Thursday, June 10, 2021

Scales and Panes

I was chatting with a young man yesterday.

He considers himself a Christian. And maybe he is. I hope he is. But he’s certainly confused about something very basic to salvation; and maybe it will surprise you what it is.

He doesn’t really understand sin.

Now, understanding what it is we are saved from is pretty necessary to salvation, so I’m concerned. I want him to have a correct grasp of how sin relates to the holiness of God. And I’m troubled that his teachers have not taught him this.

So I’m going to try to do a short explanation for you. And I’m going to start with this question:

How bad is sin?

Scaly Explanations

It bothers some people that the Bible says it’s bad enough to prevent relationship with God for all eternity. They think that seems excessive. I mean, maybe Hitlers, Stalins and Kim Jongs deserve permanent exile, but most people, we think, don’t — even if they have been a bit naughty from time to time. And certainly, we think WE don’t.

There’s a supposition in this objection: it’s that sin comes in quantities, and these quantities are offset by quantities of good. If we do bad things, we can counterbalance the scales by doing more good; and inevitably, a just God — if he really wants to remain just — would be obliged to acknowledge that we’ve done more good than bad, and forgive us for the bad stuff.

My young friend has this idea in mind. He wonders if God will not eventually decide to save unbelievers, since some of them seem to do pretty good deeds. He wonders if God might also punish those whose bad deeds outweigh their good ones, but only for a period of time, after which they would be admitted to heaven (kind of like the old 12th century Catholic invention, “Purgatory”, a mythical half-way house said to be floating between heaven and hell). He even toys with the idea of universalism, in which everybody is saved, presumably including Hitler, Stalin and the rest. After all, if reward and judgment can be weighed off against each other, how long can any amount of sin be expected to be punished?

It’s the old “scales” model: on one side is the good we do, and on the other the bad. If our good features “outweigh” our sin, then we’re okay. Only if the sins are so significant as to tip the scales against us might we believe God could righteously condemn us — but even then, not so as to create a permanent separation. Just long enough to put the scale back in a favorable balance.

The question of what’s to be done about the evil we have already done is not one about which we stress much. (Well, except in the case of the Hitlers, Stalins and Kim Jongs, maybe: those guys really deserve to get it.)

Quantity Problems

But this raises a very serious question: just how much sin should God overlook?

Is it the case that a just God would condemn the genocidal psychopaths forever (along with the pedophiles and rapists, maybe), and then punish the thieves and drug dealers for a long while, slap a somewhat shorter sentence on the pornographers, embezzlers and exploiters, and then give the slanderers, cheats and gossips a couple of slaps on the wrist, and a stern warning to the tellers of little white lies? Is that how it should work? Would that make God truly just?

I think you see the problem: wherever we draw the line, we are being arbitrary. What is the difference between genocide and fibbing? A great deal, in terms of intensity of sin; not all sins are equal. (That’s why scripture can speak of greater and lesser measures of condemnation.) But there’s no difference in regards to the presence of sin.

Sin is sin. All sin is a falling short of the mark of perfection set by God. All sin defiles, separates us from a holy God, and obligates him, if he is just, to deal with it thoroughly.

And everybody’s guilty.

The Real Problem

You see, the real problem with sin is not just the deeds we sometimes do. It’s what we are. We are the kind of people who do those things. What we are not is the kind of people who can stand in a right relationship to a holy God, or who can live with the standard of righteousness his perfect justice requires. Our problem is ingrained in our heart and nature, which are polluted by sin. In other words, we’re just not God’s type of people.

Our good deeds suffer from the same problem. Not only are they equivocal and sometimes motivated by our desire for pride or self-justification but even the best of them are done under our own steam, by people who are not in a right relationship to God in the first place. So what are our good deeds to him? The word of God describes them as “filthy rags”.

How many filthy rags can we weigh off against our sins, I wonder.

Sin and Pane

So let’s get our heads around a better analogy.

Let’s say you’re driving along an unpaved road, and the car in front of you throws up a stone. You get a chip in your car windshield. Now, that’s a minor irritation. But it’s small, and you know windshields are expensive. So you ignore it.

But if that’s ever really happened to you, you know how this plays out. The tiny fracture doesn’t stay tiny. As time goes on, the fracture sends out tendrils of ever-lengthening imperfections from its center. These get longer, and longer, and longer, until big cracks bisect the whole windshield, and you can no longer stand looking at them. So you take the car in.

“You’re lucky,” says the mechanic. “This windshield is structurally unsound now. Not only would it eventually split or shatter, but if you’d had an accident, then the structural integrity of the whole top of the car would have been compromised. You could have been killed.”

Things that seem like small infractions can have large consequences. The whole value of a pane of glass is that it is whole and clear. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really change anything if you throw a small rock at it, or a big one: when a hole is made, it destroys the integrity of the whole. Big infractions just make that obvious sooner; small ones can fool us into thinking things are not so bad.

That’s the way it is with a holy God. His righteousness does not come in degrees. As the ultimate source of justice, he compromises nothing with any sin. All must be accounted for. There are no shell games with God, no testing of the lines, no excusing and shuffling and waving away. Sin is sin. All sin is a violation against the holy nature of God.

But sinful deeds are only half the problem; the rest is the nature of the sinner who produces them. What kind of person produces sin in the first place? And if he did it before, and remains unchanged, he will do it again … and again … and again, all the while remaining the sort of treacherous person who can generate that kind of stuff.

How could such a person ever have peace with God?

Pure Terror

God does not countenance any sin at all. Any. The truly righteous judge of the universe does not wink at anything, and the truly holy God destroys all that is evil. All. It’s not arbitrary on his part: it’s the essential code of his very nature. Nothing can stand in the presence of the truly righteous and fair judge, and nobody can ever have any fellowship with this Holy One unless they too are made holy.

Any sin is antithetical to holiness. Any injustice is antithetical to justice. And any evil is antithetical to the righteous nature of God.

No wonder, then, that the scriptures talk unapologetically about the importance of “the fear of the Lord”. We like to soften that a bit, and say, “Oh well, ‘fear’ can be translated as ‘reverence’.” Yes, yes it can. But it is not only that. The fear is real and justified. You don’t wander into the presence of the Holy One in casual self-confidence. Those that do, do not fare well. Fear is warranted.

All Or Nothing

Righteousness is all or nothing. Either you have it, or you don’t. Either you’re good enough to stand before God, or you’re eternally out of his presence. That’s how it works.

But how can we ever be that good? If God does not give us a break on the question of our sins, what road forward is there for us? Sure, God will judge us, and he will be righteous in so doing, we know; but who can meet that standard?

The psalmist asked this question. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” It’s a very good question. He continues, “But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.” The fear of the Lord leads us to despair of our own sin, and of any hope of perfecting ourselves; but it also leads us to salvation through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

We cannot ourselves attain sinless perfection. And anything less cannot be in relationship to a holy God. But God himself makes us righteous through the atoning sacrifice of his Son. And it is only in that righteousness, the very righteousness of God himself, that we can now stand.

God is both the Just one, and the Justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.

Why It Matters

What about those people who are still playing around with the scales? What if they keep on going like good and evil will be evened off in some kind of balance, or canceled out in some kind of zero sum game?

They’ve misunderstood reality. They’ve misjudged the very nature of sin and righteousness. They’re miscalculating drastically. They don’t understand justice. They don’t have any grasp of what holiness really requires. Certainly, they don’t understand Who they’re dealing with.

Ultimately, they’re living in a fool’s paradise. It will not work out the way they expect. And that’s a mistake nobody can afford to make.

Meanwhile, a better understanding of what we’ve been saved from — and especially, what we’ve been saved from being — should make our gratitude to our great Justifier all the greater. Despite all our fears, we are made absolutely clean by the spotless sacrifice of Christ, forever, in the eyes of a perfect God.

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