Just and Justifier

April 6, 2018

God forgives sins, right? The answer is, of course, yes. But I fear that many people have mistaken notions about forgiveness. One faulty idea is akin to balancing scales. If I have more good deeds than bad deeds, then the scales are in my favor, and God should forgive me. I’m a pretty good person after all. If my bad deeds outweigh my good deeds, then I’m in trouble and subject to judgment. But in this faulty idea, only really bad people have to worry about this.

The problem is that this is not the biblical view. Sin separates me from God. If I imagine my sin as a debt, then I must also imagine all of my good deeds as something I already owe. My good deeds are not extra credit that a teacher assigns to help students get a passing grade. My good deeds are not extra funds which I can place in an account that is overdrawn.

But the problem goes deeper. We must ponder how a just God can forgive sins. Is it as easy as we might first think? Imagine someone accused of a crime who opts to have the trial by judge rather than a jury. All of the evidence is presented, and it is quite overwhelming that the accused is guilty. But when the judge comes to sentencing, he declares the accused as not guilty. How would we respond to such a thing? Wouldn’t there be an outcry that justice had not been done? Wouldn’t the judge be accused of being unjust, and maybe the newspapers would investigate whether a bribe had taken place. The public would question the character of the judge.

In Romans 3:21-26, Paul uses three terms to explain the death of Christ. Justified comes from the realm of the law court. To be justified is to receive a favorable verdict, to be in right standing. Redemption is a marketplace word. It is to purchase something or in the case of the ancient world, someone out of slavery. The redemption in Christ is like a new Exodus from slavery — in this case slavery from sin. The third term is propitiation. It comes from the realm of the temple. It was a sacrifice that averts the wrath of God. Paul’s point is that Christ has done something in dying on the cross to make it possible for God to forgive sins.

This leads to Paul’s statement in 3:26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV). In other words, without the death of Christ God could not be the just judge and forgive sins. The penalty had to be dealt with. The redemption price had to be paid. The sacrifice had to be offered. But in doing this in Christ, God could maintain his justice and yet be the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. God could forgive. He could render the favorable verdict without it compromising his character as in my story of the unjust judge.

Popular understandings of forgiveness are faulty. We must learn the biblical view and help others to see this view. Forgiveness is not possible without the death of Christ, and receiving forgiveness is not possible without faith in Jesus and all that it entails (ponder “obedience of faith,” Romans 1:5, 16:26).


The Ultimate Screening Test

November 4, 2016

During my student days when I worked as a gas station attendant (and yes, we pumped people’s gas back then), I had to sign an agreement that I would be willing to take a lie detector test. The company wanted to protect itself from employee theft, and the lie detector was one way of screening employees when problems arose. When I applied to graduate school, I had to take a psychological profile test — it was one way the school had for screening applicants and alerting the school to potential problems. Currently, most employers will have new hires take a drug screening test.

These illustrations confirm that a variety of screening tests exist which provide all kinds of information about us, whether we want them to or not. But an ultimate screening test also exists. We frequently fail to think about it, and the result is that we live our lives carelessly. What is this ultimate screening test? God searches the hearts and minds of all of us.

We may make excuses to ourselves and to others that deep down we know are flimsy. Billy Sunday said, “An excuse is the skin of reason stuffed with a lie.” We need to remind ourselves that all of these excuses are known by God who searches minds and hearts. Listen to what the Bible says:

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart. (Proverbs 21:2, ESV)

I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:10, ESV)

And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15 ESV)

Will I feel guilty when I face such truths? Possibly, but God provides a way of handling guilt. He has paid the price for our sin. He invites us to repent and confess. If there is any place where we should be honest about ourselves it is in our prayers to God, because God knows the truth about us.

We may hide from others, but we can’t hide from God. Knowing that I am being tested helps me to avoid carelessness. Honesty with God is the best policy. God knows our hearts. May we live so as to pass the ultimate screening test.


A Man Who Didn’t Trust God

April 1, 2016

Jeroboam son of Nebat was a man who didn’t trust God. He was an official under Solomon and rose to the position of being in charge of the whole labor force of the house of Joseph. One day the prophet Ahijah met him. Ahijah tore his new cloak into 12 pieces and gave Jeroboam 10 of the pieces. Ahijah prophesied that Jeroboam would become King of Israel. He would rule over the ten northern tribes. Jeroboam was given this promise from God:

And I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires, and you shall be king over Israel. And if you will listen to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you a sure house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you. (1 Kings 11:37–38, ESV)

Jeroboam had to flee from Solomon who made an attempt on his life, but after Solomon’s death, he returned from Egypt and became King of Israel just as God had promised. Yet, Jeroboam worried that he would loose his kingdom because the people must worship in Jerusalem. Because of his lack of trust in God’s sure promise, he rebelled and set up the golden calves in Dan and Bethel and commanded the people to worship there. He established an alternate feast and an alternate priesthood using men who were not Levites.

God warned Jeroboam. A prophet predicted that Josiah would someday offer Jeroboam’s priests on the altar at Bethel. A sign was given that altar would be split apart and the ashes would be poured out. Jeroboam ordered that the prophet be seized, but when he stretched out his hand it shriveled. When the prophet interceded for him his hand was restored. To top it all, the sign came true as well. Certainly, this should have made Jeroboam change his ways, but it didn’t. (1 Kings 13:1-6)

Jeroboam had evidence of great blessing in his life, and God’s sure promise if he but obey. Yet, he turned away—he was a man who didn’t trust God.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4, ESV)


The Friend Who Really Knows Me

February 5, 2016

God searches the hearts and minds of everyone. That thought can bring a certain fear to our lives, especially if we have been living carelessly with excuses we know will not stand the test. But, the same thought — God searches the hearts and minds of everyone — can also bring comfort.

We sometimes hide who we really are from others. We put our best foot forward in public as the saying goes. This best self may be like buildings on a movie set — an impressive façade that hides what is really there. But there is a yearning that competes with our attempts to mask ourselves. The desire is for a friend who really knows me — a friend who knows, understands, and helps. Some of the passages that depict God’s intimate knowledge of us, indicate that God can be that sort of friend.

… whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind)… (1 Kings 8:38–39, ESV)

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalms 139:23–24, ESV)

And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:27, ESV)

I realize that there is a tension. Abraham is called “friend of God” (James 2:23), and God is called “the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). Yet, God’s intimate knowledge of my heart and mind does not necessarily lead to terror. In the Christian life, where forgiveness is available, and growth in Christian maturity is ongoing, God’s knowledge of me can be a comfort. God is the friend who really knows me.


YHWH

March 27, 2015

YHWH is a transliteration from Hebrew into English of God’s personal name. It is sometimes called the tetragrammeton, which comes from Greek and means “four letters.”

Y stands for yod — י
H stands for hey — ה
W stands for waw or vav — ו
H stands for hey — ה

It looks like this in Hebrew, but remember that Hebrew is read right to left.

יהוה

In English translation, it is usually transliterated by Jehovah or Yahweh. Transliteration is the giving of the letters of one language in the letters of another. One of the problems of transliterating YHWH is the question of what vowels go with these letters. Hebrew is written without vowels except when dealing with the Masoretic text. The Masoretes were Jewish scribes from about A.D. 500 to 1000, who provided vowel points (vowel indicators) to aid with correct pronunciation. However, YHWH was not pronounced out of reverence for God, and the correct pronunciation can only be guessed at now. When a reader reached this point in the text they would say either adonai (my Lord) or elohim (God) — the latter being said when YHWH appeared with the word “lord” already. The Masoretes put the vowels for adonai or elohim on YHWH in the text since the reader was actually going to say adonai or elohim.

Jehovah as a transliteration goes back to ecclesiastical Latin in the 16th century A.D. or possibly even as far back as 1100 A.D. However, the transliteration was made with the vowels of adonai (my Lord). Yahweh is the attempt of modern scholarship to determine the correct vowels for YHWH and indicate that in the transliteration.

YHWH occurs over 6000 times in the Old Testament. The King James Version only renders 4 of those occurrences as Jehovah. The ASV is more consistent and has Jehovah 6779 times. Other translations use LORD or GOD in all capital letters to indicate YHWH following the later Jewish practice of saying either adonai (my Lord) or elohim (God) when encountering the divine name.

As a Bible reader, I like to know this background so that I’m aware of God’s personal name and be able to identify when it occurs, because certain passages make more sense that way.

So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the LORD and pitched his tent there… (Genesis 26:25, ESV) — Lord is a title. YHWH, however, is a name. When you understand that LORD is standing for YHWH, the passage makes more sense.

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2, ESV) — Pharaoh is saying he doesn’t know YHWH as opposed to the gods of Egypt whose names he did know.

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 20:2, ESV) The preface to the Ten Commandments names YHWH as the one who has delivered them. They lived in a polytheistic setting. This identification is important.

The above passages are examples. In many places, knowing that you are dealing with the divine name helps make the passage clearer. The preface to most modern Bible translations are going to tell you how the translators have chosen to handle the divine name.


Learning from the Names of God

September 6, 2013

In a recent reading of Genesis, one of the things that struck me is how we come to know God from the narrative. Names for God are introduced in the context of a story. God’s actions and speeches are a part of a narrative. This is a striking contrast to how we might learn about God in other contexts. The systematic theology will discuss God in abstract definitions. Historically, the catechism will teach about God with the repetition of certain questions and answers. The way that God has chosen to introduce himself is strikingly more personal and more interesting. The sharing of life stories is typically the way we get to know one another. Who doesn’t delight in a story?

Elmer Towns in his book, My Father’s Names, gives an appendix listing 85 names of God in the Old Testament. Primary names are God, Jehovah, and Lord. God (Elohim, El, and Eloah) suggests the mighty creator (Gen. 1:1). Jehovah (or Yahweh) is explained by “I am”—the self-existing one who is faithful to His covenants (see Exodus 3:14-15). Lord or Master (Adonai) reminds us who is in control and to whom do we belong. The remaining names in Town’s list are compound names containing either “God” or “Jehovah” with a further description.

Studying the names of God is one way of getting to know God. Elmer Towns suggests several benefits from such a study. The names of God reveal different attributes of God. We gain insights into God’s character from the names and descriptive titles found in scripture. Secondly, the names suggest the kind of relationships we can have with God. When we hear God called Shepherd and Rock (Genesis 49:24), we are finding out about another’s relationship with God, and it suggests the kind of relationship we too may find. Third, the names of God often reveal that God is the source to meet our needs and solve our problems. As we grasp the meaning of God’s names, we may learn to be dependent upon Him.

Eighty-fives names are beyond what I want to list here, but consider the following list from Genesis.

  • Jehovah, God Most High (Genesis 14:22)
  • My Lord Jehovah (Genesis 15:2)
  • The God who sees (Genesis 16:13)
  • God Almighty (Genesis 17:1, 2) also Mighty One of Jacob (Genesis 49:24)
  • Jehovah-jireh that is Jehovah will provide (Genesis 22:14)
  • The Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (Genesis 49:24)

May our knowledge of God (both intellectual and experiential) grow as we learn from the names of God.


The Misunderstood Commission

July 12, 2013

If I were to give you their names, you probably wouldn’t recognize the list: Shammua, Shaphat, Igal, Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel. Add two more names, Joshua and Caleb, and many Bible students would suddenly have a flash of recognition – the twelve spies.

The setting is after the Exodus from Egypt. Israel is in the wilderness. They are camped outside the Promised Land. The spy mission is God’s idea: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” (Numbers 13:2, ESV). Moses also states their commission:

Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land. Numbers 13:17-20, ESV

It is interesting to note that in the commissioning of the spies the issue is never whether we can take the land or not. Taking the land is a given. God has promised.

The ten spies failed not because they reported strong peoples and fortified cities in the land. Their failure was saying, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” The issue had never been Israel’s strength. The issue always was God’s strength, and what could be accomplished by faith. They misunderstood their commission.

We too have a commission – a great one in fact. It is about going into all the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching. It would be failure for us to say, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” It is not about our strength. It is about God’s strength, and what can be accomplished by faith. For this commission too comes with a promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV).