The Extent of Punishment and Belief, Part V: Spiritual Bankruptcy
Picking up where we left off in Part III: Sin, Debt and the Hopeless Situation, I hope that I have made a case for the idea that too often we misidentify sin with criminality. That is not the case. Sin merely means departing from the path that recognizes God as the source of all good and righteousness. In fact, if you do a Bible search for the word "righteous" you will find that "righteousness" is only applied to people who are following God. As stated by the notes in my NIV study Bible with respect to the use of the word "righteous" in Psalm 1:5:
righteous -- One of several terms in the OT for God’s people; it presents them as those who honor God and order their lives in all things according to his will. In every human relationship they fulfill the obligations that the relationship entails, remembering that power and authority (or whatever sort: domestic, social, political, economic, religious, intellectual) are to be used to bless, not to exploit.
The failure to follow God, because He is the embodiment of the perfectly good, the perfectly just and the perfectly right, results necessarily in doing less than the optimal good, just, and right. Thus, even if your act is not “evil” but simply failing to follow God, you are being less good, right and just than you could be by following God and you are thereby sinning.
But I think it important to remember that sinning is what separates us from God. We sin because we don’t want to follow God. No matter what our stated intentions of goodness, lovingness and kindness, any act which does not follow God is ultimately intended to make us our own god, following the lie of our self in place of the truth of God.
How many thefts does it take before you are a thief? How many murders does it take before you are a murderer? How many lies does it take before you are a liar? How many sins does it take before you are a sinner? The answer to all of these questions is "one." It is no answer to say, "on balance, I was good." It only takes one sin to have told God that you are not interested in following Him and to make you not good enough, not righteous enough, and not just enough to enter into His holy presence.
Thus, as I pointed out at the end of Part III, we are left there in debtors’ prison holding a debt that we have incurred that we cannot pay of our own volition. None of our friends or family can pay the debt for us, so we are destined to spend eternity in debtors’ prison because we can never, ever pay the debt.
If you think that isn’t fair, fear not – no one does. The government decided it wasn’t fair and abolished debtors’ prisons. The government reasoned that the better approach was to have a system of bankruptcy. And you know what? That’s exactly the same system that God has used with respect to our spiritual debt.
You see, we are all hopelessly bankrupt. We have a debt that we cannot pay, and the creditor (God) is knocking at the door. We can try to hide not answering our phones, but someday we are going to die and the debt will either be paid or not paid. God, in His mercy, has paid the debt for us. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, as the payer of the debt. He lived a sinless life, and thus he did not have a debt to pay. Since the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23), when Jesus died sinless He had a credit to his account that He could use to pay for the debt of others. Moreover, because He was also God, His death gave Him an infinite amount of credit that could be used to pay for the debts of every single sinful human being on the face of planet earth. That means that His death was sufficient to pay for the debts of everyone.
So why do some people go to hell, anyway? Well, the system that God developed is very much like the system used in the American bankruptcy courts. You can get forgiveness of your debts and a fresh start, but in order to do so, you have to acknowledge that you have debts that you cannot pay and sign on the dotted line saying you accept the forgiveness that the government offers through bankruptcy. Many people who are in debt are too proud to accept this option, and spend the rest of their lives running from their creditors hoping that the debt never catches up to them.
God’s system is much the same way. He calls on us to recognize our spiritual bankruptcy (that we are all sinners) and to sign on the dotted line for debt relief by acknowledging that the only way we are going to pay off the debt is through Jesus’ death and resurrection. This gift of forgiveness of debt gives us a "fresh start," i.e., we are born again. And since our debt has been paid for all time, we are now able to enter heaven with the balanced books that we need – all because Jesus did everything necessary for us to enter heaven. However, some people either refuse to acknowledge the debt, they think that they are going to be able to work it out on their own, and/or they don’t acknowledge either God or that they need God’s help. These are the people who refuse to accept the forgiveness offered, and God will honor their choice to let them continue to work it out forever in the spiritual debtors’ prison called hell. In a world of free will, God cannot force people to accept his offer of forgiveness.
This model of forgiveness explains several things. It explains that we are sinners, it explains why God is offended, it explains why there is a hell, and it explains why Jesus needed to die on the cross. What I have not yet discussed is how punishment works into the equation. I intend to discuss that point in Part VI.
Part I: What is Sin?
Part II: Against Whom do we Sin?
Part III: Sin, Debt and the Hopeless Situation
Part IV: The Optimal Life