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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:We must conform our thoughts of God to his revelation
Text:LD 35 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 2nd Commandment (No images)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 34:1,2,7
Psalm 50:8-11
Psalm 145:1,2,5
Hymn 1
Hymn 10

Scripture reading:  Deuteronomy 4:1-40
Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 35

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Saviour Jesus,

When you think about God, how does he appear in your mind?  By that, I don’t mean appear in the sense of an image, but in the sense of what is he like.  One blogger tells of how she was brought up in a church, taught catechism lessons from a young age.  Maybe it was in some Reformed church; she doesn’t say.  What’s interesting is what she says about how she came to view God over the years.  She says she came to think of God as the “old man in the sky.”  She went on to write, “Part of me still conceptualizes God as an old guy with a white beard who is judging me. And that part is still trying desperately to earn his approval!”  But she recently had a change in her thinking.  Now she thinks of God as “Pure creative life force. Neutral.  Nonjudgmental.  No longer personified. Not judging, withholding, denying, or even considering the worthiness of me or my desires -- simply supporting the growth of whatever seeds that I choose to plant.”

Obviously this blogger isn’t interested in what the Bible says about God.  However, we are.  At least we say we are.  But even as those who profess to care about what the Bible teaches, we can develop views of God that are off the mark of what the Bible teaches.  We can easily develop imbalances in our view of God.  We can and often do stress one thing about God at the expense of other things.  Whenever we do this, we’re in danger of creating our own image of God.

In general the Bible addresses what’s going on in our minds.  We can think of Romans 12:2 which speaks of our need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.  In response to the gospel of grace in Christ, we want to offer our lives as sacrifices of thankfulness.  That’s what we call sanctification.  Part of that process of sanctification is learning to think the right thoughts.  Growing in holiness involves getting our thoughts in line with what God reveals in his Word.  And this is true also when it comes to God himself.  That’s part of where the second commandment is directing us. 

The first commandment is about having and worshipping only one God, the true God.  The second commandment is about how we should worship this one true God, the manner of our worship.  The manner of our worship, especially in public worship, has to follow what Scripture teaches – we call that the regulative principle of worship – we worship God only as he has commanded in his Word.  But there’s another aspect to this commandment and that’s expressed in the first line of answer 96 of the Catechism, “We are not to make an image of God in any way…”  Typically we think of that as the physical shaping and moulding of images, or perhaps drawing pictures of God.  That’s included.  But for us the greater danger is that we make a mental image of God, a mental image differing from what he has revealed.  Since all our thoughts about God should be worshipful, this places us in the realm of the second commandment.  This afternoon let’s consider what the Word of God teaches us about this.  Let’s learn together about how God says, “Conform your thoughts of me to my Word.”    

In particular we’ll learn how we must regard him as:

  1. Exalted in majesty
  2. Near in steadfast love

In the last verses of Psalm 50, God confronts the wicked who refuse to hold him in awe.  These evil doers hate being reminded of their sin.  They cast the warnings of God behind them.  They hang around with thieves and adulterers and feel quite comfortable with them.  They talk wickedly and spread gossip and slander.  They live in sin and don’t really give it a second thought.  But they do have thoughts of God.  They think that God is like them.  In verse 21, God says, “These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you.  But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.”  So this Psalm highlights a problem:  people living in sin and having a low view of God.  They think God is like them.  They don’t think of God as just and holy.  They perhaps think God is ignorant of their sin, or perhaps tolerant of their sin.  I like to sin and God likes to forgive, so everything is good in the world. 

We could call this the Santa Claus view of God.  God is like Santa Claus.  He knows if you’ve been good or bad, but everybody still gets presents.  You have to be really, really bad before you don’t get something.  Maybe a serial killer or a genocidal dictator.  But if you’re just an average vanilla sinner, God is still going to be indulgent towards you.  This is the way many people think about God.  It’s wrong.  We shouldn’t be surprised if many Christians sometimes think this way too – the culture around us easily draws us in that direction.

It is all too easy to develop a low view of God.  It’s easy to think of God in such a way that we make him more like us than different.  There’s a movement in theology that goes in this direction.  It’s called Open Theism.  There are theologians who teach that God has great powers, but he has chosen to not exercise those powers.  Instead, he allows the universe to go in whatever direction it chooses.  When things happen on this earth through the choices that people make, then God is often genuinely surprised.  The open theists teach that God has taken a risk by giving up his power, but by doing this he has come alongside us.  Thus when tragedy comes into our lives, God is alongside us grieving whatever the universe has thrown at us by random chance.  God shares our sorrow at our unlucky circumstances – the open theists say he had nothing to do with it, it was just by chance that you had this terrible thing happen to you.  Loved ones, this is another way people can develop a low view of God.  We should be aware of it so we can resist the temptation to go in this direction.  This is making an image of God and as such it’s a sin against the second commandment.

One more example of a low view of God.  First John 4:8 says that “God is love.”  Some argue that this is the key and primary attribute of God, his defining characteristic.  Never mind that there are other passages which say that God is a number of other things.  They focus on this one attribute.  Now love is an important attribute of God, absolutely.  But an imbalance here leads to a low view of God and that could impact our lifestyle and also our evangelism.  If the main thing about God is his love, then why should I care if choose to live in sin?  I have nothing to worry about, God will love me no matter what, even if I choose to ignore him and go my own way, never repenting, never turning.  God is love.  And I love my sin.  No problem.  No worries.    And if our evangelism places all the emphasis on God’s love, we gut the urgency of the gospel message.  If God loves me unconditionally, then I have no reason to believe in Jesus Christ.  After all if God is all-loving and he loves me no matter what, and if he’s all powerful and in control of everything, then why would he send me to hell to face his wrath?  The gospel may sound nice, but it becomes optional.  For a good number of Christians today, the essence of evangelism is just to get people to realize that God loves them.  It’s just to spread the message of God’s unconditional love so people will be happy already on this earth.  The gospel of a Saviour who saves us from sin and the consequence of divine wrath against sin is gone with such an imbalanced and low view of God.          

Instead of a low view of God, Scripture leads us to a high view.  We can see that illustrated in what we read from Deuteronomy 4.  Some see this chapter as a sort of commentary on the Second Commandment and it may very well be.  Look at what this chapter reveals to us about the exalted majesty of God.  Moses speaks of what God did at Baal Peor.  That’s described in Numbers 25.  Israelite men hooked up with Moabite women and they began worshipping Baal.  A plague came upon the people.  The judges of Israel were commanded to kill the idol worshippers.  By the end of this episode, 24,000 people were dead.  These people had a low view of God and God reacted.  He showed himself to be holy and jealous, a consuming fire.  When you read Deuteronomy 4 and Numbers 25, you can’t see God as being indulgent and permissive about sin.  Instead, he is just and righteous and so he deals with sin appropriately.   

This is supported by many other places in Scripture.  One famous example is in Isaiah 6.  Isaiah sees the LORD seated on his throne.  And the angels are calling to one another and they shout one of the attributes of God.  They repeat it three times, which is the biblical way of placing strong emphasis on something.  What is that attribute they shout and emphasize?  Do they say, “Love, love, love, God is love, the whole earth is full of his love”?  If you know your Bible, you know different.  They say, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  They place the emphasis on God’s holiness, on the fact that he has nothing to do with sin.  They also speak of his might – he is Yahweh Sabaoth – the Commander of heaven’s armies.  And they say the world is full of his glory and splendour.  This is a powerful portrayal of God’s transcendent majesty. 

Back to Deuteronomy 4 and there we see God revealed also as having might to deliver his people.  He is the one who took Israel out of Egypt.  Yahweh is the one who destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.  God is able and willing to take out any one who gets in his way.  There is no one who can withstand him or resist his will.  He is the sovereign God.  When he wants to save his people, no one can oppose him.         

Brothers and sisters, it’s a comfort to conform our thoughts to the revelation of God.  Believing in his exalted majesty leads us to relief.  Because when we recognize God’s holiness and justice, we know we need to turn to Christ.  We know that in Christ, we have the righteousness that we need to stand before God’s holiness and justice.  We also recognize God’s sovereignty in our salvation from beginning to end.  One of the elements of that is that nothing and no one can snatch us from his hand.  The elect are secure in their salvation.  We’ll go through ups and downs in this life – we all do – our walk with God is sometimes strong and sometimes weak.  But all who trust in Christ can be sure God won’t let go of them.  You can count on that.  So loved ones, it’s good to bring our thinking about God into line with what the Bible teaches.  It honours him, but it’s also for our benefit and for our comfort.

Our comfort is also found in regarding God as near in his steadfast love.  He is exalted in majesty, but also near to us in a loving way.  We need to keep the balance between these teachings.  Just as it’s easy to become imbalanced about God’s exaltedness or transcendence, so it’s also easy to become imbalanced about God’s nearness.  Let’s think for a moment about how that might happen. 

One way would be for us to think of God as being totally distant and uninvolved in this world and in our lives.  Those of you who remember your history may recall that there was a teaching called deism from back in the 1700s and 1800s.  It’s still around today.  Deism teaches that God is like a clockmaker.  God made the clock, he wound it up, and then he walked away and it runs all on its own.  God is watching us from a distance, but he doesn’t personally intervene unless there’s something majorly wrong going on.  We might not say it out loud, but this can sometimes be our image of God too.  Forget about the hairs of our head being numbered and so on.  We can wrongly think that God doesn’t care about the little things of our lives, or maybe even the big things.  That’s making an image of God that doesn’t conform to his revelation.

Another way would be for us to turn God into a theological concept.  He becomes an ‘it’ or a point for intellectual debate.  We strip God of personality and turn him into an idea.  God is no longer a someone, but a something.  With this image of God, there’s no such thing as a relationship.  After all, how can you have a relationship with an idea or concept?  This image of God is tempting and attractive because it’s safe.  It makes no demands on your emotional life.  It’s attractive to people who would rather debate points of doctrine than relate to a personal God.  When prayer is non-existent or formalistic, just going through the motions, that may be another symptom that this is our way of making an image of God.  God is not near us, because God is not even really real.  He’s just an idea, just an ephemeral thought in our gray matter.  Something we like to discuss as people who want to appear religious.  Or who maybe need to appear religious because of their family and friends.  This objectifying of God is also something that doesn’t fit with what the Bible reveals about him. 

There is a third way that we might have an imbalanced view of God in regard to his nearness.  This is to take the Bible seriously, but only on some points about God.  For instance, some of us were brought up with a clear understanding of God’s exalted majesty and his holiness.  In fact, we came to understand God only in those terms.  So we began to regard God strictly as a holy judge.  We saw him only as a consuming fire.  We only saw his wrath and live in perpetual fear of his just judgment on us.  We were never sure if we were good enough for him.  Yes, we’d say we believed the gospel.  We’d say we believed in Christ, but we were never sure if we were adequately living up to the covenant obligations.  And as a result, there was always a lingering feeling we were not measuring up for God.  We feel guilty and condemned, unacceptable to God.  Here God is seen only through the lens of certain attributes and then we have an imbalanced view.  This too doesn’t match the fullness of what the Bible teaches about who God is.  We have a distorted view of God here; we have made an image of him.

Already in the Old Testament, God taught his people to regard him as a God near at hand.  Deuteronomy 4 illustrates this.  In verse 7, Moses says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”  And at Mount Horeb, God drew near to his people to give them his law.  He spoke to them and they heard his voice.  He was near to them in the cloud by day and the fire by night as he led them out of Egypt.  He was near to them to bless them in the Tabernacle.  God made his name to dwell in the holy of holies, in the midst of the camp of Israel.  Although he was and is majestic in holiness and splendour, yet he still draws near to his people in love.  Verse 37 of Deuteronomy 4 says that God was near to his people through the Exodus because of his love for them. 

This is a theme resounding throughout the entire Bible.  Psalm 34:18, “The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart…”  And Psalm 145:17, “The LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.”  All God’s people can be sure he is near to them, that he cares for them, that he hears their prayers and answers them in his time and in his way.

This theme of God’s nearness in love comes to a head in our Lord Jesus.  Think of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  Literally, “he tabernacled among us.”  In his love, God sent his Son to dwell on this earth in person for thirty-three years.  He was here personally, so near people could touch him.  In those years, he lived obediently to all of God’s commandments, including the second.  The good news announces that he did that in the place of all who entrust themselves to him.  In his holiness, God commands that everyone must keep his law and if you do not keep his law, you will face his wrath.  Jesus Christ came to address that problem we face.  He came and kept the law for us.  His righteousness is credited to all who rest and trust in him.  When God looks at us now, he sees those who have perfectly kept the second commandment.  Jesus had a balanced view of God, all his thoughts of God conformed to the truth of who God is.  That’s for our benefit.  Because of Christ’s obedience, we are righteous.  Jesus then also went to the cross and he suffered and shed his blood and died to pay for all our transgressions of God’s law.  He paid for all the times that we’ve been imbalanced in our view of God and have made images of him that don’t fit with what the Bible teaches.  As a result, we’re told to think of God as our Father.  We’re told in Scripture to think of him as the one who loves us and cares for us.  We’re taught in the Bible to think of ourselves as his dearly loved adopted children.  Brothers and sisters, this is what the gospel announces to us and this is what we again need to embrace this afternoon. 

Then we also need to embrace another truth and that’s the continuing nearness of God in his Spirit.  Jesus said that when he left this earth, he would not leave his disciples alone, but he would come and dwell with them in his Spirit.  He has kept that promise.  God is always near everyone – we speak of him as being omnipresent.  But he is near to believers in a special way.  He is near to us to bless us when we gather to worship in the name of Jesus Christ, but he is also always near to us in the person of the Holy Spirit. 

And this is where everything comes together.  The Holy Spirit, God dwelling in us and with us, he doesn’t want to leave us where we are.  He wants to shape us and mould us, lead us forward.  One of the things he wants to do is help us to grow in how we think of our God.  He wants us to have a full and balanced view, the view God himself wants us to have of himself.  And you know where we find that view:  it’s in Scripture.  The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s tool to help us know God rightly.    

Yes, God has also revealed himself in a limited way in creation.  From creation we see his “eternal power and divine nature” says Romans 1.  But we know God most clearly from his Word.  If we’re to think the right thoughts about God, we need to go to Scripture.  We must become better students of Scripture than we already are.  Because we still face a battle with the remnants of our old nature, we have these imbalances in our view of God.  We all have them, myself included.  We easily get distracted from what the Bible teaches, we easily forget what Scripture says.  Left to ourselves, our natural tendency is to backslide.  Loved ones, the way forward is to give careful attention to the Bible.  That means diligently attending public worship where God is exalted and near, where his Word is explained to us and applied to our lives.  That also means diligently reading and studying the Scriptures with our families.  But also each of us personally has a responsibility to read and study the Scriptures.  Loved ones, let me remind you again how easy it is to begin developing a distorted view of God.  The only way to prevent that is to keep going back to the Bible.  Love the Word and study the Word carefully and then you’ll be on the right track.

Brothers and sisters, we’re not to make any images of God for ourselves, but simply and humbly to accept God as he has revealed himself to us.  This is challenging, even for us as Christians.  But yet because the gospel is so wonderful, because we see the mercy of God in Christ, we want to do this.  It’s a matter of love for our God.  When you believe the gospel, don’t you want to know God rightly from his Word?  After all, to know him in truth is truly a blessing.  AMEN.


O God in heaven,

We praise you as the majestic and exalted God.  You are holy, holy, holy.  You are just, righteous and omnipotent.  No one can stand in your way.  We praise you also as our God who is near in steadfast love.  We thank you for coming near to us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.  We pray that your Spirit would continue his work in us.  Please work with your Spirit and Word so that all our thoughts of you would fit with what you have revealed in your Word.  Please continue your work of grace in our lives, please continue to sanctify us through your Word, for it truly is truth.     

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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