In the last “Dear Co-Laborer” issue we evaluated the distinction between legality and morality. If you will patiently bear with me, I will take this a step further. In this issue let’s look at the foundation or basis of both legality and morality.
Simplisticly stated, legality is the rules of man and morality is the rules of God. As noted in an earlier issue of this paper, neither legality nor morality have force apart from accountability. Without accountability people will consider law to be negotiable.
For example, if the state highway patrol went on strike, how fast would people drive? You would rightly answer, “As fast as they want to drive.” The speed laws are still the law of the state, but there is no enforcement.
If there is no accountability, truth is relative rather than absolute. Just as the state, which defines the content of legality, must have accountability in order for law to have impelling force, so also God, Who defines the content of morality, must have accountability in order for His Law to have force.
HOW PEOPLE GO TO HEAVEN
It is precisely here that GRACE in the New Testament and Law in the Old Testament become confused. Both the Old and the New Testaments teach that grace is the sole path to heaven.
“Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). From these verses it is easy to see that no one gets to go to heaven on his own merit.
By grace, God reached down and pulled some into heaven to be with Him forever. To satisfy His justice in saving the sinner when He had already said, “the soul that sinneth, it shall die,” He sent His Son Jesus to die for us. In this we see that the difference between heaven and hell is not the difference between the performance of one person vis-a-vis another. Those in heaven are not less sinful than those in hell. People are in heaven rather than hell for only one reason, the grace of God manifested in the propitious death of Christ for the sinner.
ACCOUNTABILITY IN ETERNITY
If the line between heaven and hell is crossed by grace alone, then where is accountability in eternity for the sinner, both saved and lost? God, holding the sinner accountable for his sin and thus barring him from heaven, transfers this accountability to His Son who died on the cross, thus enabling the believer to enter heaven. This being so, is there any further accountability in eternity?
In other words, are there levels of heaven and hell, or are heaven and hell the same for everyone? Does grace eliminate accountability? If it does, then from a practical or pragmatic perspective, truth is relative. Without accountability men will filter the validity of truth through their perspective of what is in their best interest. Every man will do “that which is right in his own eyes. From this we learn the following:
1) If there are no levels of hell and a person said to you, “Since I know the Bible and God’s offer of salvation and I reject it totally, completely, once and for all, how in light of this should I live?” How do you answer him? You can say, “Since hell is your certain destination, you are wise to get whatever you want out of life. If you are in partnership with a man you dislike, take him fishing and come back alone.” If there are no levels of hell, there is no incentive for the lost to be moral. For him, truth is relative.
2) If there are no levels of heaven and differences between people in heaven is blurred by the promise of Revelation 2 1:4,
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away”
then truth is relative for the Christian as well. Remember that we get to heaven, not because of our performance, but because God held Jesus accountable for our failure to meet His standards. If there are no levels of heaven, there are no eternal consequences for the believer’s sin. This means that as long as the believer is the object of God’s grace, he can sin with impunity; for him truth is relative.
3) Romans 2:1-16 teaches the “Principles of Justice in the Economy of God.” In this section, Paul is not teaching the method of justification, but the basis by which all men in all time will be judged. One of the great principles is simply and straightforwardly stated in verse 6, “Who will render to every man according to his deeds.” So also a multiplicity of other passages in the Bible dealing with judgment are not expunged by the substitutionary death of Christ (cf. I Corinthians 3:11-15; II Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 22:12).
Man will give account for his deeds, good and bad, and those deeds will make both an apparent and appreciable difference in the quality of a person’s eternity, whether it be heaven or hell. From this we see that, for both the believer and non-believer, truth is absolute.
4) Grace means that the believer will be loved and accepted by God independent and irrespective of his performance. But this does not obliterate the consequences of sin. As Paul said in
Galatians 6:7: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
By way of illustration, you warn your five-year-old son not to play in the street. When he does contrary to your warning, you spank and warn him again – and again – and again. One day he is hit by an auto and is a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Does his disobedience and its consequences influence your love and acceptance of him? I think not. Rather, your heart goes out to him in a special way, but this does not reverse the consequences of his act.
The same is true in our relationship with God. We somehow confuse grace with the notion that through Christ God will reverse the negative effects of sin. Such is not the case. By grace we gain total acceptance and love, but grace does not eliminate the eternal handicap of the believer’s disobedience.
5) Because this is true, God liberally sprinkles throughout the New Testament statements dealing with the importance of obedience and being motivated by reward. You are storing “treasure in eternity” (Matthew 6: 19-20) and that treasure will be “gold, silver and precious stones” or “wood, hay, and straw” (I Corinthians 3:11-15).
To encourage and assist you in this important task, God has designed life in such a way that you cannot add to your temporal net worth, no matter how hard you work (cf. Matthew 6:24-34, esp. vs. 27). So also God has designed life in such a way that you can add to your eternal net worth.
Death is not a time of transformation, but confirmation. You take with you into eternity the essence of what you are becoming in the years that God gives you on earth. The implications of this are so staggering that it is immediately apparent that life is too short to be spent in mediocrity.
6) Romans 13:1-6 deals with the importance of complying with the laws of the state. In reading this paragraph you note that a failure to comply brings “wrath.” In other words, the force of the law of the land is found in the sword of the state.
God did not give this authority to the state just to maintain social order. More importantly, for the Christian and non-Christian alike, how a person responds to the authority of the state will carry with it an eternal consequence. As we saw in the last issue of this paper, legality is ostensibly the “shadow” of morality. This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 13 when he says in verse 4,
“For he (the state) is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
Just as legality is supposed to be the “shadow” of morality, so also the judgment of the state is supposed to be the “shadow” of the judgment of God.
Let me anticipate certain objections to all of this. I “anticipate” them because they are questions that naturally came to my mind when I sought to grasp the teaching of Scripture on this subject.
- Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” Again, Hebrews 10:17 says, “And their sins and iniquities I remember no more.” Another great promise is Isaiah 43:25,
“I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” Do not these and other related verses seem to suggest that in Christ there will be no accountability? How else are we to read “and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more”?
Note the warning of Jesus in Matthew 12:36-37,
“But I say unto you. That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
Even if we interpret this to mean “those outside of Christ,” there are still passages such as II Corinthians 5:10 that deal with the judgment of believers:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he bath done, whether it be good or bad.”
How can God judge the believer for his works if He can’t remember his sins?
A number of years ago a good friend of mine told of a visit he had with the prelate of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, Cardinal Sin: There was a nun who professed to have visions in which she saw and talked with Christ. The cardinal, in order to verify the authenticity of this, asked her to ask Jesus, “What was the besetting sin of the cardinal in his youth?” Later when asked for the reply she said, “Jesus said to tell the cardinal that He does not remember.”
If this is true, the believer has nothing to worry about regarding God’s holding him accountable for sin and thus he can regard the truth of God as though it were relative and of no essential significance. The whole tenor of the Scriptures suggests that this is not the case.
The reconciliation of these two seemingly conflicting ideas is found in the fact that the believer’s sins will not influence his standing and acceptance before a gracious God. But from the passages on judgment, we can deduce that we may, if we persist in disobedience, find that in heaven we are like the little boy who insisted on playing in the street.
2) Does not this idea of levels of heaven and hell reverse what was gained in the grace of Christ?
Are we not now back under the bondage of the law from which we thought we were delivered?
Such thinking takes the fun out of the Christian life. It produces discouragement.
Freedom from the law does not mean license. This is the clear teaching of the entire New Testament. As we saw in the September issue, freedom from law is not freedom from self-denial.
When we became children of God, we merely changed masters – from sin to Christ.
The joy and rejoicing of grace is that sin and failure in no way jeopardize our relationship with the Lord. His love and commitment, because of Christ, is total and absolute.
Grace, however, does not address our rewards in heaven. Salvation is by grace; rewards by works. It may be that our licentious culture causes this truth to become blurred in our eyes. This, however, is not the fault of the Scriptures. They are abundantly clear in teaching that grace does not negate accountability. It is the believer’s propensity to be presumptuous that leads him to conclude that through grace he can “beat the system.”
Yours for a life of obedience,