I’ve been talking about Peter’s first proclamation of the Good News to Gentiles, which appears in Acts 10. I’ve stepped through what he said on that occasion, and how it differed in some interesting ways from the way we 21st century American Protestants have been taught to proclaim the Good News. (You can read those messages here and here, or click the link at the top of the column to go backwards in the blog posts.)
Today I’m going to finish that topic with a reflection about the most difficult part for us to accept: the idea that, in Peter’s words, “…in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:35)
Of course, the hard part for Peter to grasp was “in every nation.” He knew all about the judgment to come. He had always known that God accepted Jews who fear Him and do what is right. The status of non-Jews was less certain, although some Rabbis of his day acknowledged that there existed such a thing as a “righteous pagan” and that some of those might have a place in olam ha-bah, “the world to come.” Because Peter’s cultural habit was to avoid Gentiles, the Holy Spirit had to persuade him that it was alright for him to preach Jesus to a Gentile audience.
But the hard part for us is the idea that God might accept any person because of good things they had done. We’ve had “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (a quote taken out of context from Isaiah 64:6) drummed into our skulls by decades of Protestant systematic theology. We’ve been told that without the Savior, we all deserve hell, and that a just Judge would send us there.
I have found nothing in the Christian scriptures, Old or New, that says that we all deserve hell. It does say that we all sin sometimes, and that sin produces death, but that’s not exactly the same thing. That’s just a fact; where we sin, we produce destruction in our own lives, and that harms us. Worse, it cascades onto those around us, who suffer because of our failures and brokenness. And insofar as our brokenness continues with us into eternity, we could experience self-imposed separation from God, which is what hell is. But there’s nothing that says that that happens to everybody, nor that it ought to. Romans 2:6-11 and Acts 10:34-35 suggest that in the judgment to come, some will be found wicked, but some others will be found righteous–and both say that what the Judge will be judging is what we have done. Every Jew of Jesus’ day would have believed this, including Jesus and all His Apostles.
American Protestants can’t handle the idea that God might accept somebody on the basis of their goodness. As an on-line acquaintance observed just the other day, “It seems to me that if we’re sinners because we sin, then we can infer that we could exist without sinning, which would negate the need for a Savior.”
That makes no sense to me. In what way does the mere possibility that somebody, somewhere might please God negate the need for a savior? That makes it seem as though the person who said that thinks that God does not care what happens to the rest of us. Worse, it seems as though he hates the idea that he could benefit from something God gave us freely, and would rather do anything than enjoy the gift God supplied if he could manage without. Where does that attitude come from?
Behind that notion lies the error that the only thing accomplished by the arrival of the Messiah was that we could make it into heaven. We already know that that’s not the whole story; part of the good news that we covered last month spoke of Jesus setting people free from disease and the power of the devil, and implied that that was to be the new normal. Plus, the arrival of the Holy Spirit in response to the message demonstrated the truth of what Jesus had declared: the Kingdom of God was right at the door, and anybody who embraced Him could join it and benefit from it.
In fact, it’s impossible to separate the arrival of the Kingdom of God from “going to heaven.” If the kingdom is to bring heaven down to earth, per Matthew 6:10, then it follows that whoever begins to inherit the kingdom here is already present in heaven and most likely will seamlessly be transferred there upon passing into the next life (see Eph 2:6-7 if you doubt this.)
So, to the fellow I quoted a moment ago, does it make sense that one might refuse to enjoy the arriving kingdom because, well, gee, it’s just possible that one of us might actually please God without His help, so we really ought to try that first? Why would he think such a thing? Does he often refuse to accept gifts that people choose to give him?
We’ve already been looking at an example of how that conversation is supposed to go. Acts 10 begins with an angel, a messenger from God, declaring that Cornelius’ works were acceptable to God. Did the angel say, “So, you’re already going to heaven, and you don’t need anything else”? Quite the contrary. The angel said, on the basis of Cornelius’ good standing,
“…send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter…and hear what [he has] to say.” (Acts 10:5,22b)
And then when they heard, did they respond, “You know, we’re already going to heaven, so thanks a lot for your input, but I think we’re good for now”? No. They believed, received the Holy Spirit, and rejoiced that they were to be included in the restoration of God’s presence among His people, as foretold by the Hebrew prophets.
Short version: those who really fear God and do what is right will receive the Messiah with joy when He appears. God knows this. He offered the Messiah to them first (after the Jews, that is)!
My on-line acquaintence, like so many American believers, had heard too many non-believers resist the gospel by saying that they think God will accept anybody who does good, usually meaning “themselves” without saying so. “Everybody deserves hell” was invented (extra-biblically) to answer such people.
But it’s untrue, and it isn’t necessary. It’s unlikely that such people actually do fear God or do what is right. In my experience, such people are looking for an “out”; they have personal reasons not to want to embrace Jesus, the Lord. They remind me of WC Fields, the 20th century comedian, when a colleague noted with surprise that he was reading a Bible. “What are you doing?” asked the colleague, and Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.”
To respond to the person of the Messiah by saying “No thanks, I’ll take my chances on my own” and look for an “out” is not just foolish and arrogant to the Nth degree, it’s a specific indication that that person is well on their way to being rejected. That person does not fear God, which is the first qualification; and the “right” that they’re doing usually is not cooperating with God, but keeping their distance from Him while keeping themselves clean enough to maintain their public reputation.
In any case, as I observed to my on-line friend, just because I think it’s possible that somebody, somewhere is living in such a way as to please God (as the scriptures suggest is the case, supplying a few examples) does not mean that I’m stupid enough to imagine that I’m one of them. Folks, I’m wicked, and I can use all the help I can get. If God’s willing to welcome me in and remove my ridiculously wicked habits without holding them against me, sign me up right now. And let me tell you, I don’t think I’m alone. Whatever some unusually decent pagan in some South American jungle might need, I need a savior. And so, I imagine, do you.
And even if I didn’t, I’d welcome Him because I love Him and want to be part of what He is doing. Because the Kingdom of Heaven arriving on Earth is very good news, indeed. Peter and Paul both said so, and so should we.