Thursday, April 24, 2014

Go and Sin No More

"Dear Eli,  I wondered if I could ask a question about John 8:11 "Go and sin no more." I have heard several messages and comments lately about how Christians needs to stop sinning based on John 8:11. It is often suggested that we can do this with "God's power." I'm confused as to why Jesus would say this to a crushed woman in need of the gospel rather than the lawyer of Luke 10. Of course sin is awful and a believer should daily become more aware of this, but the phrase presents a literal impossibility! Do you have any suggestions about why Jesus says the phrase, "Go and sin no more"?"

Dear J----,

Your question is a really good one that highlights the way Christians often draw out of a verse more than is warranted. The context of the story and the greater context of the Bible could never warrant the interpretation that Jesus strictly and literally meant: "From this point on, do not sin at all anymore." Not only is that Scripturally and experimentally impossible, but it would be patently absurd for Jesus to say such a thing to this woman at such a time. Even if one argued that he was trying to teach her the true standard of the law to show her her sinfulness (as He did with the rich young ruler), it would be bad timing and totally out of place. This woman was already conscious of her sin, and after such a terrifying experience it was not the time for Jesus to say: "Go and try to be perfect and you'll see that you can't be!"

I understand this saying of Jesus to be, not a general command about all sin, but a specific prescription suited to her exact case: "You have just been wonderfully saved from a horrible situation. Your accusers, whom you thought were going to kill you, are gone and I don't condemn you either. Now go your way, but don't go back to your adultery. That is not right and good for you, and it is only fitting in view of the deliverance God has given you that you don't do that anymore." Thus I don't see Christ commanding her to stop all her sins from then on, but to not go back to the sin in question: adultery. Nor do I take it as a threat: "Go and sin no more or else I will condemn you." It is a command that is simply reasonable in light of the circumstances and which is for her own good. The matter of condemnation was behind her. "I do not condemn you." This is unqualified and does not depend upon her performance. The command to not go back to adultery is simply appropriate given the circumstances, and is for her good.

Her experience parallels the Christian one. We, too, deserved death and only through Jesus Christ were we wonderfully saved and delivered from all punishment. Christ says to us, "Neither do I condemn you." We are freed from all condemnation, and this is unqualified and freely bestowed independent of our moral performance. We, too, then hear from God and His messengers, "Go and sin no more", not as a threat, as if condemnation still hung over our heads depending on what we do, but as the prescription of what is our appropriate response to God's salvation, as well as for our own good. We are not saved because we sin no more, but we are to go and sin no more because we are saved. In fact, it is because the order is not "Go and sin no more and I will not condemn you" but rather "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more" that there even exists the wondrous inspiration to go and sin no more. The opposite order does not have the inspiring power. Of course, I'm right now applying this command to all of our sins in general, which we obviously shouldn't do any longer, yet as mentioned before, I believe the original command in John 8:11 is specifically addressing the woman's adultery. So I am drawing a universal principle from a particular incident. Due to the fact that we walk by faith and are dull of understanding and slow at remembering, we will continue to sin in this life because we will continue to forget God's wondrous love and grace. However, I would bet that for that woman, she never forgot that wondrous day and never went back her adultery.

So no, we don't need to stop sinning as if our salvation depended on it. We would greatly err if we took Jesus' command in that way. But in the light of God's salvation not sinning is the fitting response for us. This doesn't mean that we will stop sinning before we reach heaven, but we ought to acknowledge that it is the fitting response, and also that it is for our own good.

God bless you, J----.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Annihilating the Canaanites: Was that Right?

Hello M----, thanks for the question.

The destruction of Jericho and all of its citizens (as well as the other cities of Canaan and their citizens), is repeatedly stated to be a judgment from God against them because of their iniquity. See, for a clear example, Deuteronomy 9:4-5. In this passage God says that it is not because Israel is good that she is going in to possess the land, but because the inhabitants of the land are very wicked and God is punishing those nations through Israel. God is also fulfilling His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by giving Israel the land promised to them, so God is accomplishing two things by this: punishing the evil and fulfilling His promise to Israel. Earlier in Genesis God told Abraham that He would bring his descendants into the land when the iniquity of the Amorites was full (Gen. 15:16). Therefore God waited for the right time to judge the people of Canaan when their sins had ripened for judgment.

It is common in the Bible for God to use one people to punish another people. Israel was punished by God through the Philistines, Assyrians, and most notably the Babylonians and the Romans. In the case of the Canaanites, God was using Israel to punish their sin. However, it is important to note that God uses a sinful people to punish a sinful people: there is no case of good guys versus bad guys, and God also judges the instruments He uses. The Bible is simply showing one of the ways God works in history with the nations. But whoever God uses, God wants it to be perfectly clear that it is really He who is doing the judging. In Deuteronomy 9:3, He says: "Understand therefore this day, that the LORD your God is He who goes over before you; as a consuming fire He shall destroy them, and He shall bring them down before your face: so shall you drive them out, and destroy them quickly, as the LORD has said unto you."

The question as to whether the Canaanites deserved such a punishment ultimately traces back to our understanding of the seriousness of sin. People wonder how God could have ordered such a thing if He is good. But the truth is, God ordered such a thing precisely because He is good, and takes ethics much more seriously than we do. God takes sin more seriously than we do, and therefore severe judgments are justified in His sight. If we have a low view of sin, almost every punishment will seem extreme and wrong except the most mild. Moreover, a low view of sin is related to a low view of God and a low view of humanity. The Bible teaches that human beings are made in the image of God and therefore have a profound responsibility to live ethically, and that they are held accountable for what they do. To shrink from the idea of punishment is to minimize the ethical accountability of human beings, to treat them like mere animals, and not to treat them as serious moral actors. It has also been said: "There is no little sin, because there is no little God to sin against." The smaller God is in your eyes the smaller sin will be in your eyes, and the smaller punishment will need to be in your eyes. But the Bible is a book about big punishment, big sin, and a big God. It is because all sin is against God, and because God takes the actions of human beings so seriously, that such severe punishments fit the crime. We must listen and learn and not only base our beliefs upon what at first makes sense to our flawed sensibilities. If it is hard for us to see, it is, again, only because we are not seeing sin as it really is.

Look at the cross. As we "survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died" we will see the seriousness of sin. I would encourage you to spend some time reading Romans chapter 1, 2 and 3. These will help you reflect on sin and what God thinks of it, as they are devoted to the subject of sin in order to show us our need for Christ and the beauty of salvation by grace.

Blessings to you, J----- and D----!
Sincerely, your friend,