Thursday, November 14, 2013

Inconvenient Truths

In a conversation I had with an unbeliever recently, the difficult subject of Hell came up that makes most Christians cringe, including me. He respectfully put forth the notion that the concept of Hell is inconsistent with that of a loving God. He followed up quite poignantly with the question: “So is Gandhi in Hell, for example?” This is a challenging question, because it “puts skin on,” or lends a layer of personal identity to, the issue; when we are confronted with the idea of an actual person we know, love, or respect being eternally lost, the idea is harder to accept. On an emotional level, we don’t want to believe that “good” people go to Hell. 

As Paul outlined in his letter to the Ephesians, however, salvation cannot be earned: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9). Jesus clearly taught that the only way to everlasting life in Heaven was through following Him, plainly stating: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6). Gandhi rejected Christ and--while only God knows the condition of a person's heart--we know this leads to Hell.

We may shrink away from discussing Hell with unbelievers, but Jesus, on the other hand, broached the subject frequently during His ministry, referring to it 23 times as recorded in the Gospels. This illustrates the reality and true gravity of eternal separation from God if we reject the gift of Christ's atoning sacrifice. 

As uncomfortable as the subject of Hell may make us, the reality of it should give us a sense of urgency in spreading the Gospel. All believers are commanded to take part in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20) and spread the Good News about Jesus as Savior in our neighborhoods and to the ends of earth (Acts 1:8). This was the last thing Jesus urged His disciples to do right before His ascension. 

Another topic that makes us squirm is that of homosexuality. As Christians, we are called to go against the cultural tide when it comes to sexual purity and many of us shy away from addressing the topic because of this. Paul, however, was forthright in his treatment of sexual immortality, including homosexuality; he stated unequivocally, “do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9-10). Clearly, sin is serious in the eyes of God.

Our children are growing up in a new era in which Christianity is more counter-cultural than ever before in America. Sexual immorality is unabashedly lauded in our culture. Homosexuality is celebrated on Emmy-winning TV shows like Modern Family, for example, which recently received mass acclaim for airing an "historic" gay marriage proposal. Promiscuity is promoted everywhere we look. Sexual sin is becoming so deeply embedded into the fabric of our society that it's hard to distinguish it anymore as we become increasingly desensitized to it. The shock-factor we felt back in the 80s when celebrities like Madonna first flaunted their sexuality so controversially has less impact now that an anything-goes mentality is so prevalent. We might talk about the antics of Miley Cyrus for 5 minutes, but she's just one of the many skin-baring, hip-gyrating young stars stooping to new moral lows in the name of "being themselves." These young women are selling their bodies, and people are buying in droves.

As uncomfortable as we may find these culturally controversial topics, we must, when the opportunity arises, present the truth as Jesus did with loving concern. While it is tempting to back away from answering tough questions about sin in our culture and sticking to "safe" topics to avoid ruffling feathers or making people uncomfortable, this is far from showing them love. In actuality, this can be as good as giving them a death wish. Ignoring or down-playing sin is tantamount to telling people they have no need for a Savior.

I am not promoting here some machine-gun style of evangelism that bombards people with threats of fire and brimstone or a Westboro Baptist-like approach to attacking homosexuality in our society. Crazy people such as these can make us want to distance ourselves from speaking the truth on homosexuality and sin in our culture for fear of being associated with such bigotry and extreme kookiness. But it's all about balance. We should focus on the good news of the gospel and treat others with Christ-like love, telling them why our hope is in Christ with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). But we must still stand firm in the truth and be prepared to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). This involves an acknowledgment of the gravity of sin and our need to be reconciled to a Holy God. Unless we understand that sin leads to death and separation from God, the gospel of Christ doesn't make any sense. We can't brush sin under the rug despite the fact that our culture rejects basic notions of right and wrong. Gandhi was not sinless. No one is.

It is important to make the distinction between sin in our culture and the sin of individuals. We should stand against the former, and show grace towards the latter. Furthermore, we should treat the sin of individual unbelievers differently from the sin of Christians. Unbelievers are not held to the same standards as those who are born again, because they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have not yet been made new in Christ. We should love them, pray for them, and witness to them about the hope that is in Christ--not focus on their sins. Believers, on the other hand, are to put off the old self that was governed by deceitful desires and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22-24). We are told to distance ourselves from those within the Body of Christ who are unrepentant about living a life of sin, and to welcome them back as soon as they repent. I Corinthians 5 provides a great model for how to confront immorality in the church.

We should seek to please God first, not people first, and do our best to present ourselves to God as those approved, workers who do not need to be ashamed and who correctly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). As followers of the one true Savior, we must cling to biblical truth, reject moral relativism, and prayerfully stand against the corrosion of moral fiber that is at work in our society. And we must do all this in love of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and for the glory of God. 

If we are not willing to do it, who will be?


Maeve McDonald said...
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Maeve McDonald said...

For those struggling with sexual brokenness, this is a wonderful Christ-centered ministry.

WhimsicalMadCap said...

Excellent article. One hesitation, though: if unbelievers are held to a different standard, then why are they hellbound? His standard of perfection applies to EVERYbody, no? Seems like there's a bit of a contradiction or disconnect there (or maybe I'm missing something). And sin in a culture isn't amorphous: it grows from sin in individuals.

A. Maeve McDonald said...

They are not held to a different standard on judgment day. The standard is God's not ours. But we cannot expect unbelievers to live by biblical principles to which they dont subscribe. That comes after salvation (or at least it should). Our focus should be to reach unbelievers with the gospel, not to nitpick their lifestyle choices beforehand. Part of this involves an acknowledgement that we are all sinners who are in need of a Savior. But attempting to force sanctification on those who are not yet justified, however, is putting the cart before the horse and is not our role. When it comes to the Body of Christ, on the other hand, we are to admonish each other, and encourage each other to let go of the sinful ways from when we were living in the flesh.