Translations may vary, usually in small ways. Idioms are especially difficult to translate. Imagine someone centuries from now trying to translate a 20th Century American English text. What would they make of the phrase, “I’ve been ripped off?” Would they get the joke in The Wizard of Oz about a “horse of a different color?” For a few years it was a running gag on the TV series NCIS that an Israeli special agent would get American idioms wrong. If even our children have trouble sometimes with our idioms, how much more so would translators of ancient languages! No language is without idioms, and that is even true of biblical Hebrew and Greek.
Sometimes translators even use idioms of their own time to translate a biblical phrase. Four hundred years later, a different translator takes something literally and we have a different translation. It may not be a wrong translation; just different. This may be the case with a phrase that Paul used. In the King James Version it is rendered with the idiom “God forbid,” although many newer translations useThere are two types of people; the servant of sin and the servant of God. the literal translation, “may it never be.”
Paul was a Jewish rabbi. His writings are peppered with references to Jewish law and history, and with Jewishisms, even though he was writing primarily to non-Jews. It appears that the phrase “God forbid” was common among the Jews. It is used nine times in the Jewish scriptures, by several authors. It appears that the Hebrew word so translated has the meaning “don’t be profane,” and is thus properly rendered as it is in English. In Luke 20, Jesus told a parable about a man who planted a vineyard then went away; the managers he left refused to pay him his portion of the proceeds. After the managers kill the owner’s son, Jesus says the owner would come and destroy the managers and give the vineyard to others. Jesus’ hearers responded, “God forbid” or “may it never be.” It appears they were using the idiom with which they were familiar, and which Paul would later use. Regardless of how it is translated, it may be enlightening to see what Paul was saying when he used this emphatic phrase.
Sin and Grace
Probably Paul’s most familiar use of the phrase in question comes in Romans 6:1-2, in the conclusion of his discussion of grace. “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound. God forbid!”
People will find an excuse to sin. In the late first century, the Gnostics decided that the flesh and the spirit were totally separate; one conclusion was that one could (and couldn’t help but) sin in the flesh, but this would not affect the salvation of the spirit. Some deny any responsibility for sin, laying it all on the devil. Others seemed to say that sinning was good, because it made God’s grace grow; the more sin, the more grace, which is a good thing. This is specifically what Paul emphatically said was wrong.
The ultimate expression of this latter idea was the medieval practice of selling indulgences. While this practice began innocently enough (although based on a faulty theology), it quickly degenerated into a way for the Catholic Church, or at least some in the church, to make money. Chaucer makes fun of this practice in The Pardoner’s Tale among the Canterbury Tales. The pardoner always preaches against greed, but admits that greed is his motivation. An indulgence was not forgiveness of sin, but rather the forgiveness of the punishment for sin. As the practice of selling them developed, it became an advance pardon rather than one looking back to a previous sin. The whole concept is based on drawing on a “treasury of merit.” The more one sins, the more he is able to withdraw from the endless treasury of Christ’s merit. Greater sin; greater grace.
Paul anathematizes this concept. He argues that there are two types of people; the servant of sin and the servant of God. Just as Jesus said that no man can serve two masters, Paul says there is a transfer of allegiance. Through immersion (baptism), one is bought to serve God and will not serve the life of sin.
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:4)
A little earlier in his life, Paul made a similar argument with the Corinthians. Some in that congregation were condoning, or at least not condemning, those who openly committed sexual sins. As a port city, such sins were commonplace in Corinth, and the church was turning a blind eye to those who were among them but continued in these sins.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor those who commit homosexual acts, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)
Paul told the Corinthians, as he told the Romans, that such things should be in the past. He goes on to say:
Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. (1 Cor 6:15)
His reaction to continuing a sinful life after having been joined to Christ was the same. “God forbid.” “May it never be.”
The Law and Grace
Paul was a Jewish rabbi and a Pharisee. Although his commission from Jesus was to go to the gentiles, he still had a love for the Jewish people, his people. Nevertheless, it was his knowledge of the Law of Moses that led him to some other “God forbid” moments.
It seems that someone had followed Paul to Galatia (in what is now central Turkey) and taught those gentiles to whom Paul had preached that they needed to follow the Law of Moses to be Christians. This happened in spite of a letter from the congregation in Jerusalem that condemned those who taught such things. Thus much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians concerns a contrast between the works of the Law and God’s grace. Gentile Christians are not bound by the Law of Moses, and Jewish Christians may choose to keep the Law but cannot rely on it as a basis of salvation. After saying that we are not justified by works of the Law but by Jesus Christ’s faith, he adds for the benefit of the Galatian gentiles:
But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners [according to the Law], is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. (Gal 2:17)
Some things were considered sin under the Law of Moses that were not bound on gentiles, such as circumcision or the dietary laws. If a gentile follows Christ, but not the Law strictly, does that make Christ whom they follow an agent of sin? No, because to them it is not sin.
Was the Law of Moses, then, sin? If it does not, in itself, bring salvation, but instead brings an awareness of the sinfulness of sin, “is the Law sin? God forbid.” (Rom 7:7) The Law was good, but the sinfulness of man took occasion by knowledge of the Law to commit sin.
Some might then argue that it is better to be a gentile Christian than a Jewish one. Some might even go so far as to say that the Jews cannot be saved under any circumstances. That appeared to be Paul’s fear when telling the Romans that the gentiles were gaining prominence because some Jews refused to believe in the Christ. Lest someone take that position, he says, “Hath God cast away his people? God forbid.” (Rom 11:1) He goes on to say that to a certain extent the Jewish people had to stumble to let the gentiles hear the gospel. But “have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid.” (Rom 11:11) Paul loved his people, and his wish was that they would come to salvation. May it never be that anyone would give up on the Jewish people entirely!
Was God wrong to allow the Jewish people to stumble so that the gentiles could be saved? Would it have been better never to have been Jewish at all? “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.” (Rom 9:14) If God has mercy on the gentiles, that does not negate his mercy toward the Jewish people. He showed that mercy for several hundred years, even when they rejected God and followed idols. Why should he not show the same mercy to the non-Jews as he did to the Jews?
Three times in Romans 3 (verses 4, 6, and 31) Paul says “God forbid” that the Law of Moses should be considered not valid just because people were not able to follow it perfectly. The fault does not lie with GodGentile Christians are not bound by the Law of Moses, and Jewish Christians cannot rely on it as a basis of salvation. or with his Law to the Jewish people. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” (Shakspere, Julius Caesar) In fact, Paul’s argument is summed up in the 23rd verse of this chapter. “For all [both gentiles and Jews] have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The Law is no more at fault than the lack of the Law. “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” (Rom 3:31)
One more thing
But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. (Gal 6:14)
Those who had taught the Galatians that they must follow the Law of Moses, which they had never previously followed, had only one thing in mind: self-glorification. They wanted to appear more knowledgeable than they actually were. They wanted a certain amount of power over or prestige among the Gentile Christians. They wanted to glory in their hold on the Galatian Christians.
May it never be, as Paul says, that we should glory in our power over others. In Christ we have no power. Instead, the power belongs to Christ. We should be like the kid in the playground who knows he can be beaten, but glories that “my dad can beat up your dad.” Our glory is not in ourselves, but in God. And may that always be.