t know.”  We see this affirmed in the New Testament in Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees, and we can learn at least two things from their negative example:

1)  Self-righteousness is always hypocritical in some way (Matt.6:21-22).  For example, it is easy for most people to affirm that murder is wrong and say, “I’ve never murdered anyone.”  But what about anger?  Have you never been unrighteously angry at another person?  Jesus says,

Matthew 5:21-22—“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Again, it is easy to affirm that adultery is wrong and for many to say, “I’ve never committed adultery.”  But what about lust?

Matthew 5:27-28—"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

It would be even easier for most Southern Baptists to agree that homosexuality is wrong and that they have never committed such atrocious acts, but what about the disgraceful things that flash across our television or computer screens?

2)  If the Pharisees could not achieve righteousness, how can anyone? (Matt. 6:20).  And the answer, of course, is that we can’t.  We simply have no righteousness of our own that would make us acceptable to God.

B.  Tragedy reminds us of every person’s need of repentance.  Tragedy is not a time for anger, revenge, complaining, or bitterness.  You see, each of these is the opposite of repentance.  All tragedies, whether something that affects us personally or not, are God’s gracious reminder of our need of repentance.

III.  Conclusion
So we come back to our original question.  What is your typical response to tragedy and suffering in life?  Whatever it is, it tells a lot about the state of your soul.  Tragedy is no respecter of persons.  It strikes all people in all circumstances all over the world.  If you find yourself responding to life’s tragedies with anger, vengefulness, bitterness, cynicism, or despair, then you must ask yourself, “Do I really know God?”  For you see, tragedy leads believers to abandon all self-righteousness through the gift of God that is repentance.

So today, what’s your disaster response look like—worldly self-righteousness or humble repentance?  Instead of asking, “Why me?”, shouldn’t you ask “Why not me?”  Instead of saying, “I don’t understand.”, shouldn’t you say, “God knows.”  Rather, than screeching, “They’re getting what they deserve!”, shouldn’t you cry out, “Lord, unless I repent, I too will perish.  Be merciful to me a sinner, O Lord.”

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta
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The Ephesians 4 Project: Article V

Article V:  God’s Purpose of Grace
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.

Unifying Principles from Article V
The doctrine of election may be the most debated doctrine in the Baptist Faith & Message.  The debate usually revolves around one’s precise understanding of the doctrine, specifically whether one should view election as unconditional or conditional.  The purpose of The Ephesians 4 Project, however, is not to resolve this longstanding argument but to demonstrate that the Baptist Faith & Message’s statement on election is thorough enough for Southern Baptist’s holding to either unconditional or conditional election to agree to disagree, which in fact we have been doing for all of our existence as a denomination to one degree or another.

First, we need to define the terms unconditional and conditional election.  While there may be some Baptists that have found their way to a seemingly tenable “middle of the road” view of election, these two terms represent where the majority of Baptists have landed.  The following definitions themselves may not satisfy every sector of Southern Baptist life, but they are accurate enough for us to carry on an honest conversation in this article.

Unconditional election is an act of God before creation in which He chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but solely because of His sovereign good pleasure.  Conditional election is an act of God before creation in which He chooses people whom He foresees responding positively to God’s offer of salvation.  In a nutshell, proponents of conditional election assert that God’s election is conditioned by man’s faith, that is God makes His elective decision based on man’s decision.  Proponents of unconditional election assert that God’s election is unconditioned, that is nothing outside of God affects His elective decision but is simply God’s sovereign choice.

We can see immediately why this can be such a controversial issue, but we must fight the temptation to be lured into a divisive debate.  In order to avoid uncooperative attitudes among Southern Baptists, let’s focus on what unifies us from the BF & M’s wording:

  1. Election is based on God’s “gracious purpose.”

  2. Election produces regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification in believing sinners.

  3. Election in no way violates man’s free agency.

  4. Election in no way nullifies the means to the end of salvation such as evangelism, preaching, prayer.

  5. Election is all about “the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness."

  6. Election is “infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable,” and as such believers have no room for boasting.

  7. Election affirms the perseverance of the saints because God has accepted believers in Christ who are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

As long as Southern Baptists agree that God is sovereign in salvation yet man has real opportunities to turn to God for salvation, let’s be unified and preach the gospel together.  The fact remains that the doctrine of election should be a cause of rejoicing in God’s grace rather than in any effort put forth by man.  Further, the fact remains that no matter one’s view of election, no one can or will be saved unless we proclaim the gospel to unbelievers (Rom. 10:14-17) and that anyone who genuinely wants to be saved can and will be saved by trusting Christ (Jn. 3: 14-16; Rom. 10:8-13).  May God unify the SBC around Article V of the BF & M.

 For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta
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Recent Comments
Guest — Ben Simpson
As you well know, Jeremy, this topic is a hot-button issue in the SBC right now. One of the reasons is that many people confuse p... Read More
Tuesday, 31 May 2011 09:47
Guest — jeremyvanatta
Ben, I do agree with your differentiation of election and predestination, and I do agree that many people confuse predestination a... Read More
Tuesday, 31 May 2011 15:21
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