Sunday, March 25, 2012

Grace versus punishment

Many people like to reverse engineer their theology. They have an end goal or belief and then go back through the bible finding proof texts to back up their supposition. I think there is a danger in this though, that we will not hear the full message of what God is wanting to say to us.

I am beginning to understand the early stories of Genesis on a deeper level. I have now told the early Genesis stories so many times they are teaching me things I didn't see before. I see so much more grace than people give God credit for.

I honestly think we ourselves as humans have turned God into an ogre. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is a perfect example of this. It irritates me how a lot of evangelicals think there is only one point to this story, which is to point out humanity's sin, and then move on to the solution. To me, this is rushing through the story far too much.

The point that jumped out at me recently was that of pain. When God turns to speak to Eve after speaking to the snake and to Adam, he tells her she will now have great pain in child birth. A misinterpretation would see this as a punishment from God. It is not punishment, but grace. If we were to live our entire lives with evil, but without pain, then it would be so easy for us to ignore God and our need for him. It is often only when we have pain we are reminded to think of our desperate need for God.

C.S Lewis rightly analysed the situation when he called pain "God's megaphone to a deaf world." In the midst of pain God calls out to us to come back to him to find the solution. The Genesis story is full of grace.

When God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden it is also often seen as a punishment. But God clearly says he is sending them out of the garden so they will not eat from the tree of life. God does not want them to live for ever with the disease of evil affecting their lives. God sends them from the garden to protect them not to punish them.

I am not saying there is no punishment for sin. If there were no punishment, there would be no need for redemption. But God's primary purpose is not punishment either. If God's primary purpose were punishment there would be no need for redemption either. God could simply choose to punish everyone and the job would be finished.

Grace compels God a thousand times more than punishment does. God knows punishment is an ultimate requirement, but he actually delays it as long as possible, and finds as many ways to avoid it as possible. Punishment is necessary, but Grace moves God to find a way to over rise punishment.

The story of Cain and Abel shows this again. Today I told this story to an Evenka. This friend of ours said:  "previously, you told me God is good, but now I am convinced. God could easily have killed Cain for murdering Abel, but he did not." God says to Cain, "anyone who kills you, I will punish 7 times more." God's concern was still to protect Cain. His punishment was he would have to wander the earth (as a nomad). Again this seemed like a rather gracious act to our nomadic Evenka friend.

Earlier in the story of Cain, God warns Cain, "I will happily receive you if you do what is right, but if you do not, be careful, because sin is at the door waiting to control you, but you must be the master over sin." God was wanting to teach Cain how to deal with the problem of sin. God's concern right at the beginning of the biblical story is to teach us and lead us out of sin. It would have served no purpose for God to simply punish Cain by killing him, how would he, how would we learn to avoid sin?

A careful examination of the text will reveal the word 'sin' first appears in the story of Cain. That is, the word does not appear in the story of the garden. This does not mean sin did not already exist, but rather that sin is not the entire point of the earlier story. Adam and Eve found out evil exists, but they did not find out how evil, evil really is. Sin only became obvious at a later date. They were like juveniles God chose to teach about sin and consequences.

I guess I am calling into question the concept of "original sin". Yes, the act of eating the fruit in the garden was disobedience, and therefore the first sin committed by people. But no, I do not think it means we automatically inherit sin. We are aware of the existence of evil, but we still need to choose to go out and sin. Mind you, I am not saying anyone actually avoids sin. It is like a virus, the instance of temptation presents itself to every human being, and we all give in. If temptation is the virus, we all get infected. The only antidote is Jesus.

The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity also greatly irritates me, and I can not see a biblical basis for it. Total depravity says people are not capable of doing any good. People are not capable of being good enough to enter God's glory, but this does not mean people can not do any good at all. After all, we did gain a knowledge of both good and evil. But to say people are not capable of doing any good is to say God's creation is a complete failure. He created us to do good, and this is why he chooses to redeem us. He chooses to work through us, as broken vessels.

I'm waiting for the stone throwing to start. To clarify for those who are freaking out right now, I want to say, yes- all do sin, and all are in need of God's redemption. Yes, sin does require punishment, and ultimately this does happen. But the point of balance is that God's first motivation is grace, not punishment. The second point of balance is that his creation is good, and we are his creation. We are good, but marred by sin, therefore also evil.