December 22, 2017
One of the classic Christian books of the 20th Century is J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, that examines the attributes of God’s character—majesty, wisdom, truth, love, grace, justice, wrath, etc. Over the past few months I have been reading through it with our staff. If you happen to receive a book store gift card, Knowing God is a worthwhile investment.
In a chapter titled, “Goodness and Severity,” Packer mentions “Santa Claus theology.” The song says that Santa knows when you’ve been bad or good, and stories warn that he will fill the stockings of bad children with coal. But the coal never seems to appear. Santa is always jolly and kind, even to those who don’t deserve it. Packer’s point is that many people assume that God must be like that—jolly and kind with only a threat of severity that will never really happen. Here’s how he responds.
On the basis of Santa Claus theology, sins create no problem, and atonement becomes needless; God’s active favor extends no less to those who disregard his commands than to those who keep them. The idea that God’s attitude to me is affected by whether or not I do what he says has no place in the thought of the man on the street, and any attempt to show the need for fear in God’s presence, for trembling at his word, gets written off as impossibly old-fashioned—”Victorian,” “Puritan” and “sub-Christian.”
Yet the Santa Claus theology carries within itself the seeds of its own collapse, for it cannot cope with the fact of evil… It is not possible to see the good will of a heavenly Santa Claus in heart-breaking and destructive things like cruelty, marital infidelity, or death on the road, or lung cancer. The only way to save your liberal view of God is to dissociate him from these things and to deny that he has any direct relation to them or control over them; in other words, to deny his omnipotence and lordship over his world. Liberal theologians took this course fifty years ago (Packer wrote in 1972), and the man on the street takes it today. Thus he is left with a kind God who means well but cannot always insulate his children from trouble and grief. When trouble comes, therefore, there is nothing to do but grin and bear it. In this way, but an ironic paradox, faith in a God who is all goodness and no severity tends to confirm men in a fatalistic and pessimistic attitude to life.
Packer points us to Romans 11:22, where Paul says, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.” He then encourages us to appreciate:
(1) the goodness of God in every blessing (Ps 116:12)
(2) the patience of God in working out his good plans (2 Pet 3:9-13)
(3) the discipline of God that compels us to keep turning back to him (Heb 12:5; Ps 119:71)
So, as we hear the songs and stories of the season, let’s remember the difference between Santa Claus and the God of the Bible. God doesn’t just make us happy one with some gifts once a year. Paul says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
– Bryan Craddock