Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Forfeiting Grace to Embrace Sin

For this week's newspapers, I answered a reader question about how many sins it takes for a Christian to lose salvation:

Q:  How much sin can a person commit and still be accepted by God into eternal life at the final judgment?  How much sin should we on earth tolerate before we no longer consider a person a Christian? 

Peter once asked Jesus a question about how many times he should forgive a person who had sinned against him.  Thinking according to the Pharisees tradition of that time, Peter was expecting an answer in the single digits, perhaps seven.  Jesus answer, however, was “seventy times seven.” 

While Jesus’ answer to Peter deals with how many times people should forgive sins committed by and against one another, some of us, like Pastors or parents, are assigned the vocation to take concern over whether a person’s sins against God are forgiven and where the person stands in relation to God.  Even though not in a position of God-given authority over them, a Christian friend or neighbor might also be concerned over where a given person stands in relation to God’s forgiveness because they fear their neighbor may be in danger of suffering God’s eternal punishment for sin for themselves. 

It helps to begin with the fact that Jesus paid for all sin—“the sin of the world” as John says in his Gospel.  Those who rely on Him to forgive them receive His grace, and have no more penalty left to account for on their own.  However, as long as they live this side of the grave, they remain incapable of perfectly refraining from sin.  While we do not excuse sin or treat it lightly, we also acknowledge that this sin too is forgiven, and not merely the sin committed prior to trusting in Jesus. 

Some might wrongly conclude that this teaching of grace then frees a person to live in any way that seems appealing and act in any way which feels right.  St. Paul answers this question in his letter to the Romans, though, by responding to the question of “Should we sin more so that grace might abound?” with the strongest possible denial the Greek language has to offer—“Certainly not!” or “May it never be!” 

Having been forgiven, the Christian is called then to avoid sin and seek to live in agreement with God’s will—even though they continue to fail.  This is why many of our churches begin the week’s services with a Confession of Sins, after which the pastor proclaims God’s forgiveness once again to those who trust in Jesus.  When it comes to how many sins a person might commit before forfeiting salvation, it is not a matter of counting, but even for the Christian remains a matter of faith.  Those who trust in Jesus remain forgiven. 

However, there is a difference between one who commits sin and one who embraces it as a lifestyle or adopts it as an identity.  When those assigned the task of spiritual care examine those under our authority, this is what we consider:  What do they confess?  For those who acknowledge their sin and struggle against it, we act with compassion, pronouncing once again God’s grace to forgive their sin.  On the other hand when faced with those who love and embrace their sin or consider it a defining characteristic of their identity, we must pronounce God’s Law and warning instead, in hopes that they will return and be forgiven, because defending their sin contradicts their claim to trust in Jesus. 

While it remains solely the privilege of God Himself to know the contents of a person’s heart and the status of their soul, we here on earth can observe the words and actions of our neighbor and warn or encourage them with the applicable laws or promises which our Lord has given. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Earning Blessing

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about whether faith or obedience are able to earn blessing from God: 

Q:  Does God grant earthly blessings to people based on the sincerity of their faith, and does He bless Christians with health, wealth, or other prosperity based on the degree to which they obey Him?

It would be easy to make conclusions that God’s blessings in this world depend on the performance of the individuals receiving them, because such a conclusion would fit with the majority of religious thought that has taken place around the world throughout history, and would fit with the way that we are used to things working among humans in business and commerce. 

However, no matter how reasonable this conclusion seems in light of our earthly experience with other authorities, the Lord who has revealed Himself as the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not operate on those same principles. 

When various religions make propositions about earning a god’s blessing, they are operating under the assumption of a deity that does not desire to do good to us, but that we need to achieve a certain level of obedience in order to force his hand.  On the other hand, the God of the Bible is consistently portrayed as one who desires to give and to bless, and we are undeserving recipients of His gracious gifts. 

This is particularly true in spiritual matters, where God forgives sins as a pure gift because of the crucified sacrifice of Jesus, but it also applies to the many earthly blessings over which we have limited control, such as weather, the growth of crops, or good health.  Jesus comments on this with His words in Matthew 5 that God makes the sun to shine on both the evil and the good and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. 

We can also observe that in this life, those whose faith appears deepest do not always experience perfect health or abundant wealth.  Instead, they may sometimes suffer more than others while those who commit vile acts seem to prosper.  Many of the heroes of the Bible are perfect examples of this, as the Apostles and Prophets often faced fierce opposition and the majority of them died for their faith rather than experiencing earthly success. 

There is one sense in which this is true, but it functions in a natural way rather than a supernatural one.  This is because the creator of the world in which we live is also the giver of the laws by which we are commanded to live in it.  As a result, a great deal of suffering and tragedy can be avoided when God’s laws are obeyed.  So, for example, the God who created nature, the body, and family relationships gives laws which, if obeyed, would allow a person to avoid many conflicts, diseases and disorders, while the probability of numerous natural consequences increases dramatically when a person chooses to depart from that law. 

Ultimately, understanding this truth may help a person avoid a great deal of false guilt that might arise if they did live faithfully yet see their desires unfulfilled or find themselves experiencing suffering or tragedy.  It also serves to remind us that as long as we live in this world, our obedience will remain imperfect and we will still face trials and suffering, but we look forward with hope to a resurrected life which we receive as pure gift and in which these things will be no more.  Even though the promises we do see of abundance and prosperity in Scripture are left partially and unevenly fulfilled in this world, they will be fully and completely fulfilled in the New Creation to come.