11. A QUESTION OF
New Covenant Thoughts on God's Justice, Mercy and Law
Q. "In a world of so much injustice, how can there be an omniponent (all-powerful) God?" is a question we often hear from unbelievers, so I wonder if this evening we might examine this question?
A. It is a difficult question not because it has no answers but because we, as mortal men and women, cannot possibly see the whole picture. It depends, to some extent (a) on how you define the word "justice", and (b) whether you relate it to a local, global or cosmic context. Part of the weakness of human reasoning on such subjects is our short-shightedness -- we are often determined to define such things from within our own limited perspective.
The English word "justice" has many meanings -- it can mean moral rightness (or, in other words, "righteousness"), equity, honour, fairness -- or it can mean validity with reference to law.
Q. Can justice be seen apart from law?
A. If there is no law, then there can be no justice, equity or fairness. And if the law is ever changing, as it frequently is in the moral sphere in our secular society, then justice has little meaning either. You cannot really discuss justice without reference to some kind of absolute truth and absolute law. Therefore I would say that in our secular society there is no guarantee that the law will meet out justice -- how can it, if it establishes a law contrary to God's?
Q. Of course, God's "justice" is often attacked as being grossly unjust and unfair by both unbelievers and, sometimes, believers too. Are there not now many Christians who look upon the Old Testament and Law of Moses as being unjust?
A. There are. And in maintaining such a position they undermine their whole faith. There has only ever been one absolute Divine Law though it has varied in detail according to local circumstances.
Q. How can something which is absolute vary??
A. The Law of God is built upon the foundational principle of love. Sometimes it is loving to embrace and praise a person, sometimes it is loving to scold, chastise and punish. Has love changed or become unjust? No, because God's love and man's perception of that love aren't necessarily the same thing. God has the cosmic perspective -- man has the local. God sees prophetically into the future, man rarely sees more than a few inches in front of his nose.
The fact of the matter is that justice cannot be seen without placing it in the context of mercy as well. Most, if not all, divine principles have polar aspects. Take two children who have been doing some domestic chores. They work for the same period of time, they expend the same effort, and the results are identical. Yet their father rewards them differently. There is indignation and a sense that the father has been unjust. But might there be other reasons? What if the one worked with love in his heart and the other with resentment? Should the reward be the same then? What if one child was much younger and could not possibly handle the kind of monetary reward received by the elder one?
Q. So there are many contingencies...
A. Let us take an example from the Bible, the well-known story of the parable of the labourers in Matthew 20. Here Christ likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a landowner who hired two lots of men -- one early in the morning, and one towards dusk when the bulk of the day's work had been done and the worst part of the heat was over. Those who were hired early became irked when the landowner paid the late arrivals exactly the same as those who had born the brunt of the work. Why, they reasoned, should he pay the same for one hour's work as for twelve? What was his answer?
Q. That the owner had the right to do what he wanted with his own money....
A. Yes, and that "the last shall be first, and the first last." And what would have happened if workers had been treated like this in our modern industrial society?
Q. There would have been a strike probably!
A. And maybe worse. Yet we are missing the whole point when we draw these conclusions -- we are leaping to conclusions without, as it were, reading the fine print at the bottom of the document. If we are to understand this parable as an exercise in divine justice we must not hop over some vital clues which will tell us what is really going on. Look carefull at the text and some very interesting things will be seen.
Firstly, the landowner pointed out to his complaining workmen that he had completely fulfilled his contract with them. They had negociated a price with him and they had agreed to "a denarius for the day" (v.2, NIV). Was the landowner in breach of contract?
Q. No, he honoured it completely.
A. Then was he unjust to the early morning workers?
A. No, he was not unjust. He had fulfilled his agreement. He did not cheat them. He was entirely fair. They had no cause for complaint.
Q. But what about the other workers?
A. Wasn't he fair to them too? Read the text carefully. Those who came late in the day said nothing about pay. They were glad merely to work. They were willing to trust the landowner to treat them fairly. Do you see the difference?
Q. The early workers wanted a contract, a guarantee...
A. And what does that tell you about them?
Q. That they had no faith -- they weren't willing to trust the landowner -- they bargained with him!
A. You've got it! They lacked faith. They were unwilling to act without a contract. They wanted a legal guarantee that they would be paid right. They negociated on their own terms.
You see, the two groups of workers approached the landowner on two totally different bases. The first group insisted on a contract, and the owner insisted on honouring it. The others worked by faith, trusting in the landowner to treat them fairly, knowing him to be a man of integrity and justice.
So here you have it -- a picture of two totally different ways of approaching God, for the landowner is a type of God, and the workers are types of Christians.
Q. So there are two laws operating, not one?!
A. Exactly! The first workers chose to follow a law of mistrust, and the second a law of trust or faith. The first insisted on being rewarded by their works, and were. The second wished to be rewarded by their FAITH. It is written in the scriptures that it is impossible to please God without faith (Heb.11:6). It is also written that we are justified by faith (Rom.3:8). And why? BECAUSE IT IS THE MOST LOVING.
God is love (1 Jn.4:8,16), and He loves faith above all because it is the greatest expression of love. It doesn't see the rewards but entrusts itself to God's providence and care (Heb.11:1).
This is not, however, cheap faith. The late workers didn't think to themselves: "It doesn't matter when we come because we know we'll be rewarded the same." They didn't come with any foreknowledge of what the landowner would do. For all they knew, he might have paid them half a denarius or even less. Their faith was genuine, not manipulative. So there is an ultimate level of justice here too -- the landowner, seeing their needs and willing hearts, decided to pay them on the basis of what they WOULD have done, had they had the opportunity.
Q. So there is no "cheap grace", as you have often preached?
A. Absolutely not. Faith is all encompassing -- it is an expression of the whole man. Our Heavenly Father sees into our hearts and knows whether our faith is genuine or simply manipulative. His justice is not, moreover, based on the QUANTITY but on the QUALITY of services rendered, with full account being taken of opportunities, motivation and trust.
Modern man is materialistic. Everything is measured in terms of the worth of things. Communism tried to apportion worth to things in terms of the quantity of effort or work-hours used in the manufacture of something. Capitalism has no such standard -- something is worth what you are willing to pay for it. But Christianity defines worth in a completely different way, as this parable teaches.
Q. The picture is clearly bigger and more complex than we have supposed. What about human relationships? What of the injustice of the heart-break that follows infidelity in marriage, for example?
A. Strong feelings are involved in such things and it is hard for those who are suffering to understand or appreciate the love and good that is operating from the cosmic perspective. We need only know that whatever suffering we are experiencing, have experienced, or will experience is permitted by God for our ultimate good. It is, I know, hard to understand this especially when we are caught up in the immediacy of tragedy. I've been through it myself many times both at home and in the Church. Afterwards -- and it's only usually afterwards -- we begin to sense the divine hand at work and to glimpse the love the lies behind such apparent incomprehensible darkness. This is all very much connected with the question of agency about which I have spoken in an earlier interview (see A Question of Agency).
Q. Perhaps I can home in on a biblical example, and one that gives me alot of problems in terms of God's justice. It's about King David and his first wife, Michal, who was deeply in love with him (1 Sam.18:20). Her jealous father was out to kill him and she helped him escape from the palace to become a fugitive. They must have been separated for a long time. With David gone, Saul married Michal off to Phaltiel and they lived together as husband and wife for many years until David, finally rid of Saul, called Michal to return to him (2 Sam.3:13). They were forcibly separated and the scripture says that Phaltiel was heartbroken and followed Michal weeping (v.16). The story ends with Michal despising David for dancing before the ark of the covenant (2 Sam.6:16) for which God made her barren (v.23).
A. What is your problem?
Q. Well, Phaltiel was obviously deeply in love with Michal and they were forcibly separated. Given that Michal was resentful of David I suppose she had stopped loving him. If David had truly loved her, why didn't rescue her and prevent the second marriage?
A. Do you know for sure that he didn't? There are, I think, many feelings tied up here, and we must be careful. Ultimately we are talking about the honour and integrity of God and His Law, not about romantic liasons. To be sure human feelings are important but all the seeds of this misery were sown earlier. God's law was specific and Saul, Phaltiel and Michal knew what it was. Michal belonged to David by covenant ratified by God. Saul deliberately broke God's law. Whether Michal aquiesced or was forced we do not know. Phaltiel was guilty of adultery -- he was "marrying" another man's wife. Maybe there was a fatal attraction between the two -- we simply don't know. We do, however, know who was in the transgression -- Michal belonged to David and she should have acted as such no matter what the circumstances. Whether she was abandoned by David is mere speculation -- she may have been so closely guarded, with Saul even secretly hoping David might try to effect a rescue and so capture him, that David couldn't have got anywhere near. We don't know.
God is outraged by adultery as we should be also. I am quite sure that Phaltiel was in love with Michal but that doesn't make it right. And it is at this juncture that I must make a vitally important point, namely, that the TRUTH is a thousand times more important than the passions of the heart.
The moment you start feeling sympathy for Phaltiel you trample on God's Word and His Law, which is holy and good (Rom.7:12). It is for such transgressions of the Law that Jesus Christ died on the Cross; the moment we sympathise with Phaltiel on the basis of raw feelings we re-crucify the Saviour in our hearts and spit on His atonement. That is the way the world thinks and feels.
Q. But what of the feelings of Michal? They were destroyed!
A. Maybe, you don't know that any more than I do. How do you know that she lived an exemplary life after her separation from David? That she disdained her husband's sacred dance before the ark demonstrated how out of touch with the Spirit she had become. She revealed a royal snobbery that was no doubt the result of that fatal sin called pride.
Let us be clear. David was in the right in this matter. That is not to say that he was entirely blameless for the failure of their marriage -- we don't know the details. But he was in the right. Our modern secular society would never have tolerated such an action and declared the two "divorced" because of "irreconcilability" but that is not how the Creator of Heaven and Earth views it. The world's views of marriage and divorce are a stink in His nostrils anyhow. We also have the added testimony that David's wives were not picked by himself but given him of the Lord Himself (2 Sam.12:8).
As a Bible-believing Christian I must stand or fall on the basis of what the Lord says in His Word and not follow the fickleness of my human passions when they choose to disagree with Him. David was fully justified and I do not think any more can be said. Justice was seen to be done. That David was willing to have an intimate relationship with her again after she had been despoiled and made unclean by Phaltiel says something about the generosity of his character. That she became barren was the result of her own sins.
Q. It seems we have returned to the old question of the Law again...
A. And praise God for that! Without His Law, where would we be? How would we know the difference between right and wrong? How would we know what pleased Him and what didn't? Without His Law we would have no justice and no peace.
Our delight, like David's, must be in His Law, on which we should meditate day and night (Psalm 1:2). Most Christians feel that God's law is harsh and burdensome, and they rejoice that God's grace has set them free from legalistic observance of the law. But the truth of the matter is that the law should be a delight to anyone who truly loves God. Even Paul, the great apostle, whom many suppose was "anti-Law", the "apostle of grace", said: "in my inner being I delight in God's Law" (Rom.7:22, NIV) and declared that "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good" (Rom.7:12). How can anyone then say that the Law is some way "bad", or that Paul was against it? Ludicrous! David rightly said that "the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul" (Psalm 19:7, NIV).
Yes, Paul was the apostle of grace but he was no less the apostle of the Law. Can you imagine what sort of justice there would be in the courts of the land if everyone was automatically acquitted on the basis of grace??! There would be chaos! Take the Law away and you have no means of identifying sin, no means therefore of repenting, and therefore no means of receiving forgiveness through the grace of Christ. Grace and Law are inseparable. The Law, and its justice, have never changed; but the way we apply it has.
Q. How so?
A. The Law was used to keep the people in check both for themselve and for the nation until a Messiah should come and make forgiveness of sins readily available to the contrite and repentant. No man was able to live up to it -- only Christ.
The Law has always been beneficial. Psalm 119 alone contains no less that 25 specific testimonies to the benefits of the Law which are timeless. "Blessed are those who walk in the Law of the Lord" (v.1) and "great peace have they which love thy Law" (v.165). Does this sound like someone imprisoned? Far from it -- it was as liberating for the psalmist as it is for us! The Law is my delight (Ps.119:77) and should be every Christian's...
Q. But it isn't...
A. No, because they love the lawless one more (2 Thess.3:8). They want freedom from accountability and a seared conscience, because they want to be their own masters like their father, the devil. A man fully submitted to God will also be submitted to His law, in love and faith. For such, their eyes will be opened and they will "behold wondrous things out of thy law" (Ps.119:18).
God's Law was not set aside when Christ came. This is no more clearly evident than from the first mention of the Law in the New Testament when Jesus said that He had not come to abolish the Law but to bring it to completion. He reminded us that not one single pen-stroke of it was to disappear until everything in Scripture was fulfilled! (Mt.5:17-18). This Law was not just for the Hebrew people, as we read in the Old Testament itself: "The same law applies to the native-born and the alien living among you" (Ex.2:49).
The Law cannot, of course, save a person for "whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (James 2:10, NIV). Christ "redeemed us from the curse of the Law" (Gal.3:13) which was that we could never live it in its completion in our own strength. Paul does not say that Christ redeemed us from the Law!
Q. I've never heard it put that way before!
A. That's because there is an in-built bias -- a filter, if you will -- which we have inherited from the Reformation tradition which persuades us that anything to do with "law" is bad. The Bible never criticises the Law, only the way in which men and woman approach it. If people would just pause and consider the total ludicrosy of dispensing with law by putting such a doctrine in a civil context the Bible would open new vistas for them.
Let me try and explain this from another angle. We all know that we cannot be saved by our own works, right?
A. Yet you will find that most people, not acquainted with the plan of salvation, believe that they will get into heaven on the basis of their own merit. Most people don't therefore see themselves as sinners in need of salvation. If you ask them why they don't the three typical excuses you will here are, "My good deeds outweigh my bad", or "I'm not as bad as some people," or "Usually I'm a good person." But such thinking is the result of lawless thinking...
Q. How come?
A. Well, imagine a citizen being brought to trial on several charges of shoplifting. It would be useless for that person to appeal to the judge saying, "Don't forget, my good deeds outweigh my bad," or, "I'm not as bad as many others", or "Most of the time I am a law-abiding citizen." What would happen if the judge accepted such an excuse??
Q. There would be a total perversion of justice. People could do whatever they wanted to by appealing to the good they had done in their lives.
A. Exactly! The offender must be judged according to the offence, not according to previous good deeds. If justice is to be done, someone must pay for the shop's loss of goods -- and that somebody should be the offender, unless another is allowed to bear the penalty instead.
Q. Which is what Christ did for us.
A. Yes, He paid the penalty for us sinners, which, according to Romans we all are, from the very bad to the supposedly "very good". "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom.3:23).
Do you see how false reasoning, caused by a perverted understanding of justice and law, can keep a person from the cross and from salvation? Christ has not done away with the Law -- the Law is the only thing which convicts us of sin, which in turn makes us turn to Christ for a redemption we cannot earn ourselves. The Law hasn't suddenly "disappeared" -- how could it? If it had, how could anyone ever be saved? You don't buy food unless you sense you need it, you don't bind a wound if you aren't aware of having seriously injured yourself, and you don't turn to Christ for salvation if you aren't aware of a Holy Law which governs justly, convicting sinners -- that's everyone -- of sin. No Law, no awareness of sin, no salvation.
Q. That, then, would appear to be the main problem in Christendom -- people are aware of so little law, sin appears inconsequential, and so their "salvation" -- if they are saved at all -- is superficial.
A. I think that's about right. But we must not think that the only purpose of the Law is to convict us of sin and to lead us to salvation. That is only one part of its function. Jesus told His disciples before His ascension to go out into the world, making disciples of all men, and teaching them to obey the commandments. The same theme is reitterated by the Lord to John in the Book of Revelation. How can there be commandments if there are no laws or principles?
Such should be a perfectly obvious yet it is astonishing how the father of lies has so blinded people that they can no longer see the obvious.
Q. Or don't want to see the obvious.
A. Yes, human nature, wishing only to justify its sinfulness, must in the end turn to unreason and impurity, for the logical mind and the pure of heart will see the truth in the end. There is a sense of justice deeply built into our spirits, which God has placed there, a light which is given to every man being born into the world (John 1:9, AV). Despite our defiled consciences, spoiled by sin, there is sufficient light in the darkness to testify of truth, mercy, law and justice.
We see the desperate attempts of those who departed from us in 1995 to avoid this truth. They have had to deny the Word of God, inventing their own fables to justify their seared consciences (2 Pet.1:16; Tit.1:14; 2 Tim.4:4; 1 Tim.1:4; 4:2). Now they reject those parts of the Bible they don't like, lumping all the things that disagree with them into the "old covenant" and the things they like into their own private "new covenant". In time their "old covenant" will embrace the whole Bible leaving only their hearts, which they vainly suppose is led by the Holy Spirit, but which in truth is fully under the government of the sinful man. What a tragedy!
Q. What hope is there for them?
A. They must believe the Word and love it -- all of it. They must confess to God and to men: "Thy word is very pure, therefore thy servant loveth it" (Ps.119:140, AV). Only then will they once again allign themselves with God's justice, and His servants who uphold "justice and righteousness" (2 Chr.9:8, NIV). They must, with Job, acknowledge that God does not pervert justice, or pervert that which is right (Job 8:3, NIV). "The Lord is righteous, He loves justice; upright men will see His face" (Ps.11:7, NIV). Those who do not love the justice of God will never see His face.
Q. This obviously applies to all those who dispute God's Word, and not just the 1995 schismatics.
A. Yes, it applies to all of us, for all of us at various times are wont to question His Word when difficulties sometimes make life seems meaningless.
Q. As I read Solomon I get the impression that he experimented with many different things and discovered that, in the end, only God's Word was trustworthy.
A. I assume you are referring to the Book of Ecclesiastes which really ought to be read by everyone who questions God and tries the way of human philosophy. Solomon's conclusion was remarkably succint and to the point:
"To sum it all up, in conclusion. Stand in awe of God, obey His orders: that is everything, for every man. For in judging all life's secrets, God will have every single thing before Him, to decide whether it is good or evil" (Eccles.12:13-14, Moff.).
An editor, making a few remarks prior to Solomon's words that I have just quoted, said the following: "The wiser the Speaker (Solomon) became, the more he taught the people knowledge; many a maxim he pondered and examined and arranged. The Speaker's aim was to find pleasing words, even as he set down plainly what was true. A wise man's words are like goads, and his collected sayings are like nails driven home; they put the mind of one man into many a life" (Eccles.12:9-11, Moff.)
Q. Is that why you have written so much in your life?
A. I suppose it must be. I feel compelled to write down and share everything that the Lord has taught me, whether it be through revelations or my own personal reflections. I do it because I want others who read them not only to draw closer to Christ but to avoid the mistakes I have made in my life, and so spare themselves the pain of deviating from the Word.
Solomon further said: "My son, avoid anything beyond the scriptures of wisdom; there is no end to the buying of books, and to study books closely is a weariness to the flesh" (Eccles.12:12, Moff.).
Q. That sounds pretty anti-educational and contrary to what you have taught concerning the necessity of study?
A. Perhaps I chose a poor translation. Let's take a look at the NIV: "Of making books there is no end, and much study wearies the body". What Solomon is saying is that making a study of the world's books in order to find the truth is a heavy burden indeed -- I have disgested thousands of them in my life but now have very little time for anything other than the Bible. That is not to say that I do not read other books, rather, I have set my priority in reading God's "scriptures of wisdom". There, despite the many unasnwered questions I still have, I found the answeres to the most important questions of life -- there I have found God's true justice, righteousness, mercy and love. They are the lenses through which I see everything else. I have tried many other books -- you have only to look at my library to see what I mean -- but I have come, ultimately, to the Book of Books. I commend to you as a scientist, as a pilgrim, as one who, though he has found his Redeemer, is still searching through its pages and discovering more light and truth each day., the Bible. It is enough, life is short, and too much studying is wearisome.
My desire is to celebrate God and His Christ. Let us praise His Holy Name and be about the building of the Kingdom. Amen.
Given in Oslo, Norway, on Wednesday 29 October 1997.
This page was created on 1 November 1997
Last updated on 13 February 1998
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