Tuesday, April 16, 2019

In Defense of God's Perfect Righteousness

In a previous post, I used Matthew 5:48 to substantiate my claim that "we must be perfectly righteous to enter the Kingdom of Heaven".  Herein I respond to a challenge I have received, that the context of this verse supposedly shows that this only means we must be perfectly loving, rather than perfectly righteous.  I received this challenge in the context of a greater challenge that Christianity does not suppose that God is perfectly righteous.

Matthew 5:48 says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  Now, as my contender noted, you "can't take a verse out of its context and make it do tricks."  This is absolutely correct.  Unfortunately, it seems that my contender only bothered to walk his finger back about five verses or so to define its context.

Verses 43-47 read as follows:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

See?  That whole paragraph is about how we should love even our enemies!  Obviously this is the idea that is being summarized and concluded in verse 48, right?  God loves everyone, and we should too.  As God is perfect (in love), we should be perfect (in love).

Right?

Wrong.

If you take the time to read the whole sermon on the mount, which spans from chapter 5 through the end of chapter 7, or heck, if you just read chapter 5 instead of merely thumbing back a few verses, you catch on to some important contextual clues.  Verse 43 starts with the words, "You have heard that it was said...", and then in verse 44, "But I tell you...".  This pattern emerges six separate times in chapter 5.  These are all subpoints of the ideas introduced in verses 17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The main idea in these verses is that no one is getting off the hook requiring the demands of the law.  How good do we have to be?  Do we have to follow the whole law to be saved?  Or is God grading on a curve?  And what does Jesus say to that here?  "...anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven..."  How many laws can we break and still be OK?  Not even one, it seems.

How about just one of the little ones?  Sorry, no.

But what about the scribes and pharisees, who were regarded as the most righteous people in the whole nation (particularly by themselves)?  Surely they are good enough.  But it is not so: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

What directly follows that verse is the six teachings following the formula "You have heard that it was said...", followed by, "But I tell you..."  From who did Jesus's audience hear "that it was said?"  From the Scribes and Pharisees.  We are still comparing the standard of righteousness recognized by those who judged themselves "good enough" to the actual standard to which we must attain.

The Scribes and Pharisees taught that we mustn't commit murder.  Beyond that, they would have said, everything else is acceptable.  You can relish feelings of malice and anger, you can curse and slander, and God will approve of you and give you the slice of His kingdom which you so obviously deserve, because, hey, at least you haven't killed anyone, right?

Wrong.

If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, not only do you have to refrain from killing people, but you have to refrain even from being angry, it seems.  Now, I have often wondered if this means that simply becoming angry shows that we are less than perfectly righteous, or if this verse refers to holding on to those feelings of anger, or maybe only unjustified anger.  But in the end, at least in my case, it doesn't matter.  I don't even come close to meeting the standard, whatever it means.  The result is the same: my only hope is mercy and transformation.

And so it goes down the line.  Is it good enough to just not cheat on my wife?  Afraid not.  Just by looking at another woman lustfully, I am already guilty. 

Can I ditch my wife when I grow tired of her, as long as I do so in a very official manner?  The Scribes and Pharisees gave me the green light on that one.  But Jesus says, "Proceed with caution: Hell fire ahead." 

The Scribes and Pharisees also encourage me to use oaths to bind myself, which is a handy thing to do when my credibility is being called into question.  So long as I perform my oaths, it's all good, right?  Wrong again. 

But at least I can avenge myself when someone wrongs me, yes?  The Scribes and Pharisees even had a catchy slogan for this one, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."  Nope.  It seems that we should have to be willing to endure persecution, if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Yeah, but we're not talking about, like, everyone, right?  The Scribes and Pharisees say I just have to love my neighbor.  But I can hold grudges and avenge myself against hostile foreigners, right? 

You know, I'm sensing a pattern here.

According to the Scribes and Pharisees, a person can be "good enough" while relishing feelings of anger and slandering his brothers; he can look at women that aren't his wife, undressing them with his eyes; he can trade up for a younger and more attractive wife when he gets bored of his old wife; he can swear on heaven and earth to win the confidence of his associates; he can be exacting in revenge; and hate people who are different from him because they are different from him.

And frankly, I can understand the appeal of their teaching.  Heck, even I might be good enough, according to that standard.  Maybe, if God squints.  God should take me as I am because, hey, at least I'm not as bad as those filthy, murdering, adulterers, right?

Wrong.  The law that God gave to Moses entailed a lower standard, because it's purpose was not to save.  It was never meant to save anyone.  The law brings only condemnation.  "By the law is the knowledge of sin." (Rom3:20).  And God was able to condemn the whole house of Israel using a standard which is much, much lower than the actual standard which must be met before anyone can enter the kingdom of heaven.

All of these six topics pertained to the law or standard of righteousness, as was specified in verse 20.  The standard preached by the Scribes and Pharisees was sufficient to fulfill the purpose of the law, which, remember, is condemnation.  Justification requires a much, much higher standard.  Not only must we be perfect in love, we must be perfect in all the ways of righteousness, even as God is perfect.

By being just a little bit more exhaustive in our search for context, we confirm that the perfection referenced in verse 48 refers to righteousness, and not merely love.  And yes, this verse is one of many which affirms the perfect righteousness of God.  Bible.org has a wonderful exposition of the righteousness of God, with ample scriptural support.  Don Stewart, with BlueLetterBible.org has another collection of relevant scriptures, accompanied by a lighter commentary.

So the Bible talks the talk, but does God really walk the walk?  What about Job?  What about the people who died in the flood?  What about the Egyptians and the Canaanites, who endured the wrath of God?  These are weighty issues, and wherever God has caused or allowed suffering, we can hope that we will find, one way or another, an explanation for why God did these things.  But, like Job, we should take care.  Bringing an accusation of unrighteousness against God is not something to be taken lightly.  If we are honest with ourselves, we find that we don't have all of the information about what God has done, why He did it, and what good it will bring about.  To give it a word, it would be foolish to accuse God of wickedness when we only have part of the story.

God has caused and allows suffering.  This is a fact of reality, if God, in the Christian sense, exists at all.  We can hope that He will give a satisfactory account of Himself in the end.  In the meantime, what are our options?

We can take the limited information available to us, and use it to bring a railing accusation against God.  Or we can trust that He has done all that He has done for some good reason.  You see, trust is the essence of faith: we rely on the fact of God's goodness, even though it has not yet been proven to us.

Thus, it is not just foolish to accuse God when you have only part of the picture: it is faithless.  We can acknowledge the uncertainty which God has subjected us for the present.  But the mere fact of that uncertainty does not mean we have to set ourselves against Him. 

You will see how essential that trust is when you abandon the delusional idea that you might be "good enough" to earn your way into heaven.  You are not perfectly righteous, and you probably won't be perfectly righteous by the time you leave this earth.  Whatever it is in you that tends towards evil, it will have to be removed.  God can do this without any effort whatsoever, but He won't do it without your consent.  You will have to entrust your whole self to Him, and that's going to take a lot of trust.  If you can't even trust God to make His case for His own righteousness, then how will you trust God with your entire self?  You wouldn't hand your keys over to a mechanic that you didn't trust!  How much more trust is required when you are handing over your whole self?

You must be perfect, as God is perfect, before you can enter the kingdom of heaven.  It would be impossible to get there on our own, but thankfully, we are far from helpless.  All we have to do is repent: to confess our sinfulness, and be willing to be changed: it will be God who effectuates the change.  This is the "good work" which God has begun in us, and which will be performed until the "day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians1:6).  This process is called "sanctification".  The completion of the process of sanctification is called "glorification", and is generally understood to occur after this life is over, when we stand face to face with God.

Remember, not even Job accused God of unrighteousness (see 2:9-10).  Job just had questions: well, so do we.  And God's answer to Job is the same as the answer I'm giving you: we don't yet have the full picture.  In all probability, we won't even be able to understand the full picture until God's self-revelation is complete.  Have faith.  Trust in the Lord.

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