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I use this newsletter to send Bible studies as much as once per week, sometimes less, but never more. See back issues.

Rebuilding the Foundations: Chapter 5

The Mercy of God

This is the only incomplete chapter (written 4/20/20), though there is more than enough here for you to get my point. This chapter was added after the rough draft of Rebuilding the Foundations was completed.

The teachings in this book are frightening, especially to those who have been taught that Christians can go to heaven without obeying or doing good deeds. Fear is not a bad thing. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10), and we are commanded to fear because of the coming judgment (1 Pet. 1:17).

We do not, however, want to hold to a false fear.

God Does Not Require Sinless Perfection

Fear can lead to misunderstanding, though. It surprises me how often that people confuse righteousness with sinless perfection.

The doctrine that God requires sinless perfection is based on one verse, James 2:10, taken out of its context. There James tells us that if we break the Law in one point, then we are guilty of the whole law. The context of this verse is our judging one another, not God judging us. From this verse, we conclude that no one can be righteous in God's eyes. This is simply not true. There are hundreds of verses in which both God and man describe humans as righteous. Even in Psalm 14, where David says, "There is no one who does good, no, not one" (v. 3), he adds, "God is in the generation of the righteous" (v. 5). In Ezekiel 14:14, Noah, Daniel, and Job are described as righteous enough to "save only themselves."

Neither Noah, Daniel, nor Job were sinless. Jesus is the only sinless person to have lived on this earth. Nonetheless, Elijah and Enoch were caught up into heaven. The Bible mentions "the righteous" 225 times! He promises life as a reward for the righteous, as opposed to death for the wicked, in Ezekiel 3, 18, and 33.

It is commonly said that the righteous are only righteous because of Jesus' death. The biggest problem with this is 1 John 3:7, where John, preceding what he says with "Let no one lead you astray," tells us that the only ones who are "righteous even as he is righteous" are those who practice righteousness.

Clement was the teacher of new converts in Alexandria shortly before the turn of the third century (A.D. 182 -202). He gives a picture of what God really requires of us in his book, The Instructor:

Now, O you, my children, our Instructor is like His Father God, whose Son he is, sinless, blameless ... He alone is sinless. ... It is best, therefore, not to sin at all in any way, which we assert to be the prerogative of God alone; next to keep clear of voluntary transgressions, which is characteristic of the wise man; thirdly, not to fall into many involuntary offenses, which is peculiar to those who have been excellently trained. Not to continue long in sins, let that be ranked last. But this also is salutary to those who are called back to repentance, to renew the contest. (Bk. II, ch. 1)

Jesus was sinless, but we all stumble in many ways (Jas. 3:2). If we say we have no sin or have not sinned, we are fooling ourselves and lying to God (1 Jn. 1:8,10). This does not change the fact that, just a few verses later, John says that we are Christians only if we keep Jesus' commands (1 Jn. 2:3-4). It does show us, however, that he did not mean sinless perfection.

Recently, I was talking with a person who had believed in Jesus as a young man but had drifted away and become a drug addict. At forty years of age, he is trying to get his life back on track, including his relationship with Jesus. In the midst of our discussion, these words seemed to just slip out of my mouth: "Your job is not succeeding; your job is trying. It is God's job to see that you succeed."

I had to think over my own words! The promise of God is that he will continue the work he has begun in us (Php. 1:6). Yet he requires us to put effort into it. We must "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling," and God's power towards us "both to will and to work" is given as the reason for our work (Php. 2:12-13). In other words, God's is the power, and ours is the effort. Or, as Peter put it, "Be diligent to make your calling and election sure" (2 Pet. 1:10). Before he gave us such a charge, he first reminded us that God has given us "all things that pertain to life and godliness," made us "partakers of the divine nature," and delivered us from "the corruption that is in the world through lust" (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

There is a difference between a life of love and righteousness and a life of sin. John says the difference is something that can be seen (1 Jn. 3:10). The difference is not, however, perfect sinless versus complete sinfulness. Christians, even the best of Christians, sometimes do sinful things. Sinners sometimes do good things, and some often do good things. We will go into this further in the chapter on judgment.

God Is Merciful

One of the foundational truths you must know if you are going to live out the scriptural teachings in this book is that God is merciful. He does not want anyone to perish (2 Pet. 3:9); not even you. His mercy never runs out (Ps. 136, 26 times!). The prophet Ezekiel wrote:

If the wicked turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. (Ezek. 18:21-22)

The apostle John confirms this in the New Testament, saying, "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 Jn. 1:7) and, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9).

Before you go further in this book, spend some time feasting on the following passages. This is the God you serve, the one who is merciful to sinners, and whose grace frees from the bondage of sin (Rom. 6:14).

The LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD! The LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation." (Ex. 34:6-7)

The context of the Lord's pronouncement in Exodus 34 is that Moses was hidden in the cleft of a rock, and God made a physical appearance for Moses. God did not say anything else as he passed by, just that he was merciful, and that he would not clear the guilty.

The following line is written 26 times in Psalm 136: "His loving kindness endures forever."

This next verse, like 1 John 1:7-2:2, shows that keeping God's commands are not the same as sinless perfection. Even those who love him and keep his commandments need mercy.

"… and showing mercy to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments." (Ex. 20:6)

Exodus 20:6 says that God shows mercy to those who love him and keep his commandments. If he has to show mercy to them, then he is not talking about sinless perfection when he says they keep his commandments. Instead, God promises not to impute sin to those who follow him wholeheartedly.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Ps. 32:1-2; Rom. 4:7-8)

The following verses give us a picture of how rich God's mercy is:

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, to our God, for he will freely pardon. (Isa. 55:7)
It is because of the LORD's loving kindnesses we are not consumed because his compassion doesn't fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22)

I still have to write a good ending to this chapter, but you should be well-equipped to go to chapter 5.

Where to Go from Here