Some long time ago, I posted a series called God Is Not Fair wrestling with the fact that God’s grace is only available to those who’ve heard the gospel. More recently, I posted a series on The Salvation of the Christians (following The Salvation of the Jews) dealing with the same questions in a more (I hope) sophisticated way. I continue to study and learn.
And then today (Dec 6), readers and commenters Price and Christopher asked a series of questions, which pushed many of these same questions back to the fore. And my long-winded answers are really too long for the little comment boxes, and I’m re-posting here (edited now that I see what I’m typing so much better).
I apologize for the length and for posting these all at once. (It’s really too much trouble to reschedule all my other posts.)
I find it difficult to wrestle with scriptures pertaining to judgement and mercy. Why? Because a number of of the former seem, in their immediate context, unbelievably harsh and cruel and utterly inconsistent with love or mercy. Take, for instance, the story of Gehazi (Elisha’s servant). After he sins by going after Naaman to obtain some reward for his healing, Elisha tells him that “Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” (2 Kings 5:27). This is a man with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Just how could he say such a thing and not be immediately rebuked by God? His leprosy will cling to his descendants forever? How does that comport with Ezekiel 18?
But then we see Gehazi in the king’s presence 3 chapters later, answering his questions about Elisha. So I suppose we may deduce that Gehazi was healed of his leprosy (for why else would he have been in the king’s presence?), contary to what Elisha said – perhaps because he was one of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7 who alerted the Isrealites that the Arameans had fled the area (and that the siege was therefore over). And we breath a huge sigh of relief.
In this regard, it is interesting to note the dramatic contrast between John’s letters and, say, Hebrews. In John’s third letter, he calmly mentions the evil behavior of Diotrephes (apparently the main leader) who is throwing people out of the church. He concludes by saying that if he comes, he will call attention to what he is doing. I cannot envision the author of Hebrews writing a letter like that but, rather, a frighteningly condemning letter.
I could go one and on with examples – Aaron’s sons being immediately burned to death for lighting the sacrificial fire on their own (rather than letting God do it) versus the woman caught in adultery who should, by law, have been stoned. And so on and so forth.
Does anyone else struggle with this dichotomy?
[Got to love a reader who uses words like “comport” and “dichotomy.” My kind of guy.]
Price asked a series of questions relating to the perseverance of the saints (POTS), that is, how can I say that those who rebel against God’s will through continuing to deliberately sin (Heb 10:26ff) may fall away without creating a works-based religion?
Price and Christopher,
I’m going to respond in two parts. The first is how the relationship of faith to works. We all tend to reason logically about our relationship with God rather than relationally — which leads to flawed logic.
God himself encourages us to think of relationship to him in terms of adoption — a favorite Pauline metaphor.
A couple adopts a child. This is pure grace. The child has nothing at all to deserve the adoption. The parents have chosen to love someone who likely hasn’t even asked to be loved, who have never experienced true love. The parents hope that the child responds in love because of the love they have for her.
When older children are adopted, they’ve often never been loved unconditionally. Often, they have been used — for a check, for sexual gratification — or ignored. And so they have trouble believing that they can loved unconditionally. And so, typically, the child acts out — disobeying to see what happens. And good parents discipline their new daughter but also make a point of declaring their love for her and that the discipline is out of love. And this can go on for a long time.
But most of the time, the child eventually learns how to accept and trust her new parents’ love, and so the child is transformed. She starts to become like her parents. She learns how to love — and as this happens, she also learns to obey. The obedience takes effort. Washing the dishes, cleaning her room, doing her homework is hard — especially for a child that no one has ever expected anything of before.
As she goes from self-willed to obedient, she begins to realize that her parents’ instructions are for her own good. She is becoming a better person, a person with hope, a person who can become the person she was always meant to be. Pretty soon, she’s doing her homework because she wants to make good grades and go to college. Her self-image changes, her desires change, and her motivation changes. She’s internalized what her parents always saw in her. She becomes a different person.
So grace –> love –> transformation –> good works.
Was there ever a moment when she needed to earn her parents love? No, their love was always a free gift.
Was there ever a moment when it was necessary that she do work? Well, work is the necessary result of accepting grace. If she refuses to make her bed, then she doesn’t understand what she’s received and what opportunities have been given her. She will likely be disciplined to encourage good work, because sometime people have to do before they feel. Sometimes the good motivation has to follow the good actions. Therefore, we make our children apologize to their siblings even when it’s plainly insincere. We hope that by making them say the words, they’ll come to understand how to truly feel sorry and truly apologize — later.
It’s unusual, but I have friends who’ve adopted and ultimately disowned a child. Often I learn about it many decades later (as an estate planner), and yet they are permanently wounded over what they perceive as a failure in parenting. They gave their love freely to a child, and the child rebelled — as is normal — and yet the child never learned to obey. For whatever reason, the child insisted on being disobedient, and as the child got older, the disobedience become more and more serious — pregnancy, drugs, criminal violations — and the parents were devastated. They prayed. They sought counseling. They disciplined. They hugged. Nothing worked. The child persisted in her rebellion, so much so that she became a danger to her siblings — not just a bad example but someone tempting her younger sister to follow the same path.
Eventually, in tears, after years of fails efforts, they disown their adopted child — but in hopes that perhaps this will persuade her to change. By the time they share this with me, they haven’t heard from her in over 10 years.
So does this mean they really didn’t love her? That the adoption wasn’t a free gift? That they were making her earn their love? Of course, not. It really was free. But the deal was that to be adopted as their daughter, she had to become their daughter. And as the Good Book says, that includes honoring her father and mother. There is no other way to be a daughter and remain a daughter.
So was there a list of rules she has to obey to remain their daughter? No. She could have gotten away without making her bed or even not doing her homework if only she would — eventually — reciprocate their love. If she would love them back, then her obedience would be good enough, whatever it might be. But she couldn’t love them and rebel and never stop rebelling.
Good daughters clean their rooms and return by curfew, and yet most daughters have failed to do these things and not been disowned — because parents’ know their kids’ hearts, and they judge obedience by their children’s hearts, not by the rules.
In fact, it’s entirely possible for a daughter to do all her chores and make every curfew and yet despise her parents and rebel in other ways – so much so that she is eventually disowned. The chores/works are indicative of her heart, but the ultimate test is her heart and not the chores.
And so, if one were to say, “My parents made me do chores and therefore did not love me unconditionally. They made me earn their love.” Well, that’d be just ridiculous. That’s not the way parents are, and the child has grossly misunderstood her parents’ hearts.
And if a child is disowned as I described, and then turns around and accuses her parents of not loving her and not given her adoption as a free gift, again, I’d say that she just doesn’t understand people and relationships. It’s not that simple.
In fact, I know a child (more than one, really) whose parents misunderstood love so much that they made no demands on him. If the child didn’t want to do chores, no problem, because the parents felt the child might stop loving them if they imposed discipline and demands. When the child got in trouble at school, the parents blamed the teachers and administrators. To avoid any consequences, the parents transferred the child from school to school. And by the time the child was 20, he’d committed suicide, because he felt unloved.
A parent’s love is free and unconditional. But love isn’t love if it doesn’t care how a child behaves or who the child grows up to be. True love comes with expectations, because people who love each other must behave in certain ways toward each other — or else it’s not real love.
This is why Paul can say, in Romans, of all books,
(Rom. 6:14-18 ESV) 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
We are under grace. Therefore, we are “slaves of righteousness” and so “obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Sounds like works. But it’s from the heart.
When grace works as intended, our hearts are transformed so we obey because we enjoy doing what God wants of us. Our wants and desires are transformed, so that obedience ceases to be a burden. Rather, it becomes our new nature. But it’s still obedience.
(Rom. 6:22-23 ESV) 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So eternal life is a free gift — but the cost of this free thing is to become “slaves of God”? What kind of paradox is Paul selling here? How can both be true?
(Rom. 7:6 ESV) 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Paul begins to explain what it means to be God’s slave. It’s about the Spirit and a “new way.”
(Rom. 8:2 ESV) 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
What? Are we just changing from one law to another? A law that saves rather than a law that damns? Why does Paul — the apostles of grace — keep talking in terms of law for the SAVED?
(Rom. 8:3-8 ESV) 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
So our minds have to be changed? (This anticipates Rom 12:2, of course). We have to “walk according to the Spirit”; “live according to the Spirit”; “set [our] minds on the things of the Spirit” — all things that we DO. Perhaps it’s nothing but submitting to the Spirit, but we must DO that. But if we’ll submit to the Spirit (not always that easy to do), the Spirit will provide “life and peace” (eternal life and shalom with God) and we’ll “submit to God’s law.”
So it’s all there. Everything that Price argues for is there, but there’s more. There’s an element of cooperation that is necessary (or why else did Paul write Romans?)
(Rom. 14:20-15:1 ESV) 20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
And so it makes sense that Paul builds a very elaborate argument for how the strong should treat the weak (all being saved people) on the assumption that tempting a brother to sin might “destroy” him (“destroy” usually refers to damnation in Paul’s writings) or lead to his being “condemned.” So because falling away is possible, esp. for the weak, we must be careful not to tempt the weak to sin against their consciences.
And this makes NO sense at all in a POTS theology. But it fits Paul very well, if we understand him relationally.