Honest Q & A: Bible (2) – Holiness, Righteousness and Justice

 

Question: What is the connection between holiness, righteousness and justice?

Good question, as the three are sort of related, but not the same thing. We’ll take them in reverse order, beginning with

Justice: Put most simply, this is giving someone what they rightly deserve. It can be either reward or punishment, including punishment for sin. It can be giving someone that which is their right, including helping orphans, widows or the poor, who may easily be subject to unfair treatment. Governments are to treat people justly, meaning they have to play fair and not play favorites. As pertaining to God, his justice would of course be perfect, as he sees every infraction but also perfectly understands every genuine mitigating or moderating factor.

Righteousness: This term is based on a concept something like “straightness,” leading to the thought of actions conforming to the norms or standards of right behavior. It is important, however, to view righteousness in light of relationship. We behave righteously toward one another when do what is required of us and promote the community’s peace and well-being. In Romans, Paul contrasts the righteousness obtained by the law (imperfect, for we will never behave perfectly in our relationship to God), and the righteousness obtained by faith (perfect, for divinely given). Thus, by faith we obtain a righteous status before God, something we cannot earn. He then equips us to live righteously before others and in his sight.

Holiness: Fundamentally, to be holy is to be “set apart.” It is an otherness in contrast with that which is common or profane. In the Old Testament, objects were set apart for use in the Temple worship, and were not used for anything else. There was a ritual purity attached to them that made them different. In the New Testament our word saints literally means “holy ones.” In other words, God has set certain people apart, namely, those who have received eternal life by faith. They are now holy because they have been cleansed from their sin and set apart for God’s special purposes. God’s holiness can be thought of as his ultimate and all-encompassing attribute. He is totally other and totally pure without any blemish or defect whatsoever. Thus, his holiness would include both justice and righteousness.

(In answering this, I consulted The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Grenz, Guretzki and Nordling, 1999; and New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, Tyndale, 1982)

 

Honest Q & A: Bible (1) – Sins of the Fathers

Some of the questions turned in for Honest Q & A relate to the Bible – as in, “What does this mean?” or “How should we properly understand that?” Today we will look at one such example.

In Exodus 20:5, God gives us a certain description of himself,

“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”

That alone might be hard enough to handle as is, but it is made a tad more difficult by something else God says in Ezekiel 18:20,

“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

What are we to do with this seeming contradiction? Is there a way to reconcile them? Or the even explain the apparent harshness of the first statement? I think there is.

For the first item, think in terms of the consequences of the fathers’, or even parents’ sins. (Moms don’t get a free ride here, I’m afraid.) These indeed are passed down from generation to generation, whether we like it or not. Consider the too-frequent example of the absent, irresponsible father. There is no denying that the children bear the consequences. And they don’t always overcome these obstacles, but as a result may be more prone to falling into various types of sin themselves, perhaps drunkenness. In that case, the consequences go farther and farther down the line. Sin can have lasting effects. Problems do pass down from generation to generation. Of course positive things can do the same, so the trick is to break any negative cycles and give our own kids a better chance. This is a general characteristic of how God has made the world. We are wise to take note of it and act accordingly.

On the other hand, in Ezekiel it seems necessary to make a distinction between consequences and actual guilt. The prophet is talking about the guilt of specific sins being handed down from parents to children. Therefore children will not suffer punishment from God based upon what the father has done. Referring to the earlier example, we might point out that the children do not bear the guilt of their absent father’s irresponsibility. They do bear the consequences, but not the guilt. He is guilty; they are not.  Consequences last. The guilt of a given act is confined to the specific individual who does the deed.

Thanks for asking. I hope that helps!

 

Honest Q & A: Church (1) – Liturgy, or Not?

A few of the questions submitted in Honest Q & A have fallen within the very general category of church. Here’s the first question in this category:

What is the appropriate balance between the conflicting trends in the church of the return to tradition (“liturgy is hip,” etc.) and the disillusionment with any kind of structure at all (“church is just people”)?

To give a short, pithy answer, we might say that the appropriate balance is to “make sure we are striving for balance.” Period. For those with the patience for something far less succinct, that answer can be explained. It hinges on the fact that both sides in this discussion have strengths and weaknesses to keep in mind.

In one sense, liturgy, meaning “a prescribed form or set of forms for public religious worship” (Houghton-Mifflin), or the lack thereof, is a neutral issue. We might suppose, therefore, that we can do whatever we want. The Bible doesn’t demand a great deal of liturgy or any particular type. This can be deceiving. Self-deceiving, in fact.

The problem rests in our motivation. Some people are prompted to exquisite heights of worshipful delight via more formal practices and surroundings. Others, in the same setting, feel inauthentic. They need something considerably more “homey” to get the same vibe.   It’s when liturgy turns into “mere” formality that it becomes a cover for hypocrisy. And, let’s face it, saying “church is just people” can be misleading, since church also includes God and the awe we should rightly have in his presence.

We may find the answer to our question in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ESV). The worship and practice of the earliest church was admittedly not very formal, but it was not “without form and void.” If these things mentioned are in place and are sincerely practiced, infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, then all should be well. It’s when we cast off all restraint in the name of authenticity, or adopt liturgy to create a religious feel and then confuse that with an actual love of God that we get into trouble.

Honest Q & A: The Existence of God (3a) – Morals Exist (continued)

justiceIn a previous post I made the point that the idea that we are made in God’s image does a lot to explain our intuitive moral sense. If he is, and is good and we are wired to reflect his character, then human guilt (or the lack of it) is not merely a feeling, but the result of actual moral knowledge. Such knowledge may need refining, but it is not our invention.

One comment I received in said, “If knowledge of morality is granted by a morally perfect god, the feeling of moral disgust at his actions should not be possible. This necessitates an alternate method of attaining these feelings …”

We might reword this into a collection of questions something like these:

“If our understanding of morality is based on our being made in God’s image, then why don’t we always agree with him? How is it even possible for me to disagree? Why do I even have moral questions? Further, why do people ever disagree with one another in areas of right and wrong?”

These are great questions, but not particularly vexing, at least not from the biblical position. Speaking as a Christian, these tensions are not only explainable, they are exactly what we should expect. This is what I see in myself and what I see in others – and it is true for at least two reasons: 1) Our inborn need to grow in understanding, and 2) Our regrettably clouded vision.

  1. Our need to grow in understanding: The Bible agrees with our observable reality, revealing that no one is born with perfect wisdom or perfect moral sense. Even Jesus, like all people, grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). The book of Hebrews speaks of “the mature … those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). In other words, our moral sense will not naturally agree with God’s any more than a student will always agree with her professor before doing the proper assignments, or a child will naturally agree with his parents while growing up. Time and normal effort can do their part to bring their views closer together. Much more is this true with us and God.
  2. Our regrettably clouded vision: Under the best of conditions we would still need to grow, but the conditions, alas, are not the best – far from it, in fact. The problem is our present state of rebellion. We don’t naturally see things from God’s perspective, nor even from some impartial neutral ground. Our nature has become corrupt, making us biased against him. We too often agree with God only if doing so gives us an advantage.

There is ample opportunity to change this state of affairs. We need to be taught and our fairly steep learning curve begins by getting into a right standing with him. Again, that implies growth and a change of heart. Karen Swallow Prior sees the right place as one of wonder, “Even the ability to doubt him, to struggle against him, to wonder at his ways is rooted in him. Certainty seems bigger than me, skepticism smaller. Wonder is just right.” (Booked, p. 191)