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The Christadelphian | September 2014

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial The compassion of Christ
  • Letters to the Editor
  • 100 years ago
  • Dartmoor Work Centre
  • Sunday morning “An influence for good wherever he went” | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • Studies in Matthew’s Gospel 09 – “Matthew the money-man” | John Benson
  • No room in the inn | Joan Bennett
  • Is God fair? God’s righteousness in Ezekiel 18 | Stephen Ashton
  • Archaeology in focus 09 – “The Moabite Stone” | James Andrews
  • Enhancing our worship Suggestions for September | John Botten
  • Bible Companion | John Hingley
  • The purpose of the Ecclesia 08 – The Ecclesia as the flock part 1 | Peter Anderton & Paul Tovell
  • A beginner’s guide to electronic Bibles – e-Sword | Ken Trelfer
  • Faith Alive! Prayer – keeping up the momentum | Amy Parkin
  • Signs of the times The rising tide of anti-Semitism | Roger Long
  • Israel and their Land Watching the borders | Roger Long
  • Epilogue “When Jesus saw their faith” | David Caudery
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Is God fair?

God’s righteousness in Ezekiel 18

Some passages infer that God is punishing children for the faults of their fathers. Is this what really happens, and if so, is it fair? Are we right in considering our own position and concluding that God is not dealing fairly with us? Here we examine some of the passages to reaffirm that God is more than fair in all His dealings with man.

TO have a strong sense of fairness is a human characteristic, particularly when we feel we’ve been unfairly treated:

The rain it rains upon the just
And on the unjust fellow,
But more upon the just because
The unjust has the just’s umbrella. (Anonymous)

The captives by the river Chebar in Babylon showed this tendency by quoting the proverb:

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezekiel 18:2)

Judah had strayed from the worship of the one true God and had started serving idols. As often happens when judgement is postponed, things went from bad to worse and the nation became addicted to idol worship. God had brought the Babylonians into Judah to judge the nation and they had taken many of the people into captivity. It is clear that the captives were devastated not to be in Jerusalem and blamed their parents for putting them into this situation.

By using this proverb, the captives were accusing God of treating them unfairly. Perhaps they would quote passages which talk about God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on subsequent generations and use these to show that the children were suffering for the sins of their parents:

“The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6,7)

So, is God fair? Of course He is. Many Bible passages speak of His righteousness and His justice (e.g., Job 37:23; Psalm 33:5; 36;6; 71:2,15‑17; Isaiah 42:5‑7 and Jeremiah 9:23,24). Clearly God is fair, but we often defend accusations of unfairness by hiding behind passages which talk of God’s power and greatness:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8,9)

“What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid … Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Romans 9:14,20,21)

We don’t need to hide behind these passages. God isn’t just fair; He is demonstrably fair.

Adam and Eve

The proverb used by the captives in Babylon echoes the experiences of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, despite a direct commandment from God forbidding this. As a result, they and all of their descendants were condemned to death: the children are paying the price for their parents’ sin.

Is this fair? On a natural level, we can address this accusation of unfairness by attributing the children’s suffering as a straightforward consequence of Adam and Eve’s free will. Free will comes with a price. We can choose to hold our hand in a flame, but we shall get burned. We can choose to jump off a cliff, but we shall die. Do we expect God to intervene in these situations? If He did, we wouldn’t be able to exercise our free will.

When we make similar choices for others, they will also suffer. If we hold someone else’s hand in a flame, then they will feel pain. If we push someone else off a cliff, they will die. This is a consequence of our free will, but is it fair?

When writing to the believers in both Rome and Corinth, the Apostle Paul speaks of the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin:

“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men … For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one …” (Romans 5:12,17)

“For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21,22)

We suffer and die because Adam and Eve failed to obey God. They exercised their free will and we bear the consequences.

Is this fair? Paul gives us the answer when he writes to the Roman believers:

“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:21-23)

We die because we are descended from Adam and Eve, but God is shown to be righteous, because we all sin and show that we are worthy of death. Our sin demonstrates that God is acting fairly. This brings us to a key principle: consequence is hereditary; guilt is not.

Thinking of Christ

We should test this principle by applying it to Christ. He shared our nature, so any conclusion we reach about ourselves must also be reflected in him. He had to die because, like us, he was descended from Adam. He suffered the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin. Yet God is shown to be righteous because Christ was raised from the dead. Peter explains that, because he was not guilty of sin, it was impossible for a righteous God to let Christ remain in the grave:

“Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.” (Acts 2:24)

The same principle applies to Christ: consequence is hereditary; guilt is not.

We suffer and die as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin; but we are condemned because of our own sin. God is shown to be fair because of our sin. In Babylon, the Jews were suffering the consequence of their parents’ sin, but they were not being condemned as guilty for their parents’ sin. God is shown to be fair because we are all sinners anyway:

“Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)

Consequence is hereditary; guilt is not.

Ezekiel’s example

Ezekiel demonstrates this principle using a worked example which covers three generations of one family:

  • A man who is obedient to God’s commands (Ezekiel 18:5-9).
  • His son, who is a sinner (verses 10-13).
  • His grandson, who is also obedient to God’s commands (verses 14-17).

In this passage, God shows that those who sin are guilty and will die as a result of their transgression. However, the rule which we learned from Adam and Eve’s sin – that the consequence of sin can be passed down to succeeding generations – still applies. The son who is a sinner could benefit from the blessings which flow from his father’s obedience and the grandson could suffer as a result of his father’s sins, despite being obedient himself. Consequence is hereditary; guilt is not.

Ezekiel explains that God is being fair in this approach:

“Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” (Ezekiel 18:19,20)

Of course, God is fair and equal because – with only one exception – the whole of mankind falls into the middle category. We all sin. Up to this point in his thesis Ezekiel has proved is that God is righteous in condemning us all to death because we all sin. Where does this leave us?

Direction of travel

There is hope! God has chosen to show mercy to those who try to be obedient to His laws. However, as He is righteous, this must be balanced by His judgement of those who do not try to follow His commandments.

In Ezekiel 18:21-28 the prophet again uses a case study to demonstrate the equality of God’s dealings with men and women. This time he focuses on two examples:

  • God is prepared to be merciful to those who turn back to Him (verses 21-23).
  • In contrast, those who turn away from God are condemned for their sins (verse 24).

God will forget our sins if we turn to Him, but He will forget our righteousness if we turn away from Him. From a human perspective, this doesn’t appear fair:

“Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal? (verse 25)

How can God forget sin? How can God forget obedience? Is this fair? It all comes down to direction. Which way are we heading? Are we travelling towards God’s kingdom or away from it?

Repentance – or turning around – is fundamental to the call of the Gospel as preached by John the Baptist, Christ, and his disciples (e.g., Mark 1:4; Luke 9:62; 17:31,32). We must be heading towards the kingdom when we are called to the judgement seat. It doesn’t matter what has happened in the past, God is prepared to be merciful with those who are ‘going in the right direction’. Consider these exhortations:

“Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13,14)

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God”. (Hebrews 12:1,2)

Isn’t this still unfair? What about all of our good works? Will God really forget the positive things we have done if we turn away from Him at the end of our lives? What about the weight of sin carried by those who have rejected God all their lives? Can God really forget all that sin if they turn to Him at the end of their lives? We know He can. Remember the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and the example of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43).

How is God’s judgement any fairer than man’s? We regard the comparative weight of obedience and sin as if they were positive and negative values in an account. If we consider those who respond to the Gospel message early in their life, they have plenty of opportunity to add many good works to their account. Surely, the occasional little sin cannot upset the balance? Conversely, if we consider those who only learn about God later in their lives, they already have a great weight of sin on their account and very little time to do anything about it. How can they possibly redress the balance with such a small window of opportunity?

Far too easily we forget the fact that whether we are nominally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we are all sinners and we all should die. The punishment for any sin – ‘big’ or ‘small’ – is death:

“Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)

As a result God, in His mercy, doesn’t judge us by the weight of our sin, but by our direction of travel. Are we heading towards the kingdom or away from it? We rejoice in the hope of eternal life in the kingdom of God because He has said that, by following Christ, we can be saved from our sins.

Why can God forget sin?

How can a righteous God ‘forget’ our sinful past? How can He ‘forget’ our obedience? What mechanism allows Him to wipe out our past without jeopardising His own integrity? The answer lies in the principle we established earlier: consequence is hereditary; guilt is not. We have already seen that we die as a consequence of Adam’s sin and that God is shown to be righteous because we are all guilty of sin.

However, if we apply the same rule to Christ, we see that he was raised from the dead as a consequence of his obedience (Acts 2:24). In addition, we also can enjoy eternal life in the kingdom of God as a consequence of Christ’s obedience if we choose to change the direction of our lives and follow him. Even though we are guilty of sin, because we are “in Christ” and heading in the same direction as he did, we become heirs of salvation:

“And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)

God is shown to be righteous even in this, because those who are not Christ’s are still condemned to death. He is a God of mercy and judgement; and this is fair, righteous, and equal. This balance between Adam and Christ is what Paul is explaining to the Roman believers:

“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)

God is merciful, but He is also fair in the application of His mercy. He is prepared to bring judgement on the disobedient, even though he is not willing that any should perish. Therefore, like a mathematical equation, God’s ways are equal. At every stage in Ezekiel’s argument we have seen that the scales are evenly balanced. God is fair.

Stephen Ashton


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