This is part 2 of a blog I just finished (sort of ).
Many Christians believe that all it takes is one little sin–a white lie or stealing a piece of chewing gum as a child–to send you to hell. Doesn’t the Scripture say, “For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet offends in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10)? It does, but it also says that a wicked man turns from his wickedness he’ll save his soul (Ezek. 18:27). James goes on to say, “He that turns a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death” (James 5:20).
The point is, don’t deceive yourself. If you sin, you’re a sinner. Jesus said, “Whoever sins is the slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34). You need to acknowledge your sin and repent. James is talking about a very specific sin in chapter two, that of preferring rich men over poor men in your congregation. Our congregations today, many who quote James 2:10 to say that people are going to hell for lying when they were 7 years old, are commonly guilty of giving special seats to rich men; exactly the sin that James is condemning in James 2:10. Let’s get the right message from what we read.
Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Did they fall short of the glory of God for backtalking their mother at 9 years old? No, read the chapter. We all fall short of the glory of God because the poison of asps is on our lips and our feet are swift to shed blood. God is a just Judge. He doesn’t burn people in hell for an endless period of time for one act of disobedience to a parent as a child.
But he doesn’t have to worry about that. We provide ample reasons for him to punish us. In us, that is in our flesh, nothing good dwells. God will show us that nothing good if we really come to him. We need to see it in order to learn all future lessons. We have to get okay with being evil, so that we can trust Jesus to make us righteous by the Spirit of God.
The idea that one sin in a lifetime will send us to hell is part of a whole doctrine of the atonement that is based in the Roman legal system. It is not Hebrew, and it is not apostolic. It was developed by St. Anselm during the Middle Ages. The apostles and the apostolic churches give all sorts of descriptions of the atonement, but none of them are like ours.
We Evangelicals commonly believe that we can only be forgiven because Jesus died for our sins. This is ludicrous. I mentioned Ezekiel 18:27 above, but the whole of Scripture describes God as a God of mercy. He forgives sin. He doesn’t need to be appeased by a death in order to forgive sin. That’s contrary to the whole of Scripture. David says it as plainly as it can be said, “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it. . . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16-17).
We have always been able to repent and be forgiven. The problem is, we were powerless to continue in righteousness. In us, that is, in ourÂ flesh, nothing good dwells. We may keep some moral and religious rules, but in the end we deceive ourselves and fail to live as servants and lovers of those around us. We need Christ, and those who choose to follow him will find him helping them. As it is written, “He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9).
Jesus died for our sins because we couldn’t find the power to repent of them. He reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners. His death did as much–no, more–for us than it did for God. God was already merciful, even before Christ died. We, however, were powerless to repent and continue before Christ died. Through his death, Christ brought the grace and Spirit of God to us that we might continue.
The problem with the whole idea that everyone is guilty because they might have committed one small sin, which God can’t forgive because he’s “just”–as though “just”Â could possibly meanÂ sending a person to hot, tormenting flames for all eternity for one small sin–is that if that theory were true, then our sins would all be paid for, and we could go to heaven as sinners. It’s not true, however. There are people who claim it is true, but let’s face it; it’s impossible that they’re correct. They only believe such a strange idea because they concluded it from the “Jesus paid for our sins in a legal sense” idea, which is nowhere found in Scripture. (Look for “paid for sins” or something like it in the NT; you won’t find it.) Once that idea is gone, it’s obvious the Scriptures speak out strongly against the idea that those who continue in sin can go to heaven.
1 Cor. 6:9-11, Gal. 5:19-21, and Eph. 5:5 all say that immoral people who practice the works of the flesh won’t inherit the kingdom. Jesus echoes this in Matthew 7, saying that those who call him Lord, Lord will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father in heaven. 2 Pet. 1:5-11 says that we have to keep adding to our faith in order to “make our calling and election sure,” and on and on and on and on.
Through faith, apart from works, we have access to the grace that can make us stand as righteous men before God (Rom. 5:2). With the power of the grace, mediated by the Spirit of God, we can “not grow weary in doing good,” so that we can reap eternal life (Gal. 6:8-9). Entering heaven is not apart from works. Entering heaven is by works, as all the verses above say and every verse on the judgment says (Matt. 25:31-46; Jn. 5:27ff; Rom. 2:5-8; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17; and others).
There’s an interesting verse in Jeremiah 7. The apostolic churches quoted it all the time, because they were aware God isn’t interested in sacrifices. He’s interested in a broken and contrite spirit. They knew that the offerer’s heart purifies the sacrifice, not the sacrifice the offerer’s heart. Thus, they had no problems with this fascinating passage that stumps us every time:
For I did not speak to your fathers, nor commandÂ them, in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. Instead, I commanded them this, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.” (Jer. 7:22-23)
God didn’t say anything in the wilderness about burnt offerings or sacrifices??? How can he say that? The early church explained that those sacrifices were added to help keep the eyes of the Israelites set on God. The sacrifices were for their sake, not God’s sake. They found numerous verses like Jer.Â 7:22-23, and they quoted them often to explain why they didn’t sacrifice animals like the Jews did.
Another wonderfully interesting passage is the story of Cain and Abel. We Evangelicals generally think that Cain’s sacrifice was refused because it was grain, and Abel’s was refused because it was an animal. The early church, however, knew that God doesn’t care about sacrifices, so they knew that couldn’t be the issue. So it was obvious to them that when John said that Cain killed his brother because his works were evil,Â then Cain’s sacrifice was rejected because he was evil, not because it was grain. Grain was a perfectly acceptable offering under the Old Covenant, especially if that’s all you had. How much more so in that time before the Old Covenant.
Genesis 4:7 also has God telling that he’ll be accepted if he did good. God didn’t tell him to change his sacrifice. He told him to change his behavior.
This is what God is telling us, too. God has granted to us the repentance that leads to life. Let us not try to offer the sacrifice that leads to life unless we have a pure heart to purify the sacrifice. Otherwise, we may find that God considers our trust in the blood of Jesus to be an insult to the Spirit of grace and accuse us of counting the blood of the covenant an unholy thing. This is what he says of those who sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth.
It’s very important that we change the way we understand the Scriptures. I’m not talking about something new, but about returning to the powerful and eminently Scriptural ways of the primitive, apostolic churches.