HOW SERVANTS AND FRIENDS LOOK AT SIN AND SALVATION
The picture people have of God, and their understanding of his use of law, seem to affect significantly the way they look at sin and
the plan of salvation.
My grandfather made no secret of his position on the subject of sin. He was clearly dedicated to its exposure and eradication.
He also faithfully worked with people to prevent it—including with me.
More than 55 years have passed since I last talked with Grandpa, pacing back and forth together on his lawn, or sitting comfortably
by the fire. But I can still remember the conversation returning from time to time to the subject of sin.
“ ‘Sin is the transgression of the law,’ ” Grandpa would remind me, his beard adding solemnity to the sound of those
venerable words from the King James Version.
“Yes, Grandpa. I remember that you told me that once before.”
“And where do you find that verse in the Bible?” he would inquire.
“First John three, verse four,” I would reply, to his satisfaction.
“Now, what law was John referring to?” Grandpa would continue. “Since, of course, it was the law of Ten Commandments, that means that sin
is disobeying one of those ten rules.”
Then Grandpa would repeat that serious verse from the book of James, “ ‘To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is
sin.’1 And we know what happens to sinners, don’t we?” Grandpa would begin his conclusion. “We know that unrepentant sinners will never
enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
My grandfather could have chosen to mention more horrifying things described in the Bible as the destiny of the disobedient. But he also believed
in all the verses about God being love, and about Jesus saying that he wanted little children to come to him. So he chose to mention only that sinners
would not be allowed to share in the joys of the hereafter.
I was very fond of my grandfather. He was kind and generous and would obviously rather die than sin. He was totally devoted to serving the Lord and
anyone in need, the kind of neighbor you could live next door to and never bother to lock up your house. I hoped that when I grew up, I could be as good
a man as my old grandpa.
Even when I was attending college six thousand miles away, my grandfather would write letters from time to time, each of them including instruction
and exhortation designed to keep me from straying from the paths of righteousness.
A Larger View of Sin
It was there in college that I began trying to read and understand the Bible as a whole. And it helped to have some knowledge of the languages in
which it was first written. I soon came to realize that the Bible doesn’t always describe sin as just breaking the rules.
In that much-used definition in 1 John 3:4, the Greek word for “transgression of the law” may also be literally translated
“lawlessness.” This would indicate that sin is first a rebellious attitude or frame of mind, a hostility to God and to his law,
that in turn may lead one to commit this or that act of disobedience. The 1989 New Revised Standard Version translates,
“Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”
The Obedience That Comes from Trust
In the introduction to his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul states his conviction that he had been specially commissioned to bring about a
new kind of obedience. It was to be different from the kind of obedience he himself had offered before he met Jesus on the Damascus road.
It was to be what he calls literally “obedience of faith,” “obedience of trust.”
“Law-obedience” is what Paul used to practice with such zeal, and he was not at all pleased with the results. It had made him intolerant
toward other people, even cruel. “Law-obedience” had actually led him to violate the whole spirit of God’s law, the law of love.
By now urging “faith-obedience” or “trust-obedience,” is Paul doing away with the law? “By no means!” Paul exclaims. “On the contrary, we
uphold the law.”2 Phillips interprets, “We put the Law in its proper place.”
One proper place for the law has been to serve as “our attendant on the way to Christ.” But the ultimate place is the one Jeremiah
described. Paul agrees with the prophet. What the law requires may be written on the heart—the place, Paul explains to the Romans, where the
conscience is active and people do their thinking.3
“Trust-obedience” is the kind that results from “knowing” God, in the full meaning of that word. It comes from learning the truth about him
and his use of law. It is the result of being won back to trust him as a Friend, to admire him for his wise and gracious ways.
This means that the Spirit of Truth has succeeded in writing the law “on our hearts.” Now we freely do what the law requires, not because we’ve been
ordered to, but because we’re convinced in our own minds that what the law requires is right.
The Obedience That Comes From Conviction
To act without, or against, such conviction is sin, Paul seems to be saying to the Roman believers. “Anything which is not from faith is sin” is
a literal translation of his words.4
One of the meanings of the word commonly translated “faith,” “belief,” or “trust” is “conviction.” In the much-quoted definition of
faith in Hebrews 11:1, faith is described as “conviction of things not seen,” “conviction” being the literal meaning of the Greek.
From what Paul has just been discussing in chapter 14, it seems clear that in verse 23 he is using the word “faith” in the sense of “conviction.” So the
New Revised Standard Version translates, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” with the footnote, “Or conviction.”
It doesn’t seem difficult to understand how proceeding against one’s convictions could be regarded as sin. It’s not that the person who does
something wrong like this is in legal trouble with God. But to violate one’s conscience is to weaken the ability to discern between right and
wrong. It means to be a person who lacks integrity and is not safe to trust.
This is not the behavior of a trusted friend. The cost of failing to follow one’s convictions is very great.
But Paul seems to be warning that to proceed without personal convictions is also sinful and wrong. “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds,”
Paul urges in Romans 14. How could turning down this generous invitation be regarded as sin?
Failure to accept the freedom and responsibility of making decisions for oneself, and leaning on others for direction, leaves one
increasingly vulnerable to harmful influence. Such a person becomes like the children Paul pictures as “tossed to and fro and blown about
by every wind of doctrine.”5 He is like “a wave in the sea,” James agrees with Paul, “driven and blown about by the wind . . . unable to
make up his mind and undecided in all he does.”6
Most seriously, like the helpless infant pictured in the book of Hebrews, his “faculties” have not been “trained by practice to
distinguish good from evil.”7 Not having exercised his God-given ability to decide for himself, he has damaged that place where a man
does his thinking, that place where the Spirit of Truth does his most essential work.
Such an unstable person is not safe to rely on as a trusted friend. Like the results of going against our personal convictions,
the cost of not forming our own convictions is also very great.
The Sin of Moses at the Rock
Not long before the people of Israel crossed the Jordan into the Land of Canaan, God’s good friend Moses committed a sin so serious
that he was not permitted to go with them into the Promised Land.
Once again the people were in an uproar over lack of water. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched
place?” they complained. Moses and Aaron took the matter to the Lord.
“ ‘Gather the assembly together,’ the Lord instructed. ‘Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.’ ”
Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly. But Moses did not follow the rest of the Lord’s instructions. He still felt too provoked by the
ungrateful grumbling of the people.
“ ‘Listen, you rebels,’ ” Moses cried angrily, “ ‘must we bring you water out of this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock
twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites,
you will not bring this community into the land I give them.’ ”8
Moses pleaded with God to reconsider. “ ‘Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan.’ ” In fact, he pleaded so long that finally God
had to say plainly to his old friend, “ ‘That is enough, . . . Do not speak to me anymore about this matter.’ ”9
Just before Moses went up on Mount Nebo to die, God reminded him of what it was about his and Aaron’s behavior at the rock that was so
seriously wrong—wrong enough, in fact, to justify denying them the well-earned reward for 40 years of faithful service.
I wonder how Moses felt as he wrote this down for later generations to read.
“ ‘This is because both of you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites . . . .and because you did not uphold my holiness
among the Israelites.’ ”10
Moses had gone out of his way to protect God’s reputation. Remember how he assured the people there was no need to be afraid of God.
Remember the story of how he even ventured to advise God not to hurt his own reputation.
Now Moses had let God down. He had “broken faith.” He had not allowed God to reveal himself to the people as he chose to be seen that day.
On the verge of entering Canaan, with all the dangers there, it was essential that the people trust God implicitly, or they would never survive.
But at that moment there in the wilderness, the people were in a hostile, suspicious mood. How could God persuade them to change their minds and
feel confident that he would look after them?
As Paul would explain in later years, it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance and trust.11 God chose that day to give his
undeserving people all the water they needed. No anger. No condemnation. No correction. Just a gushing stream of water.
I wish the record showed that the hearts of some people were touched. But Moses had confused what God was trying to say. By his anger and
impatience, he had misrepresented God. Years before, the people had asked Moses to be their mediator, to stand between them and the wrath of
God, and to be God’s spokesman to them. If even meek Moses was so angry with them, God must be furious.
When the people learned that Moses had been banned from entering Canaan, they must have been puzzled by the severity of the punishment.
“What do you suppose the old man did?” I can hear them wondering to each other. “And why doesn’t he offer a sacrifice and ask for
forgiveness? Then God could let him go in after all.”
But God had already forgiven his old friend. Moses must have been horrified to realize the significance of what he had done.
In imagination I can hear him cry, “God, I’m so sorry that I let you down. But please, God, can we still be friends?”
The Lord knew that treating his old friend so sternly would not be testing their friendship too far. He knew that Moses, as a friend,
would understand. God had gone on record before the universe that there is nothing more serious than for friends to let each other down.
There is no sin more damaging than for an influential leader to misrepresent the truth about God.
Understanding Sin as a Legal Problem
The idea that sin should be understood as a breach of faith, a breakdown of trust, is not of primary concern to
servants—that is, to servants as Jesus depicted them in John 15:15.
Servants, he explained to his disciples, “do not know their master’s business.” They feel it is none of their business to
understand what their master is doing. Their duty is to do what they’re told, and obey the rules—whether they agree with them or not.
Believers who think and act like such servants tend to be preoccupied with their legal standing with their Lord and Master, how to please him,
and how to stay out of trouble. Sin is seen primarily as the breaking of the rules.
It is their understanding that by committing such transgression they will incur the wrath of God and find themselves in serious
legal trouble. Unless something is done to remove their guilt, legal penalties will be imposed. And for the slightest infraction of the
rules, the penalty is nothing less than painful execution—or even eternal torture.
Some servant-believers are so accustomed to this kind of government that they fervently defend it, all in the name of justice,
as they understand that term. They will concede that in civilized courts of law, justice never justifies torture. But in God’s government?
“Well,” the servant says, “who are you to question his inscrutable ways? As a good and faithful servant, just bow your head and believe.
Such fearsome treatment at the hands of God is not only the right but also the loving thing to do.”
I heard someone say this again just the other day. He was the kind of believer who surely qualifies as a “good and faithful servant.”
“God,” he went on to explain, “is required by law, by justice, and by the holiness of his own character and government,
not only to destroy those who oppose his will, but first to painfully punish them for an appropriate length of time.”
When I asked him how he could consider such inhuman punishment the loving thing to do, he replied, “Don’t you believe the
Scriptures? The Bible says God is love. That means that even if it doesn’t make sense to us, anything God does must be the loving
thing to do.” It made me think again of that famous bumper sticker.14
“Your God is Too Kind”
I have heard servants sometimes charge that friends lack a keen sense of justice. They do not leave room in their understanding of God
for just and essential punishment. Their God is simply too weak and kind. “You have a marshmallow God,” I heard one servant say.
The truth is precisely the opposite. Friend-believers have great concern about righteousness, which is the literal meaning of the
Greek word often translated “justice.” The English word “justice” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek.15
Friends admire God’s righteousness and would love to be like him. And to do what is right is, of course, to do what is just.
But servants tend to think of justice in terms of retribution and punishment.
“I find comfort in the thought that some day God will bring retribution on those who have hurt me so much,” I heard a believer say.
“Now, I’m not asking for vengeance, you understand. I’m just asking for justice.”
Recently, a serial killer, who had been incredibly cruel, was sentenced to death by electrocution. As the hour for his execution
approached, a crowd gathered outside the prison. And some very religious people were heard to cry, “Burn, Bundy, burn!”
Afterwards, some of them complained that it was not fair that Bundy should burn such a little while. Justice had not really been
satisfied. But they comforted themselves with the thought that someday, at the hands of God, justice would fully be done. Bundy would
burn for eternity.
Destruction Does Not Discipline the One Destroyed
Friends understand the need for punishment. They know that God disciplines those whom he loves. Discipline is for the purpose of
correction and instruction, and friends trust God to discipline them when they need it. And they do not chafe under such discipline,
as servants are more likely to do. They know that God’s discipline is always for their best good. “Thank you, God, I needed that,”
is the grateful response of a friend.
But destruction is not discipline. Destruction does not discipline the one destroyed. And to prolong the pain of the execution teaches him
nothing. His life is done.
Then would God extend the suffering to say something to the ones looking on? Will saints in the kingdom, as they watch the agony of the lost,
be saying to their heavenly Father, “Thank you, God, we needed that. Justice demanded that they be punished like this, and we needed
to watch it happen. Besides, if that’s what you really do to sinners, you can count on us to be very obedient for the rest of eternity!”
That’s the obedience that comes from fear, the obedience of trembling servants who simply do what they’re told. It would not be the free
cooperation of understanding friends, that God so much desires. And what do you think God’s friends would be saying as they watched the wicked die?
The Servant View of Salvation
In the servant’s understanding of sin and its divinely imposed penalty, salvation is seen as God’s merciful provision by which the
guilty servant’s legal standing may be adjusted and he will not have to be executed after all.
How the death of an innocent substitute makes this adjustment possible is of no serious concern to the servant. All he wants to know is
whether his Master is satisfied and his righteous anger about the sinner’s misbehavior has somehow been assuaged—or “propitiated.”
Do you know the meaning of that word “propitiated”? Years ago my oldest daughter came home from Bible class repeating the verse to be
memorized that week. It was Romans 3:25, as translated in the King James Version.
“ ‘Whom God hath set forth to be a propitchiation through faith in his blood,’ ” she began.
“That’s not pronounced ‘propitchiation,’ ” I interrupted. “It’s ‘propitiation,’ as if the first two
syllables were spelled p-r-o-p-i-s-h.”
“No it isn’t, Daddy,” Lorna replied with unquestionable certitude. “My teacher says it’s pronounced ‘propitchiation.’ ”
“Very well,” I conceded for the moment, “but tell me now, what does the word ‘propitchiation’ mean?”
“Oh, we don’t have to know that, Daddy. All we have to do is memorize the verse. Then we get a gold star on our record.”
It reminded me of the story sometimes told of the woman who informed her pastor that there was one word in the Bible that especially inspired her soul.
“What word might that be?” the pastor inquired.
“Oh,” she replied, with face aglow, “it’s that wonderful word Mesopotamia!”16
One of the characteristics of the servant view of sin and salvation is the frequent use of terms and phrases that friends might consider
“dark speech.” Such terms as “justification,” “sanctification,” “expiation,” and, of course, “propitiation.”
It may help to remember that these actual words were never used by the writers of the Bible. Even Paul never used the word “justification,”
for which he is so well-known. That’s a Latin-based English word. Paul wrote his epistles in Greek. And the Greek can be translated into
more simple language than you find in some of the versions. Recent translations into many languages around the world have gone a long
way toward making the words of the Bible more plain and clear.
Such familiar old phrases as “washed in the blood,” “there’s power in the blood,” “covered by his righteousness,”
“accepted in the Beloved,” “saved by the blood of the Lamb,” and so many more, surely qualify as “dark speech.”
This does not in any way suggest that their meaning is not of great importance. But what do these phrases mean?
Try explaining to a child who has just had the blood washed from his wounded knee, what it means to be “washed in the blood of the Lamb.”
I believe it is a significant test of our own understanding to explain sin and salvation to a little child.
In religion class one day, I asked a medical student to explain why he thought Jesus had to die. “Because ‘without shedding of blood is no
remission,’ ” he replied without a moment’s hesitation, quoting that famous verse in the book of Hebrews, as translated in the
King James Version.17 Then he settled back in his chair, as if nothing more could be said.
“But does that mean,” I persisted, “that if blood had not been shed, God could not have forgiven sinners?”
“Why can’t you accept the Bible just the way it reads?” he replied with some agitation. “Why do you have to confuse things by always
asking for the meaning?”
Isn’t that the way servants talk?
The View of God’s Friends
The fact that God’s friends are not so preoccupied with their legal standing does not mean that they take sin lightly.
Precisely the opposite is true! Whereas servants are concerned about breaking the rules, friends are concerned about anything that
would undermine trust and damage their relationship with God. Most of all, they are concerned about anything that would in any way
misrepresent God—whether or not the details have been spelled out in any law.
Friends understand salvation as the healing of the damage sin has done. And sin’s damage, if not healed, is nothing less than fatal.
Disorderly, irresponsible behavior, if persisted in, can totally destroy the capacity for trust and trustworthiness.
To the servant, what makes sin most dangerous is that it angers God.
To the friend, what makes sin most dangerous is what it does to the sinner. To persist in sin is to destroy oneself.
Sin Is Like Poison
If you should find it necessary to keep some potent poison at your house, where would you put it? Where the children
could readily find it? Or on the highest shelf in the garage?
“You absolutely must not touch that poison,” you warn the children. “Don’t even go near that shelf. If you disobey me,
you’ll be severely punished.”
Some time later you hear an ominous crash. You rush out to the garage, and there on the floor is your son, the broken bottle beside him.
What would you do to your dying child? He has disobeyed you. Would it occur to you even for a moment that he should be put to death for his sin?
He’s dying already.
You know that the poison works quickly. You don’t have much time. Would you waste precious moments scolding him for his disobedience?
Would you insist that he repent and tell you he’s sorry. Would forgiveness keep him from dying?
You run to fetch the antidote. But your son refuses to take it, and you sadly watch him die.
What caused his death? You loved him. You forgave him. You offered him the antidote. But he still died.
Friends don’t see sin as a legal problem. They see it as working like poison. And they understand the plan of salvation as God’s offer
of the antidote.
But what if we refuse the antidote? What happens to those who turn down the offer of salvation?