Come to the Dark Side (we have logic)

There’s a theory in much of the evangelical church in the United States that political liberalism is incompatible with Christianity. Talking to some people (especially where I live in Texas) you get the impression that it’s our Christian duty to support the free-market laissez-faire capitalism promoted by God’s chosen agent on Earth, the Republican Party of the USA.

I apologise for the facetious tone, but that’s often how it comes across. Most of the people I know here who believe in Jesus honestly think that being a political liberal as a Christian is either succumbing to the Dark Side or serving two masters, and that right-wing economic policy is somehow intrinsically godly.

If you’re a capitalist on the ruthless Ferengi-like American model, you’re perceived as a good Christian. If you’re a known liberal, fellow-believers sometimes assume you’re a pagan and want to share the Gospel with you.

Interestingly, that statement about serving two masters and the impossibility thereof was made by Jesus in the context of Mammon, the desire for and worship of wealth and the only false god Jesus ever directly named. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me this is sounding like capitalism’s worship at the altar of gain far more than anything left-leaning.

I don’t believe that the Bible prescribes any economic system as inherently Christian or God-favoured, but with the assumption among so many US Christians that “left-leaning follower of Jesus” is an oxymoron, I thought I’d take a critical look at some of the Right’s assumptions in the light of Scripture.

Personally, I find the right-wing notion that the way to relieve poverty is to slap poor people about the face and yell at them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to be at best a little humanistic, preaching a “gospel” of self-effort and economic self-salvation that has more in common with Islam or Atheism than with Biblical Christianity. It’s no wonder so many struggle with the theology of grace alone; their right-leaning bootstrap economics both reinforces and is reinforced by the soteriological idea that you have to earn it.

By Republican ideology, it’s your own fault if you’re poor. If you were motivated enough or worked hard enough or invested enough or saved enough, you’d be a wealthy entrepreneur the way God intended. So the best way to help you is to cut off all support from the outside so that you’re forced to rely on your own resources to pull yourself up.

Even discounting the complete ignoring of the idea of systemic injustice and a system that benefits the already-wealthy, I fail to see what human self-effort has to do with the Good News about Jesus Christ. The point of the entire Bible, Old Testament as well as New, is that we can’t do it ourselves. Because of sin, we don’t have the internal resources in ourselves, and whereas all other religions are basically God or prophet slapping us around the face and yelling at us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, Christianity is the story of a God Who stoops down to become like us, in order that He might make us like Him.

In this sense the Gospel is fundamentally leftist; opposed to the Satanic notion that we can bootstrap ourselves into righteousness.

Furthermore, the Scripture lists our internal disposition to sin as only one of our problems. There’s an evil world-system under its false god the Devil, keeping people divided in prejudice and hate, in bondage to oppression and injustice. Satan loves prejudice because God looks at the heart rather than the outward things. He loves injustice and oppression because God is just and the way of God is freedom from oppression. Systemic injustice is characteristic of what we expect to see in a sin-dominated world, and it is our duty and privilege as followers of the One who died to set us free to fight injustice, battle prejudice and work toward the uprooting of systemic evil, much as William Wilberforce worked to outlaw the slave trade.

The battle won’t be finally won until the return of the King, but we still have to seek His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth now as it is in heaven.

As far as I can tell, capitalism is always on the side of the rich. By right-wing ideology they’ve earned their place at the top, and we should desire to emulate them.

By contrast, the Bible portrays God as almost always on the side of the poor and the weak: “He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He has sent away empty”. “Not many of you were rich, not many of you were of noble birth”. All those psalms that talk about how good the wicked seem to have it now and God’s impending judgment on them for acquiring wealth sinfully. All those proverbs warning the rich to remember compassion and not put their trust in riches; all those other proverbs pointing out that just because you’re wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s because God blessed you. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20f) is practically Das Kapital for followers of Jesus, and declares woes to the rich and those that have everything now. The Kingdom of God is at hand! With economic justice for all.

Scripture warns that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Capitalism declares that the love of money is an unalloyed good and promotes industry and enterprise. We need to be careful here. Biblical Christianity doesn’t have a place for the sanctification of greed for material gain.

Jesus was born to a couple so poor they could only afford the very least sacrifice for a firstborn required by the Law. One of the signs of the Kingdom that John the Baptist was told by the Lord to look for was that the Gospel is preached to the poor. James warns the early church not to idolise the rich or show partiality to them. “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”.

And yet with all this, American Christians nearly universally fawn on business-owners, elect millionnaires to high office (often seemingly simply because they are “successful” – at least in acquiring wealth), and favour policies to take money from the poor and give it to the rich (because they’re presumed to be “job creators”). Exactly the opposite of what Luke’s Beatitudes tell us should happen as the Kingdom comes.

The early church under the leadership of the Apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit instituted a communistic-like system in which each one contributed according to his ability and each one partook according to his need. This may be communism without the atheistic and state-dominated elements, but it is communism of a sort, just like an Israeli kibbutz.

No-one is saying that there isn’t a temptation on the economic and political Left to look to the state (or the government, or one’s fellow human beings) to do for you what only God can, but isn’t there just as much of a temptation on the Right to think that we can pull ourselves up to righteousness, that we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-Saviour? The Right isn’t necessarily any more Christian than the Left is, nor is the Left necessarily any less Christian than the Right. Both are human constructs invented by fallen men. God’s Kingdom, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, is not a matter of Left and Right, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying that you can’t lean to the right and follow Jesus, but I am saying that it’s at least equally possible for one’s faith to influence one’s politics in a left-leaning direction.

In fact, I’d say there might be more that the Left have closer to God’s way right now than the Right. Concern for the poor, wage equality for women, proper stewardship of God’s world. International relations based on diplomacy and peacemaking rather than threat and military might. Even the desire to allow illegal immigrants some sort of amnesty seems more in line with Jesus’ concern for the woman caught in adultery as a person as opposed to the Pharisees’ heartless legalism and political games with a life at stake.

Like someone who came here illegally, the woman wasn’t an innocent party; she’d been caught in the act. The Law was clear, and she’s on the wrong side of it.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily an exact parallel in all respects, but the conservative tendency to exalt law at the expense of people strikes me as rather Pharisaic.

I’m not fully comfortable with all the positions taken by the American Left on everything, but political morality is far more than the one-dimensional issue of whether or not you favour legal abortion that so many Evangelicals seem to treat it as.

So I put this out there as a deliberate challenge to the assumption that right-wing politics is synonymous with righteousness and the way of God and that the Left is intrinsically opposed to Christ. I’ve been deliberately provocative at some points simply to shake up the false idea that Right=moral, Left=immoral. I hope it provokes thought rather than offence for the sake of it.

I look forward to the day when followers of Jesus can rise above their political differences and recognise all who put their trust in Him as sisters and brothers.


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?


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.

In Your Anger Do Not Sin

There’s a teaching in some circles that Christians should never get angry. The Bible instructs us to rid ourselves of anger and fits of rage, and if we do get angry, some would tell us that it’s because we felt like we were entitled to something and didn’t get it. The solution is to “surrender our rights” to God, thus removing the cause for anger, and remain calm and cheerful with a good Christian smile on our face no matter what. If we’re angry, it obviously means we’re doing it wrong.

I first came across this idea as a teen. There was a news report back then about a Jehovah’s Witness family that were refusing to allow their child to get a life-saving medical treatment because it involved getting a blood transfusion, and JWs have a weird perspective on Acts 15:29 that makes them opposed to blood transfusions.

The thought that a mother and father could be so callous as to refuse life-saving treatment for their own child angered me, and I mentioned this to an older Christian in my church.

Their reaction surprised me. Rather than agree that this was indeed an injustice, they rebuked me for getting upset about it and told me “Don’t be angry”.

I was particularly not good at talking to people as a child, even into my teens, and to this day I don’t react quickly when surprised. I couldn’t put the words together to say what I was actually thinking, and didn’t even fully grasp what their objection to how I was reacting really was, but even then I felt like this whole train of thought was heading in the wrong direction.

Since then I’ve encountered the same idea in other spheres of life. Christians shouldn’t get angry.

Quite what these people make of the cleansing of the Temple I don’t know. Apparently even then, Jesus can’t really have been angry, because we know anger is sinful, right?

Ok, what if they’re right, and Jesus wasn’t really angry even then? Picture the scene: the Son of Man kicking over tables and chasing out the money changers with a whip, and all with a serene, beatific smile on His face. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find that image actively scary. The natural reaction is that either He’s buzzed on something potent and illegal, or there’s something seriously psychotic in His makeup. Either way, He’s hardly the merciful Saviour we know and love.

Anger is a natural human reaction. Because we are told in the Bible on occasion that God Himself gets angry, we do not have a leg to stand on if we insist that anger is always sinful or that Christians should not get angry. For example, in Numbers 11 we read that “the Lord became exceedingly angry” at the ungrateful, complaining attitude of His people when they grumbled about the manna He provided for them and wanted meat instead.

We read also of other occasions on which God gets angry; it’s a mistake to try to paint this as His normal emotional state, but He does, on occasion, get angry. Even in His self-declaration to Moses, He proclaims that He is slow to anger, not incapable of it.

The human capacity for anger, then, is not a result of the Fall but an intrinsic part of the Divine image in us. Had the Fall not happened, there might not have been reason for anger, but there would still have been the capacity for it.

This is because anger is a response to a situation which says “I feel that a wrong has been done”.

The problem we have with anger is not the intrinsic capacity for it, but the appropriateness of when and how we express it.

Because of both His character and His omniscience, God’s anger is always appropriate. He always has all of the facts, He loves everyone, and He is completely righteous and incorruptible even by His own desires. When He gets angry, it is in fact because a wrong has been done, not merely because He feels that to be the case.

Moreover, He is completely righteous in His expression of anger, neither punishing more severely than the situation calls for, and straying into injustice on that side, nor being more lenient than is warranted and straying into injustice on the other side.

Human anger is a bit more fallen in nature. As fallen descendents of Adam and Eve, we no longer instinctively align ourselves with God’s view of things. We get angry about the wrong things, fail to get angry about the right things and express our anger in fallen, destructive ways. That we get angry is not the problem. If you can be grievously wronged – like being raped or beaten – without getting angry about it, it’s a sign that you’re not dealing with the situation. Anger in this sort of situation is healthy and good, because it shows that your moral compass is working. A wrong has indeed been done, and anger is the correct response to that. It is, to coin a phrase, What Jesus Would Do. As Christians, we are called not to remain in anger but to rise above it and forgive, but if a wrong has been done to you or someone you love, getting angry about it can be a good thing.

This, after all, is why God gets angry about sin: it hurts people He loves. He is so incensed about it that He was prepared to die in order to make an end of it once and for all. He can feel wrath – destructive anger – in perfect love. He’s the only One who can, because He alone has all the facts and is not a slave to His anger but Master of it.

This is why the Bible instructs us to get rid of wrath. In our fallenness, wrath is a state we cannot safely enter, because we don’t automatically track with God’s view of the situation and we don’t express our anger with perfect justice and perfect love.

Mostly, though, what the Bible tells us to be rid of is destructive, fallen anger of the kind that enables sin. Fits of rage – flying off the handle over minor infractions, especially the consuming anger that just wants to destroy. Bitterness, which is anger turned inward rather than given vent in any healthy way. Anger directed at the wrong object.

But anger itself is not the problem. We’re in a fallen world, which means that injustices happen. As Christians, we ought to be angry about that, angry not at God because we apparently can do a better job than He and would never have allowed this to happen, but angry at the injustice itself. We should be galvanised by God’s anger at injustice, enough to do something to put a stop to it. Not one of the great reformers of the past – Shaftesbury, Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr, or any of the others – ever did anything to fix the abuses of this broken world without getting angry about them, I guarantee it.

“Endless Genealogies”: The Lineages of Cain and Seth (Retro Week)

This week is “Retro Week” on this blog. I’m reposting selections from the archives. This one originally dates from 26th March:

Despite I Timothy chapter 1, I have to confess to an abiding fascination with the genealogical tables in the Bible. I realise, of course, that most Westerners aren’t with me on this; many people seem to come at them with an idea of “Hmm, long list of names. Little to no detail given about them. I’m not even sure how to pronounce most of them. Why is this even here in the Bible? Moving swiftly on…

While I can sort of understand this, I can’t really relate; I think dismissing them entirely is a mistake. Having said that, however, when people do say something about them it often provokes a “Huh?” response in me and leaves me wanting to quibble over their interpretation or its implications. Maybe this is why St. Paul advised us to avoid “myths and endless genealogies”. Little good can come from arguing over peripheral details.

It occurred to me, though, that it might be worthwhile to unpack one or two of these Biblical genealogies a little, hopefully without delving into the “myths” we are told to avoid. So let’s look at what are arguably the mother and father of all genealogical lists: the lines of Cain and Seth.

The line of Cain is a lot more bare bones than that of Seth. There are no ages given, and it extends only for seven generations from Adam. We’re told at the start that Cain built a city (this from the one God said would be “a restless wanderer on the earth” – more on this later) and named it after his son Enoch. Then the line picks up with Enoch’s son.

From Adam, then, we have:

  1. Adam

  2. Cain

  3. Enoch

  4. Irad

  5. Mehujael

  6. Methushael

  7. Lamech

Then we get some of the few details we are given in the passage. Lamech marries two women (the implication being that this is a new thing) and becomes the father of four named offspring: Jabal, of whom we are told that he was the father of “all who live in tents and keep flocks”, his brother Jubal, father of “all who play the harp and flute”, their half-brother Tubalcain, maker of “all kinds of tools of bronze and iron” and his sister Naamah.

We’re also told of Lamech’s pronouncement of vengeance “seventy-seven times”. Again, more on this later.

The lineage of Seth, by comparison, is more detailed. We are given ages for the patriarchs, and the line itself goes longer: ten generations from Adam to Noah. There’s an introduction to the line at the end of the previous section, dealing with the first couple of generations. In this we learn that Seth was the one Eve said was “granted” by God to replace Abel, whom Cain killed. The implication here is that the two lineages are to be viewed in contrast or opposition to one another; Seth’s line is representative of righteous Abel.

The line of Seth, then, is as follows (beginning from Adam):

  1. Adam

  2. Seth

  3. Enosh

  4. Kenan

  5. Mahalalel

  6. Jared

  7. Enoch

  8. Methuselah

  9. Lamech

  10. Noah

Then the line divides between Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

At once we are struck by the similarity of many of the names: Enoch and Enosh (and Sethite Enoch himself turning up later), Irad and Jared, Methushael and Methuselah, Cainite Lamech and Sethite Lamech. Cainite Lamech’s three sons versus Noah’s three sons. Given that we are basically invited to view the two lineages as a contrast, this is very interesting.

A line of righteousness and a line of sin. Almost the same names, but with some few differences, and with the sinful Cainite line missing some.

I don’t know about you, but this put me in mind of the way Satan will counterfeit the work of God. He’s not very creative. Creativity comes from God, and Satan is opposed to God and all His works. All he can do is make bad copies. If you read the line of Seth first, the line of Cain looks like a poor-quality copy of the real one, missing all the details that make it live.

And yet he can’t suppress the Divine image completely. It’s out of the line of Cain that the innovations of pastoral nomadism, musicianship and metallurgy come down to us.

It’s easy to go so far in our contrasting of the lines of Cain and Seth as to paint the Cainites as entirely evil and unredeemable from start to finish. After all, the line of Cain begins with the first murderer and ends with the first polygamist and a man who takes the idea of vengeance so thoroughly into his own hands that he is prepared to kill in response to being struck. Yet it’s from him that we get the first musician, the first shepherd and the first metallurgist. And it’s from Cain that we get the first city. Are we to damn all of these things because of their origins in the line of Cain?

Obviously not. King David was a harpist. Abraham was a nomadic shepherd. God describes Himself as a metallurgist testing the heart like gold or silver. And Heaven is a city: the New Jerusalem.

To me, it points to the fact that the line of Cain, too, are made in the image of God. Which makes the eventual judgement of God that “every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time” that much more tragic. Cain’s descendents weren’t fated to produce evil. They chose, every step of the way, to head down the path into wickedness. As did most of the descendents of Seth, it seems. It wasn’t just the line of Cain that was wiped out in the Flood.

Cain’s building of a city is an interesting physical statement from one whom God had consigned to be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Cities don’t exactly wander here and there. The whole incident between Cain and Abel arose from Cain’s do-it-yourself approach to God. Back when Adam and Eve first sinned, God made coverings for them out of skins, showing that something had to die for their sin to be covered. Cain’s ignoring this and trying to bring whatever old thing he felt like as an offering to the Lord showed what was in his heart.

We can’t have a relationship with God on our terms because our sin gets in the way. It’s rather like saying to someone, “I’ll marry you, but I’m going to keep sleeping around with anyone else I feel like. You need to accept this or no deal.” It’s missing the point, and it’s not going to work. No-one righteous or truly loving is going to agree to that.

Cain’s offendedness when God gently exposed what was in his heart prompted the first murder, which was also the first example of religious violence. Even after God’s mercy in not putting him to death and in preserving him from vengeance, he still seems to want to approach God on his own terms. He builds a city, perhaps in an attempt to circumvent the punishment of God on him: Enoch (which in the Sumerian or Akkadian version of Semitic language would probably be the somehow more satisfyingly primeval-sounding Unuk), the primordial city. Nothing’s said about his son Enoch, for whom the city is named. We don’t know what his personal character was like. But we do know that Adam’s choice for sin over God set in place a downward spiral of more and more choice for sin rather than God. Sin begets sin. Or as the great theologian Yoda put it, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”.

The downward spiral is complete enough by the generation of Lamech that no-one of any moral sense wants to follow their line any more. The detailing of Cain’s story stops here. Lamech threatens vengeance ” not seven times over but seventy-seven times”; it may be this which Jesus contrasts when asked about how many times we should forgive. Lamech promised to take revenge seventy-seven times over. Jesus said, “No. Forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). Don’t take revenge. Lay down your offendedness, your woundedness. Forgive and be healed. It reveals how far off-base people were getting.

By contrast, the line of Seth is traced from the one who is “granted” as a replacement for Abel, as I mentioned above. The seventh from Adam, Enoch, we are told “walked with God”: perhaps a reference to the previous time in Genesis where we are told about God walking: when He’s looking for Adam. But in contrast to his forefather, Enoch isn’t fleeing and hiding from the Lord, but walking with Him. The picture is one of relationship. The relationship was so close that it seems God couldn’t wait for him to die; he’s the only one in the list whose entry doesn’t finish with the leaden litany “and he died”, emphasising like a hammer blow the consequence of sin that human beings were never meant to bear. Enoch, by contrast, “walked with God and then he was not, because God took him”.

It’s intriguing to speculate on the circumstances of this antediluvian Elijah. The New Testament book of Jude states that he was a prophet, quoting the Jewish apocryphal Book of Enoch as pointing to God’s coming judgement. However, anything we say about him beyond what we are actually told in Scripture is speculation, and runs the risk of stepping across into the “myths” we are cautioned against by St. Paul.

Enoch’s son is Methuselah, famous as the longest-lived man in the Bible, with an astonishing 969 years of life. While I do not want to get into a discussion of the extraordinary lifespans of the antediluvian age, Methuselah’s is worth mentioning because of his name. One possible interpretation of the meaning of his name is the intriguing statement “When He Dies, Judgement”. It’s especially interesting because if you count up his age, he dies in the year of the Flood.

Remember, Methuselah was named by the prophetic Enoch. Was Enoch forewarned by God not only of the impending judgement, but on when it would come?

It’s possible. But what I want to draw out of this is the connection between the meaning of his name and the length of his lifespan. The one whose name might mean “When He Dies, Judgement” just happens to be the longest-lived man in the Bible. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, God is slow to anger. It takes time and effort to bring Him to the point of judgement.

Sadly, it seems the pre-Flood human race spent both on deliberately choosing sin over God. The Lord’s statement of grief over humanity reveals a profoundly terrifying condition: “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Think about what that means. No redeeming features – evil all the time. Injustice, oppression, greed, lust, arrogance, lying, cheating, violence and murder. Every vice and perversion you can imagine, and a few you can’t, given free reign among people living for eight or nine hundred years at a time. We say people of eighty or ninety sometimes “get a bit set in their ways”, usually meaning “stubborn, difficult and a little mean-spirited”. Now multiply that by a factor of ten and make the people concerned hell-bent on evil. This is Hitler able to talk tactics with Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Al Capone and Ivan the Terrible sitting down to plot together. Every author of genocide and cruelty in the past 8-900 years able to watch and learn from one another, and egg one another on to further depths of depravity.

With the evident downward spiral we see in what’s recorded of the line of Cain, it’s evidence that yes, they really did deserve it when the Flood came.

Contrast Noah. His name is practically the same as the Hebrew word for “comfort”, and his father said of him that “he will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed”. While I’m not sure that a global flood was what Lamech had in mind for “comfort”, the salvation of Noah and his family did put an end to the rampant sin whose origin had been the cause of the curse on the ground. Picturing the earth itself breathing a sigh of relief doesn’t seem too out of place.

Noah is described as “walking with God” (which shows relationship with the Lord), and as being “righteous” (which we understand from the New Testament to be a matter of faith) and “blameless” (by which we understand holiness of lifestyle). What John Wesley called “Christian perfection”: the state of grace in which you walk so closely with God that you don’t sin as a matter of course, but love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. The contrast with his wicked and depraved generation could not be more profound.

As an aside, it intrigues me that the names of neither Noah’s wife nor of the wives of his sons are mentioned in Scripture. Lamech’s two wives get names. Even his daughter gets a name. Why not the righteous women?

I have a theory about that, though. Throughout the ancient world, there has been a tendency to want to deify primeval mother figures. Mothers are both strong and feminine, and bring forth life. This last especially is a divine attribute. My personal theory is that God did not want anyone making an idol of any of the mothers of the new human race. Indeed, considering that Moses is credited with assembling Genesis along with the other four books of the Torah, it’s possible that some of the pagan cultures around had already done so by his time, and that they were being worshipped by name as the mother goddesses of the ancient world.

Speculation, but interesting speculation. Take it with a whole spoonful of salt, not just a grain.

Anyway, returning to Noah. A man in relationship with his Lord. A man of faith. A man walking in holiness. What we’re told of him is that in contrast to his wicked and violent generation, he “found grace in the eyes of the Lord”.

He found grace. Unmerited favour. Not because he was sinless. Because God was pleased to show grace to him. And through him, to rescue the human race and bring forward His eternal rescue plan to deliver us from sin once for all.

Mercy (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.

The qualities of courtesy and mercy go together. The idea of courtesy can also be expressed as graciousness, being full of grace, and grace and mercy together are the two primary character attributes of God.

I am, however, for the purposes of this series unifying the virtues of justice and mercy, which is a little less immediately obvious.

I’ve blogged before on the subject of justice and mercy, and much of what I’ve already said is also applicable here. However, this series comes at the subject from a slightly different angle, so it may be worth reiterating.

As a knightly virtue, what is mercy? And what is justice? The chivalric vows of the Song of Roland include vows “to fight for the welfare of all”, “to give succour to widows and orphans”, “to protect the weak and defenceless” and “to eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit”. All of these vows could realistically be viewed through a lens of either mercy or justice; in practical terms, the chivalric outworking of mercy and justice is identical.

In short, showing mercy means fighting for justice. In the situation of an offence, compassion for both victim and perpetrator means we want to see justice done. Justice, not revenge: vengeance is not ours to grasp, but rests with the Lord as the ultimate Sovereign and the only One with all of the facts. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a step forward in terms of justice, setting forth the idea of punitive balance and limiting the sentence to the equivalence of the crime. Even today, we look at some sentences and decry them as unreasonably harsh.

But at the same time, showing mercy for a victim means fighting for justice for them. Protecting the weak and defenceless; those who cannot protect themselves.

In chivalric terms, justice and mercy run together as the constraint on our strength. Might is to be used in the service of Right, whether our “might” is literal physical strength or economic muscle or popularity and persuasiveness or positional authority.

This is what separates the knight from the bully. Bullies use their strength in no-one’s service but their own, to cow, terrorise and dominate. We can see the bullies in all walks of life – physical bullies, emotional bullies, economic bullies, political bullies, authoritarians and petty despots…

Fighting against these doesn’t always involve fists. In fact, in most cases that’s the least desirable option. But mercy requires that unrighteousness be opposed.

This is how God can be a God of love and a God of wrath. Evil really is evil, and mercy means doing what is in your power to end the suffering it causes.

In Divine terms, making a final end of evil will be so final that only righteousness will endure. And we none of us measure up to that absolute standard. In the wisdom of God, there’s a way through the apparently irreconcilable imperatives of love for humanity and anger against the hurt caused by evil. We can be brought to the side of righteousness.

Mercy and justice both are the outworking of love and compassion. Seeing a need (widows and orphans, the weak and defenceless) and taking steps to do something about it. Standing up for those who cannot do so. Doing good to those that need it.

Legend has a name for those warriors who embody all of the knightly qualities but this one: the Black Knight. Of dauntless courage, courteous, loyal to his liege and even possessed of a towering integrity, the Black Knight is nonetheless black-hearted and evil, a symbol of warrior virtue gone wrong, because they have no mercy in them and are contemptuous of weakness. Let us not go there, but rather, use the symbol of the Black Knight as a lesson in the importance of this virtue. Because anyone can be brave, but it takes a truly strong person to show mercy.

In the planetary terms of my Mediæval cosmological symbol scheme, Mercy is of course associated with Venus. In the planetary symbology of the Middle Ages, Venus and Mars stood for the feminine and masculine archetypes. A legacy of this is the use of the planetary symbols of those planets to represent male and female in biological texts. Indeed, that association has become the norm, and many have probably forgotten their origins as planetary symbols.

Interestingly, though, we as Christians often seem to want to feminise mercy. Spiritual gift inventories are particularly prone to this in my experience, which can often leave men who score highly in mercy feeling somewhat uncertain or disappointed.

Mercy need not be entirely feminine, however, any more than courage need be entirely masculine. The Scripture is full of both courageous women and merciful men.

We shouldn’t be in the situation where we have to rescue the manly qualities of mercy or detail what a masculine mercy looks like, but somehow we appear to be there anyway. For the record; nowhere does the Scripture indicate that any of the spiritual gifts are segregated by gender, least of all mercy. Perhaps we could do with letting go of our Christian cultural gender expectations a little and not trying to second-guess the Almighty Giver of Gifts in what He is doing.

If this post can broaden a few minds as to what mercy might look like, then my job here is done.

The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction)

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I have a deep-seated love of the ideals of knighthood. Elsewhere I’ve half-jokingly said that I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body of a 21st-Century nerd.

I like the idea of chivalry, in its full original sense combining valour and courtesy in a single system. My concept of manhood is largely tied to the knightly ideal.

It occurred to me that I might have a look at the chivalric virtues and how we might apply them today, in the post-modern world of cynicism and mistrust.

Why do this? Isn’t the whole idea of chivalry rather sexist? Not to mention antithetical to the ideals of democracy and capitalism. Why waste time on such a Quixotic project?

I’ll admit that this is largely for my own benefit. In choosing to cleave to the ideals of knighthood, it behooves me to have a clear sense of what I’m aiming at. But I have had vague thoughts for a while now on the notion of seeing if I could work out some kind of teaching for children, and probably in particular boys, based on the chivalric virtues. Tilting at windmills is not part of the plan.

The allegation of sexism is more serious. I’d argue that it’s applicable to the debased form of patronising courtesty that the word “chivalry” has come to mean rather than what I have in mind. I’d have no problem with the idea of a woman choosing to live by this sort of code without sacrificing her femininity. The Middle Ages even had a term for such a one, coming to the age from the Vikings: the “shield-maiden“. Arwen Evenstar in Lord of the Rings, or Guinevere riding out with spear and shield to rescue the young Arthur is a good example of the type: not an Amazon (in Greek, literally “without breasts”) – a woman who sacrifices femininity for valour – nor a damsel in distress, but balancing femininity with chivalric honour.

I’d argue that our ideas of “strong” and “weak” have changed enough that women are no longer automatically to be viewed as “weak” and in need of a (male) rescuer.

Firstly though, of course, we need to define which virtues we mean. At this temporal distance, it’s hard to tell whether something is authentically one of the Mediæval chivalric virtues or whether it’s a modern anachronism that happens to look good. No doubt they will need some updating (as above, for example), but if we’re going to do this, we should do it properly and start with an authentic list.

Is there such a thing?

Investigation reveals that there are numerous lists of chivalric virtues compiled by different authors, and that they vary considerably. The Chanson de Roland (or “Song of Roland”), one of the definitive works of chivalric literature from the period, lists seventeen vows that the knight Roland makes, forming the core of chivalry as it was understood.

But seventeen is an awfully big and particularly unsymbolic number. Can we distill them down to a more manageable and memorable list of virtues?

Other contemporaries certainly did so. Some list as many as twelve chivalric virtues, others nine or seven, others as few as four.

There being no single definitive list, it seems I can use my own judgement. Trust the soul of the knight within, as it were.

The seventeen vows of the knight Roland were as follows:

  • To fear God & maintain His church

  • To serve the liege lord in valour & faith

  • To protect the weak & defenceless

  • To give succour to widows & orphans

  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence

  • To live by honour & for glory

  • To despise pecuniary reward

  • To fight for the welfare of all

  • To obey those placed in authority

  • To guard the honour of fellow knights

  • To eschew unfairness, meanness & deceit

  • To keep faith

  • At all times to speak the truth

  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun

  • To respect the honour of women

  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal

  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

By a process of comparing these vows with other existing lists of chivalric virtues, I have distilled it down to the following list. I should note that this is not a definitive list, because such does not exist. It’s my personal list, and you are welcome to take it or leave it.

  1. Courage

  2. Faith

  3. Mercy

  4. Justice

  5. Largesse

  6. Courtesy

  7. Fealty

There. The astute reader may be surprised at a list of chivalric virtues that does not include the most basic knightly quality of honour, but it appears to me that honour is so inextricably tied to so many of these other virtues that I would contend that the virtue of Honour arises from all of the other virtues together, or itself gives rise to them all. The chivalric virtues, then, describe what honour looks like.

I plan to take a series of posts, probably intermittently, and look at each one of the virtues invividually, but in this overview, some idea ought to be given of the scope of each one. Meanings are not always obvious, and I’m deliberately using some words anachronistically rather than in their modern shades of meaning.

This, then, is how I understand these named qualities:

Courage is one of the more readily understood qualities, including not only physical bravery against material threats but also moral courage, the willingness to stand up for what is right even if no-one else is and the willingness to face up to an uncomfortable truth. Its opposite qualities are not only cowardice but bravado – making a show of boldness to hide one’s true fear.

Faith, on the other hand, has a considerably broader meaning than our modern usage would suggest. Faith to us implies first and foremost the idea of religious feeling. Belief in God. In Mediæval thought, however, it’s not belief alone but trust which is at the heart of the idea of faith. An individual of faith not only exhibits an active trust in God, but shows trustworthiness and trusts those who merit it. He or she gives the benefit of the doubt, though is not blind to the fact that some are indeed faithless. She or he keeps their word and acts with integrity.

Mercy covers Roland’s vows of protecting the weak and defenceless, giving succour to widows and orphans, and fighting for the welfare of all. In the words of one definition, mercy is “seeing a need and wanting to help”. And then being moved by that desire into action.

Justice covers a lot of familiar ground, just like courage. It’s tied to faith in its Mediæval sense – acting with integrity and righteousness – but goes beyond, into the idea of proactive standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

Largesse is a deliberately old-fashioned word. It’s mostly the same as generosity, but it goes beyond that idea. It’s tied to magnanimity and graciousness as well as generosity, and is the opposite of covetousness and avarice. In Roland’s vows, the idea of despising pecuniary reward – doing things not for payment but because they are the right thing to do – encompasses the notion of largesse.

Courtesy is the most similar to what most people think of when they hear the word “chivalry”. However, I am not meaning an empty formalism or condescension, but an attitude of consideration and restraint. The knight Roland’s vows to respect the honour of women – particularly needed in light of #Yesallwomen – and to refrain from the wanton giving of offence encapsulate the idea. We do not go out of our way to offend people, similar to the Biblical injunction not to put any stumbling-block in anyone’s way.

Fealty is another Mediæval word, like largesse, involving respect for authority and knowing one’s place in the order of things. I am expanding it here to include the related idea of humility as expressed in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” It goes downwards as well as upwards, tying the one in authority to the one under authority as surely as the other way around. In modern terms, it’s expressed in the ideas of loyalty and allegiance, acknowledgement that you are part of something greater than yourself, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Seven virtues, which if I wanted to be really Mediæval I could tie in to the characters of the seven Mediæval planets: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But while several of them are easy – Courage would go with Mars and Fealty with Jupiter, for example – other relationships are not so clear. So perhaps I won’t.

Edit: It occurred to me some time after publishing this that if I combined the virtues of Mercy and Justice (weird on the face of it, but see here), and separated Humility out from Fealty, that I could get a one-to-one correspondence between the Mediæval planets and my list of chivalric virtues. Which makes a nice (and very appropriate for the time period) secondary symbolic framework to hang this list on, so I might tweak my list enough to do that.

The revised list, with its planetary correspondences, would be as follows:

  1. Faith – Luna

  2. Courtesy – Mercury

  3. Mercy – Venus

  4. Largesse – Sol

  5. Courage – Mars

  6. Fealty – Jupiter

  7. Humility – Saturn

I will explain these correspondences more over the course of this series.

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.