My friend and I were walking my dog Chico through the woods one morning this spring. We trod on a path softened by pine needles and passed under a wild dogwood tree, brilliant white flowers. I looked at my friend and said, “Do you believe in God?”
“Ha. I know why you’re asking that,” she said accusingly. “It’s the dogwood isn’t it?
“Yes,” I sheepishly responded. But I persisted, “Do you?”
She looked up at the tree, sighed, and replied that she did, but she didn’t say it with any real conviction. I asked her if she believed in Jesus Christ and she said she knew of him, but was he really the Son of God? She didn’t know. Did he die for our sins? She shrugged her shoulders. Then she asked, “Why would he do that if he was the Son of God? Besides, I think that all good people will go to heaven anyway. And I’m not sure I believe in a hell.”
“What about rapists and murderers?” I asked.
“If there is a hell, that’s where they will go!” she answered emphatically.
“Let’s back up,” I asked her. “You believe in God in a vague way, you’re not sure about Jesus, you think good people go to heaven and if there is a hell, bad people go there.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“So what are your thoughts on the Ten Commandments?”
“They were important, but now that I’m older, they don’t really apply to me. I mean, come on, ‘Thou shalt not murder? Thou shalt not steal’? I don’t do those things,” she said with finality.
“What about lying?” She shot me a surprised look.
“I don’t lie!”
I pressed her a little. “Have you ever called into work with an excuse that wasn’t real?”
“Well, yeah,” she answered slowly. “Who hasn’t? But goodness, those are little ‘white lies’”.
“Well, God has a different perspective on his commandments. If a commandment is broken, even in the form of a ‘little white lie’, it is a sin.” So I went on.
“You don’t steal, huh?”
She paused. “Unm… I recently took some folders from work to use at home…”
“The point is,” I said, “is that you took something that you didn’t have permission to take, right?” She nodded. “But listen,” I hastened to add, “We all do things like that. Little things we think don’t matter. We all break God’s commandments quite regularly. Some of us are worse than others, but every one of us sins against God and every one of us are accountable for these sins.
“The Apostle Paul says in Romans 2:3, ‘Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things?’ And Paul wasn’t just talking about the really bad stuff; he was including gossip, greed, envy, and deceit too. The Bible says it clearly, “…There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). When it says no one, it means no one. That means you and me.”
She sighed in frustration “Let’s take it a step further. Because God is perfect and holy, he can’t let sin go unpunished. God hates sin to the point of extreme wrath. No matter how small the sin is, it is still sin. And punishment for sin is, I’m sorry to say…death. God has zero tolerance for sin.”
“Wait a minute,” she said clearly exasperated with me. “What if you regret the bad things you do, and what about the good things we do? Doesn’t that count?” she demanded.
“No,” I said quietly. “It doesn’t. Not in terms of our salvation. Think about it. You say you’re sorry about something you did today and tomorrow you do the same thing, or something else that is breaking God’s commandments. This kind of behavior will go on until you die. If think you are basically a good person, doing good things you’ll go to heaven, but how much ‘good’ do you have to do to make up for all of your sins? And what is the measure? Mother Teresa’s work?”
“I hope not,” my friend laughed.
“So what is God’s measuring stick of how good we have to be in order to get into heaven?” I asked her seriously. My friend was silent.
“Author Andy Stanley has written a little pamphlet called, “How Good is Good Enough?” He makes an interesting point: ‘If there is an internal sense of right and wrong divinely instilled in each of us and it is complete enough to get to heaven, why does it change throughout the years? So even our opinions can change as to what we consider ‘good’.”
“If being good doesn’t get us to heaven, then what?” she countered.
“The Apostle Paul says, ‘We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done’ (Romans 3:22).”
My friend responded testily. “What does that even mean?”
“Okay, okay. Listen. ‘For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us.’ (Romans 3:25).
“God is a righteous God. There is no room in his being to be ambivalent toward sin. Sin has to be punished, whether or not you do ‘good’ or consider yourself a ‘good’ person. Our sins, past, present, and future must be dealt with. Someone has to pay. That’s God’s rule.”
“Okay, I get the sin part,” she interrupted. “But why did Jesus take on our sins?”
“Well, John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world the he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’
“It is so straightforward and beautiful, yet people continually reject it,” I argued. “If they believe in God, if they believe in heaven they usually think, ‘Oh good people go to heaven.’ But it’s simply impossible. Yet in this impossibility, God figured out a way to save us because there is no ‘good enough’ in us!
“So God took the initiative to save us; it is not by any effort on our part. He came up with a plan: He would send his Son, God incarnate to take on all of our sins past, present, and future.”
I took my friend by the arm and stopped walking. “Visualize it. Jesus was crucified for our sins. For this, he was beaten to the point that he was unrecognizable. They pulled and tore chunks of his beard out of his face. He was whipped with a flagrum. Do you know what that is? It was an instrument that had a sturdy handle and attached to it were strips of leather with sharp pieces of bone and lead woven in. This was brought down again and again across the shoulders, back, and legs until his skin was a mass of pulverized tissue. They rammed a crown of thorns down on his head until it ripped and punctured his scalp and forehead. They spit on him and hit him with a metal rod. After all this he was made to carry his own cross that probably weighed about 110 pounds. Then he was crucified. I don’t have to go into the physical aspects of crucifixion. We know it is an appalling, horrible, excruciating way to die.
“And all that God asks of us is to have faith in what Jesus did for us. How simple is that?” I shook my head. “Jesus died to sin. ‘So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. For the power of the life giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death’ (Romans 8:1-2). You see what this means?” I implored my friend. “We have a life; we have salvation that was gained from the work Jesus did for us at the request of God the Father!”
Squinting her eyes and pursing her lips, my friend looked away from me. She was picturing it, I know. She was picturing in her mind a battered Jesus, nailed to the cross in agony, smeared with blood, barely able to take a breath. Maybe she was thinking of her sins too.
I didn’t say anything after that. Chico came bounding over to us, wet as an otter and shook. We squealed as the cold pond water droplets landed on us. Satisfied he got our attention, he padded away down the trail. We followed.