In my hundreds of conversations about Salvation by Being Good there are two objections that are raised almost every time. One objection that I have already addressed in a previous blog post is that no man can by his own merits be considered good enough to be rewarded eternal salvation. I addressed that in There Are None Righteous – Except For Everyone Who Is. In that post I explain how we have misunderstood scriptures that seem to take such a dim view of man such that no one can be good enough for God. In a future post about agape love I will demonstrate that God sees enough value in every man to give them eternal life until they do something drastic to lose that status, such as become a wicked person, which means they engage in a lifestyle of doing harm to others.
The other very common objection to Salvation by Being Good is that God is holy and just, and his justice demands punishment for sins, either our punishment or someone else’s, that someone else being a substitute like our Savior Jesus Christ. We want to see God as being loving and merciful, but we must not, it is asserted, take this one thing off the table: punishment for all sins, else we are tossing God’s justice and holiness out the window. The crucifixion of Jesus then becomes that punishment. In this view the punishment that Jesus received on the cross demonstrates the love and compassion of God who punishes his beloved Son in our stead as a matter of justice. Once the just nature of God is satisfied then we are free to enter into God’s holy presence.
Grace Evangelical Society says it like this in their article Forgiveness and Justice:
“Forgiveness is natural to God. But it is not arrived at easily. Before He can forgive, God’s justice must be satisfied. It is impossible for Him to forgive by simple declaration.”
In this article we will see that not only is it possible for God to forgive by simple declaration, but he does just that. He does that not only because of his forgiving and merciful nature, but also because he is holy and just, not in spite of that fact.
And He expects us to do the same or else be guilty of not being just in the same way God is just.
The Big Trial – I Am Sooooo Guilty!
I used to envision Judgment Day as a big court room with God as the Judge, the Devil as the Prosecuting Attorney, and Jesus as the Advocate, or Defense Attorney, court appointed of course because nobody could afford to hire his own. Jesus is even called our Advocate in 1 John 2:1 – “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” though at the time I did not realize that word “advocate” would have been better translated as “helper”.
With my sanctified imagination I could see the court called to order and the Prosecuting Attorney, the Devil, would unroll a humungous scroll listing my extremely long list of sins which would reach all the way to the floor and unroll for about 50 feet. Or maybe 5000 feet. Even though it was written in microscopic font! He would then begin to read off my sins, with each one I’d get this sinking feeling about my whole life, figuring we were going to be in for a long, long day and by the end of it I would be in deep doodoo, with about 99% of my list of sins left to be read.
After about two minutes of this Jesus, my Defense Attorney standing to my side, would get the Judge’s attention and declare, “This one is a sinner for sure and guilty as charged, Your Honor, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s no point in rehearsing this poor man’s sins. He is a believer in me, Jesus Christ. He is covered, by my blood!”
At that point the Judge would pronounce, “Acquitted!”, slam his gavel on his table and say with a big smile, “According to the Laws of the Land and because of the Blood of the Lamb you are hereby considered Not Guilty! You will be ushered into glorious habitations by the angels, reserved for all who put faith in my Son!”
This with glorious, angelic music being played in the background. Handel’s Messiah, no doubt.
I liked this “parable” so much I preached it at a student fellowship at Pacific Lutheran University where I had given my heart to Jesus many years earlier and was hoping to influence any Lukewarm Lutherans present toward the Evangelical “truths” I had learned.
The problem with this scenario, which I thought for sure had been given to me by the Holy Spirit, is the theology that says there is only one thing that will let anyone off the hook for his sins on Judgement Day, that one thing being faith in Christ. That of course assumes that every sin every man commits gets you arrested and put on trial in the first place. Again, that is an assumption I demonstrate to be biblically unwarranted when I addressed Universal Condemnation to Hell – Because Human (as I like to call it) in There Are None Righteous – Except For Everyone Who Is
Now THAT’S Unjust
As we shall see “balancing” God’s holiness and justice against his love and mercy assumes a very modern, non-biblical view of both the holiness and justice of God in the first place. But before we define biblical justice let’s take a look at two obvious examples of injustice and see what makes them unjust in order to see why our modern views of the justice of God actually make him unjust as well.
First, let’s imagine a father who says on each of his children’s 6th birthday that by the time of their 7th birthday they must be as tall as he is or else be punished severely. Let’s call his perverted fathering methods Painful Punishment Because Short.
We would not consider that father to be just. Why? Because a just father would not punish his children for something they have no control over, such as their height.
Not only would we consider that father unjust, we would consider him a psychotic monster who should not be allowed to raise those poor kids. We’d call Child Protective Services and hope they can take the kids and find them a good home before they turn into monsters themselves.
That father, in his demented attempt to administer “justice” in his family is being arbitrary and capricious, the very thing that when done by a sovereign king we think of that king as being evil and we rejoice when his tenure is ended, no matter how it ends. When the villagers rise up and send that evil king to the guillotine to have his head removed we sigh a sigh of relief and think justice has finally returned to that kingdom.
Here’s another example of injustice. Let’s say we were invaded by aliens and those aliens said they would spare the earth under one condition, that they like us based on our musical taste. They pick you as the representative of the human race and tell you to put together for them one hour of the best music known to man. They will listen to it to determine if it’s good enough to save our planet from destruction.
The next day as they listen to your selections, halfway through the third song the King of the Aliens says, “Well the first two songs aren’t too bad but I don’t like this one. You people suck!” He then pushes the big red destruct button, melting the whole planet in a split second, sparing no one but the aliens.
What would you think of that alien, other than being a character in a really bad movie? Wouldn’t you think he is being arbitrary and capricious? Arbitrary because he is connecting our salvation with something that shouldn’t matter regarding the destiny of our planet?
Unless of course that third song was by Justin Bieber, in which case – justice has been served!
But seriously, you would think that that alien is being capricious because he’s erratic and unpredictable. Which, by the way, is how the pagans used to view their gods and why they would make sacrifices to them in hopes they could stay on their good side. In the Old Testament the God of the Hebrews borrowed the practice of pagan sacrifices, sans human sacrifice, not so that his people could hope that God would be kind to them, but as a way to remind them that God is kind to them. He borrowed from the pagans their sacrifices and vastly improved upon the meaning of them.
With both of these examples, the arbitrary father punishing his children for something beyond their control and the capricious alien destroying the planet just because he doesn’t like your taste in music, we would say they are unjust. But if God is the one laying down the law and doing the judging then we are told it is justice, just because God does it. God can do anything he wants, no matter how unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious it may seem to us, we are told.
We Aren’t Judging God – We Are Judging Theology About God
Let’s get something straight before we define biblical justice. This may seem obvious to most but again I encounter this thinking numerous times when talking to Christians.
We want to judge a theology that makes God unjust but we are told we can’t because that would be judging God who is always just. Therefor we can’t judge any theology no matter how much of a monster it makes God out to be. We just have to accept the theology.
Yes, this actually happens in real life. I kid you not. Then on top of that we are told we are using our carnal minds and not being spiritual if we dare think this theology is whack.
The funny thing is Evangelicals can see it when the Calvinists do it to them but can’t see it when they do it to others.
Indoctrination has that effect.
If we start with a biblical view of justice we would never conclude that God is going to damn every person to eternal punishment for no other reason than being what humans can’t help but being – human. We would think, rightly so, that a God who inflicts Universal Condemnation to Hell – Because Human is anything but just and far worse than the sick father who inflicts Painful Punishment Because Short on his very own children. We would conclude that that can’t be what our scriptures are saying about the justice of God so everyone who believes this really needs to re-examine their theology. Nor would we listen to someone telling us we just don’t understand the justice of God or someone telling us that we don’t have any business judging such a portrayal of God.
If we start with a view of God in which he condemns humans to eternal punishment for nothing other than being humans, we end up with a God who is an evil, arbitrary, and capricious monster, just like the pagan view of God, if not much worse. Certainly worse than the father expecting his kids to be as tall as he by age 7 or the aliens expecting better music from us earthlings. The proponents of this view of God of course say we have no business judging God so must accept their version of God.
For some strange reason, and I have yet to figure out what this reason is, those same people – of which I was at one time – fail to understand that we are not judging God, we are judging their theology about God, and finding it wanting. We don’t have a problem with God. God isn’t like that.
To the ones promoting this theology:
“Dude, it’s your theology. I’m going to judge it. Please don’t get all righteous indignation about it. I’m perfectly fine with God himself. I really do believe he is good and just. It’s your theology that makes him to be an unjust monster.”
I would also add that understanding God’s justice is not beyond our abilities, according to the Bible. Trying to understand the ways of God isn’t always the mystery we sometimes say it is. It’s not always like a 3rd grader trying to understand Calculus or most anyone trying to understand Quantum Physics.
God tells us through Ezekiel that he can be understood and implores us to understand him so we can follow his example.
In Ezekiel 18:25 God is trying to get across to the Jews that everyone will be judged for their own lives, not the lives lived by their parents. He explains that a wicked person will be forgiven if he stops being wicked and a righteous person will be judged if he turns to being an evildoer. To this the Jews said, “Your ways, God, are unpondered (unable to be understood).” Why did they not understand the ways of God, or even try to understand his ways? Because they were implicated for excusing their own unrighteous behavior. To that God responded via the prophet, “No, my ways are pondered (understood by people), it’s your ways that are unpondered,” that is, they are a mystery.
God makes sense, unrighteous people don’t. That’s Ezekiel’s answer to his fellow Jews excusing themselves for their wicked behavior. That’s also a good answer to people promoting a whack theology about God.
God makes sense, your theology doesn’t.
Starting On the Right Foot – A Biblical View of Justice
Our Evangelical understanding of justice, especially any Reformed or Calvinistic view, is fundamentally wrong. Since our understanding is fundamentally wrong we tend to see God’s justice as being at odds with love and mercy, and so we seek to find a theology that preserves both God’s love and mercy and that wrong view of justice at the same time. We look for an “escape route” out of this predicament, so we try to find a way to “satisfy” that justice.
Biblical justice, however, is not “someone must be punished for our sins”. Biblical justice is “setting things right again.”
Christians debate whether the story of Adam and Eve is factual history or some form of allegory and often miss the point of the story which can be understood regardless of whether it’s allegory or history. The point of the story is that because of sin, things aren’t as they should be. The rest of the Bible is the story, especially when it comes to our Savior Jesus Christ, of God taking great pains to restore things to how they should be, to how they were before sin caused spiritual death. The Bible is about salvation, that is, freedom from oppression. It’s about the love of God restoring his own creation to wholeness, not about him providing a workaround to having to punish us for the way he created us in the first place.
Derek Flood explains this well in his article Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor:
Biblically to “bring justice” does not mean to bring punishment, but to bring healing and reconciliation. Justice means to make things right. All through the Prophets justice is associated with caring for others, as something that is not in conflict with mercy, but rather an expression of it. Biblically, justice is God’s saving action at work for all that are oppressed:
“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
This is what the LORD says: “Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.” (Jeremiah 21:12)
The way that we “administer justice,” the Prophets tell us, is by encouraging and helping the oppressed. In contrast to what the Satisfaction-Doctrine says, God’s justice is not in conflict with his mercy, they are inseparable. True justice can only come though mercy:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Administer true justice: show mercy and compassion to one another.” (Zechariah 7:9)
Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. ( Isaiah 30:18)
If we want to understand the concept of justice as the writers of the Old Testament did, then we must see it as a “setting things right again.” Thus When Christ comes, the way that he brings about justice is through mercy and compassion. Notice how in this next verse Christ does not bring justice with a hammer, but with a tenderness that cares for the broken and the abused.
“I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations… A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.” (Matthew 12:18-21)
The way that God brings about justice and “leads it to victory” is through acts of compassion — sheltering the “smoldering wick,” and the “bruised reed.” And what does Christ “proclaim to the nations” to bring about this justice?
“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
The justice that Jesus ushers in, the righteousness he brings, have to do with God pouring his love out on us, with God showing his compassion for the lost and the poor. With God meeting us in our need and liberating us from sin and oppression. With “setting things right”—that is what biblical justice is about. There is no dichotomy between a “God of justice” in the Old Testament and a “God of mercy” in the New. There is no split in God’s character. God has always been a compassionate God, a God of love. Jesus reveals who God is and who God has always been. Justice is about mercy. Justice comes through mercy and always has.
In addition to the scriptures Mr. Flood used above to show the meaning of justice in the Bible, 1 John 1:9 clearly shows that God’s justice hinges on his forgiveness:
If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Forgiveness of unrighteousness and cleansing from unrighteousness, which are designed to restore us to wholeness, to set things right after we have messed up ourselves and others, are manifestations of the faithfulness of God and result in the justice of God. They are the very definition of the justice of God.
We Are Expected to Understand Justice and Do It
Now that we understand the justice of God, what about us?
Though we are of a fallen nature, God expects us block-headed, sin-hampered humans to do justice:
He has shown you, oh man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you. But to do justice, and to love mercy…” (Mic. 6:8)
When Jesus was sent into the world nothing got his goat more than seeing injustice among his countrymen, like when the moneychangers in the temple were taking advantage of the poor and he drove them out, rather forcibly, to set things right. On one occasion he upbraided the religious leaders and teachers saying to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices– mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law– justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Mt. 23:23) Obviously justice was not a hard concept for man to grasp or they would not have been expected to know it and do it, or hear Jesus preach a sermon directed right at them for not doing it. We would consider it patently ridiculous if one of the Pharisees were to say what I’ve been told, “Uh, Jesus, don’t you know that God’s ways are not our ways? How then can we be expected to do justice if we don’t know what it is? Don’t you know that since God is holy, that is, he is all together different than us, we can’t judge God’s justice by our human standards?”
The problem with this is he has shown us what is good, and the justice he wants us to live by. And he will judge us if we don’t do it.
God is Better Than Us, Not Worse
To say that God’s justice is different than ours is to say that his justice is even BETTER than ours, not worse. It’s better because he is more fair, he has more understanding since he is omniscient, he has a better sense of what is right, and he’s more merciful than we are. Saying God is holy, and God is just, is saying he’s better. It isn’t justification for what any reasonable person can see to be the opposite of justice. If we were given a choice of being judged by the average Joe or being judged by God himself we would certainly want God to do the judging. In fact, that is what we say when we feel someone is judging us unfairly. We say to him or her, “I’m glad I’m accountable to God, not to you.”
Jesus himself validates this way of looking at it when he says, “You fathers, being evil, know how to give good things to your children. How much more our Father in heaven?” Jesus started with the heart of God as the given and worked out from there, concluding that God treats people better than us fathers treat our own children when we give them what they want.
Modern Evangelical theology has turned justice on its ear by justifying a view of God in which God is demonstrably worse than humans at how he treats the pinnacle of his own creation.
How does theology like this flourish in the Christian church? Is it because we haven’t really acquired the father heart of God and so are not able to actually see things from a heavenly perspective?
Punishment is to be Limited, Commensurate with the Crime
Even if biblical justice could be characterized as “there must be a punishment for sin” our scriptures put definite limits on how much punishment is to be measured out. When God instituted what we call a civil justice system to his people through Moses he said in several places that if someone does intentional harm to another the same thing must be done to him in return, saying,
“If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.(Lev. 24:19-20)
This is often seen as a minimum punishment but it was actually a maximum punishment to prevent “street justice” from getting out of hand, the idea being that a just punishment should match the crime. You don’t take the life of someone who has broken someone’s finger. You just break his finger. You don’t torture someone for 30 years, breaking every limb in his body, for poking someone’s eye out, you just poke his eye out as a prescribed penalty to deter others from doing the same. This law is a good example of God, with his merciful nature, inserting himself into a humanity that can be at times very cruel and uncivilized, especially in those days, and instituting what we have included in our U.S. Constitution: a God-inspired prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. This law in Leviticus is not a manifestation of the justice of God because of the punishment for a crime it prescribes, but because it was a means to bring about a more civil society, restoring wholeness to a society broken by people’s lack of love for each other.
This principle of matching the severity of a punishment to the severity of a crime is a foundational principle of all civilized societies, and was given to the Israelites by God to lift their society above those around them, making them a more enlightened and humane society, one in which the mercy of God is reflected in the mercy of the civil laws given to them by God. It was meant to raise their level of civility enough that the neighboring countries would want to be like them, a nation of wholeness rather than brokenness.
The Best Monarch
When a great king who has absolute authority to wield it as he pleases chooses to govern himself with mercy we think of that king as greater, not lesser. It’s the same with God. He shows his greatness by being merciful and “letting people off the hook.” No king or government on earth has ever been considered great which showed no mercy. On the contrary, the greatest kings have always been the ones who ruled with justice as shown by mercy and forgiveness.
There is no conceivable way in which to think of the God of modern Protestant theology to be a great king if we are to think he sends anyone to suffer forever in Hell for any reason or even to be annihilated for doing what no man can avoid doing.
Rationalizing Eternal Punishment – Turning Biblical Holiness on its Ear
People promoting the idea of God sending people to eternal damnation, whether they mean by that Eternal Conscious Torment or just cessation of existence, for something they have no control over – being human – sense that from our human perspective this just doesn’t sound right. Thus they spend a considerable amount of effort to justify it if they are Christians. Since it doesn’t really set right with them they attempt to justify it by saying, “Well, you underestimate just how bad sin is to a holy God.”
I’ve even had some try to use mathematics to prove their point: “Since God is holy, and God is infinite then any sin against him, or at least the sin of rejecting God, is infinite and thus deserves an eternal punishment,” and by eternal punishment they usually mean a process of punishment that lasts forever and ever, with no end, ever.
Aside from this mathematical approach being simply absurd for trying to mathematically quantify an intangible quality, it also ignores the fact that even if you could quantify it, God would also have to be infinitely loving and infinitely merciful. You’ve increased love, mercy, and holiness by the same amount so they are still countering each other the same way as if God isn’t infinite. But of course many people will only see an increase in holiness and punishment when they bring infinity into the equation. Why is that? Why do people try so hard to make God an evil sadistic monster? What sort of sickness dwells in the spirit of man to cause him to do this?
The word holy just means “separate”. We are called to be separate, because God is separate. “For the scriptures say, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” (1 Pet. 1:16) Does that mean we are to be more severe in our judgments? If holiness equates to punishments wouldn’t the worst tyrant on the planet be a holy man? Obviously, trying to rationalize eternal punishment turns biblical holiness on its ear as well.
The bigger issue is that both of the responses I just gave completely ignore the crux of the problem, which is God judging man for something he can not avoid doing – namely sin. There is no conceivable notion of justice, especially biblical justice, that can include punishment for what can’t possibly be avoided. In fact, that’s the very epitome of injustice.
Eternal Conscious Torment for any reason is diametrically opposed to justice, as is any form of punishment for doing what is impossible to avoid.
Universal Condemnation to Hell – Because Human is the best argument one could give for Universal Salvation or Universal Reconciliation. If it’s true that any and all of our sins render us as “guilty” before God, and there is nothing any human can do about it, a just God would simply acquit the whole human race, on that basis alone, and find a different basis by which to judge if he thought it was necessary to judge.
God is Not a Hypocrite
One of the definitions of justice is doing the right thing. In 2 Corinthians chapter 2 Paul mentions a brother who did something wrong which caused grief for the church and was punished for it, hopefully by their civil justice system and not by the congregation, though it does seem to say he was dealt with by a little “street justice” on the part of the congregation. Paul admonishes the people in the church to not only forgive the person but to comfort him as a demonstration of their love for him, so that he would not be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” (vs. 7) With love and compassion for this person who did wrong Paul encourages them to “confirm your love toward him,” which would prove to Paul that they were living as Paul taught and it would also prevent the devil from taking advantage of everyone, including Paul.
The right thing for the church at Corinth was to restore that person, not allowing him to descend into sorrow and despair and remain there. When you love someone, you want the best for that person. Doing what’s best for a person is always the right thing to do. Walk in “love your neighbor as yourself” and you will always be doing justice.
Do you believe Paul’s advice to be God’s advice? If you believe in the inspiration of scriptures the way most do then you see Paul’s heart and words to be God’s heart and words.
I can’t imagine a scenario where God sends someone to eternal torture (assuming that exists for the sake of discussion) and that person doesn’t at some time, say within the first 20 minutes – or 2 seconds, find himself in deep sorrow and anguish for whatever reason got him sent there. Neither can I imagine a scenario where a God of love would leave such a person in that state.
“You just don’t understand the justice of God, Kirby. You’re looking at this thing with natural, human eyes, and not from God’s perspective,” I’ve been told.
I think I do understand justice, from a biblical and heavenly perspective. A perspective that says a God who claims to be a God of love sending anyone to eternal suffering makes God out to be a hypocrite for expecting Paul and his church to lift an errant brother out of despair and sorrow. Since we know God is not a hypocrite we know that he would not expect from us humans something he wouldn’t do himself.
That’s all we need to know to reject the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment. On that basis alone, we can stop debating about it, call it a day, go home, and do something productive with our lives. Nothing more needs to be said.
But of course more we shall say, especially when we’ve got these other scriptures to deal with that might lead someone to believe in ECT.
Forgive Not, And You Won’t be Forgiven
Jesus tells us we are to love even our enemies because God is good and kind even to the evil:
“Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6:35)
Being kind to evil people most certainly means not being unforgiving, because God is forgiving. Being forgiving of sins is such an important part of who God is that he makes forgiveness of others one of the criteria for God forgiving us:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Mt. 6:14-15)
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'” But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt. 18:21-35)
So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Lk. 17:3-4)
Notice several things from these three passages:
- The only thing required of the one to be forgiven is repentance. The one to forgive isn’t supposed to require conditions to be met or hoops for the repentant to jump through first. If asked, forgiveness is supposed to be granted, right then and right there, unconditionally.
- The reason the servant was supposed to forgive the 100 dinarii debt was because the king had forgiven his 10,000 dinarii debt. This is described as how things work in the Kingdom of Heaven. The King is forgiving, and so should the servants be. The King forgives a lot, so the servants should forgive at least a little, even when it seams like a lot to them.
- The servant who would not have mercy and forgive was called a wicked servant.
- Being told to forgive 77 times reminds us of the numerous times God patiently worked with Israel forgiving them every time they came back to God. Our forgiveness should reflect God’s forgiveness. If God isn’t forgiving he doesn’t serve as a good example.
Not only is God forgiving, but he waits patiently for men to repent, even pleading with them to come to him in repentance so that God will have a just reason to account them as righteous. This heart of God is shown when Jesus stood outside Jerusalem and said,
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
The willingness of God to forgive is never in question. The only question is man’s willingness to repent or extend forgiveness to others as a matter of justice.
I have been told by people trying to defend their understanding of scriptures that unless God punishes all crimes he is not just. As you can see, hopefully, the Bible gives us a completely different picture of justice, one that requires mercy and forgiveness. Without mercy and forgiveness, there is no justice. Without mercy and forgiveness what you end up with is a diabolical tyranny nobody would want to live with or should even be forced to live.
The Capricious God of Evangelical Christianity
Previously I explained how the gods of the pagans are capricious and also how the God of Evangelical Christianity is capricious as well because in Evangelical Christianity God’s forgiving nature “works” on the earth but not in the afterlife. For example, Evangelicals will tell me the Ninevites got mercy from God only in this life but in the next life would find themselves in eternal Hell. The Ninevites who had no knowledge of the Jewish Law of animal sacrifice were told by the prophet Jonah that if they stopped doing their wicked deeds God would have mercy on them and forgive them, sparing them of the judgement that would come to them if they kept on in their wicked ways. Jonah didn’t want to preach this message to them because he knew God is forgiving and would spare the Ninevites who were enemies of the nation of Israel. Jonah wanted God to judge them, not have mercy on them. But God had his way with Jonah, thanks to a big fish, so he preached repentance to the Ninevites nevertheless and God spared them.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 12:41 that, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the Judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” God is, as Jonah said, a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Because of his love and compassion, God didn’t send them calamity. He even gave them a seat at the Judgement to judge the Jews of Jesus’ time.
Are we to believe that God, after giving them positions as judges at the Judgement, would then throw the Ninevites into the same calamity as would befall the wicked Jews they were called on to judge? God is forgiving one day, but not the next?
This makes God unpredictable since you can’t predict what he will do after you die based on what he has done before you die. God’s merciful and forgiving nature somehow changes, actually gets eliminated somewhere between life on earth and the Judgement. That’s the only conclusion we could come to if the Ninevites don’t make it to heaven.
Jesus pointed out to his fellow countrymen how the Ninevites repented and were spared, as encouragement to them to repent so they could be spared. If God is as capricious as Evangelical theology makes him out to be, what would be the point in repenting, other than to avoid temporal punishment? God might still throw you in Hell at the end of Judgement Day and Jesus’ message of repentance would only apply to this life.
Conduct, Justice, and the Cross
Never once in the four Gospels do Jesus or the authors tell us that Jesus’ death is a solution to a universal problem of condemnation to Hell, or that it’s a way for God to bypass or satisfy his own “justice” to provide mercy and forgiveness. None of those are the reasons why Jesus died on the Cross.
Just before Jesus was crucified he told us why it was about to happen:
“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. When I am lifted up I will draw all men unto me.” (John 12:27,32)
He saw his primary mission to be to draw people to himself through the rather graphic display of his love for humanity that his self-sacrifice on the Cross would provide. By drawing people to himself he would of course be drawing them to God. He did this especially for the wicked who might otherwise have a hard time believing that God would have mercy on them even if they did endeavor to change their ways.
If you’ve lived a life of wickedness and either your conscience or the Holy Spirit gets through your thick skull that you have alienated God by your wicked conduct you might be so overburdened by guilt that you might think it would be futile to make any effort to reform your life. Your past sins are too great for God to forgive, you might think. The message of the Cross is that although God would be right to condemn you for your wicked deeds, he is also forgiving and will forgive you if you repent, and you will stay forgiven as long as you don’t go back to your old ways.
Compare that to the modern “gospel” which provides a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The problem presented, and hammered home by may Evangelists, is that God is “just” so everyone is eternally condemned for any and all sins, not just wicked behavior. The solution to that non-existent problem is this: God is forgiving so has provided a way for himself to bypass his own justice, by providing men with an alternative, faith in Christ, with good conduct as the “litmus test” to whether you actually had faith in Christ. This assumes of course that you got a chance to hear that “gospel”. It unfairly disadvantages people who were born in places where they believe something different and are rarely given the opportunity to hear this message.
Here I would like to summarize by saying the Cross is not provided as a “work-around” to an eternal sin problem supposedly caused by the justice of God. The cross is provided to us as a means to help the wicked realize they are accountable to God, give them faith that God will forgive them if they repent, and give them faith that God will give them divine assistance in their efforts to change their ways and become righteous people. All of this with the goal that the wicked person actually stops being a wicked person. It’s all to effect a change of behavior, without which nothing has been accomplished, and sin remains just as much a problem for the individual as it did before he met Christ.
The cross is also for those who have never been wicked people and have no reason to fear the judgement of God.
Jesus died for everyone. For the righteous, Jesus died so that faith in him provides access to divine assistance in overcoming our sins and becoming like Jesus, who is like God:
He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph. 2:17)
To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him. (Eph. 3:10-12)
Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom. 5:1-2)
He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name, which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (Jn. 1:11-13)
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:4)
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge– that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:19)
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom. 8:29)
Jesus died for the sake of justice, to “make things right”. What is wrong is not that all humans have been completely cut off from a holy God due to sin, but that our sin has caused a state of bondage that is contrary to God’s will for us. That wrong is what Jesus came to reverse so that things would be made right. Our “right standing” before God is not accomplished via a method by which God can view us as sinless when we aren’t, but is rather a state wherein we are actually, experientially free from our sins and the bondage that sin brings. Faith in Christ provides one avenue for that to happen. That is the justice of God as revealed to us in scripture. Forgiveness of those sins must of course first happen. It would be foolish to think God would restore anyone to wholeness without them first understanding that they are forgiven of those sins that caused them to be broken.
The Christian church loses more and more credibility as the years go by because people have a deep seated sense that it is unjust for God not to forgive for sins that we can not possibly avoid. Over time people are less likely to buy into that idea just because someone tells them “the Bible tells us so.” Restoring to the church a biblical concept of justice to supplant the popular concept will go far in restoring credibility to the church and make her more effective in being God’s hands and feet ministering justice in a broken world.
This is a follow-on post for Salvation by Being Good and Introduction to Salvation by Being Good
You might also be interested in:
There Are None Righteous – Except for Everyone Who Is
Righteousness by Self-Effort is Good, Expected, and Attainable
Scriptures That Teach All Men Will be Judged by Their Conduct, Not Their Belief
If Being Good Can Not Save a Soul
Love, Righteousness & Salvation: Foundational Christianity