We wonder how God could forgive even very evil people. At the same time, we wonder why He would send even a very nice person to Hell. That seems very strange, inconsistent, and unfair to us, because we are not seeing things from God’s perspective.
We tend to think of sins in a hierarchy, from little white lie up to mass murder. But God doesn’t think that way. Individual sins (plural) are just the effect; their cause is the sin (singular) that is an inherent part of our human nature. That internal rebellion, that insistence on trying to run our own lives instead of submitting to the authority of our Creator, causes all of the external actions that we recognize as sinful.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus rather dramatically makes the point that the internal is what God sees, more than the external. Check out these statements:
You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.Matthew 5:21-22
You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Matthew 5:27-28
Those statements would have been just as shocking to His original listeners as they are to us. They would agree with us that this is impossible: Everyone has angry or lustful thoughts at times. Don’t we get credit for not acting on them?! But the point that Jesus is making is that we can’t compare when deciding if we are “good enough”. Sin is sin; rebellion is rebellion; any and all of it is enough to separate us from a holy God. Being a “little bit” sinful is no more possible than being a “little bit” pregnant. Both are all or nothing.
There are texts condemning specific sins: murder, adultery, stealing, and false witness (the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:13-16), homosexuality and bestiality (Leviticus 18:22-23), child sacrifice and occult practices (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). Our tendency is to focus on those as big, bad sins. But look at these lists of sins below. Notice anything (see my emphasis)?
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.Romans 1:28-32
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.Galations 5:19-23
These lists are not meant to be exhaustive. But what strikes me is that the “little” sins like gossip and envy are mixed in there right next to murder, adultery, and theft. Again, the action is the symptom; sin is the underlying disease. And it’s a deadly one….
The Gospels record three instances of Jesus raising someone from the dead:
- Jairus’ daughter had just died. She was sick when Jairus came to Jesus for help. As Jesus was on the way, messengers came that the girl had died. (Mark 5:22-24 and 35-43)
- The widow’s son in the town of Nain was in the funeral procession, on his way to being buried. (Luke 7:11-17)
- Lazarus has been buried for four days. (John 11:38-44)
The signs of death would have been most noticeable in Lazarus. But was the fact of death any less real with the other two? All three were incurably beyond human aid, but all three lived again after Jesus raised them. 1
The same is true with us, whom the Apostle Paul refers to as being “dead in sin” (Colossians 2:13, Ephesians 2:5) unless we accept Jesus’ gift of healing. Some show it more, but all are equally dead.
But the end of the story is the good news. Jesus healed even four-day-dead Lazarus, and He heals even long-dead-in-sins people. Notice the end of the 1 Corinthians passage above: “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ“. And the Galatians passage follows the “deeds of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit” that grows throughout the Christian’s life after they have been healed by Jesus and are continuing in relationship with Him.
Forgiveness isn’t a matter of how large or small the sins are. What matters is how all-encompassing Jesus’ sacrifice is. It is big enough to cover the sin at the heart of the problem, so it can cover any sinful actions. The only hold-up is us: Will we admit that we are sinners and accept His forgiveness … or not?