Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Father Judges No One -- 2

Adapted from Chapter 3 of “Heaven for Skeptics” © 2009 by Bert Gary for FaithWalk Publishing

What must I do . . . ?

You might be saying to yourself right now, “Yeah, Bert, you’ve written a lot about what Jesus has done, but isn’t there something I’m supposed to do?”

At least two biblical characters asked Jesus that very question. Here’s one of them:

Luke 18:18-27 A certain ruler asked [Jesus], "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 20 “You know the commandments . . .” (Jesus is brushing off the legalist. What the man wants is a do-gooder list. Fine. Here’s your do-gooder list.) 21 He replied, "I have kept all these since my youth." 22 [Jesus] said to him, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have (now) treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24 Jesus . . . said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 26 Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?" 27 He replied, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." (emphasis mine)

The disciples wondered: If a rich do-gooder can’t do enough to inherit the kingdom, then who can? Nobody can, Jesus says. It’s impossible to do anything to get the kingdom. But what’s humanly impossible, is divinely possible, because the kingdom can’t be earned. Neither is it for sale. It’s a gift. The Father makes it possible not by making a deal, but by giving it away. And it’s already yours to enter into and live, as you will see in Chapter 8.

Luke 12:32 "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (italics mine)

Did I answer the question? “Isn’t there something I’m supposed to do?” There is one thing. But it may not be what you think. It certainly has nothing to do with doing a good job of obeying the Ten Commandments.

Don’t I have to be well-behaved?

If it were possible to save the world by legal correction or threat of punishment, then the Ten Commandments would have done the trick. And the New Testament is firm about this: They (the laws) did not and cannot make us right with God. The Apostle Paul wrote about it clearly:

Romans 3:21 . . . apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed . . .

Romans 3:28 . . . a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Galatians 2:21 . . . if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Galatians 5:4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ ...

The reason (hopefully) that you don’t cheat on your spouse is because you have with him (or her) a relationship of love based on trust. If you don’t betray him/her because you’re afraid you’ll get caught, that’s the same as saying that the reason I don’t commit adultery is because the Ten Commandments warn that I shouldn’t. (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18) A relationship built on threat does not produce relational love and trust.

Do you see what the Scriptures are getting at? If the only reason you don’t cheat is because of religious prohibition and the fear of God’s punishment, then you don’t have a loving, trusting relationship with your spouse.
Jesus spoke to this in what’s called his “Sermon on the Mount,” but what he says is shocking. He’s not very selective when it comes to this adultery issue. Have you ever committed adultery? Some of you say No? Think again:

Matthew 5:27-28 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

“Judge Jesus” has spoken. We’re all adulterers. Murderers too:

Matthew 5:21-22 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder;’ and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment . . .”

His point? We’re all guilty as charged. We’ve all broken God’s laws—in our hearts if not in our actions. No one is innocent.

Romans 3:10 There is no one who is righteous, not even one . . .

Romans 3:23 . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .

Therefore no one has a right to brag about his moral performance.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God -- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

I suggest you throw yourself on the mercy of the court. We’re all guilty by judgment of the law. Jesus himself made this very point when in John’s Gospel he is recorded as saying to his legalist opponents:

John 5:45 “. . . your accuser is Moses on whom you have set your hope.”

If you want to keep score on how good you are at carrying out the laws of Moses, then Moses is your accuser. He accuses you because you are incapable of keeping his laws. If you hope on the law for your “ticket to heaven,” then there is no hope for you.

Paul wrote, however, that the law—good in itself—was given to his people as a kind of babysitter (paidagwgo,j paidagogos—schoolmaster) until they were grown up enough for grace to come, replace the law, and thus free them from the law:
Galatians 3:24-26 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian (paidagwgo,j paidagogos—schoolmaster) until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. (italics mine)
For the sake of argument, however, what would it mean were God to be more interested in threat and punishment than in a Life-infused relationship of love based on trust? It would mean that God’s amazing grace is a lie, and the only way to please your judge is by excelling in rule-keeping.

Do you prefer a judging God?

Do you prefer a judging God? Some people do. Maybe you feel you’re a good person, and that should count for something on judgment day. You figure you’ve done more good than bad in your lifetime. If the judge weighs the good and the bad on balance scales, surely it will tip in favor of the good. Is that what you think?

Some people prefer a condemning judge to a forgiving savior. What does that say about them? What does it say about any Christian when he prefers a God of threat and punishment over a God of love? Here’s a tough answer to a tough question.

It might say that such a Christian has not yet seen the scariest thing of all. While the condemning god-voice that some people like is scary, the light of God’s love is scarier still. For some people it may actually feel safer to take your chances with the hanging-judge than to have to honestly look at yourself as you are bathed in the truth of loving, forgiving, exposing light.

Many people, including Christians, it seems to me, have created a legal-god, an accuser-god, because he’s safer than the one who exposes your brokenness, your hurtful deeds, and your deepest pain. You can keep the ogre-god at arm’s length. You just appease him by avoiding bad stuff. No relationship necessary. You just try to please him with acts of devotion, like fasting or worshiping or giving money. Whatever. You can play religious games with the scorekeeper-god. But you don’t have to get close to him, nor do you have to stand in the exposing light of his loving truth.

If God’s not a legal God who will judge us, however, what about God’s law? Didn’t God give Moses the Ten Commandments [according to the Book of Exodus]? Aren’t they God’s legal expectations of us? In a just and civilized society, aren’t we supposed to be law-abiding?

Again, allow me to answer a question with a question. What would you think of someone who called the Ten Commandments ‘the ministry of death’? What if a person were to call the Ten Commandments ‘our curse’ and ‘the power of sin.’? Blasphemy, right? Who would dare? The Apostle Paul, that’s who.

Paul called the Ten Commandments, and I quote, ‘the ministry of death.’ (2 Corinthians 3:7). He also wrote,

1 Corinthians 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (italics mine)

And he wrote,

Galatians 3:10-13 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse . . . . But . . . Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law . . .

By none of this did Paul mean that the laws are bad. He wrote:

Romans 7:12-13 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. 13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good,

Galatians 2:16b . . . [No] one will be justified by the works of the law.

The laws are good, Paul says. But he also says they are for the immature in faith. They were given to Israel in her infancy as a babysitter until God could write a new law on her heart. The law is for the immature—like children.

Children need rules and discipline to protect them from themselves and others. But when you grow up, you need much more than “thou shall” and “thou shall not” in order to live. You need a real reason in your heart to do the right thing. The threat of punishment is not nearly enough for mature adults. Obviously it’s not enough. We fail at keeping the law every day. The law is our curse in that sense. Moreover, the laws of God are constant reminders of our failure to keep them. What a curse it is indeed to live each day under the condemnation of your own failures! But Jesus freed us from the curse:

Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law . . .

Christ is the end of the law because he fulfilled the law for us as a gift.

Why this seeming obsession with works of the law, both in the 1st Century and today? Jesus, it seems to me, was surrounded by do-gooder showoffs, as are we. Some conspicuously conscientious workaholics once asked Jesus,

John 6:28-29 “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (italics mine)

There is one thing you can do, as I mentioned above. But it’s not a law. Jesus absolutely refused to give them a legal checklist to heaven. He doesn’t approve of steps-to-salvation tracts. There are no steps. There is one single “work,” it’s not even really a work, and it’s stress-free. Scripturally speaking, salvation is the Lord’s work. So sit down and relax for a moment. Jesus is inviting you to stop being busy and burdened about the backbreaking load of moral performance, religious law-keeping, self-atonement strategies, and desperate deity-appeasing:

Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (italics mine)

There’s your answer to that nagging question, “Isn’t there something I’m supposed to do?” Yes, there is something. But weighing and recording your rule-keeping performance isn’t it. Running ever faster on the hamster wheel of religious busy-ness isn’t it.

Jesus says to come to him and rest. Rest; he says it twice. Let it be. Take it easy, he says. Lighten up too. And trust me. Believe in me. This IS the work of God. All that he asks is that you believe that he’s handled it all for you.

Do you accept this? It’s almost incredible. This is a whole new way of seeing God. We’re used to god-the-unmoved-judge. The omni-god, as theologian Baxter Kruger calls him, who watches from a distance, who is either disinterested in you or disgusted with you. He’s a legalist with impossible standards. You don’t measure up, and you are damned unless you can prove yourself worthy and change his mind. Do you know this scrutinizing omni-god? Can you love him as he demands?

Perhaps you’ve already made this connection, but the Father and the Son’s big plan for humanity was not to scrutinize it, control it, or condemn it, but to save it. (John 12:47b) Save it from what? From this very thing. From this legal condemnation. From futile religious striving. From the omni-god we’ve created to appease. Jesus calls our futile moral score-keeping the condemnation of Moses! He said,

John 5:45b “. . . your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope.” (italics mine)

Moses’ judgment is already made. Humanity was/is utterly condemned by the law of God given through Moses. But, here’s the tang in the pudding: God used our condemnation under the law for a radical, unthinkable purpose. God turned the curse of the law on its head for all of humanity. This is the key verse:

Romans 11:32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (italics mine)

Now if that doesn’t decapitate the little legalist inside of you, I don’t know what will. You might want to read that one again. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Of course the mercy Paul is talking about is the grace to all in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

John 1:16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (italics mine)

The New Testament letter to Titus drives this home with one swing of the hammer:

Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all . . . (italics mine)

Jonah despised God’s mercy

Remember Jonah and the giant fish (The Old Testament Book of Jonah)? This story is a perfect example of the scandal of God’s mercy. Jonah despised God’s mercy and wanted nothing to do with it!

Jonah is in Galilee, Israel. God tells him to go northeast to preach in Nineveh. It’s an Assyrian city in what is today Mosul, Iraq. Jonah without a word goes southwest to Joppa and boards a ship headed to Tarshish, the location of which is uncertain, but might be a reference to a region in faraway Spain! That’s as far as you can go via the Mediterranean Sea, and obviously it’s in the opposite direction that God instructed. Exactly where Jonah was headed is not necessary to get the point. God said go this way. He went the other.

Jonah tells the crew of his ship that the terrible storm they are experiencing is his fault. He’d disobeyed God and they should throw him overboard. He is guilty and deserves to die without mercy. This is Jonah’s way of showing God how judgment is supposed to work! If you’re guilty of disobeying God, God should show no mercy to you. It’s as if Jonah’s saying, See, God? Here’s how you’re supposed to do your job. I’m guilty. I should be destroyed. Nineveh’s guilty. It should be destroyed. Jonah is giving God an object lesson on how to be God! And Jonah sees no room for mercy. He wants the punishment he deserves, and he’d rather die than offer Nineveh a chance.

God, however, shows mercy to disobedient, arrogant Jonah by sending a big fish to rescue him. And God leaves him in the fish three days to give him a chance to think about this mercy business.

After the fish spits him on the beach Jonah heads for Nineveh. When he gets there he preaches a halfhearted sermon to only a fraction of the city. But against all odds the pitiful sermon he preached works. Nineveh listens and responds. And Jonah is fit to be tied:

Jonah 4:1-3 [T]his was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.  2He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  3And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." (italics mine)

But God shoots back at Jonah:

Jonah 4:4 And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

Anger is an appropriate and normal human emotion. Jesus himself got angry. (Mark 3:5) God’s not telling Jonah that anger is wrong. God is asking Jonah if he really thinks he has a right to be mad about this situation. Does he have a right to be angry that God is merciful? But Jonah doesn’t answer the question. He ignores God and the implication of what he has asked.

Instead, Jonah goes outside the city and makes a shelter to protect himself from the scorching desert heat. He sits himself down to watch God destroy Nineveh, as God should have done in the first place! He finds the idea of God’s mercy absolutely incomprehensible. Jonah never expected his pitiful unenthusiastic sermon to work. He never thought they’d listen or change. They deserve to die, and Jonah has a front row seat for the show! It’s a sit-in. It’s a protest. He is going to sit there until the God of the universe starts to act like the condemning god Jonah had created in his own mind. He wants fire and brimstone to rain down on those people. The god of his imagining would not and could not show mercy to Assyrians. They are enemies. They are evil. And Nineveh is the nerve center of the beast. If God is God, he must destroy them. Jonah sits and waits for God to repent (change his mind--metanoia) and do “the right thing”!

God, however, throws Jonah a curve ball—an object lesson of his own. He makes a shady bush grow up over Jonah to further protect him from the heat. Jonah thinks, now that’s more like it. God should reward good people (like me). And he should punish the evil people (like the Ninevites). If only Jonah had binoculars to see them suffer up close! Jonah watches in anticipation of “the show.” But God doesn’t destroy the city. Instead, God destroys the bush!

Now Jonah is really mad. He tells God again just to let him die. He can’t stand living in a universe where Assyrians get mercy, innocent bushes get smited, and God’s messengers get toasted in the blistering heat. God speaks to Jonah again about his outrage. Listen to this exchange. With it the Book of Jonah abruptly ends:

Jonah 4:9-11 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?"
And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."  10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

God is scandalously merciful, says the Book of Jonah. The End.

Luke records Jesus saying, “. . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Then Jesus continues by telling you and me (and Jonah!) to be like that too. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35b-36) Be scandalously merciful.

Once more: How does it work?

Who will judge? The Father delegated the task to the Son, and the Son delegated it to a word that the Father commanded him to speak, and that word was Life eternal. There’s your final judge. The Scriptures ask its readers: Do you celebrate the Life that God mercifully gives to all? Are you scandalized by such scandalous mercy? Will you choose to celebrate this gift of salvation already given to you and to the whole world, this gift of rich, full, abundant, and everlasting Life? Do you accept that you along with everybody else are forgiven? Do you like this “new covenant”?

Hebrews 8:8-13 "The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; 9 not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, on the day when I took them by the hand (with the law as their babysitter) to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant (they broke the law) 10 This is the covenant . . . : I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." 13 In speaking of "a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear. (italics mine) (see also Jeremiah 31:31-34)

What is “Life eternal” biblically if not an everlasting covenant relationship with God not based on a human’s performance under the law, but based on God’s forgiving, saving, scandalous, amazing grace to the whole world.

2 Corinthians 5:19 . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . . (italics mine)

Put simply, God’s not keeping score. (My internal legalist has a problem with that.) And if he’s not keeping score, why do I? (I just stepped on my own toes.)

So how does judgment actually work? If God the Father and God the Son judge indirectly by delegating it to the word of mercy—eternal Life given to the world—, then what happens when a person is judged?

The terms judge, judgment, and wrath are all used instructively by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans.

Romans 2:1-8 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2 You say, "We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth." 3 Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 For he will repay according to each one's deeds: 7 to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (bold and italics mine)

Paul here is making the following points:

  1. We all are guilty. Therefore how can we judge others?
  1. God is rich, Paul says, in kindness and forbearance and patience. This kindness is meant to lead you to repentance, that is, to change your judgmental mind.
  1. But if you don’t change your mind (repent), and you refuse to soften your hard impenitent heart, and you refuse to be merciful to others, then you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
  1. He will allow you to receive what you store up against others. If you judge others and won’t stop, the judgment comes right back at you like a boomerang on that day. The judgment you render on others comes back and nails you right between the eyes.

James made a similar point:

James 2:13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

You’ve thrown the boomerang of judgment at someone and it has come back and clobbered you. It happens every time. Judging others is a rejection of the Life offered to you and to those you judge.

Judged already

If you don’t think you can be judged already, check out the Gospel of John. He writes in the following verse that if you don’t receive the Life already given to you, you are judged already, that you’ve judged yourself by your response to the truth of light and Life:

John 3:18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (bold italics mine)

See Acts 13:46 too.

46 Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” (bold italics mine)

Those who judge others as unworthy of mercy have judged themselves unworthy of mercy. They have rejected Life. Judgment is activated against those who judge their neighbors. It’s not that God wants to be harsh with anyone. (On the contrary.) But a person’s harshness with others is allowed to come back and bite him. Nevertheless, mercy beats judgment always and forever. It triumphs ultimately. It forever wins in the heart of God.

Mercy in New Testament Greek is e;leoj eleos {pronounced el'-eh-os}. It means showing goodwill and giving assistance. But it also means letting people off the hook who don’t deserve it. The Scriptures are clear that those who are merciful to others need not fear judgment now or ever. A key quote from Jesus to Simon the Pharisee clarifies this. He said to Simon:

ESV Luke 7:47b “. . . he who is forgiven little, loves little."

Loving little is the inability to love perfectly, that is to love impartially without regard for whether you think the person deserves it or not. That is mercy in a nutshell. But you can’t offer love and mercy and grace to someone if you haven’t received it first yourself. How can you give what you’ve refused to receive?

Look, people who are unforgiving and scorekeeping are demonstrating the lack of forgiveness in their lives. It’s not that they aren’t forgiven—they are—but they haven’t allowed it inside. They have blocked mercy so they can keep their grudges. If they let themselves experience mercy, they wouldn’t be able to keep judging everybody. Superiority is a hard habit to break. It’s a powerful drug. The superior folk among us would rather be admired (or feared ) than loved.

That’s why control freaks are merciless. They show no mercy because they’ve rejected it for themselves. They’ll show you none (often with a crocodile smile) because they have none to show you. It’s not in them. You can’t share what you don’t have.

“You can only love and serve others to the degree that you know how God is loving and serving you.” Wayne Jacobson

To put it simply, when you love little you are naturally going to judge. A lack of mercy kicks judgment into gear. Those who receive mercy are less likely to refuse mercy to others. Those who refuse mercy for themselves become merciless judges. They love little. When you show no mercy by judging, it targets you. Jesus warned about this very thing.

Matthew 7:1-2 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

It’s very important not to put God in this verse. Jesus isn’t talking about his Father judging you, nor he judging you. Judgment ricochets all by itself. Nothing good comes of your judging others because it has this boomerang effect. When you hurl it at others, it only comes back and cracks you in the head!

The terms judge, judgment, and wrath are all used creatively by the Apostle Paul. Again, in Romans 2 he writes of wrath boomeranging.

5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 For he will repay according to each one's deeds: 7 to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (bold and italics mine) (Romans 2:5-8)

God’s righteous judgment is revealed as boomeranging wrath. So not only will the day of wrath be wrathful for the wrathful, but even now the wrathful are already judged by their own wrathfulness.

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