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A Pardon Denied by Unbelief

The Good News about Jesus is a lot like a Presidential pardon from a prison sentence of treason. It proclaims that because we sin continually against our holy and good Creator Sovereign that we can only expect a verdict of eternal guilt for our on-going “cosmic treason.” It proclaims that the means by which we may be forgiven this guilt and debt to God was accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, almost 2,000 years ago on a Roman cross, that though he was innocent of our treason and sin, he took the penalty for many, that whosoever believes in him and calls on his name will have their eternal guilt taken away (John 3:16; Rom 10:13). Instead of appearing before the judge with our own record of crimes, as if dressed in filthy clothes before a King, we who believe are given a clean record just as if given a set of new clothes that had belonged to the prince, Jesus. The Good News does not stop there and, in fact, it gets even better, but at this point it seems to some so foolish and far-fetched that they will not even look into whether it is true or not. They will just deny it outright, yet at the same time these same people will declare the Bible to be “unfair” because it requires belief in this Good News to be thus saved.

Now this accusation of “unfairness” is just what I would like to put to the test now. I have just reviewed what the Good News is, that of factually received news about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done on the behalf of those who believe. I have pointed out in previous posts (here and here) that our belief acts as a rudder, steering our lives, and thus, logically, matters a great deal to the outcome of our lives. But is God unfair to offer a pardon that only some believe and receive? We can ask that question another way. Is God fair to refuse a pardon to those whom deny it has ever been offered?

Do you see how this disbelief is actually a denial, not only of the work that Jesus has, in fact, done, but also a denial of any substitution granted on our behalf? It is as if one has said, “No one has paid for my sins, so I will take the responsibility to pay for them myself.” This self-righteous denial leads to a full conviction without pardon, since it was not only rejected but denied as if the pardon had never been offered. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

How is it that the Bible’s view of God is that He requires faith in or belief in Him in order for Him to save us? Why does it matter what one thinks about God so long as we treat others as we would like to be treated? It matters a great deal, because what we think often extends into what we do and thus how we treat others. God is the ultimate standard for Good, which makes our beliefs about Him and about what goodness is, logically prior to our actions. Not only this, but beliefs in the wrong direction from God lead us into trouble. If we reject God, the only true hope for Life, by putting our trust in a false hope, then we are heading to a destination other than Life. This is demonstrably true in everyday examples: Superstition keeps polio victims in Pakistan from receiving the vaccine that would save them. And over-confidence has no doubt been the final attitude of many a drunk driver who would save himself. Wrong beliefs can lead to death. How much more when the stakes are eternal?

Most importantly, it matters a great deal to God, and He’s the real factor worth considering in this. If God desires to save only those who have faith in Him, then that is completely His business. There is a wisdom in it that goes well beyond a parental “because He said so,” but that He has said so (John 3:16) is no small thing in itself. Our ideas about God are false hopes unless they are grounded in what God is actually like, and the most reliable material revealing God is still God’s own Word, the Bible.

Many have the idea which describes God as “the God of second chances.” But “second chances” would just mean we’d have a chance to try harder this time to follow the moral law (the law to love God and people). Inevitably, we’d fail again and discover that law is not an instrument that is meant to save but to condemn (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:21; 3:21-22). How, then, could belief that it could save ever actually save? Rather, God is the God of Life who creates new hearts from these dead ones, so that even our desires begin to change. Salvation is the adoptive rescue from the system of second chances and merit (Gal 3:26; 5:1). Only when we receive new hearts will we be enabled to obey that law. One day, when we receive new bodies as well (Acts 24:15), we will be as sinless as our heavenly Father (Matt 5:48).

How did Jesus read the Bible? He taught that the Bible, while containing wisdom, was chiefly about him and his gift of eternal life to us, not about us and how we can have our best life now. He frequently showed how the Old Testament ultimately pointed to him. “For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:37 ESV)

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’ Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.‘”
(Matthew 16:21-24)

Peter had in mind what was best for him, but Jesus had a secret ambition which had been in writing for centuries (Isa 53), though how suffering could lead to victory was not understood. When we read the Bible, we will learn wisdom for life, but it is more important that we deny ourselves the center stage as we read it. Then we will see that it is God’s story of redemption.

The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” (Mark 14:21)

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?
(John 5:39-40, 46-47)

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. . .
(Luke 24:44-48)

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt (Hebrews 6:4-6 ESV).

Taken by itself, this seems to suggest that salvation can be revoked if we stop believing before we die. But if salvation couldn’t save us from our sin, then it would not be a salvation from sin. As we will hopefully see, the whole context of the book of Hebrews seems to preclude the interpretation that we are able to lose salvation. Is it really a warning to believers? Or to those who merely “taste tested” Christianity? We know the author’s readers include some that have neglected to believe the gospel, because he concludes the introduction to his book (really a sermon) with: Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it . . . how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard. . . (Heb 2:1-3)

Throughout the sermon, the author repeats this need to pay attention to testimony and thus endure in faith, not to make the point that one can lose their salvation, but to warn unbelievers who are within the church. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (Heb 3:14. cf 3:18-19; 4:11). He defines faith as that which endures till death. Then, he comforts those who really do believe, saying, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. . . . And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb 6:9, 11-12; also 10:39).

The author argues that Jesus died on the cross “once for all” our sins, “thus securing an eternal salvation” (9:12, 26) rather than a potentially temporary one. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25). “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy” (4:16) For he says to those who believe to the end, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (13:5)

Luther door
Oct 31, 1517 Reformation Day
The Protest for Reformation in the church in the early 1500s may have been triggered by the question of how money for indulgences was garnered and spent, but the root issues on both sides of the Roman Catholic and Protestant divide delve deep to the heart of the Christian faith, that of the authority of Scripture, getting it into the hands of the people in their own languages, and clarifying the Good News of the Gospels (i.e. what one puts their faith in and how one attained salvation of their souls). Thus the Reformers discussed “the Solas” (or “the alones”) which ought to characterize Christian faith.

Sola Scriptura – The ultimate authority for Man to know God’s mind is through God’s Word alone. By Scripture we test all other ideas and urges which we might wish that God had given us (1 Cor 4:6).
Sola Fide – We are saved by “Faith alone” (Gal 2:16) and not by trying harder to do good things while we continue to have a past (or even present) full of guilt. It is a faith in Jesus and his work that saves, but it is not a faith that is alone, for works bloom from faith.
Sola Gratia – Our salvation is a work of grace as a gift from God, so it is “grace alone” that initiates salvation, not our own will, so that none may boast (Eph 2:8).
Solus Christus – Salvation is through Jesus Christ alone and that by faith in him. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” -Peter (Acts 4:2)
Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone (Isa 48:11).

These were ideas from Scripture and had been noticed throughout church history, and here’s just one example a couple decades before it was declared by the Reformers.

When I confine myself to explaining holy Scripture my hearers receive much more light, and my preaching bore much more fruit in the conversion of men to Christ. For the holy Scripture contains that marvelous doctrine which more surely than a two-edged sword pierces men’s hearts with love which has adorned the world with virtue and has overthrown idolatry, superstition, and numberless errors.”
—Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola,
The Triumph of the Cross, Florence, Italy, A.D. 1498

People often wonder at Christianity for the claim that Jesus is the only way. However, this is the claim Jesus and his disciples made themselves. “Why should we believe that other religions don’t help us be good enough to get to heaven,” some ask. Because the God revealed in the Bible, the one whom Jesus claimed to be, says he is the only God who really exists (Isaiah 45:21-22). All other gods or views of God are false ones by process of elimination. Following God then would be to discover Jesus, and following Jesus would be to obey his command to reject all that was contrary to him (Matt 10:38). The exclusivity is merely to that of what is true, rather than one of favoritism.

Now, hypothetically, one may have partial knowledge of the real God and call on him for salvation, but Jesus states that the condition of our souls is far more grave than we would like to imagine. Jesus said that if one truly loved God then they would also love him (John 8:42). He taught that unless one believes that he is who he claimed to be, that we would all die in our sins, that is, unsaved (John 8:24). These sins lead us away from God and cause us to prefer our own ways or our own safer versions of God over the real God (2 Tim 4:3-5). Knowing God exists and trying to be a good person does not solve the problem because past guilt is never erased by unrelated future actions. Humanity, led by its sin, will inevitably find false gods of greed or sex, worship Creation in place of Creator, or find another way to replace God, even if it means deciding that the individual determines destiny as if a god unto themselves (Rom 1:18-23).

Jesus was not making arrogant, baseless claims about being the hinge on whom all people’s eternity hung. He was revealing the way of salvation to those who would hear him. And if, as his resurrection strongly suggests, he is the Son of God, the only God, then turning to him is to turn away from all other god-substitutes. If the solution is trusting in him and hearing about what Jesus has done to do away with the guilt of sin, then shouldn’t we? As evangelist Ravi Zacharias has said, “If God had given us 1,000 ways to get to heaven, we would have wanted 1,001.” Should we complain that the good news is the only news?

Does God Kill?

You might have heard a Christian complain that other Christians share a “gospel” of bad news rather than good news, but that criticism (though well intended) could be like telling an ambassador not to talk about the war but only of terms for its resolution. It is not an either-or issue, but an issue of overall emphasis. It is also a moral issue of whether we are true to sharing with rebels God’s terms of peace.

Throughout history many nations have thought that the moral high ground was to kill those labeled morally inferior. Today we think the high ground is not to kill anyone at all for any immorality, and even the concept of moral high ground is sometimes offensive. We have hit the opposite extreme, so that talk of judging this or that person for this or that action can be considered “hate speech” or “harmful talk.” But what does God’s Word say about how we should think of immorality and his judgements? Is God a pacifist? Or, on the other extreme, does he always seek justice by punishing sins with plagues? Isn’t the answer somewhere in between? When discussing sin and God’s judgements (the bad news), we have to remember one thing: it is the Creator’s prerogative to kill or not to kill. Only God gets to play God. Scripture says God judges and puts people to death, but it also says that often the judgement a person might receive for sin is that God might just hand us over to the wicked desires which we crave. In the end, that judgement is far more frightening than a disaster, because there may be no opportunity for turning back to God. At least, that ought to frighten us.

Sin earns us death (Rom 6:23), but the Way to eternal life is forgiveness through his Son, Jesus Christ, the coming king and judge (Acts 14:38-43; 17:30-31). While Jesus did not approve of followers who would do violence for his sake, Jesus also never asserted pacifism as the only way to live. He wasn’t against judgement (John 7:24). He was against judging hypocritically. Jesus asserted that having faith in him, and in his death on the cross for sin, was the only way to live. God the Father killed his willing Son as a substitute for the judgement on our sin (Isa 53:10-12). Jesus taught that the wages of sin—death and hell—would be paid in full to the disobedient, and that by his hands (Luke 19:27). Then he rose again on the third day.

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