God judges your sin harshly, but not necessarily you

grace and judgementSome people seem to thing sin is a good thing. It means fun, pleasure. Remember when Weight Watcher soft drinks were advertised as “sinfully delicious”?

The sculpture pictured here was taken on the grounds of Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas. It seems more like an enticement than warning. We all know that God hates sin, though. Let’s take a closer look.

God hates sin, but loves the sinner. Church people, especially church leaders, never seem to be able to keep both of those concepts in mind at the same time.

If you sin, does that mean you’ll be thrown in the lake of fire and suffer forever? That doesn’t sound much like love, especially since the church proclaims that everyone sins.

Some in the church therefore proclaim that everyone will be saved, that Jesus’ death on the cross overcomes sin and its punishment. Does that mean that it’s all right for people to keep sinning? If you can get into heaven without renouncing sin and repenting of it, that doesn’t sound much like hatred of sin.

God hates sin

Grace and Judgment

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, by John Martin (1852)

For centuries, the church has expressed God’s hatred of sin by proclaiming that God will send sinners to roast in hell forever and ever. And it has addressed that warning to members of the body of Christ.

The message that people must keep from sin in order to be saved contradicts the central notion that salvation comes by grace through faith. It is a gift from God. No one can be good enough to earn salvation, because everyone has sinned.

Historically, the church has eased this warning about by dividing sins into sins that lead to death and sins that don’t. While there is biblical warrant for the distinction, the teaching that distinguished mortal sins from venal sins hints that people can get away with committing venal sins. Does God hate mortal sin but not venal sin? There’s no scripture for that.

To this day, “God’s judgment” conjures up images of wrath, destruction, punishment, and in general, scenes like the judgment on Sodom. Are we to suppose that God is incapable of judging anything good or anyone innocent?

God loves sinners

Many Christian authors today advance the theory of universal salvation: God’s love is so powerful no force can overcome it. Some even deny the existence of hell. A loving God would never send people to an everlasting torment.

Aren’t these same people outraged by the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, Assads, and other national leaders who casually slaughter their own people? By mass murders who cheerfully admit to having no remorse for what they did? Or unrepentant pedophiles, con artists, thieves, etc?

There are those who loudly proclaim their hatred for God in one way or another. I’m not referring to atheists or agnostics who deny his existence. I mean people who acknowledge and oppose him. Can they go to heaven? Would they even want to?

Can God’s love be so strong that it can overcome someone’s avowed and lifelong unwillingness either to repent of sin or acknowledge God’s legitimacy as Lord? Every Christian was once in rebellion, but voluntarily repented. Can any force that compels unwilling turning away from sin truly be love?

How God hates sin and loves sinners without self-contradiction

Grace and Judgment

The Last Judgment, by Stefan Lochner (15th century)

The apostle Paul grappled with these questions. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit he recognized that everyone sins, that no one can ever keep God’s law well enough to deserve salvation.

Therefore no one has any hope of becoming righteous by his own effort. To be justified in God’s sight requires faith in what Jesus accomplished on the cross:

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.
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

God’s grace is great enough to cover all sin, but that does not make it all right to continue in sin. The saved person is dead to the old life of sin. Dead people don’t murder, rape, steal, commit fraud, cheat, etc. Saved people are alive to Christ. Living people do commit acts of love, kindness, compassion, etc.

And yet we all know that no one on earth can live up to the fullness of a sinless life. Even the best of people can turn a blind eye to their duty to act in the love of God and of other people. The tragedy of Joe Paterno amply illustrates that.

It doesn’t take such a spectacular failure to make my point. Look at the kindest person you know. Isn’t he or she occasionally in a bad enough mood to act rudely? Look at yourself and your very strongest virtues. Don’t you notice some lapses from time to time?

Actually, it you don’t notice your own failures, you’re not as good as you probably think you are. I assume that most if not all of my readers are Christian. Mature Christians seek to become more sensitive to their flaws the closer they get to Jesus. In the words of Charles Wesley,

I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear,
A sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near.
Help me the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wandering of my will and quench the kindling fire.

Almighty God of truth and love, to my thy power impart.
The burden of my soul remove, the hardness of my heart.
O may the least omission pain my reawakened soul,
And drive me to that grace again, which makes the wounded whole.

Paul, too, recognized that he wanted to act consistently one way, but just as consistently fell short. He was no longer the persecutor of the church that he had once been. He had repented of his opposition to Jesus and become one of his greatest spokesmen.

He had testified that when it came to keeping the law, he was blameless. And yet, now that he was no longer under law, he constantly recognized occasionally falling back into the kinds of sins, unacknowledged as such when he was trying to justify himself, that Wesley wrote about.

The whole book of Romans insists that God hates and judges sin and that no one can ever be free from sin. It equally insists that people can turn away from sin and by exercising faith in God, become more nearly free from sin than they ever could by their own effort.

Salvation is the gift of God, freely available to anyone who will receive it. How, then, can God wage war on sin, eradicating even the sins that remain as thoughts unacted on, without harshly judging the saved person who sins?

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Don’t miss the significance of the part I put in bold. Whatever God does to judge Paul’s (or your or my) remaining sin, it is not judgment of Paul. The Christian’s spirit has been reborn, made in the image of Christ. The sin that had formerly been that person’s default mode has been given over to Jesus. When he descended into hell, he left it there.

And yet, Paul acknowledges a sinful nature, called “flesh” in most translations. It’s not that there’s anything inherently immoral about the human body, but it has weaknesses.

I may neglect to do some good because I’m tired or hungry or physically hurting. I may get bent out of shape from something that happens to me if I rely entirely on my limited sense knowledge to understand it. I may want to keep in constant spiritual communication with God and live according to his slightest spiritual breath.

Physical limitations render that impossible. I am reborn, justified, sanctified, saved by grace. I am my spirit, temporarily living in my body. My body holds me back from being what I want to be. When I sin, it has consequences I have to live with as long as I have this body. But that sin, too, is nailed to the cross. Jesus took it to hell and left it there.

What about the people who refuse to repent? What about the people who have never heard of the gospel? Will they go to hell? That’s not for us to judge. God looks on the heart. We can’t.

We can be sure that God will deal with these people with perfect justice and perfect mercy. Even if, for some people, it means being eternally banished from his presence. There is only one place where people who reject God can to to avoid him: hell.

Forget all of the imagery of fire or worms or sulfur. Absence from God is absence from all good (God is good) and all love (God is love). That absence is the eternal torment of hell. Going to hell would be by that person’s choice, not God’s.

Reject your sin and give your heart to God if you haven’t already. Consider it separate from the new you. Enter into the joy of being adopted into his own family. And as for the fate of whomever does not publicly make that choice, trust that God will deal with them in his goodness, love, and mercy, based on what’s in their heart, which he alone can know.

Photo credit: Sin. Some rights reserved by Corey Balazowich.
The others are public domain

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