Rebuilding the Foundations
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I am encouraged that the idea that God requires absolute perfection at the judgment is losing traction. Ligonier, a Reformed theology ministry, has a web page called "The State of Theology." On it, they report that a survey showed that 61% of participants strongly disagreed with the statement that "Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation."
I rejoiced when I read this statement. In my mind, torturing a person eternally for one sin that they committed in their life is horribly unjust. It is not just unjust; it is wicked. Ligonier does not agree. "If [God] is perfectly holy and just," they say, "He cannot let sin go unpunished. But God is no longer holy—in the minds of six out of ten Americans" (The State of Theology, 2017, "The State of Theology," Ligonier, Retrieved July 8, 2018).
This kind of thinking is unthinkable to me. In fact, on a logical basis, it is so unreasonable that it is silly. Try applying the same kind of thinking to a Christian. If you met a Christian who would not forgive the smallest sin, would you think that Christian was perfectly holy and just? No, not only would you not think he was perfectly holy and just, you would think he was neither holy nor just because he was incapable of mercy. It would not matter to you if the Christian tried to justify himself by saying, "I will forgive this small injustice done to me if you will let me slap you in the face. You see, I am holy, and I must punish sin, but you can take the punishment if you want."
Such a person might be regarded as insane, but he would not be regarded as holy or just. Why, then, would we lay such a charge upon God?
The answer is that we have taken one passage in James 2 that is talking about our judging one another, and we have turned it into the standard on God's judgment and mercy. That passage reads:
But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2:8-11)
If there were no verses talking about God's judgment on the last day, then we might be justified in concluding that God will judge us the way James describes in this passage. There are many verses describing God's judgment of humans, however, and none of them list "any point of the law" as a standard. This passage has to do with judging one another. Since we are all law-breakers, we sin if we give preference to some individuals as though we were not all law-breakers.
One of the passages that talks about God's judgment of humans is a vehement protest by God against Israelites who were complaining that God did not judge justly. In response, God gives a careful explanation of the terms of his judgment. Please excuse the length of this quote from Ezekiel. God gives a better explanation of the judgment than I ever could.
"The soul who sins, he shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him. But if the wicked turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?" says the Lord Yahweh, "and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?
"But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die.
"Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is not fair.' Hear now, house of Israel: Is my way not fair? Aren’t your ways unfair? When the righteous man turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and dies therein; in his iniquity that he has done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Because he considers, and turns away from all his transgressions that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not fair.' House of Israel, aren’t my ways fair? Aren’t your ways unfair?
"Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, everyone according to his ways," says the Lord Yahweh. "Return, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, in which you have transgressed; and make yourself a new heart and a new spirit: for why will you die, house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him who dies," says the Lord Yahweh. "Therefore turn yourselves, and live." (Ezek. 18:20-32)
This is God's idea of a just judgment. God commands the wicked to repent, and if they do, he forgets all the wickedness they have every done. Their newfound righteousness will reap life for them.
It is apparent that God was not talking about perfect, sinless righteousness. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament teach that no one is without sin, not even the righteous or the born again (1 Kings 8:46; Jas. 3:2; 1 Jn. 1:8-10). Instead, under both the Old Testament and New Testament, there are those "whose sin the Lord will never count against them." (Ps. 32:2; Rom. 4:6-8).
Besides this description of the judgment, Ezekiel gives a very interesting picture of righteousness in the eyes of God.
"Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its people and their animals, even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord." (Ezek. 14:13-14)
Through Ezekiel, God listed three men who were righteous enough to have saved themselves from the judgment that came upon Judah. In fact, the implication is that under normal circumstances, they would not only have saved themselves but also the whole people. Judah, though, had sinned so badly that God had allowed Babylon to destroy Jerusalem and the temple and take Judah into captivity. He was not going to forgive them until the prophesied 70 years were fulfilled (Jer. 29:10), "even if these three men … were in it." Nonetheless, God held these three men up both as righteous enough to save themselves from judgment.
We know that these men sinned because there is no one who does not sin. Even under the New Covenant, the Apostle John stated that anyone claiming to have no sin is a liar (1 Jn. 1:8). Nonetheless, God had the highest regard for the righteousness of Noah, Daniel, and Job.
This is a good spot to dismiss another myth. We evangelicals regularly quote Isaiah 64:6 and interpret it to mean that even when we do good, our righteousness is as filthy as menstrual rags. This is not the case. Isaiah 64:6 was a specific lament by Isaiah in regard to Israel at a specific period of time. The passage is regularly quoted by us, but it was never quoted by Jesus or the apostles. Indeed, it is apparent that the righteousness of Noah, Daniel, and Job were not considered filthy at all by God.
It is not just Noah, Daniel, and Job whose righteousness was regarded as righteousness by God. God told us through Ezekiel that anyone who turns from their wickedness and begins to do righteousness will live because of their righteousness. Their wickedness will never be brought up to them! (Ezek. 18:22).
I will not make you read through a passage you are surely familiar with, but in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus told us that when he sits down on his throne to judge us, he is not going to take stock all the little imperfections we accumulated in our lives. Instead, he is going to recount to us whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, housed strangers, and visited the sick and imprisoned. There is nothing in that passage about distinguishing between those who had faith and those who did not. He will know who had faith by whether they fed the hungry or not (cf. Jas. 2:14-18).
The fact that God will not require sinlessness at the judgment does not mean that we are unable arrive at the judgment blameless, sinless, and without stain or blemish (1 Cor. 1:8; Eph. 5:26-27; Jude 1:23). We have already discussed the fact that there are those to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Who are these people?
The Apostle John had a lot to say about this. For example, in 1 John 1:7 he told us that "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." First John 1:9 tells us that God will forgive and purify us if we confess our sins. First John 1:7 steps it up a notch by telling us that we will continually be cleansed if we will walk in the light.
Of course, we then have to ask, "What does it mean to walk in the light?"
Ephesians 5:8-15 addresses this directly. There Paul told us that if we live as children of light, then the fruit we bear will be "goodness, righteousness, and truth" (v. 9). Light exposes (v. 13; Jn. 3:19-21). It is safe to conclude, then, that the person who is seeking to live a godly life, confessing his sins to God (1 Jn. 1:9) and others (Jas. 5:16), can expect to be forgiven on an ongoing basis. Such a person can expect to be among those whose sins will not be accounted to them.
This idea is in the New Testament in a number of places. First John 3:7 tells us that we need to be practicing righteousness if we expect to be righteous as Jesus is righteous. It tells us not to be deceived about this. Galatians 6:7 says, "God is not mocked." At some point, if we sow to the flesh enough it will lead to corruption. That point is not after one or two sins, nor do we reach that point by sinning every day, but there is a point at which God is being mocked, and you will face corruption at that point.
Romans 8:12 says something similar, contrasting living according to the flesh with putting the deeds of the body to death by the Spirit. One leads to death, and the other to life. The apostle John said it is possible to tell the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil. Anyone not practicing righteousness or not loving his brother is not of God (1 Jn. 3:10).
Any time I bring up these passages or suggest that we as Christians will face the judgment, I am asked about "the line." Where is the line? How badly must I sin before I am mocking God? How much righteousness must I practice in order to be sure that God is attributing the righteousness of Jesus to me and not accounting sin to me?
Normally, this is not really a question. Normally this is a challenge. Those who ask me this are saying, "Your teaching is wrong because it leaves us wondering where the line is."
The truth is, we are supposed to be wondering. Paul showed us by his own response how he wanted us to respond to his teaching. He disciplined his body daily so that he would not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). What did he mean by disqualified? Well, he used the same word that he used in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where he told us that we should examine whether we are in Christ. We are either in Christ or disqualified, one or the other. In 2 Timothy 3:8 Paul said that men of corrupt minds who oppose the truth are reprobate. Paul's own response to his own Gospel was to discipline his body like he was training for the Olympics (1 Cor. 9:25-26).
He was even more clear in Philippians 3. There he told us that he was constantly pushing himself toward a goal (v. 13). He wanted to attain to the resurrection of the dead (v.11). He did not consider himself to have already attained (v. 12).
I know this is a horrifying thought to most of us, but it was definitely Paul's attitude. Peter must have agreed because he told us to live our lives in fear because of the judgment (1 Pet. 1:17). He also told us that we have to be diligent to make our calling and election certain (2 Pet. 1:10).
Of course, we have already looked at Romans 2:6 and Galatians 6:8-9 to find out that receiving eternal life is for those who do not grow weary. God promises that he has the power to carry us to the end (Rom. 8:35-39; 14:4; 1 Cor. 1:8; Php. 1:6, Jude 1:24), but Paul and Peter clearly thought it required diligence on our part.
Perhaps it would be helpful to look at Hebrews. Like Paul and Peter, the writer told us that we have to press on to the end, saying that we "need endurance so that, having done the will of God, you may receive the promise" (10:35) and that those who "shrink back" are headed for "destruction" (10:39). On the other hand, he also said that we are to come "boldly" to the "throne of grace." There we are promised both mercy and grace to help when we are in need (4:16).
God does provide assurance, but it is not the kind of assurance we are typically offered by American preachers. He provides the witness of the Holy Spirit that we are his children (Rom. 8:16; 1 Jn. 3:24). We can also assure our hearts before God by loving in deed and truth rather than just talking about loving (1 Jn. 3:18-22).
Again, we have to contrast this kind of strictness with the nature of God, who is abundantly merciful. The primary marker of God's character is love (1 Jn. 4:8), and mercy is a close second (Ex. 34:6). When we sin, we are not supposed to run away from God, as the writer of Hebrews points out (4:16), but we are to run to his throne because he will show mercy and "freely pardon" (Isa. 55:7).
This balance can be both frightening and amazing. Frightening because we must follow Paul in disciplining our body and bringing it under subjection (1 Cor. 9:27), and amazing because we find his mercy to be new every morning (Lam. 3:22). Surely God is as willing to forgive as he commands us to be. Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother 70 times 7 times if his brother offended him and then repented (Matt. 18:22). Surely God is more merciful than he requires us to be.
There is one final thing to take into account that we have not even touched on yet.
Christianity was never meant to be a solo religion. Jesus is gathering up a bride for himself (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22-32). We cannot represent Jesus by ourselves, but each of us make up the many body parts of Jesus. Paul saw this as so true that he not only said the members (lit. parts) of the body make up the church, but that the parts make up Christ himself (1 Cor. 12:12). He has joined us, through one another, as a body that is quite literal in his eyes. His life flows to us and through us to one another, joining us into one body that is supposed to grow together into a mature representation of Jesus (Eph. 4:13-16).
In that body is an assurance that cannot be found apart from it. Being in good standing as a part of the body not only means you are in good standing with Christ, but you are spiritually a body part of Christ on the earth.
It is unfortunate that we are often part of a church that does not know us. You must have people around you who can encourage and exhort you. You need them every day (Heb. 3:13). Leaders in the church should be nourishing you like parents (1 Tim. 3:4-5) and caring for you like sheep (1 Pet. 5:2-4). Jesus said true shepherds know the sheep. Hired hands don't know them, and they bail out when wolves come (Jn. 10:11-16).
If you have no leaders that know you or no collection of saints that exhort and encourage you day by day, then you are isolated. You are in the midst of wolves. You are in danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Even in the confusion of these modern times, you should make every effort to yourself to others who pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace (2 Tim. 2:22). In fact, the advent of the internet and social media make that easier than it was 30 or 40 years ago. You do not necessarily need the right organization to "attend," but you do need shepherds and saints who will join themselves to your journey as you join yourself to theirs.
Communion like this can be the best assurance there is because our brothers and sisters can add their testimony to the Holy Spirit's that you are a child of God. If you have become one Spirit with them (Eph. 4:3), then you can know that you have his Spirit, and those who have his Spirit are his children (Rom. 8:9-16).
I would love to end this book here, but in the process of carefully constructing a scriptural model of the Christian faith, I have left a lot of passages unaddressed. Many of these are the foundational verses on which the evangelical model of Christianity is built. I have chosen to present a new model in this book, built on a foundation of verses in the New Testament that actually say they are foundational.
The two foundational doctrines of the evangelical model that make this book's model hardest to swallow are the teaching that Jesus died to save us from being judged and salvation by faith alone. It is impossible to close this book without specifically addressing those two doctrines.