08 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 4 & 5: God's Law and Sin

In treating the recently released Statement of Social Justice & the Gospel, I have concluded that it is sometimes appropriate to treat two sets of affirmations and denials together in a single post, which I did last Thursday and am doing again today. Here is the section on God's Law:

We affirm that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.

We deny that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.

I can only applaud the authors for affirming the continuing legitimacy of God's law at a time when many Christians misunderstand the relationship between the old and new covenants. The allure of Marcion's heresy has not gone away, as exemplified in this recent post. Of course, many misconstrue St. Paul the Apostle's writings on the Law, despite his affirmation that the Law is holy and good (Romans 7:12). In Reformed liturgies in particular, the reading of the Decalogue often follows the general confession of sin and the assurance of pardon. Here the Law functions as a guide to the new life in Christ for those who are truly repentant. I will not here get into the distinction often drawn amongst the moral, ceremonial and civil laws, but suffice it here to indicate that the church has always understood that the moral law is still binding on the Christian community, thereby recognizing the so-called third use of the law.

Once again, however, it is in the denials that the statement falls short. The Ten Commandments, along with the Jesus's summary of the law in Matthew 22:37-40, do not constitute an exhaustive guide to the life in Christ and the avoidance of sin. They are exceedingly general guidelines for living that require further working out in specific circumstances. This appears to be Jesus' point in Matthew 5, where he rejects an excessively narrow reading of the Decalogue, affirming that it is insufficient simply to refrain from killing someone. Indeed we also should refrain from subjecting others to unjust anger and insult. Similarly, it is not enough to avoid sexual intercourse with someone who is not my spouse. Even actively to desire someone other than my wife causes me to sin.

On the other hand, as we work out the implications of the Decalogue and the Great Commandment in our lives and communities, we necessarily make prudential judgements with which others may legitimately disagree. Some would tell us that a national budget is a "moral document." Yes and no. Given that any particular budget must balance numerous priorities, it is only natural that people will disagree on specifics and perhaps even on its broader thrust. It would be unfair to charge those who might disagree with you with committing a sin thereby. If this is what the statement's authors are trying to get across, then they are definitely correct.

We affirm that all people are connected to Adam both naturally and federally. Therefore, because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God’s law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex. All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God’s law. All human relationships, systems, and institutions have been affected by sin.

We deny that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.

The affirmations are correct, it seems to me, but once more the denials require a closer look. The target of this section seems to be those who believe that, being, for example, a white male of European descent somehow makes me culpable for whatever injustices have been committed by such people in the past. Am I guilty of slavery if my forebears owned slaves? No. As a man, am I personally guilty of violence against women? Once again, no. Ezekiel 18 affirms that no one will die for his father's sins. Each of us is responsible for his own sins. My sharing certain characteristics with past oppressors in no way makes me culpable for their sins. The authors of the statement are correct here.

However, the Bible also tells us: "for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me" (Exodus 20:5). We know that God has punished entire nations for violating his law and for worshipping false gods. When the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587/6 BC, all Judahites were affected, even those who had never bent the knee to the idols of the surrounding peoples. Abraham pleaded with God for the safety of his nephew Lot's family when God had determined to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah: "Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!" (Genesis 18:25) In this case, God rescued Lot before he visited destruction on the cities. But in other cases we know that the righteous suffered along with the wicked. The entire book of Job is an indepth reflection on the sad reality that the relationship between righteousness and flourishing in this life is a complicated one.

God's proximate judgement may be visited on nations whose patterns of common life are distorted by entrenched sin, in which case everyone suffers. The ultimate salvation of individual persons will not necessarily be affected, but in the meantime the consequences of these patterns are felt by all. Generations of fatherlessness may deform an extended family for one-hundred-fifty years or more, and if magnified sufficiently will have deleterious effects on an entire society. This is not exactly the same as bearing corporate guilt, which is what the authors are addressing. Yet it does mean that, if racial relations have been poisoned for several centuries by people of lighter skin oppressing those with darker skin, even when the formal mechanisms of oppression have been lifted and even if I am not personally guilty, subsequent generations will still be dealing with the consequences. Toxic relations between the races must still be addressed, and my renouncing personal culpability, while technically correct from a legal standpoint and from the standpoint of my ultimate salvation in Christ, will not contribute to healing. By God's grace, I think we can do better than this.

Next: the Gospel and Salvation

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