October 2010

Fun topic for a blog post eh?

Last Sunday my pastor's sermon topic was mercy, (Oct 24, Mercy – The Capping of the Tree mp3) and how God's justice and God's mercy are flipsides of the same coin. They are both intrinsically part of Him and inseparable from His nature. It's His merciful love that saves some from the just punishment that we deserve by the gracious giving of Himself in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. To quote a Relient K song, "And this life sentence that I’m serving, I admit that I’m every bit deserving, but the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair"

At this point, I begin talking to myself, asking questions and attempting to answer them as they come up in my mind …

But how can people be punished eternally for finite sins?

The traditional argument in defense of eternal punishment is that sins against an infinite God necessitate an infinite punishment. In our society, we consider the death penalty to be more severe than life imprisonment; if that's the case, an "afterlife sentence" (so to speak) in hell would be a lesser punishment than annihilation.

But there is another option to the (as far as I know) more traditional conception of hell … Dr Shepherd (author of the quote in the "God's Love is Not Tame" post) defends conditional immortality (see page 3 of PDF, these are his cursory notes from his systematic theology class) as at least a scripturally defensible position (following Clark Pinnock et al). I don't know if he personally holds that position but he sees it as a viable option.

But what about …
1) infants
2) kids
3) mentally disabled people
4) those who've never heard
5) people who call themselves Christian but act like jerks

1) I don't know for sure
2) I don't know for sure
3) I don't know for sure
4) I don't know for sure
5) According to Matthew 7:21-23 (et al), these "Christians" have more to worry about than anyone fitting into categories 1-4.

Re 1-4 above, since scripture doesn't definitively give clear answers, I don't feel as though I need to be concerned about it. If God is truly both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, then whatever He chooses to do will be both merciful and just. To quote a certain famous president, it's "beyond my pay grade" to speak too definitively about 1-4 where scripture is silent.

That said, it's currently my opinion (held loosely in my hand; an opinion being differentiated from a conviction or persuasion) that for 1-3 there is at least a decent case that they will not be in hell. (See for example Ron Rhodes, The Wonder of Heaven, 159-171. Most of those pages are available for viewing for free via Google Books.)

But how come there will be so few in heaven? Jesus said "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it." (Matthew 7:13)

Jesus did say that, but this doesn't necessarily mean the majority of people who live throughout history will be in hell. If it is true that people who are in categories 1-3 above go to heaven when they die, the number in heaven becomes larger. And when you consider that the population of the world is higher than it has ever been and nearly 1/3 of it is Christian, that number increases further.

Now, even if the "many" in this case is a relatively small number (percentage-wise), still, to God who wills that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) any at all who end up otherwise will seem like "many"; God laments even one who chooses to live apart from Him and the purpose and destiny that He planned for us.

But if this is what God is like then I don't want any part of him.

Sadly then it may be the case that you will be given your wish. What else could God do in that circumstance?

Disclaimer: As always, my opinions (musings) here are subject to change as I learn more and grow deeper in my faith. Also some thoughts may be poorly phrased, or just plain erroneous. Hopefully not … but please try to interpret me charitably. Oh, and as I tell my Sunday school class, whenever I make a mistake, it's on purpose just to test you. 😉

I came across this on the website of one of my old profs today and thought I'd share it with you:

Evangelicals [Christians] know that while God is  love (1st John 4:8) and can therefore do nothing but love, when God’s love encounters human sin his love “burns hot”, as Luther liked to say.  God’s anger or wrath, then, is never the contradiction or denial of his love.  (Indifference is always the antithesis of love.  After all, the people with whom we are angry we at least take seriously; the people to whom we are indifferent we’ve already dismissed as insignificant.)

God’s anger “heats up” only because He loves us so very much and so very relentlessly that He can’t remain indifferent to us and won’t abandon us.  Profoundly He loves sinners more (or at least more truly, more realistically) than we love ourselves, since our self-love, perverted by sin, issues only in self-destruction.  And as the cross on which He “did not spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all” (Romans  8:32) makes plain, He longs to spare us torment more than He longs to spare Himself.

Rev Dr Victor Shepherd, "What's an Evangelical?"

God's love is not tame. It's powerful and true!

As a new Christian, I wondered about a question along the lines of: "If we are saved by grace, not by works, why bother working anymore?" Or as Alan Scholes put it (in the title of a chapter in his excellent book The Artful Dodger) "What if I accept Christ and keep on sinning?" Eventually I was able to reconcile grace and works after reading and truly understanding what both Paul and James have to say and how they compliment eachother.

Tonight I was reading Watchman Nee's book The Normal Christian Life which is essentially a commentary on Romans. As Nee described how our sins (plural; ie, things we have done wrong) are dealt with by the Blood of Jesus, and our sin (singular; as in our nature as a sinner) is dealt with by the Cross of Jesus, I for some reason thought of a joke told by Demetri Martin.

It's probably better if you listen to him tell the swimming joke here (about 30 seconds) but if you can't or would rather not load a YouTube clip, here's the gist of it:

Swimming is a confusing sport. Cuz sometimes you're doing it for fun … and other times, you're doing it to NOT DIE.

You can usually tell by the outfit:
Pants? Uh oh!
Swimming trunks? Okay!

Grace and works is kinda like that. A person doing works to try to be saved (a futile endeavor) may be doing the exact same actions as someone who does works out of gratitude (response to grace). But the person who realizes they are saved by grace is not doing things to AVOID DEATH, they realize that they have already avoided death.

And like the swimming analogy, you can tell which is which by a person's outfit … ie, by what attitude they are doing things, how they approach their tasks, what goal they have in mind, and why they are doing them in the first place. A grace-filled person has "put on the new self" as their clothing. (Ephesians 4:24)

I guess the answer to the question "If we are saved by grace, not by works, why bother working anymore?" is that working is only a chore when it's an obligation. Serving out of gratitude, through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, is an entirely different thing than desperately paddling away trying to save yourself. That doesn't mean that serving in the church is always less stressful or frustrating or costly than serving outside (I know that all too well!) but it does help explain the difference. And it makes all the difference in the world!