IT seems incredible, at first thought, that any act can be both right and wrong. But when we see that the sinfulness of an act lies, not in the deed itself, but in its relation to those whom it affects, it is not difficult to see how any given action may be both good and bad. We can place almost any conceivable deed into two opposite environments and transform it from a crime into that which is commendable, and vice versa. Circumstances provide the moral clothing of human activities. The eating of fruit is often urged as an aid to health. And such it usually is. Yet this it was that introduced disease into the world!
No act is sin in itself. Under some conditions it may be right. In others it is wrong. A kiss is usually much more than just, but the kiss of Judas is among the basest of crimes. The morality of any deed lies not in the action but in its relation to those concerned with it. Sin is relative, not absolute.
It is no sin for the state to kill, even though it is often the penalty for the same act. There is no essential difference between an execution and a murder. Both define a violent death. But in one case it is done with due authority; in the other it is a defiance of the law of the land.
The great doctrine of justification consists in surrounding our sins with a divine environment in which they are not merely covered, or condoned, but actually transmuted into just deeds which will be vindicated before the bar of universal justice. How could it be otherwise? No earthly judge can vindicate a crime, or acquit criminal, or justify what he has done unless the circumstances of the case warrant it. Such a tribunal cannot justify, or make just, for it cannot modify or change the circumstances attending the crime.
A concrete case comes before me as I write. Quite a few years ago a convict, Daniel Mann, received the gift of God after his conviction. We will assume that he was guilty of manslaughter. At any rate, he was sentenced to death. Anyone acquainted with the grace of God would naturally desire to do something to save such a man from the penalty. I should like to be able to justify one before men who has already been justified before God.
But how could it be done? If the dead victim could be brought back to life and his temporary death proven to be an actual benefit to him as well as to all others affected by it, even an earthly judge would revise his decision. Why condemn a man for doing what eventuated in another's good, even if his own motive was bad and the apparent effects disastrous? No matter how much one man may hate another, no matter how much evil he may attempt to do to him, if he fails in his fell designs or is checkmated by another, no earthly court can convict him of the intended crime. Man is the sport of circumstance and circumstances are the servants of God.
So it is that God will deal with this deed. If the victim had, by some means, been restored to life, the charge would have been dismissed. This is just what God will do. He will raise him from the dead, and thus conclusively cancel the charge of murder. If the case had been reviewed as an attempt to do harm, the victim himself would plead for an acquittal if it actually resulted in good. The God Who has the power to raise the dead is not helpless in the smaller affairs of life. This dreadful deed, deserving of death, according to every human standard, has been stricken from the docket of the supreme court of the universe.
THE STORY OF JOSEPH
Next to the cross of Christ, the story of Joseph gives us the clearest insight into the function of sin in God's plan and illustrates how a dastardly and cruel act may be justified when viewed in the light of His purpose. Joseph's brothers knew nothing of the famine which would come. They had not the slightest desire to fulfill the dreams which made the favorite brother their lord. Indeed, they wished to prevent the possibility of their fulfillment. So they conspired to kill him.
But this was not according to the purpose of God, so He put it into the heart of Reuben to deliver Joseph, with the hope of returning him to his father. Yet this, again, was not in line with God's plan, so He sent the Midianites and put Judah in the way of making some profit out of the transaction. So Joseph was sold into Egypt. Is it not a sad and sordid scene of sin? Plotting to slay their own flesh and blood because of his dreams! Actually accepting twenty pieces of silver for the darling of their father's heart!
Joseph besought them and was in anguish of soul, but they would not hear (Gen.42:21). Jacob, their father, rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days, and refused to be comforted, and said "I will go down into sheol unto my son mourning." Thus his father wept for him. And later, when they wished to take Benjamin to Egypt, his heart wailed forth the lament that is among the saddest in the annals of sin: "My son shall not go down with you: for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave!" How tragic were the consequences of this sin in the eyes of Jacob may be seen from his own words. "Me have ye bereaved: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin: all these things are against me."
So it appeared. And so it appears to us when tragedy stalks into our lives and robs us of our friends or our wealth or our health and leaves us helpless. All seems against us, when, if we only knew God's mind, we would see that all is for us.
There is a blessed future for which all our trials are a preparation. Nay, the very sins of men are material in His hands with which to work out their salvation. A God Who can accomplish His ends and bless His creatures only when they obey Him and fall in line with His revealed plans, would have little opportunity to act in this evil eon, and would be submerged in sin and rebellion. It is the glory of God's wisdom to harness His unsuspecting enemies to His purpose, and use their opposition to prosper His plans.
How triumphantly Joseph greets his brothers! What a marvelous insight into God's ways was granted to him! Instead of harboring a grudge against them for their treatment of him, instead of condemning them for their cruel conduct, he reassures them. "Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life" (Gen.45:5).
Here we have the divine side of this sin, which is, after all, the actual truth in regard to it. Apparently, his brothers were "responsible" for his exile in Egypt. But, had they known that this would only further the fulfillment of his dreams, they would never have done as they did. Their motives were all wrong. Their sin was grievous. But their act was actually good. It was so good that God claims it as His own.
As his brothers are not fully consoled, Joseph repeats the great truth: "God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So it was not you that sent me hither, but God..." The plain inference seems to be that, if Joseph had not been sent into Egypt their lives would have been forfeited to the famine. Egypt itself would have succumbed, and the countries about would have sent in vain for sustenance. All the promises to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob would have failed if Joseph had not gone down to Egypt.
Is there another act in the lives of the patriarchs so vital to their welfare, or so essential to God's glory, as this sin? What good deed of theirs compares with it in its beneficent effects? The marvelous truth stands forth sharp and clear. The sending of Joseph into Egypt was actually God's act, absolutely necessary for their salvation. Yet that very act was apparently a heinous crime against God and against Joseph and against their father Jacob.
As a sin it apparently greatly wronged Joseph and seemed to rob Jacob of his beloved son. As the act of God it made Joseph the saviour of the world and preserved Jacob and all his sons and their families from starvation.
All this looks as if we are lauding sin, as though we were saying "Let us do evil that good may come." In reality it is quite the reverse. In practice it prevents sin. Whenever the grace and wisdom of our Saviour God is extolled, men are not wanting who think they would take advantage of His love if they believed it. But when it grips their hearts they lose all desire for the license which it is supposed to give. Their amazement at His wisdom reveals the folly of any attempt on their part to justify sin, and they have no inclination to put Him on trial.
The effect of this truth on the future is indescribably grand. Eternal, irremediable, omnipotent sin is a conception so terrible that it threatens the sanity of anyone who dares to give it earnest consideration. Yet, even if we see God's power to cope with sin, in most of our minds we picture it as an ineradicable stain on the universe forever. We imagine that its evil effects will linger eternally, and that we shall look back with sorrow and regret that it was ever allowed to enter the creation.
Such a cloud will not darken our sky at the consummation. Sin spells sorrow and suffering now, and it is well that it should. But then not only some sins, but all sin will be justified. It will not, like the sale of Joseph into Egypt, save mankind from a famine of physical food, but from that greater lack, ignorance of God, and give them a realization of the appalling power and wonderful wisdom which are at the service of His dauntless love.
This simple story supplies the answer to the difficulty which some experience in believing that God does evil (not sin) in order to accomplish good. We are often accused of teaching that "we should be doing evil that good may come" (Rom.3:8). Here we have an evil act which brought about much good. But we recognize that this good was attained only through the direct operation of God. Apart from this the sin of Joseph's brothers would have produced nothing but suffering and death.
We should not do evil and trust blind chance to turn it to good. It is almost impossible for a man to do evil and not sin. He has no control over an act once it has occurred. Even a good deed, done with the best of motives, may lead to disaster. All we can do is to commit our actions to the hand of God, Who alone is able to guide them to a happy outcome.
But shall we thus limit God? Paul spoke of us, not Him. That God does evil is so often taught in the Scriptures that we feel like apologizing for insisting on a fact so plain on the face of revelation, notwithstanding that others seem to think that we are slandering Him when we believe His words (2 Kings 6:33, Neh.13:18, Jer.19:3; 21:10; 32: 42; 36:3,31; 39:16; 40:2; 42:17; 44:2,11; Lam.3:38; Ezek.14:22; Micah 1:12). And anyone who will note carefully will see that, when He does evil, good always results. All the evil He brought upon Israel was for their welfare.
A good deal has been made of the sin of rejecting God's word. Indeed, there are some who would question whether eternal torment applies to any except "Christ rejectors." Sir Robert Anderson was one of these. So we may be sure that obstinacy or stubbornness is one of the most fatal of sins. But the Scriptures do not make the division which theology has attempted, which brings in a host of difficulties. How much light must a man have before he is a rejector? If he hears one clear gospel message, is that enough? What is a "clear" gospel message? Some of the "heathen" have never heard of Christ. If they "hear" of Him, does that make them eligible to eternal torment, or must they hear a given formula to be doomed forever?
To what ridiculous shifts are we driven when we embark on a theological investigation! In the Scriptures, the amount of light is not in question. All men have some illumination, and all are declared to be obstinate or stubborn. This, we submit, is the greatest evil under the sun. Yet God has no hesitancy in declaring that He brought this upon them. "For God locks all up together in stubbornness..." (Rom.11:32). In their own consciousness, of course, they think that they have a right to think as they choose. It is not according to God's purpose that they should be conscious of His control. Now why is this evil done? "That He may be merciful to all" (Rom.11:32).
Joseph's brothers did evil, yet God meant it for good. We do evil, yet God will transmute it into good. Yea, even when we sin, grace superabounds. But we do not sin to tempt further grants of grace, neither should we do evil in fond expectation that it will eventuate in good. As we shall show, evil and sin have their limits, beyond which they would not react to the welfare of the creature or the glory of God.
How foolish if Joseph's brothers had reasoned as some would have us do today! They should have said, "If it turned out such a great blessing to throw Joseph into a pit and sell him into slavery, why, let us assassinate him now, and perchance it will turn out even better than our previous sin." What madness would this have been! Yet that is precisely the difference between believing that God can and does do evil to evolve good, and saying "Let us do evil that good may come."
At first Joseph's brethren would look back on their treatment of him with mingled feelings of sorrow and joy. Sorrow for their own sin, for the sufferings of Jacob and Joseph. Joy for their salvation from starvation, for the restoration of Jacob's long lost son and for his exaltation. But when they realize that God justifies their act by making it the source of blessing not only for themselves but for Jacob and Joseph as well, all regrets would vanish, though their condemnation of themselves would increase.
The treatment of Joseph by his brothers is a precious type of the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Joseph's brothers did not actually kill him, even as Abraham did not slay Isaac, but in both cases there was the intent of the heart, which is what counts with God. The brothers typify the nation that brought Christ's blood upon their heads. Jacob represents the Father, and Joseph is the Son.
It must be noted that the only ones who suffered unjustly because of this sin are the ones who did not commit it. Jacob had no hand in the crime, yet he suffered from its effects. The loss of his son caused anguish of heart which but feebly reminds us of the awful gulf which separated the Father and His Beloved at Golgotha.
In Joseph we see the suffering Saviour. Far from having any part in the sin of his brothers, he is the spotless victim who suffers most of all. But his suffering is for their sin, not his own. And it is essential to the justification of his brothers, for it is only through his distress that God works out the happy result, which vindicates their act. They are not justified through the blind unfeeling forces of providence happening to counteract the normal results of sin. They are freed from all guilt through the vicarious sufferings of Joseph, who did not deserve, yet endured, the consequences of their sin.
They deserved banishment from their father's house: Joseph bore it. They deserved to lose their liberty: Joseph languished within prison walls. They deserved to suffer: Joseph endured it.
So let us freely acknowledge that there is a temporary element of injustice so far as Joseph is concerned. The brothers never could do anything to justify his sufferings. If God can justify his brothers He needs must do something to justify himself as regards Joseph.
Hence Joseph is exalted to the second place in Egypt. The suffering of Joseph leads to the justification of the sin of Joseph's brothers. The exaltation of Joseph leads to the justification of God in laying the burden of their sin on him. However much he may have suffered in the pit and in the prison, how happy he must have been to become the saviour of his family! And when all was done, he himself would be first to justify God for the anguish and distress which brought so much blessing in its train.
So we see that the sin of mankind can be justified through the suffering of a Saviour, and the apparent injustice to the Saviour is fully compensated by God Himself in awarding to Him the highest place at His right hand.
Current theological expressions have done much to drag down our conception of the "atonement." The very term atonement, so freely used, betrays the spiritual poverty of those who use it. In this type, the sufferings of Joseph, his absence from his father's house, may be said to have covered or concealed the sin of his brothers for the time. But what is that compared with the uncovering of the sin and its justification? There are phases in which this greater grace is the very opposite of atonement.
The commercial view of the "atonement" barters so much suffering for so much sin. Christ is said to have died "in our room and stead." There is no need to explain how one Man could suffer in such quantity, or how anything beyond mere negative escape from judgment can come of such a "transaction." The death of Christ was not in our stead. The appropriate preposition is not anti, INSTEAD-OF, but huper, OVER, on behalf of.
If Joseph had suffered in the place of his brothers, that would not only have been a great injustice to him, but it would have left them in the land, doomed to starvation, no whit better off than before they sinned. But since, under the guiding hand of God he suffered for them, it led, not merely to a release from the penalty of their sin, but to a great deliverance from the great evil which was impending over all. Through his trials they were justified and he was glorified, and they were glorified in him.
O that this simple story of Joseph, "the saviour of the world," as the Egyptians named him, might help us to higher thoughts of the salvation which is ours in Christ Jesus! We are always seeking to make His "atonement" a means of getting ourselves out of sin. God has much higher thoughts. He is going to get untold grace for us and ineffable glory for Himself out of sin, May our Saviour speak to us as Joseph did to his brothers, when they were burdened with their crime: "So it was not you... but God."