Debts and Trespasses

When saying the Lord’s Prayer together, as we do every week, the church we currently worship at uses the wording “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.

I don’t know whether this is something that happens across the denomination or whether it’s just our church, but I’ve been saying it almost every week now for a couple of years, and part of me still wants to come out with the traditional wording of “trespasses”. “Debts” and “debtors” still feels weird to me. Not wrong, just weird. Something I’m still not entirely used to.

It’s an interesting choice of wording, and communicates something a little different to the traditional “trespasses” and “those that trespass against us”, and I thought it might be interesting to examine the difference.

“Trespasses” is a term from the conceptual area of land ownership. If you’re on my land without permission, we call that trespassing. In contemporary usage, that’s its only meaning: get off my land.

However, the older translations of the Lord’s Prayer seem to apply it much more widely. The idea is of being in a place where you should not; this may be a physical location, or more metaphorically, setting yourself on the throne and trying to make the decisions for yourself that rightly belong to God. Or invading another’s metaphysical territory; running your own rights over and through someone else’s domain without their permission, or as we would normally describe it, being arrogant and self-centred. Taking liberties with someone. Expecting them to bend to whatever it is you want to do.

Thus, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” carries the sense of asking God to forgive us for the times we try to act in His place or run our own rights over someone else’s domain, as we forgive other people for running roughshod over us and arrogating rights to themselves vis-à-vis us without our necessarily granting them.

Not that we necessarily need to let them continue running roughshod over us, but we do need to forgive them, because we also run our own rights over God’s domain and need forgiveness.

“Debts” and “debtors” carries a rather different connotation.

The idea here is not so much one of rights and ownership but of indebtedness. The idea that we owe God a righteous life, and when we sin it creates a debt. A debt that we cannot pay, because any amount of righteous living is only fulfilment of our obligation; it doesn’t count as a credit.

In the same way, other people can owe us other stuff than money. As human beings made in the image of God, we have a certain intrinsic dignity and worth. And because of this intrinsic worth, we have a right to expect a basic level of kindness and good treatment from others. “As we forgive our debtors” is about our forgiving those who owe us in this regard at least as much as it’s about those who owe us financially. “God, forgive us for what we owe You and other people; we also forgive those who owe us decent treatment.”

Now, the Divine attribute of justice may mean that sometimes we need to stand up for what is right and say to someone “pay what you owe”. The Bible is clear that we are to let no debt remain outstanding; if we owe taxes, we are to pay what we owe. If we owe honour, we are to honour the one we owe the honour to. And similarly, the Bible is very strong on the subject of paying a worker a fair wage for their labour. Forgiving our debtors doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to let underpayment or non-payment of wages continue, for example, any more that forgiving one who has trespassed against us means we need to let the trespass continue. Sometimes it may. We owe God the righteousness we cannot in and of ourselves produce, and because of Jesus He is willing not to count that against us. But equally, Jesus paid our debt. If we reject that payment, preferring to do it ourselves, guess what? God isn’t going to force us to accept what He’s done for us. The debt remains.

So which is right?

This isn’t a case of one wording being right and the other wrong. They are both coming from slightly different places and communicating slightly different ideas, but they’re both right.

I prefer the traditional wording, but that’s mostly because when I’m doing something traditional, like reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I tend to want to go really traditional. “Debts” and “Debtors” says something useful, and so does the traditional “trespasses” vocabulary. Both are a little abstruse at times, but realistically, how many of us that have been praying it all our lives really think about the third possible wording, “forgive us our sins”?

Saying the Lord’s Prayer shouldn’t be merely a comforting ritual. It is, after all, a prayer; we’re talking to God, or supposed to be. It is a ritual, but if it’s only that we’re missing the point.

But if by looking at the wording we pay a little more attention to what we’re praying, that’s a good thing.

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Who God Says He Is (Anniversary post)

Well, today is my first anniversary of having this blog, and it quite caught me by surprise!  In honour of this momentous occasion, I’ve reworked my “Who God Says He Is” miniseries into a single, longer post.  Apart from my introductory post (since reworked into the “Why “The Word Forge”? Page), this was my first post.  Enjoy!


In Exodus 34, God passes before Moses and proclaims His name. This is the first time since the pre-Fallen Adam that a human being has seen God without veil of disguise or vision, which makes it an incredibly significant event. What God says here in connection with this is key to our understanding of His nature and character.

In essence, this is the clearest single statement we have of who God says He is. If we get this wrong, we will have a distorted image of God, which will skew our understanding of the Scriptures, of who we are and of what He has called us to.

Who, then, is our God?

YHWH, YHWH

The eternal Name of God. The Great I AM, as He revealed Himself to Moses. Eternal, without “I Was”, nor yet “I Will Be”. Changeless in His character, the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus faithful and reliable. The same God who created the world good. The same God who went looking for Adam. The same God who saved Noah’s household because of his righteousness. The same God who would not sweep away the righteous with the guilty when destroying Sodom, who promised to spare the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous people.

Self-existent, without “I think, therefore…” The only One who exists simply because He exists, without reference to anything else. He alone is the fount of everything else that exists, because He alone is self-existent and not contingent on other things. He owes His existence to no thing; on the contrary, all things owe their existence to Him.

His self-existence implies All-Power, too. Limitless in His strength, the Creator of all things who was before all things. Not contingent on anything, He alone is the one who is in control. Nothing is beyond His reach, no act beyond His power, no sinner too far gone to save. Not mastered by anything, because He Himself depends on nothing.

The Compassionate and Gracious God

Full of grace and mercy. Giving fallen humans the good things they do not deserve and not giving them the bad things they do deserve.

Grace is, as Yancey says, the last best word. If we haven’t paid on time, sometimes there’s a “grace period” before punishment kicks in. In music, “grace notes” are special extra notes whose absence does not affect the tune but whose presence bring it alive. “Graceful” decribes beauty of motion and form. “Gracious” describes unwarranted kindness. “Gratitude” is the appropriate response when we are given something. We “say grace” before a meal to express thankfulness. Something “gratis” is not to be paid for.

Compassion and mercy are allied; two aspects of the same thing. Compassion has been defined as “seeing someone in need and wanting to help”. Mercy has been defined as not getting what you deserve. Giving someone a second chance. Withholding punishment out of love for the person. Mercy values people. Compassion sees a need – people are sinful and fallen – and wants to help. God has the desire as well as the power to do something about the human fallen condition.

These are, after His name, the first things God says about Himself. Along with His Divine power and eternal nature, this is the root from which it all stems.

He describes Himself as “the gracious and compassionate God” with good reason. The Ba’als and Ammons and Marduks of the ancient world weren’t gracious and compassionate. They were harsh and cruel. They were deities of vicious power, capricious and despotic, divine parodies of the horrific abuses of authority practised by the kings of the earth. Like their followers, they lorded it over their subjects and required grovelling obesiance. They could be bought off, but they never showed compassion, much less grace. Their help was always to be paid for.

How unlike our Lord! The gracious and compassionate God, who desires to help and will not be paid for it, because nothing we can offer Him will cover the cost. Who bears the price Himself, because He wants to.

Slow to anger

Not capricious and mercurial. Not dangerous and to be dreaded and feared, as if He will fly off into a rage over the slightest thing. Slow to get angry. Not quick to bring judgement, because He wants people to turn from their wickedness and gives every possible opportunity for them to do so.

A God who, though the all-powerful I AM, is in control of His temper. Who does not “lose it”. Who is not mastered by His anger or by anything else, but is in control of Himself. A God like this will not immediately whack off toes if they step out of line. It takes effort to bring Him to the point of executing judgement. Slow to anger, not easily provoked, not looking for an excuse to smite.

The gods of the nations were as capricious and easily angered as the elements – a Ba’al or a Chemosh who is slow to anger is a contradiction in terms. Only God can be rightly described as slow to anger, because only God is above the natural world and fully in control of Himself.

Abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness

Bestowing His favour lavishly, with an ocean-sized bucket rather than a medicine dropper. Not counting how much favour He’s giving you, as if there are invisible limits after which He has to stop giving. “Sorry; you just exceeded the recommended dosage of My favour” are words you will never hear from the Lord. He gives with abundance, because He Himself is without limitation. “His bountiful care what tongue can recite”. We see it in wildflowers scattered on a hillside at the back end of nowhere, beauty mostly unseen by the eyes of man. We see it in the rain, which falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and on the sea, which is already full of water. We see it in the sun’s boundless energy and light scattered on the entire surface of the earth and out into space where it serves no purpose at all. Limitless abundance.

And an abundance of what? Of favour. Of lovingkindness. Active tender care. Kindness stemming from love. Limitless goodness. As Rich Mullins put it: “And this Man of no reputation loves us all with relentless affection”.

Affection is a mild word, but we so misuse the word love sometimes that perhaps it’s better to avoid it. Relentless affection, kindness, wanting the best for others, wanting to bless and to do good for.

And unlike people, able to see exactly what real good and real blessing look like, because He is not blinded by sin and is limitless in wisdom. Not only does He have the desire to help us in our need for redemption, but more than that, He doesn’t stop there. There is no room in His character for a Redemption that stops with justification. He wants to bless, and to do so abundantly. He wants to go on and sanctify totally, to enable us to walk in His abundant favour, enjoying Him and in close, harmonious fellowship with Him. He wants to do us good, to satisfy our desires with good things. For no particular reason, just because. Not because we earn it or because we deserve it, but because He wants to. It’s who He is.

Maintaining love to thousands

Constant in His favour and love. Not just showing love once, but continuing to love. Reliable in His love, so that His people are not high in His favour one day and cast out the next, based on the unfathomable whims of an inscrutable Deity. When He says He loves you, it is not something that fluctuates with the seasons, nor even with our own righteousness. Firm, trustworthy, a Rock worth building your life on. His love can no more change than He can cease to be the I AM.

Maintaining love, not just to a select few, but to thousands. Multitudes. No-one can say “well, He loves you, but He couldn’t possibly love me”. In most ancient counting systems, thousands were the highest numbers they had. The Greeks and some others had myriads – ten-thousands – but a lot of cultures at this stage stopped with thousands. It’s also about the biggest number the human brain can really grasp effectively. Talking of thousands to whom the Lord continued to show love is using a multiple of the biggest number. It’s as if He’s saying “yes, even you.” No-one is excepted from being loved by the Lord.

Forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin

Because He is gracious and compassionate, because He is slow to anger, because He abounds with lovingkindness, and because He maintains love to thousands, He is forgiving. Forgiveness streams as naturally from His character as light from the sun.

Rebellion is the sin of willful disobedience. Rooted in pride, it will not humble itself and admit need or ask for help, but in its insanity assumes it knows best. Rebellion mistrusts the goodness of God, wanting instead to do its own thing and be its own arbiter. Contrary and stubborn, it will not yield, will not bow, will not obey, even when doing so is in its own obvious best interest. Perverse, it insists on its own way, will not take counsel, will not accept help, and will not bow the knee to the One who alone is worthy. And because it will not bow to true Authority, it creates false ones. Every tyranny on the planet is ultimately rebellious at heart. It’s no accident that with the sole exception of America, every rebellion or war of independence ever fought has turned almost immediately to despotism. It’s the spirit of rebellion.

Iniquity is impurity. Rejecting the pure and holy and craving the depraved and impure, it’s the dark, self-destroying impulse that wants what it wants, dammit, no matter that it is poison. Expressed in everything from sexual licentiousness and porn to gluttony, selfish ambition and abusive domination, it describes the fallen condition that takes drugs knowing that they will kill, which craves its own ruin and hates that which is pure.

Between them, they pretty much cover the bases of human depravity. But just in case we can come up with a reason why our sin is unforgiveable, He also states that He forgives “sin”, without categorization or modifying adjective.

It’s not because we deserve it. If we deserved to be forgiven we would not need it. He forgives because of who He is. Because if He did not, He would no longer be the gracious and compassionate God. He does it because He Is Who He Is.

Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished

And only after His goodness, grace, mercy and forgiveness have been firmly fixed in our minds does He begin to talk about His justice. He doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished.

Grace and mercy cannot exist without justice. Unjust grace is not grace; cannot be grace. Unjust mercy is equally oxymoronic. Without the context of righteous justice, grace and mercy are random chance, not deliberate goodness.

God does not overlook sin; He deals with it. He doesn’t treat the wound of His people as though it is not serious, papering over our inward depravity with little legalisms and obediences. Evil has consequences, both for those who are sinners and those who are sinned against. God cannot be good and allow us to continue in sin; that’s not forgiveness, it’s being an enabler.

He loves us; He’s gracious and compassionate, slow to get angry and lavish in the desire to bless. And so He must deal with sin. Papering over the cracks isn’t going to cut it. If He doesn’t root out the sin itself, we just go on harming ourselves and others. Grace and compassion for the sinned-against as well as justice compels Him to not overlook sin.

So because He is the gracious and compassionate God, He pays the price for us. Not because we deserve it, but because He wants to. Because as well as having the desire to help – compassion – He’s the only one who also has the power. As the old hymn puts it: “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heav’n and let us in”. Others might have had the compassion, but God alone was the All-Powerful I AM who could actually do something about the problem.

If we in our fallenness treat “failure to stop and render aid” as a criminal offence, how much less can God stand by while we suffer in our sin, knowing that He alone has the power to help?

visiting the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation

Even in His preliminary dealing with sin via the first covenant, He sets limits on how far sin can go. Only to the third and fourth generation, not forever. Some people have read this as “punishing the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation”. God denies this specifically in Ezekiel 18, then later Jesus Himself kicks the supports out from under this idea; all those wrong-end-of-stick questions about “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” are decisively set aside by the Lord Jesus as totally wrongheaded. This difficult-to-understand verse, then, must mean something else. But what?

People live in families, and traits are passed down. Sons are like their fathers, and daughters like their mothers. If we’re not very careful to choose different courses, we reproduce in our own lives what was modeled for us by our parents. Therefore, part of the consequence of sin plays out in the lives of our offspring. Not because of some bio-spiritual law of inheritance, but because that’s how families are. If I have the sin of unrighteous anger, and I sow to that in my dealings with my children, I will reap from them unrighteous anger in return. To put it another way, part of the consequence of your sin is that you have to live in a family that does it back to you. This is almost the Divine equivalent of rubbing the dog’s nose in its business when you are training it to use a litter box.

But even in His punishment of sin, our Lord sets limits. He will not visit the sins of the fathers on their children down through all the generations. We are not spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our unknown 12th-Century ancestors. We are not even spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our immediate forebears. Sin has consequences, and God is not going to let us get away with it. But there is no fatalism that forces us to follow in the ways of our ancestors. Fatalism is for Muslims. We are followers of Christ.

Notice, too, that this doesn’t appear until way down the list. Normally the things first mentioned in a list are considered the most important; in this case, grace and compassion. This is in accordance with the rest of Scripture: “Mercy triumphs over judgement” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Yet there are consequences for sin, and God is not an enabler either. Sin cannot be permitted to endure forever. He will deal with it, because that, too, is who He is.

Ashes and Grace

Just past Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season, John 8:1-11 seems somehow both unusual and apt as a choice of reading.

I’ve been using the daily readings of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and for the Thursday following Ash Wednesday, this is the New Testament reading.

It’s a fascinating and wonderful story. It appears between the Pharisees’ sending of the Temple guards to arrest Jesus, and Jesus’ “I am the light of the world” statement and teaching, and it’s framed with a sort of parenthesis and a note saying that the earliest and most reliable Scripture manuscripts lack the passage from John 7:53 to 8:11.

Yet it remains in the Bible. It rings true with the rest of the Gospel accounts of the Jesus we know and love. Even if it’s technically a section added later, this seems, in fact, very much how the Jesus shown by the Gospels would behave in these circumstances.

But the questions over its authenticity are only part of what makes it intriguing. There’s also Jesus’ mysterious writing in the ground, which we aren’t told anything about apart from that it happened.

The situation itself, too, is fascinating. Jesus, having flummoxed the Temple guards sent to arrest him, is back in the Temple, teaching the people.

In walks a gang of Pharisees, dragging a woman with them. She’s probably done up like a harlot, and just as probably not properly dressed. She’d been caught in the act of adultery. She’s been dragged, shame-faced and probably weeping, through who knows how many crowded market streets, up to the house of God. Through all the crowds of worshippers, to the feet of the One they call Jesus.

A Rabbi. Supposed to have miraculous or magical powers. Having a reputation for compassion, but what could even He do? She’d been caught in the act, her sin paraded before the world. If they’d stoned her immediately it would have been a mercy.

But no. She’s going to be used as a pawn in some dispute between the Pharisees and this young Rabbi Jesus.

“Tell us, Rabbi,” the angry mob begin, positioning themselves to trap their adversary. “This woman was caught in the act of adultery.”

Those in the crowd around draw back from her, as if her very touch might contaminate them.

“The Law commands us to stone such people,” the Pharisees continue sententiously, “but what do You say?”

The young Rabbi doesn’t answer. He bends over and begins to write in the dust. The Phariseesv questioning becomes insistent, and still He just keeps writing.

Then suddenly, He straightens up. “If any one of you is without sin,” He says, “let him cast the first stone”. And back to writing in the dust.

There’s a pause. A silence. The thud of a stone hitting the ground. Another. The Pharisees, one by one, slink away, unable to stand before the young Rabbi’s astonishing turning of the tables. Then it’s just him and the woman.

“Where are they?” Jesus asks. “Has no-one condemned you?”

The shake of a head, the woman’s emotions still too wrought for speech.

“Neither do I condemn you,” the Rabbi declares. “Go, and sin no more”.

Much has been said already about this passage, and I doubt I will add anything new. It’s a study in contrasts: the Pharisees’ attitude of complete indifference to the woman’s fate; Jesus’ compassion and mercy. The trickery of the accusers; Jesus’ radical raising of the game to a new level.

One of the first things we have to say, and it’s been said before, is “where was the man?” The Old Testament Law on the subject of people caught in the act of adultery was brutally clear: stone both of them, immediately.

Yet here are the Pharisees, selecting the woman as a suitable object lesson and dragging her off through the streets of Jerusalem to use as a pawn in their complicated trap for Jesus. What happened to the man?

There has even been speculation that the man was one of them; that they engineered the whole thing as a trap for the Son of Man. Scripture doesn’t say either way, but one way or another, their callous misogyny is on display for all the world to see.

They quite simply don’t seem to give a flying crap what happens to her. They don’t even care overly about her sin, except insofar as they can use it to set a trap. She doesn’t matter; she’s just a tool they can use.

It’s rather like what CS Lewis often says about the witches in his books: “they’re very practical people. They don’t care about people or things unless they can make use of them”.

Smugly, they throw her down at Jesus’ feet and bait their trap. On the one hand, Jesus’ history of demonstrating compassion. On the other, the Law of Moses. If Jesus forgave her, they could accuse him of breaking the Law and justifying adultery. If He condemned her, they could accuse Him of being harsh, unreasonable, callous.

And in response to their loaded questioning, Jesus does something that is on the face of it so weird that the whole kangaroo court proceedings grind to a halt.

He writes on the ground.

What did He write?

Scripture gives us no clues at all, but most scholars seem to think He was writing a list of the Pharisees’ own sins.

It’s possible. Even likely, given the situation.

My own read on what happened is slightly more subtle. I think He was writing a pointed list of the other commandments, the ones the Pharisees were breaking. “Have no other gods before Me”. “Do not commit murder”. “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour”. And so on. A little more subtle than the direct writing of their sins, but I have my reasons.

After all, there was another time that God used His finger to write with. When Moses carved out the tablets of the Law on Sinai, it was God who wrote the Law on them, with His finger.

It’s entirely possible that Jesus wasn’t just writing to make a point, but was remembering. The Law which was not intended to bring death, but life. The Law that revealed the compassionate and just heart of the Father.

Either way, it has the desired effect. The Pharisees can’t condemn her. They know as well as Jesus does that you can’t claim to be righteous because you don’t commit adultery if you bear false witness and are full of covetousness. They aren’t the one sinned against. It’s not their Law which she has transgressed. It’s God’s. And God stands before them, ready to forgive.

Not the most comfortable of situations to find oneself in.

Jesus, on the other hand, can condemn her, if He wants. He was the One who wrote the Law to start with. He owns it; it’s His Law. More, He’s sinless. He’s not a Law-breaker in any of it.

And Jesus refuses to condemn. He won’t tolerate her continuing in her adultery, that much is clear. “Go, and leave your life of sin”, as the NIV puts it. But neither will He condemn her. Forgiveness and grace are extended; the character of the Good God upheld. Not willing that any should perish.

It’s no wonder there’s little debate over whether this actually belongs in Scripture. The passage looks like it belongs. This is Jesus, acting like Jesus.

The Lenten season is traditionally a time of penitence. Awareness of sin, sorrow and grief over it, awareness once again of the terrible price the Lord paid to make an end of it.

We don’t always think about forgiveness and grace in connection with the time of Lent. Our focus is typically more on sorrow, repentance and the price that was paid for us.

But I can’t actually think of a better way to begin a time of penitence than in the affirmation of God’s gracious and compassionate character. “With You there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Ps 130:4)

We’re entering the time of ashes and sorrow over sin. But if we do so without that affirmation of God’s forgiveness, it will be a heavy thing, an attempt to atone by the very depth of our own grief, if such a thing was possible. There are ashes in this season, yes. But there is also grace. We still call it Good Friday.

Just to Forgive

I have my wife to thank for the inspiration for this post, as it was basically her insight.


In the course of our church’s monthly Communion service, our pastor likes to quote from I John.

There’s lots of good stuff in I John, but one of the things he quoted yesterday was from chapter 1 verse 9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.

Note the language used here. Not “He is faithful and merciful to forgive”, but “He is faithful and just”.

This verse ties God’s forgiveness, not to His mercy and grace, but to His justice.

I’ve said before that justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin, so this probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. However, I can be slow on the uptake sometimes, and perhaps I hadn’t traced out the implications of that as far as I had thought.

What makes this interesting, of course, is that we so often want to set justice and mercy in opposition to one another. Either you get justice or you get mercy, and we’d much rather get mercy.

Here, however, God’s justice is on display in His forgiveness of sins. Why should this be, and how?

Partly, this is a reflection of Hebrew thought. As I understand it, in Hebrew, the words for justice and righteousness are the same word. I’m no Hebrew scholar, but certainly there seems a lot of overlap, with some of our English translations going one way and others the other in translating the same Hebrew word (see, for example, “the righteous/just shall live by faith” Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 1:17).

As the Righteous One, God alone is truly entitled to do something about sins. It is, after all, His Law that has been transgressed. Sins have an effect on us and on other people, but they are first and foremost against God, and as grievous as their effects on human beings may be, they pale beside their affront to the One who is Righteous. The Pharisees’ question of “who can forgive sins but God alone?” wasn’t so far afield; it’s just that they didn’t like the implications of Jesus claiming that prerogative. You don’t get to decide that this or that harmful act had negligible effects on me and can be forgiven by an outside third party, nor do I get that privilege for you. It’s the one sinned against that has the right to forgive. God is the One whose righteous law has been transgressed; God is the One to whom we owe the debt of sin. He is the One with the right to forgive. Similarly, we don’t get to hold other people accountable for their sins against God or against others when He has forgiven them. (This may be part of why showing forgiveness to others is a necessary part of being forgiven; I’ll have to think on that some more).

God is righteous to forgive.

But the idea of righteousness includes the idea of justice as we understand it. The legal acquittal of the innocent and punishment of the guilty. Punishment being neither too unreasonably harsh nor too unrighteously lax. Getting what you deserve. How is that on display in the forgiveness of sins? How can God be just to forgive?

Sin is often described in the Bible as a debt. Indeed, the church we go to even uses the language of debt in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”.

It’s a useful metaphor, but like all metaphors, it has its limits.

It can be easy to slip into a legalistic mindset, in which it’s all a numbers game. How can I pay off my debt to God? What righteous act can I do to balance the scales?

In this mindset, the fact that Jesus paid our debt of sin just means that now we owe God for that. If we fail to measure up to God’s exacting standards, He’s standing by with a hammer, just waiting to bring it down on us.

This is not God the Just. Real justice isn’t a numbers game. It’s not a balancing act of righteous deeds and unrighteous ones. Justice is an outworking of compassion as surely as mercy; shorn of this, it becomes the automatic, fatalistic idea of Karma.

It’s not just to forgive a debt and continue to hold it against someone. It’s not just to place a burden of repayment on someone that they can never repay. We call that “debt slavery” and it’s a great evil. Let us not in our thinking attribute this travesty to God.

God is just in forgiveness. When He forgives, He forgives. The fact that Jesus paid the price does not mean that we owe God for doing so. Jesus gave His life to show God and His Law as righteous, not to create a debt for us before God.

What does the Lord require from us for forgiveness? Repentance and faith.

These are two aspects of the same thing: metanoia, changing your mind and direction to agree and align with God, agreeing with both His jugdement that you have missed the mark and broken His law, and with His remedy, the atonement provided by Jesus. You can’t repent without exercising faith, because when you repent you change your mind to say that God is right and you aren’t, and you change your direction from going your own way to going God’s. This is faith: trusting God rather than your own understanding. Nor can you exercise faith without repentance, because when you trust in God you must agree that He knows better than you. Trusting necessarily involves turning away from your own understanding.

This is important stuff, because we can even make repentance into a sort of work we do in order to get forgiven, but the main point here is that this is not something beyond us. His grace is sufficient for the most hardened and self-willed anti-God sinner to exercise faith and repentance. And it’s not just for the hardened anti-God sinner, either. Or rather, that state describes each one of us, sooner or later. We’ve all decided we know better than God, decided that what He really wants is this or that righteous act, this or that quantity of faith (like faith is something we can measure and compare).

It’s simple, and just. Not a burden beyond the strength of any to carry; not an unreasonable requirement. Confess and be forgiven. Turn from your own way and align yourself with your Creator. You don’t have to continue in your self-centred, self-pleasing way any more.

He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Not only that, but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In repentance and faith we align ourselves with God. We become motivated and directed by His Spirit. This necessarily includes the probability, as John goes on to say in chapter 2 verse 1 a few verses later, that we will not commit sins any more. How can we continue in sin, now that we are aligned with a righteous God?

We aren’t always that perfectly aligned, nor do we always stay that perfectly aligned. But if we do sin, we have an Advocate with the Father. Getting back in line is as simple as confessing and being forgiven, because He is faithful and just. He forgives. It’s part of His justice.

Who God Says He Is, part 3

Continuing in our examination of who God says He is when He passes before Moses declaring His name:…

Maintaining love to thousands

Constant in His favour and love. Not just showing love once, but continuing to love. Reliable in His love, so that His people are not high in His favour one day and cast out the next, based on the unfathomable whims of an inscrutable Deity. When He says He loves you, it is not something that fluctuates with the seasons, nor even with our own righteousness. Firm, trustworthy, a Rock worth building your life on. His love can no more change than He can cease to be the I AM.

Maintaining love, not just to a select few, but to thousands. Multitudes. No-one can say “well, He loves you, but He couldn’t possibly love me“. In most ancient counting systems, thousands were the highest numbers they had. The Greeks and some others had myriads – ten-thousands – but a lot of cultures at this stage stopped with thousands. It’s also about the biggest number the human brain can really grasp effectively. Talking of thousands to whom the Lord continued to show love is using a multiple of the biggest number. It’s as if He’s saying “yes, even you.” No-one is excepted from being loved by the Lord.

Forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin

Because He is gracious and compassionate, because He is slow to anger, because He abounds with lovingkindness, and because He maintains love to thousands, He is forgiving. Forgiveness streams as naturally from His character as light from the sun.

Rebellion is the sin of willful disobedience. Rooted in pride, it will not humble itself and admit need or ask for help, but in its insanity assumes it knows best. Rebellion mistrusts the goodness of God, wanting instead to do its own thing and be its own arbiter. Contrary and stubborn, it will not yield, will not bow, will not obey, even when doing so is in its own obvious best interest. Perverse, it insists on its own way, will not take counsel, will not accept help, and will not bow the knee to the One who alone is worthy. And because it will not bow to true Authority, it creates false ones. Every tyranny on the planet is ultimately rebellious at heart. It’s no accident that with the sole exception of America, every rebellion or war of independence ever fought has turned almost immediately to despotism. It’s the spirit of rebellion.

Iniquity is impurity. Rejecting the pure and holy and craving the depraved and impure, it’s the dark, self-destroying impulse that wants what it wants, dammit, no matter that it is poison. Expressed in everything from sexual licentiousness and porn to gluttony, selfish ambition and abusive domination, it describes the fallen condition that takes drugs knowing that they will kill, which craves its own ruin and hates that which is pure.

Between them, they pretty much cover the bases of human depravity. But just in case we can come up with a reason why our sin is unforgiveable, He also states that He forgives “sin”, without categorization or modifying adjective.

It’s not because we deserve it. If we deserved to be forgiven we would not need it. He forgives because of who He is. Because if He did not, He would no longer be the gracious and compassionate God. He does it because He Is Who He Is.