I closed the previous part of this discussion with a discussion of the tension in the Bible that exists between the need to honor those who came before us whose example of faith provided future generations with blessings that we do not deserve and the understanding that believers of all generations are on an equal playing field where entrance into God’s kingdom is conditional on our own relationship with God and our own obedience to His laws and His ways. This may not be the sort of tension that we reflect on often, but it is a tension that can consistently be found within the Bible. Understanding this tension is important because it helps us to better appreciate the ambivalent position of second (and third and fourth…) generations of believers who struggle with feelings of legitimacy concerning their own less dramatic stories of conversion than can be found from those who make a drastic renunciation of the ways of the world and serve as pioneers of the faith for others.
We find this tension throughout scriptures, and it is worth reflecting on this. For example, Acts 2:39-40 contains both elements of this tension: “Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”” On the one hand, the promise of being called and blessing from the example of obedience is not only to believers but to their children and to those who are afar off. This is an example, as we have previously noted, of the undeserved privilege that comes to later generations as a result of the faithfulness of their forefathers (and foremothers). On the other hand, this calling is contingent upon God (“as many as the Lord our God will call”) and the gift of the Holy Spirit is likewise contingent upon repentance and baptism. Here we see both conditional and unconditional blessings being spoken of in the same context.
And this pattern continues elsewhere as well. Hebrews 11 is a chronicle of the faithful obedience of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and many, many others, some named and many unnamed. Over and over again we read statements like the following, found in verse 7: “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” Here we see, as one example among several, the way in which the righteousness and faith of Noah gave blessings to others, namely his household. Similarly, in our own time when people are converted to God’s ways it provides blessings to the rest of their families as well. But while there is plenty of unconditional (and frequently undeserved) blessings that spring from our connection to the faithful of generations past, each believer has to stand on their own two feet, as it is written in the preceding verse: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” And at the end of Hebrews 11 there is a reminder again of the egalitarian relationship of believers in verses 39 and 40: “And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” Here we see that although the example of the faithful from times past is a powerful one, that all who believe before the return of Jesus Christ will enter into the Kingdom of God simultaneously, there being no aristocracy or hierarchy among them in terms of this matter.
We see the same tension between unconditional promises of blessings (or curses) to future generations and conditional blessings based upon obedience when we look at the ten commandments. The second commandment focuses on the unconditional blessings and curses that come as a result of the behavior of generations before, as it is written in Exodus 5b-6: “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” However, the fifth commandment focuses on the conditional blessings that result from obedience, as it is written in Deuteronomy 5:16: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” On the one hand, God visits the iniquity or shows mercy to future generations (although the mercy extends far beyond the wrath) based on the behavior of their fathers or mothers or grandparents, but a long and good life is contingent upon our honoring of our fathers and mothers (whether or not they actually deserve it).
The reader whose lengthy messages prompted this particular series of posts himself reflected on the tension between unconditionality and conditionality. The former, for example, can be found in Psalm 89:28-37: “My mercy I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall stand firm with him. His seed also I will make to endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven. “If his sons forsake My law and do not walk in My judgments, if they break My statutes and do not keep My commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, nor allow My faithfulness to fail. My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips. Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David: His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me; it shall be established forever like the moon, even like the faithful witness in the sky.” Selah” On the other hand, there is clearly conditionality shown in these promises as well, as we may see from 1 Kings 9:3-9: “And the Lord said to him: “I have heard your prayer and your supplication that you have made before Me; I have consecrated this house which you have built to put My name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually. Now if you walk before Me as your father David walked, in integrity of heart and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded you, and if you keep My statutes and My judgments, then I will establish the throne of your kingdom over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you or your sons at all turn from following Me, and do not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them; and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight. Israel will be a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And as for this house, which is exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and will hiss, and say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the Lord their God, who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore the Lord has brought all this calamity on them.’ “”
Furthermore, we see this same tension when we compare the account of the Book of Judges of the repeated cycles of disobedience, judgment, contrition/repentance, and deliverance of the people of Israel with the great deal of space in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles that is spent discussing the family history of the tribes of Israel. On the one hand we have plenty of evidence that God judges people and nations and generations for their sins, and makes their blessings contingent on their own obedience. On the other hand, the Bible’s deep concern with genealogy demonstrates that God works through families, as we may see also from Genesis 17:7-8: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”” So which it? Are we blessed and/or judged for our own deeds, according to whether we live according to our covenant with God, or do we receive unconditional and undeserved blessings as a privilege of the obedience of past generations?
The answer is clearly both. God is merciful and faithful to His promises. He desires godly offspring, as it is written in Malachi 2:15. He works within families over the course of generations, and gives undeserved blessings to the descendants of Abraham as well as the descendants of the faithful, including the blessing of being called and having the opportunity to enter into God’s kingdom because one is a son or daughter of believers. That said, this privilege does not extent to a ticket into God’s kingdom unless we choose to accept the calling we have received and choose to live according to the covenant that God makes individually with all believers through repentance and conversion and baptism and a faithful life of obedience guided by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. If we wished to use an earthly similitude, we could compare the Kingdom of God to a prestigious university that gave legacy acceptance letters to those who were the sons and daughters of previous generations of alumni. However, in order to profit those who had received acceptance letters they may not have deserved through their own academic performance, the privileged heirs of promise must still pass the degree requirements of the university so that they may graduate with their own diplomas, and perhaps set an example of faithful conduct for still future generations. This assumes, of course, that we marry and have children of our own to raise up in obedience to God, which is assuming perhaps a bit too much for some of us (myself included, sadly). How, then, do those of us privileged to come from faithful families recognize the privileges that we have in the absence of the dramatic conversion experiences of past generations or new converts? It is that question that we will turn to next.