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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Inbox: The Finishing Stroke

Ever ask a simple question and get one of those answers that just won’t quit?

Having opened that can of worms before, I know the feeling of looking at your watch and realizing that you’ve inadvertently set yourself up for a reply on the scale of a Homeric recitation of ancient Greek epic poetry in dactylic hexameter.

Then again, sometimes it turns out the question wasn’t so simple after all. Or, in this case, that it provided the occasion to do an in-depth study that I trust may have had a few unexpected benefits.

In Exodus 32 God told Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book”. The simple question originally asked was, “What about those who repented (if any did)?”

Putting It All Together

First, what can we conclude from our examination (here and here) of the scriptures related to the subject of the God’s book? Well, if we assume the various designations (“book”, “book of the living”, “book of life” and the “Lamb’s book of life”) all refer to the same heavenly list of names, we could say the following with certainty:
  • under the Old Covenant, God reserved his right to blot out the names of individuals who sinned against him; and
  • under the New Covenant, God will never blot out the names of those who are truly his.
Almost everything else about the subject requires a degree of speculation.

Maybe, Maybe

In fact, there’s no end of speculation about the book of life:
  • Some commentators make a hard and fast distinction between NT references to the book of life and OT references to “book” and “book of the living”, seeing them as separate things.
  • Some commentators distinguish the book of the living and the Lamb’s book of life, making the latter a separate volume exclusive to Christians. Maybe.
  • Some commentators go out of their way to talk about the “age of responsibility” and what happens to children or the mentally retarded with respect to the recording of their names. While surely well intended, this is utterly fanciful. Not one of these verses says a word about either group.
  • Some commentators get caught up in the difference between a name being blotted out and not having been written in the first place and want to make a theological point from the variations in wording (it’s hard to see what that might be, because both expressions are employed by John in Revelation and David uses them as synonymous in Psalm 69).
I’m not keen on lumping together apples and oranges either, but I see no compelling evidence either for or against viewing the various references as related. We simply don’t have enough to go on to be dogmatic either way.

Covenant Mash-Up

Now I DO see a problem if your theology gratuitously mashes together Old and New Covenants, conflating the earthly, national promises to Israel with heavenly, super-national promises to the Church. If you do that, you might wonder if the words “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” imply that a Christian could be saved (and have his name written into the book of life) and then lost because of sin (and subsequently erased from it). But that’s not a potential problem with the text or with the character of God. Rather, it’s one of many problems that arise when one adopts a system of thinking that fails to observe basic biblical distinctions like the distinction between Israel and the Church and the distinction between Law and Grace.

When God spoke to Moses, Christ had not died and the road to being right with God appeared (at least on the surface) to be a legal one, an approach of “do and do not”. Salvation by faith, its basis in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and its absolute, rock-solid eternal permanence are not in view in Exodus 32.

They could not possibly be.

Salvation by Faith Is Not In View

Consider: How could God have possibly responded to Moses’ offer to have his name blotted from God’s book on behalf of disobedient Israel in a way that would perfectly satisfy the systematic theological presuppositions of the contemporary Christian reader? Was Jehovah supposed to synopsize the argument Paul makes in Romans 1-4 for poor Moses on the spot? How much other background would have been required for Moses to grasp that righteousness is not a matter of works but of faith? A millennium and a half of attempting to obey the Law of Moses and the life and death and resurrection of Christ were required to even begin to make such an explanation intelligible.

Indisputably, Moses approached God on the basis of faith, not works — as did Abraham and numerous other OT saints. Faith pleases God. There was zero danger of Moses’ name being stricken from God’s book, just as there was next to no likelihood of repentance from those who had pushed for Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship right after they had experienced the personal presence of God, accompanied by miraculous, terrifying signs and wonders.

But there was also zero possibility of Moses grasping all God’s thoughts on the subject and no need on Moses’ part for a lengthier and more theological explanation than the one he received. God responded in a way that was entirely appropriate to the understanding of his people at the time.

What About Those Who Repented?

Did you think I was ever going to get back to the original question that sparked this study? Neither did I. So what about any Israelites who may have sinned against God and later repented, either in connection with the idolatrous episode at Sinai, or in other ways?

The question seems to assume a certain amount of copy editing in God’s book of which we have no evidence; the sort of situation in which someone’s name would be in the book by default, expunged when they sin, and written in again whenever they made atonement. If we take into account Israel’s tendency to sin with depressing regularity, this amounts to a great deal of copy editing indeed; the greatest and most labor-intensive and frustrating scribal exercise in all of heavenly history. While certainly possible with an infinite God and legions of available angels, such an undertaking seems inefficient, to say the least.

So, even though I dislike theorizing, I’m going to have to go a hair beyond what is actually written to answer the question. But I think it’s informed speculation, not mere fancy. It’s based on the fact that the Greek and Hebrew words for “book” both denote an official register, not some kind of heavenly scratch pad.

What seems more likely to me is that God keeps record of the names of all who have lived. When death occurs (which in every case but that of Lazarus happens only once), those who have died estranged from God are finally and irrevocably stricken from the heavenly register. In such a scenario, the repentant sinner (and we are speaking under the Old Covenant, remember) has never had his name blotted out in the first place, so there’s no question of its removal and reinsertion.

I don’t insist that’s the only possible option, but it keeps the various references to the “book” from being interpreted as mutually contradictory.

The Death of the Wicked

Such a scenario also seems consistent with the established character of a God who cares most about how we finish life rather than the number of mistakes we make during it (to which all the patriarchs may amply testify). The prodigal’s father cares about his son’s final, repentant return, not how many pigsties he swabbed before finally grasping his sorry state and coming home. Ezekiel 18 makes it plain that what mattered under the Old Covenant was a person’s current state rather than any claim to righteousness on the basis of previous actions:
“But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.”
So even in the Old Testament, the question was never “What have you done?” but “What have you done lately?” or “Where are you now?”

How Will You Finish?

Likewise, under the New Covenant, while we know it is faith and not works on their own that please God, the man or woman who shows no evidence of salvation in the way they live inspires little confidence that they actually know God at all, or appreciates the value of the sacrifice that was made on their behalf. They may not even inspire such confidence in their own hearts.

What about those who live in fear of hearing the words “I never knew you”; who, even after an examination of the relevant scriptures, find themselves concerned that if they sin to the wrong degree at the wrong time and fail to repent expeditiously, they will find themselves standing before God with their name stricken from his register?

I do not think it was ever God’s intention that his people should live in fear and uncertainty. Such a view, after all, does not reflect well on the Father’s valuation of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. It makes God into a pedant and our millions upon millions of relatively trivial acts of rebellion and stupidity into moments of eternal significance, when all that really matters is what we think of Jesus Christ. Such a view puts a premium on dealing with individual sins without comprehending that they are the product of a sinful nature not to be fully brought to heel until the Lord returns. Still, some people insist on living this way.

There’s an answer to such concerns, and I hope it does not seem trite: Make sure you finish well.

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