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The Gift of God’s Justice

• Greg Boyd

This opening sermon to the Christmas series introduces a central Old Testament passage that defines the nature of God, which is ultimately revealed in the coming of Jesus, the perfect embodiment of God. In this sermon, Greg addresses a difficult phrase where God is said to visit the iniquity of the parents on their children. How are we to understand this passage when it contradicts both Jesus’ teachings and his actions on the cross?

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In Exodus 32, Yahweh tells Moses he wants to wipe out Israel and start over with Moses due to the worship of the golden calf. Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel, and God changes his mind and shows mercy. Moses asks to see God’s face. Instead, God shows him his backside. At this point, the words of the focus scripture are stated.

While there are some frightfully violent and vengeful depictions of God in the Old Testament, here Yahweh is said to be merciful, gracious, slow to anger, loving and forgiving.

The troubling part is that this passage says Yahweh explicitly visits sins of parents on the third and fourth generation of their children. How is this just? Greg explains how this passage reflects Moses’ cultural conditioning. Since God always honors the personhood of people, and always operates by means of influential love rather than coercion, God doesn’t magically perfect people he wants to inspire his writings through. Therefore, at times the imperfect ideas and habits that biblical authors have are reflected in the text.

In this passage, the Spirit manages to break through Moses’ cultural conditioning to reveal the magnificent truth that Yahweh is merciful, gracious, patient, loving and faithful. All of these divine attributes which are perfectly consistent with the revelation of God in the crucified cross. In addition, all of these attributes were not at all shared by Ancient Near East neighbors.

The depictions of Yahweh bringing judgment on children and grandchildren for sins of parents is completely inconsistent with the revelation of God in the crucified Christ, but it is perfectly consistent with what Israel and their neighbors thought about justice.

Interpreted from this perspective, verses that speak of God actively visiting iniquity on future generations must be rethought because the God revealed in the crucified Christ would never exact vengeance by destroying children for what parents do.

For those of us who know God as he’s fully revealed in the crucified Christ, such passages bear witness to the truth that God has been doing throughout history what God did on the cross. The non-coercive God has always been willing to stoop as far as necessary to accommodate his people where they are at, bearing their sin, and thus taking on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of that sin.

This is confirmed by the fact that the phrase of visiting iniquity is omitted, replaced and then refuted in subsequent passages (see Joel 2:13, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 20). This is especially clear in the teachings of Jesus. He speaks about breaking the cycle of violence and vengeance that is viewed as core to justice. Christ came as a child to redefine justice that did not make sense to the culture around him, the Ancient Near Eastern cultures of the time of Moses or to our culture today. He teaches us to love those who are evil because this is the nature of God. To love those who are not loving lies at the heart of the divine nature.

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Topics: Judgment, Love

Sermon Series: God IS the Gift

Downloads & Resources

Audio File
Study guide
Group Study Guide
The MuseCast: November 28
The Gift of God's Justice Poem
BibleProject: Character of God

Focus Scripture:

  • Exodus 34:5-7

    The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”

For Further Reading:

Cross Vision by Greg Boyd
Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd

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