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Friday, August 10, 2007
(11:18 AM) | Stephen:
Righteousness vs. Love

Let's talk about sin, shall we? It's a big part of Christianity, and a huge part of why people criticize Christianity. The Westminster Shorter Catechism has the classic definition of sin, which is, "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." That is to say, anything at all which either fails to live up to the perfect law of God and/or which breaks that law - sins of "omission" and sins of "commission."

I can accept that definition; indeed I need to if I want to be true to my faith. However, such a definition is not the final word on the matter. John Wesley said that sin is "a willful transgression of the known law of God." In Wesley's formulation, for sin to be "sin, properly so-called" the person needs to know that it's wrong and needs to make a free, conscious decision to commit the sin.

Wesley didn't want to do away with the classic definition, though. His distinction among sin is that while each "type" of sin - those sins which are knowingly committed and those about which we are completely ignorant - absolutely require forgiveness and grace, the latter sins are provided for by "prevenient" or "preventing" grace.

Grace - that's the thing which must always be a part of any discussion of sin. Paul said that no matter how much sin there may be, grace will always be more abundant. No matter how grievous the sin, how despicable the sinner, there is enough grace, and more, and even more. In the next chapter (Romans 6) he addresses the question of whether, then, we should intentionally sin in ever-increasing amounts so that the abundance of grace could be increased in ever-greater amounts.

Well, no. That's cynical, and if you read the Bible you'll find that God has a surprisingly low tolerance for things like that.

Prevenient grace - the grace that "goes before" - is a key element of Wesley's theology. It means that God's grace infuses all of creation, that before there is any understanding of God, or sin, or forgiveness, there is God's grace doing its work of drawing people to him and providing for forgiveness. The doctrine of prevenient grace is why it's ok to baptize infants and allow children to participate in Communion.

The biggest difference between Wesleyan/Arminian theology and Reformed theology is that the former emphasizes and relies upon God's grace and love, while the latter emphasizes and relies upon God's sovereignty and righteousness. If your starting point is "God loves us and extends grace to us," then you will tread a far different path than if you start with "God is sovereign and righteous."

Because, ultimately, righteousness and love are going to come into conflict with one another. Righteousness, sovereignty and justice are strongly objective categories. They can be defined, spelled out, and applied universally, to every situation. Righteousness, then, allows us to set forth right behavior and wrong behavior in any and every situation - and it does not allow us to deviate at all, for any reason.

Starting with God's sovereignty and righteousness leads us to elaborate forensic formulations about the purpose and work of Jesus. It's very reductive, making Jesus into nothing more than a particularly powerful and efficacious sacrifice as prescribed by the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Mosaic Covenant. Certainly there is that element in the New Testament, but that doesn't explain the whole of Jesus' life, actions and teachings.

But these extremely rigid formulations about how the death of Jesus ultimately satisfies God's requirement of blood sacrifices to atone for our sins are necessary to reconcile the way in which the love that is present in God's forgiveness conflicts with the idea that his sovereignty expressed through his righteousness is his primary characteristic.

Don't think that love and righteousness can conflict? Let's take a look, then, at a particularly famous parable told by Jesus: that of the "Good Samaritan." It's a simple story. A Jewish man is robbed by literal highway bandits, beaten and left for dead. The next several travelers on that road consist of a Jewish priest, a Jewish Temple assistant and then a Samaritan businessman. Samaritans are believed to have been the descendants of those people who were left in Palestine after the defeat of Israel and Judah. They considered themselves to be the true heirs of the faith of Israel's patriarchs, while the larger Jewish community considered them to be collaborators with Israel's enemies, half-breeds and heretics.

But the point of the parable is deeper and larger than the idea that someone hated by Jesus' audience could be the "hero" of the story. It's important, vitally important, to understand that the priest and the Temple assistant didn't do anything wrong. You can follow this link for a BibleGateway search for the term "dead body" within the context of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Put simply, the Jews had a lot of rules for when to touch a dead body and what needed to happen afterward. Anyone who did touch a dead body, even if absolutely necessary and unavoidable, was ceremonially unclean and could not participate in worship of any kind. The rules for priests, for anyone associated with the holiness of the Temple were even more stringent.

The priest and Temple assistant that passed the dying man on the road did the right thing. We're so programmed to think otherwise that it's hard to see their actions as anything but inappropriate, but the truth is that these men preserved their righteousness before God. They were, according to Jewish law and tradition, blameless in the matter.

That Jesus then brings a Samaritan down the road is significant for more than just how much Samaritans were despised by the Jews. Romans were similarly hated, if not more. If Jesus' point had been to merely bring up a hated ethnic group, a Roman - especially a soldier - would have done quite nicely. But the Samaritans had something that the Romans didn't - namely, an obligation to maintain the exact same standards of purity as the Jews.

In other words, in order for the Samaritan to help the man on the side of the road, even to merely find out whether he was truly dead or still alive, the Samaritan had to sin. Even though the Samaritan didn't have any duties at the Temple in Jerusalem over his head, he still broke Torah in order to care for the man at the side of the road. The Samaritan broke Torah, he made himself unclean, all for the sake of a man who, given the common attitudes of the day, would probably not return the favor and who, had he known what was going on, would have refused the help in the first place.

On the road between Jerusalem and Jericho a man was robbed, beaten and left for dead. Three men passed by the spot where he lay, and all three of them had a choice: Love or Righteousness. It was a clear choice, no ambiguity, nothing in Torah that gave any of them an out, an excuse to contravene the clear commands of God.

Love versus Righteousness. We are all faced with this choice. We all must decide which it will be, for the two are often in conflict with one another. Even God has faced this choice, has been forced to decide whether he will be defined by his own righteousness or by his love. When God set up his covenant with ancient Hebrews, he made it clear that they were under his protection and owed him their entire allegiance. If they strayed from him, then he would wipe them from the earth. He would allow them to be completely destroyed, scattered, lost as a people. These were the terms of the covenant, of the sacred agreement between God and his people.

And we see that it started to happen. The ancient Israelites turned away from God, worshiped other deities, oppressed the poor, enslaved the foreigner, allowed widows and orphans to starve. Not only was it God's right to destroy them, but his obligation that he set forth for himself. Yet in Hosea 11 - merely one example - God speaks through the prophet of what he has done for Israel. This chapter is, in its form, similar to other litanies of this type that recount God's accomplishments for his people.

But this is a lament, not a list of God's victories or justification for demanding Israel's allegiance. This is one of those moments in the Bible where it's not explicit, but where it's easier to understand what God's going through if we understand him as Mother. The pain of our Heavenly Mother is clear in this passage, this litany of how much God and her children have been through.

Hosea 11
1 "When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 But the more I called Israel,
the further they went from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.

3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.

4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them.

5 "Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?

6 Swords will flash in their cities,
will destroy the bars of their gates
and put an end to their plans.

7 My people are determined to turn from me.
Even if they call to the Most High,
he will by no means exalt them.

8 "How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.

9 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come in wrath.

Faced with the choice between God's own righteousness and his love, God chooses love. Over and over again, God chooses love over righteousness. How could we possibly do any different?

Next we'll discuss a real-word example of this.

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