The Greatest Sin of All Isn’t Unbelief or Disobeying the Bible

visit-the-prisoner-matthew-25

I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about Matthew 25. It strikes me as one of the most important passages in the Bible because it describes a striking scene where the true followers of Jesus are separated from the false followers. Perhaps something about my “closed-set” evangelical background draws me to this scene.

My particular fascination has to do with this: Evangelicals, based on Paul’s letters, teach that the righteous are saved by faith, but this passage teaches that we’re saved by what we do.

Jesus doesn’t welcome people because of what they prayed or believed. He welcomes those who gave food to the hungry, visited the prisoners, and clothed the poor.

I don’t want to necessarily create a false dichotomy here. Of course real, genuine faith is confirmed by our actions. In fact, the word we translate as “believe” is the verb form of faith, which means we’re actually “faith-ing” or taking action with our faith. Having said all of that, evangelicals such as myself have spent so much time focusing on the sin of unbelief, heresy, or criticizing those who allegedly don’t take the Bible seriously enough, we don’t have any time left to examine what we do.

In other words, we don’t say to people, “You are unloving and uncaring, and I question your salvation.” We have traditionally question someone’s salvation based on beliefs alone that we could boil down to answers on a theology exam.

We could have a whole other discussion about whether we should even question someone’s salvation in the first place (I would argue that’s never our role). That discussion is not my aim here. I’m interested in personally examining ourselves with the same standards the Jesus said he would use.

How do we know we’re actually on the right course in following Jesus?

Matthew 25 has a pretty startling, yet straightforward answer.

You can safely assume you’re following Jesus if you love other people because you see Jesus in them.

Period.

If you see the inherent dignity and worthiness of the least powerful, most vulnerable, and even the most damaged and unworthy, then you’re in good shape according to Jesus. If you love these people, then “You get it.”

And it’s not just a matter of loving the people who love us. It’s a matter of loving everyone. If you can manage to love the people who have the least to offer you and may even cost you time, money, and sanity, then it should be a cinch to love everyone else in our lives.

Put another way, if God is love, then the ultimate sin we can commit against God is to not love others.

When I am angry at people, when I ignore those in need, and when I think I’m above serving, then I am most unlike God. I’ve hidden behind my theology long enough. I should have started practicing my speech:

When did I see you hungry, homeless, and in prison? I was busy studying theology so that my faith would be pure.

I have been working on learning the startling lesson that Jesus loves me just as I am, but he doesn’t expect me to stop there. I’m learning to simply value the presence of Jesus in the first place and to receive his love. If I have truly received his love, then it should start transforming the way I view others and, most importantly, how I treat them.

There aren’t the worthy poor and the unworthy poor.

There aren’t the worthy prisoners and the unworthy prisoners.

There aren’t the unworthy, lazy unemployed and the worthy, industrious unemployed.

Every year Christians spend thousands of dollars looking for Jesus at really nice conferences full of super successful pastors and teachers. I won’t say that Jesus isn’t there, but I will say that ONLY looking for Jesus among the affluent, successful, and influential is an epic fail according to Matthew 25.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that he is among the poor, the failures, and even the criminals. The goodness we do to those we perceive as “the least” is done to Jesus.

So where does this leave us?

I still think the most important step we can take begins within ourselves: welcoming Jesus and his love. We won’t value the presence of Jesus among others if we don’t value or recognize his presence in the first place. This presence of Jesus brings the ongoing renewal of our minds and hearts that Paul speaks about and fills us with his love.

When we finally receive the love and acceptance of Jesus, we’ll have something powerful to share with others—especially the “least of these.” In fact, if we’re still dividing the world into those worthy and unworthy of Jesus’ love, then perhaps we haven’t truly experienced that love in the first place.

If You Need Hell to Share the Gospel, Then Your Gospel Is Eternal Fire Insurance

hell and its eternal flames

Christians aren’t offering eternal fire insurance when they share the Gospel, right?

That’s what people keep telling me. When we share the Gospel, we’re inviting people into a relationship with God, into the Kingdom of God, and into the Spirit-guided fellowship of the Church. That’s it, supposedly.

The focus is on what we’re calling people to, right? We’re really not just offering fire insurance? Or are we…

 

Why is it that so many Christians spend time sharing the bad news before the good news? Are they using hell as a scare tactic?

Why do so many leading Christian pastors say what we believe about hell is extra super important?

 

I would argue that it’s because they’re actually selling fire insurance.

They would counter, “We’re just sharing the truth of the Bible. Hell is in the Bible, Jesus spoke about hell. We’re just being faithful.”

I’m not so sure about that. In fact, hell was rarely mentioned in the spread of the Gospel.

 

Did Jesus speak about hell in the same way we do today?

Did Jesus routinely share the “bad news” first?

True, Jesus warned the teachers of the Law and Pharisees about being cast outside of God’s Kingdom—thrown into Gehenna. He warned the unprepared that they would be left out of God’s feast where they would weep and snap their teeth. That’s not the same thing as our concept of hell being a place of eternal conscious torment by the way.

However, the core message of Jesus was the Kingdom of God. His message was “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” He went around healing, casting out demons, and teaching things like the Sermon on the Mount over and over again.

Judging by today’s standards, Jesus had a terrible track record of sharing the bad news before the good news.

Even the sermons in the book of Acts only mention God’s judgment once. There’s nothing about hell in all of the sermons of the early church when the church grew by leaps and bounds because of the Spirit’s empowering.

Far from providing details about the fiery fate of unbelievers for eternity, Jesus and his disciples spent the vast majority of their time pointing people to life and freedom and offered very little by way of details about the consequences.

What’s the point of it all? They actually weren’t offering eternal fire insurance. They were inviting people to follow Jesus, to enter his Kingdom, and to live in step with the Holy Spirit. Hell didn’t come up because it wasn’t a key part of the message.

The majority of the messages about being cast into Gehenna were addressed at people who routinely resisted the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t preach to the crowds about the threat of being cast into Gehenna. It may be that he only preached about it as a warning of last resort.

 

Here’s the focus of the New Testament: The followers of Jesus are proclaiming the coming of the kingdom and making disciples.

We’re not called to proclaim the terror of hell.

I at least don’t see anyone in the New Testament doing that.

That doesn’t mean we overcompensate by saying that everybody is cool and can do whatever. God is just. There will be judgment. We will be called to account for what we have done and left undone. There is a weight to that message for us. We shouldn’t ignore it.

However, judgment isn’t the thing we’re called to proclaim. We’re inviting people to follow Jesus, to join in the Kingdom. An invitation is not the same thing as a warning.

Whatever you believe about hell, there’s no escaping that making hell central to the Gospel message draws us in the wrong direction.

The Gospel says that the Kingdom is here. Repent so that you can join it. Jesus calls us to follow him with an invitation. If we need hell in order to scare people into God’s Kingdom, then we’re emphasizing the wrong thing.

Jesus didn’t need to say much about hell in order to share the Gospel. Why do we?

 

This post is adapted from my book: A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to faith and Growth.