By William M. Cwirla
What does God say about all these commandments? He says this: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Aren’t you glad you asked? Maybe not. The “love to a thousand generations” sounds great, but the “punishing three and four generations for the sin of the fathers” doesn’t seem fair. And what’s this about God’s being jealous? Isn’t jealousy something associated with our old, sinful nature?
LET’S TALK ABOUT GOD’S JEALOUSY
God is zealous about you. He wants you all to Himself without any competition. This summary is really a commentary on the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” God’s jealousy is the flipside of His love. He loves you wholeheartedly–literally to death on a cross. And He wants your wholehearted love, along with your fear and trust. That’s what it means for God to be a jealous God. He hates other gods because they aren’t gods at all yet they compete for our affections.
PUNISHMENTS AND REWARDS
Now let’s talk about this business of punishments and rewards. God threatens to punish everyone who breaks His commandments, not only with temporal punishments but also with eternal damnation. He’s not kidding. God’s wrath against sin trickles down for three and four generations precisely because sin trickles down from father to child, from generation to generation. It’s an inherited condition into which we are conceived and born (Psalm 51).
But God isn’t wrath; God is love. He promises to love a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments. Notice that His love is thousands of times greater than His wrath. Yet even the promise of love is still Law. God promises to love those who love Him and keep His commandments.
THREATS AND PROMISES
That’s how the Law works. Threats of punishment; promises of reward. That leaves us in a terrible bind. We break God’s commandments daily. We deserve His temporal and eternal punishments. We do not love Him with our whole heart, nor do we fear and trust in Him. And we certainly don’t keep His commandments. How can He then love us? God loves us in His Son. Jesus fears, loves, and trusts in God above all things. Even when the Father turned away, the Son trusted Him. Jesus keeps the commandments perfectly, in thought, word, and work. He fulfills them. Therefore you, baptized into Christ, keep the commandments, too! You are clothed with Christ, covered with His righteousness. God’s wrath and His mercy collided on the Cross. He punished His Child for the sin of our father Adam. And in that death, we find the mercy of God for the sinner. God loves you in His beloved Son.
SO WHY DO WE STILL HAVE THE LAW?
It’s simply because we still have old Adam hanging round our necks. We need the Law. We need the Law to protect us from hurting others and ourselves, and so God puts us under the authority of parents, governors, and pastors to keep old Adam in line, to rein in our sinful outbursts and preserve order in our homes, communities, and congregations. We need the Law to do the deep, spiritual diagnosis, to show us that our sin runs deeper than just our sinful thoughts, words, and actions. We tend to think of sin as all the bad things we do, but those are only the symptoms. Sin is a deep corruption of our entire humanity that prevents us from fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things and from keeping His commandments. We need the Law as a guide for our own self-discipline, as we baptized children of God daily mortify (put to death) old Adam with his lusts and desires. As God’s baptized children, we want to do God’s will purely and perfectly. And we would love God and keep His commandments, were it not for old Adam getting in the way. Punishments and rewards are all that old Adam understands. Think of him as a stubborn old donkey who either responds to the crack of the whip or a carrot. He needs to be drowned so he will die daily.
As baptized children of God, we actually take delight in God’s Law, not because of its threats of punishments and promises of rewards, and certainly not because it justifies us before God, but because it describes how we look to God as His baptized children. We see only our sin, but God sees our righteousness in Jesus and invites us to see things His way. In Christ, we fear, love and trust in God above all things. In Christ, we love our neighbor. In Christ, we have the promise of God’s grace and every blessing, because through faith in Christ, we keep the commandments.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, CA. He is also a president emeritus of Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of Higher Things Magazine.