Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Criminal, a Cross and a Comma

The Bible is full of guidance, commands and instructions. And its stated, overarching goal is to lead man to inherit eternal life. So it's easy to come to the mistaken conclusion that our salvation is dependent upon on how well we follow those commands and instructions. In reality, our salvation has nothing to do with how we follow these commands and instructions - on what some call our works.

This post is the last in a series on justification and imputed righteousness - two concepts that are key to understanding the biblical plan for for human redemption. The Churches of God reject these doctrines, instead teaching that justification before God is something that we must maintain by attaining righteousness through obedience, repentance and overcoming sin.  These teachings contradict multiple scriptures that show our salvation comes by grace through faith in the shed of blood of Jesus, not our spiritual batting average. 

So far in this series, we have learned that justification refers to our legal standing before an authority (please see Just What Do You Mean... JUSTIFIED?). It is not the state of our character, nor is it dependent on such. We have seen the Bible teaches that God justifies us, or declares us righteous, when we place our faith in Jesus alone for salvation (please see Imputed Righteousness - God's Exit Strategy). Christ didn't simply make a down payment on our salvation, leaving us to pay off the balance. We do not maintain our justification by keeping current on our "loan" of grace through repentance and changed behavior. Once we are justified, the Holy Spirit begins to sanctify us - to work in us to change our hearts and our behavior over time, with our cooperation. But that change is a fruit of our justification - evidence that it has taken place. It is not the thing that keeps us right with God. When we place our faith in Him, Jesus' righteousness is credited to us - we are clothed in his righteousness, as Jeremiah 61:10 foreshadows.

The Bible brings these concepts to life in Luke 23:32-43, in which God justifies a thief who demonstrated his faith in Jesus while being crucified alongside Him. You're probably familiar with the story. The COGs usually turn to this account to "disprove" the teaching that Christians go to heaven immediately after death. They bicker about comma placement and Hebrew idioms, missing the larger point of the passage. 

We'll join the story in verse 39, where one of the criminals being crucified blasphemed Jesus. In the verses that follow, the other criminal rebukes the first for mocking Christ. The thief then asks Jesus to remember him when He enters His Kingdom. In verse 43, Jesus responds that the criminal will be with Him in Paradise.

"And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."

We can debate comma  placement all day - whether Jesus emphasized that he was speaking today about a time in the future or whether the thief would be with Him today, immediately after they died. We can debate where Jesus went after He died, or argue that there's no way the criminal could have been with Him in the hours that followed. But we can't dispute the fact that Jesus told an admitted criminal who demonstrated his faith that he "made it" - that he would be with Him in His Kingdom.

Notice what Jesus didn't say:

He didn't tell the criminal not to worry, that he and the rest of mankind would get a second chance in the Kingdom. The Bible teaches that man dies once, and then he is judged (Hebrews 9:27). There are no do-overs.

Jesus didn't tell the criminal that He could tell he had a good attitude and would be very teachable when he was resurrected to a second physical life, that He was certain the man would live an obedient life and qualify for eternal life the second time around. However, that's how UCG explains His statement:

"In other words, in the resurrection this criminal would have an opportunity to understand the truth of God. Christ could perceive that he would understand the truth and eventually would be in the Kingdom of God."
The Thief on the Cross - Beyond Today episode from July 17, 2012
Notice this claim flatly contradicts decades of Worldwide Church of God teaching, which plainly stated the way God perceives that He can trust us with eternal life is through our "obedience" (in other words, Old Covenant law-keeping). 

Genesis 22: 12 was read with regularity to demonstrate that God had to test a person for "obedience" before He could know their heart. "Obedience" had to be demonstrated before baptism could occur. This "obedience" was the entire point of the second resurrection. The people who were kept from "obedience" in this life would be given a chance to "obey" in the next life, under the tutelage of the resurrected members of the WCG. This law-keeping is the very method God employs know our hearts. So, how then did Jesus know the thief's heart without any law-keeping whatsoever? According to the teachings of Herbert Armstrong, He could not! Was Armstrong wrong then?

Continuing on -
Jesus didn't tell the thief that he couldn't attain eternal life without becoming "converted" over the course of a lifetime of obedience. No, that's what COGWA tells us.

"Even though the thief on the cross admitted to receiving the due reward for his deeds, he did not have an opportunity to live a life of obedience to God, which is all part of the conversion process. The thief merely made a positive comment about Jesus Christ; and in return, Christ spoke comforting words to him about his future in the paradise of the Kingdom of God."
-John Foster, Thief on the Cross: What Happened to Him.
So COGWA would have us believe that the thief and Jesus were simply exchanging pleasantries? Reciprocating positive comments? Comforting words? Are we talking about the inspired Word of God or a conversation in the grocery checkout line? I thought all scripture was profitable for teaching and reproof. That we were to live by every word of God. Since when did Jesus waste words just to give someone the warm fuzzies?

At least UCG acknowledges the gravity of the conversation between the men. UCG notes the that the phrase "Assuredly I say to you today" was a common Hebrew idiom consistently used for very solemn emphasis. (From the booklet Heaven and Hell: What does the Bible Really Teach?). But then UCG returns to standard COG comma drama about biased translators distorting the figure of speech through misplaced punctuation. Whether or not that's true, they totally gloss over the impact of what Jesus told this criminal. 

The thief had no opportunity to turn from his life of stealing. We don't know whether he ever kept the Sabbath. He never had the chance to be baptized. He literally couldn't lift a finger. So what exactly did he do, and why does it matter to us?

It seems that the criminal did all he needed to do in order to receive the gift of salvation. Otherwise, why would Jesus have assured the thief that he would be with Him in Paradise? Remember, I'm not debating the timing of when that would happen. I'm just pointing out that He assured the thief he would be there. We know he admitted to Jesus that he was a sinner, in verse 41. We don't know for sure that he repented of his sins, but the context shows he acknowledged his wrongdoing and didn't dispute his punishment. And it certainly seems He had faith in Jesus. Why else would he ask Jesus to remember Him while everyone else around him was hurling insults instead? So according to scriptures like Acts 16:30-31 and Romans 10:9, he did what was necessary to qualify for eternal life.

We do not get our right standing before God by "being converted" through a lifetime of obedience, as COGWA would have us believe. Man "is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" according to Galatians 2:16. Likewise, Romans 3:28 concludes "that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law."

We do not maintain our right standing with God through our behavior, as UCG inaccurately explains. That is justification by works, which contradicts several passages of scripture. We work for a paycheck, not a gift, as Romans 4:4 tells us. You don't thank your boss for the gift of a paycheck after a rough week on the job. You check your stub to make sure you got every penny you deserved. In the workplace, this is fine, but when it comes to salvation, we should be reluctant to embrace a ledger mentality. All we earn in this life is death - eternal life is a gift, according to Romans 6:23. Besides, Jesus told us what our work is - to "believe in Him whom He has sent." (John 6:28-29).

Being justified doesn't mean we are "lined up" over and over again after each sin, like so much text, as LCG explains. It means that God has declared us innocent of the death sentence we deserve for our sins. Through Jesus' obedience, we are made righteous (Romans 5:19). Then God begins to transform us from the inside into the image of His Son.

During this process, when we sin, we come to God in repentance to restore our right relationship with Him. We may suffer consequences for our sin - Scripture tells us even our prayers may be hindered. Being out of step with God is a dangerous place to be. But believers do not fall in and out of His grace each time we fall short. The insecurity and spiritual whiplash this mentality creates is never what God intended for His children. It is a scare tactic that a controlling religious system uses to keep its followers in line. Waving the keys to the Lake of Fire at someone living a flagrantly sinful lifestyle is one thing, although it might not the best approach to restore a wayward brother. But those who threaten faithful believers with eternal damnation because of missteps, questions or honest scriptural disagreement do not speak for the true Shepherd. Other scriptures tell us about that kind of shepherd.

Those who criticize Christianity for using this passage to teach "cheap grace" and "deathbed repentance" twist scripture. Actually, it's more likely that they've heard scriptures being twisted for decades and are just repeating what they've been taught. I doubt they fully understand the doctrines they malign. They believe that, at the end of their lives, God will look the other way when it comes to their remaining sins, since they tried so hard. They didn't score a 100, but they got close enough, so He'll bump them over the finish line. That's not the way it works. Our Holy God cannot accept sin. Sinners cannot be in His presence. He would not have accepted Jesus' sacrifice if He had sinned even once. If Jesus set the example for how we are to reach eternal life, as many COG splinters claim, why would God expect any less of us? We will never attain that level of righteousness, not if we lived 500 years. Having our sins covered in His righteousness is our only hope.  I suspect those who reject justification and imputed righteousness in favor of ongoing justification don't realize they have bitten off far more than they can chew. I know I never did.

There is nothing cheap about the grace God has shown us. It cost the blood of our Savior. We cheapen that sacrifice when we enter the filthy rags of our own "righteousness" into the equation for salvation. We cannot add to Jesus. When the magnitude of our own unworthiness and Christ's sacrifice pierces our hearts, God has us where He needs us to be. It's only then that He can justify us, account Jesus' righteousness to us and begin the work of sanctification in us. We will never get there by embracing a checklist mentality or by trying to maintain our justification. Turn away from false doctrines like "ongoing justification." Reject any faith in your own goodness and embrace the gift of eternal life that is freely offered by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The man to whom God credits no sin is blessed, Romans 4:8 tells us. Imputed righteousness truly is one of the biggest blessings we can ever receive. 

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11


Luc said...

I wish my brother would read this article. He quit the COG and became a New age, neo-Wiccan, anti patriarchal feminist, earth spirit communing, necromancer, self proclaimed pagan, and still has an attitude of enlightened superiority. The pendulum swings to extremes and never stops in the center to discover the truth. The derision GTA, and others, displayed towards grace was learned young and remains unchanged, resulting in comments about how he no longer fears falling short, and the stern disaproval of our imaginary god. I hope people will discover that grace is not so illogical before becoming so intrenched in a belief system borne of repulsion. This kind of article is still needed, and I appreciate the patience and dedication from those still willing to reason with those who might be coming to the place of willingness to consider the remote possibility that they were wrong, and face the reality that God must give us his own righteousness, he must create goodness in us, for we certainly cannot. A point we all had to come to.

Jonathan said...

This is such a great article! You've focus in on the entire point of the conversation between the criminal and Christ and demonstrate how superficial the argument over the comma really is!
This article should be reproduced and distributed widely throughout the COGs. TBH I've always been in a fog about what the difference between justification and sanctification was and have now learned so much more from these few articles that have gotten to the heart of the matter than all the library of publications put out by the WCG, UCG, LCG, etc put together on the subject! Thank you sincerely!

Martha said...

And thank you, Jonathan! The more I research COG doctrines, the more I find many are a large strand of distractions that criticize straw-man "Christian" doctrines without actually addressing the topics with much substance. I'm thankful God sees fit to use me in this capacity, and am glad to hear you benefited from reading about this topic as much as I did.