Wednesday, April 1, 2015

God, Sin, Mercy, and Justice

Jesus has some interesting things to say about His relationship with the world and what it means to follow Him:

17 *“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.* 20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

 

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,* but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you.* Depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

 

14 After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: 15 “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)

 

The world cannot hate you, but it hates me, because I testify to it that its works are evil. (John 7:7)

 

11 She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:11)

 

40 Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains. (John 9:40-41)

 

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)

 

18 “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:18-22)

 

21 [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

These passages are interesting because they testify to the fact that Jesus came to save people from their sins, calling them to turn away from the evil they did. Jesus, out of love for us died so that we might be saved. But the fact that Jesus came to save us from our sins demonstrates that we have sins we need to be saved from, and love of Him requires us to act in a way that is in keeping with how God has called us to live. The Greek word μετανοια (metanoia) means having a change of mind and heart, and metanoia is what Jesus is calling every one of us to have—to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. He also chose His Church built on Peter and the Apostles to go forth with the mission of preaching the Gospel and forgiving sins, saying that rejection of the Church was rejection of Him (Luke 10:16).

The problem is many people who are enthusiastic about Jesus’ message of love and not judging completely overlook the entire message of metanoia. Instead, they prefer a form of Christianity that H. Richard Niebuhr warned about: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."

Under such a view, saying that certain behaviors can damn a person to hell is seen as an insult, not a warning. The worldly Christian thinks that their own actions are not anything to worry about. Others may do bad things (such as Nazis and murderers), but it is believed that God doesn’t care about the things the Church calls sin.

That’s a curious idea. If we believe that Jesus is God, and the Father is God (John 10:30), then we cannot separate God’s commands from Jesus’ saying that we must keep His commandments. But that is exactly what people are trying to argue. They try to argue that because Jesus did not specifically mention a moral issue by name (homosexual acts are frequently mentioned) that Jesus did not condemn them. Of course, you can show how ridiculous that argument is by pointing out that Jesus said nothing about rape, incest, bestiality or necrophilia—does anybody really think Jesus thought those acts were morally acceptable? (Logically, this argument is an argument from silence fallacy).

In fact, Jesus spoke about marriage specifically as an institution between one man and one woman in a lifelong union—things which people are trying to claim the Church must change. When you think about it, it appears that people attacking the teaching of the Church are not being zealous to defend the teachings of Jesus—they are being zealous only to deny that they need to change their behavior.

So, it’s not the Church that people have problems with, but the teachings of God. But people find it easier to blame the Church for promoting the teachings of Jesus while explaining away or denying that Jesus taught any such thing. That way they can pretend to be obedient when their actual behavior is rebellion. The Church is called “legalistic” and contrary to love when she insists on saying that God’s commands are binding. But since Jesus did link loving Him with keeping His commandments, we have a huge contradiction between Jesus as He was and the counterfeit version that people insist the Church is ignoring.

It is true that Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:17), but that is often taken out of context when people assume it means Jesus won’t punish anyone for refusing to change their ways. But when read in content, God’s action is actually conditional on responding to His call:

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn* the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (John 3:17-21)

We can see that believing in God means turning to the light and that means turning away from sin and towards truth. But those who do wicked things hate the light and prefer darkness to light. God is merciful, but His mercy is not “cheap grace.” He gives us the grace and the means to be reconciled to Himself. But He does not force one to receive it against His will and it is possible to refuse the gifts of grace and mercy—whether by outright refusal to believe in Him or by refusal to keep His commandments. If we spurn His mercy, what is left but His justice?

I suspect many people don’t give sufficient thought to these things and what the lack of judgment would mean:

Imagine it is the end of the world. God has brought all before Him to face judgment. There in the back we see a group of people scowling. It’s the infamous dictators and mass murderers who have inflicted suffering on the world. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kims of North Korea, the Roman Emperors who persecuted Christians (like Nero, Domitian, Diocletian etc.). They’re unrepentant of their sins and proud of what they did.

Now imagine that Our Lord turns to this group and says, “Because I love everyone, I won’t send anyone to hell. So welcome to Heaven.” How do you think the victims of these dictators would feel? For example, the Christians who died rather than renounce their faith—would they not be justified in wondering why they bothered in knowing, loving and serving Jesus when it clearly did not matter whether they did or not? In fact, such people could not say Our Lord was loving because in letting everyone into Heaven, regardless of what they did and whether they repented—even at the moment of their death—would that not make God into somebody who was indifferent to the wrongs done in the world?

It would make God unjust. When we think about it, we don’t want a God who is unjust and does not hold the unrepentant wicked accountable for their sins. Rather we just want a God who doesn’t hold us responsible for the sins we refuse to repent. But when we think about it, such thinking makes us into monstrous hypocrites. We demand mercy without justice for ourselves, but justice without mercy for those we dislike.

Ultimately, we need to recognize that God approaches each of us calling us to turn back to Him and accept His mercy. This turning back means rejecting our sins and keeping His commandments out of love for Him. We should be grieved by our sins and want to turn back to Him just as a man who loves his wife should be sorry for causing her pain and want to reconcile with her. God’s call of mercy is available as long as we live. But if we die unrepentant, we have to face His justice without the mercy that we refused. In such a case, we cannot blame God for being unfair. We have only ourselves to blame.

None of us know how much time we have on Earth. You might live another 50 years. You might die tomorrow. So, we need to accept the grace God offers when we become aware of it, and not treat it as something to do “down the road.” We need to listen to those God has tasked in teaching us right and wrong, and not reject their teaching as hateful or partisan.

Because if we reject them, we reject Christ. And if we reject Christ, we reject God.

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