The other night, I had a conversation with my daughter Libby. At age 11, she is my oldest and I probably talk more about faith with her than I do with the other kids. It seemed like a trivial question at first. In a book she is reading, a girl hides in a well so she cannot be found. Later she dies of an infection she acquired while in the well. Libby asked if that was murder or suicide. I explained to her that it was neither. It would be considered an accident.
“But dad, she did it on purpose,” Libby responded.
“Yes, she went into the well on purpose, but she didn’t do it to get sick. And even if she did it to get sick, she didn’t know it would cause her death.”
I went on to explain that suicide is a deliberate act, not an accidental one. I gave the example that if I got drunk, got behind the wheel, and drove into a tree, that would be incredibly stupid of me, but not suicide, but rather an accidental death. That then led to the question of if I would go to hell if I did that. My answer of “no” surprised her.
It reminded me of a conversation with a friend earlier in the day where we briefly mentioned death (it happens when you, like me, work in a funeral home and with a cemetery). I said something to the effect of, “Well, I know I’m going to heaven, so I hope to see you there.” My friend, also a follower of Jesus, remarked something along the line of “Well, that’s great Mr. Perfect.” Something in his tone made me ponder the rest of the way home.
Now back to Libby and me. Here is my 11-year-old wondering if you die committing a sin if you are going to heaven. I honestly don’t like the “going to heaven” language because too often we focus more on the destination than we do the Deity, God (He is the goal, not just the location). So, I switch to the language of “being right with God”. Libby is where many people are, where I was for much of my life, including my entry into ministry. Her rationale is: Jesus has forgiven me for the sins I committed in the past. But what about sins I commit in the future?
See, we take 1 John 1:8-9 (If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.) sometimes to mean that if we have sin in our lives and do not confess it, then we are once again at enmity with God. Not that we’re not saved, but almost in a quasi-saved state, a state of limbo, if you will, where as long as we confess and ask for forgiveness, we maintain our salvation.
But this is wrong. You see, if we are maintaining our salvation by continuing to confess and ask for forgiveness, then our salvation is simply that: maintained by us, not the saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. It would mean that we may be saved by grace through faith, but in the end are kept saved by our actions or works. It’s as if Jesus is a debt-consolidation service. He’ll even cancel out your debt, but you are responsible from here on out for any future indebtedness you incur.
Just as a general observation, I think a lot of Christians have this view of Christ. Even if they attend a church that leans heavily on “eternal security” or “once-saved-always-saved”, the preaching and teaching (and frankly a general Biblical ignorance) lead to this kind of thinking.
On one hand, it’s completely understandable why we come to this position. After all, does God not call us to holiness? Does he not have standards? Standards that we fail to maintain, yet they remain. God calls us to love him and love others, and this call means continually denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following Jesus. Doesn’t God call us to growth? Doesn’t he rebuke those who hear and do not do?
And what are we to do with sin? Do we just excuse it as a part of the human condition? Do we make allowances for the flesh, for carnality, for selfishness? Paul would say “God forbid!” So if grace is not a license to sin, and if sin still offends the heart of God, and if we are called to live holy… Isn’t unconfessed sin a hindrance to our relationship with our Creator?
The open-ended question I often came to, and would hear ministers offer was this: “How do you make it into heaven, where there is no sin, with sin in your heart?”
It’s ironic as I look back, many of the evangelists we would have in for revivals as a child came from Baptist backgrounds. One of the caricatures of Baptists is that as long as you “invited Jesus into your heart” then you were saved no matter what. If that was the case, why did these same men offer so many salvation altar calls? You’d get saved 6 or 7 times, which by their own (and real Biblical) theology just couldn’t happen.
And so, this kind of thinking can lead to different conclusions, few of them good. I’ve known people who have incredibly strong faith, the kind of people I call on to pray for me when I’m going through something, who are very insecure in their own standing with God. Let us not confuse humility with an accurate understanding of our relationship with God.
I have also witnessed people so insecure about the forgiveness that God offers that they reject his offer entirely. What good is grace, after all, if it leads to a life of enslavement to a list of rules. Does it not at that point cease to be grace?
Additionally, I have seen many well-intentioned Christians, perhaps immature in their faith, perhaps not exposed to solid Bible teaching, pass judgment on other believers because they didn’t live up to the same standards.
For instance, I was once in a worship service where I was supposed to be filling in for the minister. During a time of sharing prayer requests and testimonies, one person mentioned how a person had taken their own life. This led to several people making comments that “suicide is a ticket straight to hell” (I recall that phrase quite well). Not only was this hardly the place to bring up a theological discourse on suicide not being the unforgivable sin, but it also would surely cause undue pain and hardship to any friend or loved one of a suicide victim. If suicide is not the unforgivable sin, the only way it can lead “straight to hell” is because it forbids asking God for forgiveness after the fact. That same logic would also mean that should you suffer a heart attack immediately following a single sin and not repent as you died, you would also be going to an eternity apart from Christ.
This sort of theology may lead to crowded altar calls. It may lead to dozens of commitments or recommitments to Christ to list on your church’s annual report. But it does not lead to a deeper love for the Lord or an abiding sense of His love for you.
It was as a grown man, even as a minister responsible for teaching God’s word, that I began to discover that God loved me despite my failings, despite the fact that I would continue to let him down. This didn’t give me a sense of freedom to sin, as some would worry, but rather it drove me to see how wonderful the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ truly is. It has caused me to have greater compassion to reach people who have either never known Jesus as well as those who have felt abandoned or forsaken by their Creator.
When I told my friend that I am sure I am going to heaven, it is not because Adam Will is perfect. It is not because I keep all God’s commandments and do not err. On the contrary, I sin far too much. I still wrestle with doubts. I still feel inadequate. But the truth of it all, the glorious truth of the Gospel, is that I am made right with God because of what Jesus did. Not because of what I once did or continue to do. The most I ever did was simply to open the gift of salvation that He gave to me and offers to all who will receive Him.
If you have made it this far, I wish to offer you my most heartfelt congratulations. Sometimes I don’t even stick with me. But I have one more related issue to tackle. I’ll keep it relatively brief but I must include it for the sake of balance and to help you understand more fully where I am coming from.
It would be unfortunate for you to have made it thus far and conclude, “Oh, Adam is one of those reformed Calvinist dudes who thinks that once you pray to receive Christ, you’re golden.”
I don’t believe in “once-saved-always-saved” because I have seen that to mean that anyone who prays a prayer is getting in the gates. It doesn’t work that way. There must be genuine transformation. Again, that transformation is evidence, yes, but not evidence of your work, but of the work of the Holy Spirit.
I would strongly argue that many people whom we consider “backslidden” who prayed a “sinners’ prayer” at a Bible School or funeral after Granny died, didn’t understand (or count the cost) of what salvation truly is. It’s hard to backslide when you’ve never slid forward to begin with.
Do I believe that some people have left the faith? I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But if I do grant that some people may have “lost” their salvation, it isn’t because of a slip-up or a sin. It would have to be because of a complete and utter rejection of what they know, have known, to be true.
And so, brothers and sisters, we walk the balanced way, or as Johnny Cash might say “I walk the line”. We must reject the idea that the grace of God gives you permission to do whatever you want with no concern in regard to the Lord. But we also must reject the heavy burden that comes from legalism and trying to keep the law. Yes, your sin will cause a disruption in the fellowship you have with God, but the blood of Jesus is stronger than the bonds of sin. If he has set you free, you are still free. You are free indeed.