The End Game
by Skip Moen, D. Phil.
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians NASB
Without blame – How is this possible? Paul might pray that his followers be found blameless, but we all know the reality. We fail. We sin. We make mistakes. So it really doesn’t matter if Paul or anyone else prays that we be found blameless. We simply aren’t blameless. End of story.
Or maybe not. Our problem is that we think “without blame” is a description of a state of being. Of course, we were probably taught that blamelessness is something we can’t achieve, so God has to make us blameless by some magical spiritual imputation. God passes the blame we deserve to His son who is then executed in our place so that we can be considered blameless. This penal theory of atonement was invented during the Reformation and is still the predominant one among main line denominations. But doesn’t it mean that I am to blame for the death of the son? He didn’t need to die for his own sins. He needed to die for mine. So even if he died for me, how does that remove my blame? I am the cause of his sacrifice, even if it is voluntary.
This kind of thinking leads to the conclusion that blamelessness is essentially a legal fiction. It really doesn’t change my true state. I am still a sinner. I still fail. I still do things that deserve blame. But God pretends that I am blameless. I am supposed to believe that He looks at my eventual, heavenly, eternal state and treats me as if I had already arrived. But that doesn’t change my reality. No matter how much blame is shifted to the son, I still know that I did it. Oh, I can pretend along with God that it doesn’t matter now, but if I am really honest (and I ask those whom I hurt), I know that the blame didn’t suddenly vanish.
All this means that Paul can’t possibly be thinking like a Reformer if he is sincere in his prayer for blamelessness. Perhaps we can unpack some of his thought by paying closer attention to a few critical words. The first is the verb,teretheie, “may be preserved.” The root is tereo, “to watch over, to protect, to take custody, to guard.” We should notice that it is an aorist passive. That means it is a completed action done to us. We don’t do the persevering. God does it on our behalf and what He does has already been done, finished, end of story. What is it that He did? For that answer we need the second word,amemptos, the negation of memphomai, “to find fault.” What God did is not to find fault. By the way, you will notice that it is God who does this. The son plays a role, but not this role.
Now you’ll reply, “Yes, but if God doesn’t find fault as a completed action, isn’t that the same as saying we have a sanctified state of being?” Not exactly. Think like a Hebrew. Why is it that God doesn’t find fault? Is it because we kept all the Torah perfectly? No, not a chance. It’s not about rule-keeping. What is it about? It’s about covenant promises. God doesn’t find fault because He made a promise not to find fault with His children. I know. That sounds like the same legal fiction, but hold on a minute. Because God doesn’t find fault in me, I can stop telling myself that I am not worthy, that I don’t matter, that I don’t measure up to the standard. By the way, I don’t—but that doesn’t matter in this regard. If God doesn’t find fault in me, then why am I doing so? I have been given the liberty to stop acting out my self-defeating identity, the identity I constructed for myself as a result of all my past failures. I am free to change.
This leads to the last important distinction. There is a difference between blame and finding fault. Yes, I know it’s subtle, but it is important. Blame means to assign responsibility for a wrong. It requires someone to 1) to act as judge of the action and determine that it does not meet the standard, and 2) to assign the culpability to someone for this situation. Finding fault does not require assignment of guilt. It only requires recognition of a failure to reach a standard. I can discover there is a lack of compliance without assigning that lack to someone’s responsibility. The NASB translation of amemptos uses a word that automatically includes assigned responsibility. But what Paul might be saying is that at the coming of the Messiah we will be without fault. It’s very much like “no fault insurance” today. Yes, some accident happened, but, no, no one is assigned responsibility.
This also requires a Hebrew point of view. God acts in such a way that we are delivered from our past self-destructive identities. But we still have to change. And for that to occur, God also acts by assisting, guarding, preserving, encouraging and generally engineering our lives so that we have opportunity after opportunity to put the new identity to work. And in the end, when the Messiah comes again, no fault will be found.
Just think about it for awhile.
Topical Index: amemptos, find fault, blame, 1 Thessalonians
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More Than Me
The Words of Words
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