Sunday, April 03, 2016

Too Convenient

I was out last night with an unsaved friend.

I’ve written about him before. Like many others, he knows just enough about Christianity to think he understands it; just enough to think the decision that faith in Jesus Christ is not for him is a choice he has made intelligently on the basis of years of shrewd observation of Christians and our various failings. And believing his understanding adequate, he has little interest in hearing any more. He’s reluctant to get into the subject with me because he has a fairly good idea where I’ll be going.

He believes in God, he tells me, and I have no reason to doubt it. But his version of God is vastly different from the God of the Bible.

God In Our Image

To nobody’s surprise, my friend’s God looks at the world pretty much the way my friend does. God made mankind in his own image, and in return we make God in ours. Asaph, speaking for God, says about the wicked:
“You thought that I was one like yourself.”
My friend’s outlook is not unusual. His God, like mine, hates sin — or at least a certain carefully defined subset of sins: the ones my friend finds objectionable and would not ever consider. On the other hand, my friend’s version of God is considerably more relaxed about the sins characteristic of his own life.

I’m not being hard on him here. We all need to be wary of any vision of God that is just that little bit too convenient.

The Scales of Heaven

One very convenient sort of God sits in heaven with a pair of scales. On the list of fictional Gods, this one is probably the most common. On one side of the scale go my good works (as defined by me, of course, because I know what I intended, whether or not it actually worked out). On the other side go my misdeeds (also defined by me, and mitigated with a good deal of spin).

Put that way, does it really seem so plausible a scenario? Such a God is awfully, awfully, preposterously convenient. By that sort of standard not a single soul in the history of mankind would be worthy of judgment.

But if God could be said to use scales, there would be nothing we might bring him with which to balance them. As Moses first discovered, the God of the Bible is holy, meaning separate or “cut off”. He is possessed of a set of eternal values unlike anything we can imagine on our own.

God over there, us over here.

Whoever Fails In One Point

There is no room for trade-offs in the standards of a holy God. We have nothing God wants, nothing with which we might balance or mitigate the weight of our failures. Asaph goes on to say:
“But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.”
Those who come to the courtroom of God expecting a negotiation or believing their opinion of their own conduct carries any weight at all find themselves sadly in error.

Sin is not some measurable commodity that can be offset by any amount of good behavior, even if that good behavior is habitual. Such a view is a category error. When God is approached on the basis of what we think is “lawful” or “fair”, one sin destroys the balance in precisely the way one rock destroys a pane of glass, or in the way one adulterous night on the town destroys a lifetime of marital fidelity. It annihilates it.

That’s not just my opinion. James says:
“Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”
I have peace with God not because I have ever met God’s standard, even for a day, but because Jesus Christ did. “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,” the apostle told his Roman readers. Christians, far from being perfect, are just people who have given up any hope of balancing the scales. We know that strategy is futile.

That’s a humbling truth. The delusion that men born in sin can somehow approach or placate God with generally decent behaviour or even with a lifetime of devoted, obedient law-keeping perished at the cross.

That view is simply too convenient.


  1. Sometimes when one tries to emphasize a point one uses a crass example painting a picture in stark black and white. I assume that's what you did here. E.g., in this case, assume you are living in a remote area next to a golf course and you suddenly hear a crash as your living room window is shattered by a poorly played golf ball. So you fix it and then go on a business trip. At that time the owner of the golf course, who for the longest time wanted to expand his course, bulldozes your house at nighttime and no one knows who did it. His purpose being to make you want to move. Would you therefore suggest that there is no difference in culpability in God's eyes concerning these two events while there would certainly be a difference according to human law?

    Btw, why don't you get your friend to blog here it would liven things up a bit :-).

    1. Hey Q. I was just trying to illustrate the point James is making when he says “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” So you can blame the Author of inspired scripture for the concept. I'm not that original.

      The rock/glass analogy is mine, admittedly.

      I agree that there's a different level of culpability in the two events you describe. But less guilty is quite different from not guilty, no?

      I believe God sees a difference too, but that difference is reflected in the penalty phase of God's judgment, as I have tried to demonstrate in this older post. Orders of magnitude of offenses have no bearing on the question of guilt or innocence.

      Yes, my friend would certainly liven things up around here. Let's just say he has quite the facility with a very small number of adjectives ... if you get my drift.

    2. I'm with you, Tom.

      The people who think God has a "scales" view of righteousness have indeed got it all wrong. I suppose they just haven't understood what it means to say God is "holy." It means that God does not wink at ANY sin...not the smallest, and not the largest. As you rightly point out, Tom, anything that causes us to fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) makes us forever unfit for fellowship with a holy God.

      That's the necessity -- and the miracle -- of salvation through Christ (Romans 3:24). Not one soul, no matter how many good deeds it did, would stand acceptable before a holy God if it had committed but one sin...of any kind. Deeds of righteousness that we have done will save not one of us, ever (Titus 3:5).

      Let one's sin be as big as a bulldozer or small as a golf ball...they're all plenty big to make one a sinner, and hence to make us unfit for fellowship with God. But humanly speaking, we all want to believe otherwise...that our good deeds will be scaled away against our bad, and thus, on balance we will save ourselves. It's our pride, really...and yes, pride is another sin. Some people even call it a "deadly sin." However, they're all deadly. And as you say, to think otherwise is all too convenient.

      We must always remember it's God's assessment of sin -- not our assessment -- that matters. After all, who is the Judge?

    3. OK, now it makes more sense to me. You do make a distinction based on severity but in the punishment/rewards phase (lesser degree of punishment taken as a reward here). However, I was always under the assumption that there was no punishment phase in the Protestant viewpoint since you are saved by faith alone and not due to any other considerations, hence there is no need for a (purgatory-like) punishment phase. On the other hand, are you saved but your punishment consists perhaps of a lesser status so that you may have to mop floors now having to wait for a promotion out of that? So you can see that in my opinion by mentioning a punishment you are converging on the Catholic viewpoint where that is a standard criterion for admission to sainthood (heaven) not necessarily only as a punitive construct but as a personal growth and purifying one.

    4. Yes and no, Q.

      Protestants mostly agree, I think, that eternal destiny turns on belief rather than actions. Faith alone sorts humanity into two groups, one bound for heaven (John 6:47) and the other for hell (John 3:18).

      But the Bible nowhere contemplates a purgatory-like phase of punishment followed by eternity in heaven. That’s an invention of the church.

      Scripture teaches degrees of punishment in hell (Matt. 11:20-22, Heb. 10:29) and degrees of reward in heaven (1 Cor. 3:12-15), but the destination itself is fixed in this life on the basis of belief. Death ends all opportunity to choose (Heb. 9:27).

      In short, there is no “personal growth and purification” option for the convicted sinner in eternity. He is separated from God forever.

  2. By your answer I assume you are implying that the bulldozer person ended up in hell and the golf ball person in heaven at a lower status. But we have been through this before, namely that there is no convenient classification for us to use to decide if someone is saved or not. You might want to assign your own probabilities but that is not knowing. That information is God's alone. Also from before, there are certainly scholars who disagree with you about purgatory so that it is simply a question of preference because either side will claim the other side is incorrect. As far as I know the Catholic church has taken the stand of shelving the issue under politely agreeing to disagree without having it impact relationships between Christian groups.

    To me the following situation is actually far more interesting. I know someone who regularly attends Catholic mass because he loves his wife and children even though he does not believe that God exists. His wife is raising the children in her faith and he does consider it to be beneficial. He is highly educated, is the nicest person who wouldn’t harm a fly yet belongs in the doubting Thomas category. If he does not come around he will end up in a bad place according to Protestant doctrine. Now, I am willing to wager that he will not if he remains as he is. The reason is that I think God would not want to get his wife mad :-) and that he therefore also has a way to address this type of situation for his love’s and compassion’s sake. But when he does so he has just nullified Protestant doctrine concerning who gets saved. In short, Protestant doctrine underestimates God’s generosity.

    Here is how this would work with Catholic doctrine. According to that you are obligated to attend Sunday mass or you will commit a mortal sin if you don't unless you have a valid reason. The reason for the mortal category is that you are assumed to believe in God and have a proper relationship with him. Therefore, if you do not show up without a good reason, you just stomped on your relationship, and we know where that gets you with God. Now, with regard to this person he never even pretended to have a relationship with God or perceived an obligation to have faith in something he thinks does not exist. He is simply a modern doubting Thomas, a good person just that there is no one around whom he can see and touch for confirmation. Protestant doctrine cannot handle that type of scenario while Catholic doctrine handles it nicely via purgatory. Purgatory is taught to be a reformative place where you go because you are not deemed material for hell and where your sorrow arises from the fact that you now know that God exists and your soul suffers by not being in his presence. This is tempered for you because your soul also knows that you will be in his presence after your being has been sufficiently transformed. To me this existential view makes a lot more sense. Even your friend who uses those short adjectives can therefore have a chance provided he lives his life as a good person :).

  3. By your answer I assume you are implying that the bulldozer person ended up in hell and the golf ball person in heaven at a lower status.

    No, I wouldn't presume to speculate based on the facts in evidence. Perhaps neither was a believer. Perhaps both were, but demonstrated unsound judgment in that one particular incident.

    In that you are correct: we have no guaranteed way of knowing who's saved and who isn't. Character demonstrated over some period of time provides a strong suggestion, but only God knows the heart.

    Funnily enough, the analogy you mention in your second paragraph reminds me of this passage from 1 Corinthians where Paul instructs believers to stay with unbelieving partners unless the unbeliever decides to leave. But he ends with this:

    "For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?"

    In other words, perhaps your "doubting Thomas" will come around, perhaps he won't. That's not Protestant doctrine, that's the apostle Paul.