Thursday, March 13, 2014

March 16, Lent 2: Not Believing: #5 in a Series on Sin

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Is it a sin to not believe? Unbelief is not listed in the Ten Commandments; unbelief is not one of the seven deadly sins. And yet, implicitly, it is treated as the worst of the sins: the unpardonable sin.

You know: we Protestants say that if you believe in the Lord Jesus, then all your sins are forgiven you, but if you don’t believe, even the least of your sins is held against you. If you die unbelieving, no matter how good or bad you are, you are excluded from eternal life. Unbelief is unforgivable. Even C. S. Lewis says that: If you say No to God, then God will let you have your No, forever.

The familiar Christian logic of belief has two versions. In the Roman Catholic version, you invest your belief in the clearly defined and securely objective offerings of the church. You process your belief through its trustworthy ministrations, which clean up all your sins and guilt. In the Evangelical version you do it on your own, in your bedroom or at a meeting. You accept the Lord Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, which makes you born again, and washes all your sins away.

Allow me to speak of Quidditch, the game the wizards play in Harry Potter. Most of the players are busy scoring points by tossing the Quaffle through the scoring ring. They have to avoid getting hit by the two black spheres called the Bludgers. One player on each team, the Seeker, only chases the Golden Snitch, and it’s the Golden Snitch that wins the game. It really doesn’t matter how many points your team mounts up by scoring Quaffles. It’s all or nothing with the Golden Snitch.

Now in all deference to the evident genius of Ms. J. K. Rowling, let me opine that Quidditch is not a good game. It’s a bad game with bad rules. But it illustrates the familiar Christian logic of belief. Most of the players are like Roman Catholics gradually scoring points by the Quaffles of sacramental observation and good works, and avoiding the Bludgers as best they can, while the Evangelicals are the Seekers who ignore all that tedious scoring and go off individually to just believe in Jesus and snatch the Golden Snitch of salvation. Just believe in Jesus and you get it all.

But don’t believe in Jesus and you lose it all. No matter how otherwise good or bad you are.

Or: die outside the Catholic church, and die unsaved.

In either case, God will not forgive your not believing. Your unbelief is unpardonable. Is that right? Is that fair? Then what about your friends and your neighbors and your loved ones who do not believe? Or the millions of souls who lived and died before the missionaries came and never had the chance?

Most of us fuzzy-up the doctrines of the church, and we figure that any decent person does not go to hell and probably goes to heaven. For the sake of God’s decency most of us typically blend the two beliefs of salvation by grace alone and salvation by good works, which inconsistency really irritates conservative theologians.

The church’s doctrine derives from our gospel today. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." So life instead of perishing depends on your belief. What does it mean to perish? Is that code for going to hell for eternal torture?

I’m sure that’s not what Jesus means. He’s being literal — that when you die, you die, that’s it, and your life is extinguished, it’s over, like the life of any other mammal. It’s neither hell nor annihilation, but simply the natural oblivion of universe, which, certainly, is not as bad as eternal torture, but not as good as eternal life. So believe, then!

The Protestant version of the doctrine derives from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, that the promises of God are given to you not by your performing the works of the law, but by faith alone, and your faith is reckoned as righteousness, the righteousness that entitles you to inherit the world. So then your lack of faith must be reckoned as unrighteousness, and your unbelief is the unforgiven sin which is held against you at your death to cancel your inheritance. So believe, then!

And what must you believe? You believe in the promises of God as delivered by Jesus. This is true. There is no problem with this part of the doctrine. And here is a take-home: If somebody asks you what you as a Christian believe, you can answer that you believe in the promises of God as delivered by Jesus. What do Christians believe? Christians believe in the promises of God as delivered by Jesus. The summary of those promises is the Apostles Creed. The Creed is like the doorway into all the promises of God. That’s why we repeat it every week. To rehearse you in what you believe.

So is this belief a password that gets you into eternal life? Well, it’s actually more like a sign, to guide you and keep you going on the way of life instead of death. Nicodemus speaks of the signs that Jesus did. Six years ago I preached about why those signs impressed Nicodemus, and what he and the other Pharisees were looking for in terms of the Kingdom of God, and why he came to deal with Jesus secretly at night. But Jesus does not deal. He offers him a new sign to watch for.

He says, "The Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." Jesus is the sign. He will be lifted up on the cross, and lifted up from the tomb, and lifted up on the clouds. God offers him to you as the sign to keep your eyes on as you go through life. He’s like a detour sign that keeps you going on the alternate route when the highway is impassable.

You get to a corner, and you wouldn’t know where to turn, but there’s the detour sign and it points the way down this old county road, and your instinct says, No, so you just have to believe the sign. And you have this again and again with many choices in your life. How does your choice here go with the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation, and new life from the dead, and the Lordship of Jesus?

In the Gospel of John the meaning of "eternal life" is as much for now as after death. St. Paul means the same thing in Romans when he says that the promise is that you "inherit the world." That is this world, this world which God so loved that he gave it his only Son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him; this world already under the Kingdom of God even though you cannot see the Kingdom upon it unless you believe; this dying world which is under the power of life, this present world in which we die but also in which God "gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things which do not exist." That’s what you inherit when you believe. Your belief is your green card for sharing the new life of the Kingdom of God within the world.

Belief is a choice, but the choice is not between belief and unbelief. It’s between belief and your other beliefs. No one believes in nothing. Everyone believes in something and in some combination of beliefs. Nicodemus has his set of beliefs about what the Kingdom of God should be, and he’s trying to fit Jesus into that. But Jesus challenges the poor guy, that belief in him means starting over, starting from the top, that belief in Jesus calls into question his other beliefs and even cancels them. Which would be a good thing for Nicodemus, because his current beliefs will lead his people to destruction and the Judea they were hoping for would perish, as subsequent history would bear out.

So not believing is a sin to the extent that your unbelief keeps you going on a dead-end road, and your combination of beliefs accumulate in you losing your inheritance. But this sin is not unforgivable. Which is a good thing, for we are all inconsistent believers. You mix your true belief with many false beliefs about the good life, your security, and your purpose in the world.

So all the time, God is forgiving your unbelief, every time you think you know better than the detour and then you have to work your way back to that county road. God is ahead of you, and God keeps calling you, as God did with Abram, to a land that God will show you, and God does not wait for your true belief. God constantly trains you and corrects you in your belief, like a child on a bicycle. You can do it!

So then, you must believe in something about yourself as well, which you cannot know for sure in abstract knowledge or even in emotional confidence, but you can believe it anyway. You must believe that your desire to believe is the proof of your belief, no matter how weak or intermittent your belief may feel to you. Because the power of your belief is not in yourself, but in the love of God who is calling you and drawing you. The strength of your faith is not your own strength, but the strength of God who loves you.

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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