From his deathbed, John Allen of the Salvation Army reportedly proclaimed, “I deserve to be damned; I deserve to be in hell; but God interfered!” How does that sound, fellow believer? Is that how you’d explain your standing before God?
I find much to love in this brother’s formulation of his life story. In particular, I’m fascinated by the impact of the last word of what might have been his final earthly words – the word “interfered.” It conveys so much of the drama of the Gospel – the staggering force of a hero’s sudden appearance in a battle’s bleakest moment.
But first, look at the build-up. “I deserve to be damned; I deserve to be in hell.” This is the bad news that frames the Gospel (the good news!) like a dark sky frames the moon and stars. This is the true state of our race – the human race. We are not striding toward some refined, enlightened utopia. The proper understanding of the normal flow of history is that we are living on borrowed time: damned, condemned, deserving of hell, and bound for its eternal death, by way of the just judgment of a righteous Judge.
When we are wronged, or when we see injustice around us, our own hearts cry out for someone who will divide truthfully between right and wrong – even as we cringe at being subject to that righteous judgment ourselves. We know we don’t measure up to God’s requirements. We can’t even live up to our own behavioral standards, so it’s clear that we can’t meet the standards of a holy God. We want righteous judgment, but we fear it, too. In our most honest moments, we know that in ourselves we are utterly doomed, right along with every other human being throughout all history.
So we shudder – then quickly distract ourselves with happier thoughts. Please don’t be distracted here, though. Be bold enough to meditate on the depths of our predicament.
If we are truly deserving of eternal damnation, then we should see judgment as the expected outcome. But this mindset is rare, even among Christians. We tell ourselves that perhaps God sees us as weak and is willing to just overlook sin, willing to sort of just let it slide. Our culture desperately wants to believe that God is “cool” like this; that He is all-loving and infinitely accepting of our “inadequacies” and perfectly understanding of our “mistakes.”
This interpretation of “unconditional love” is broadly held to be the highest of ideals. Except when we ourselves have been wronged, with no earthly recourse. Then we find ourselves wanting just judgment. We find that we want damnation for others’ sins, but amnesty from our own sins. In short, we want preferential treatment, which is incompatible with justice.
And in our quest for God’s preferential treatment, we find the rock-bottom depth of our sin – selfishness. Which sums up the problem in a nutshell: each sinful human being is a tiny fragment of a specially created population that was designed by God for His own satisfaction and joy, but each sinful human being seeks his or her own good without real concern for the purposes for which he or she was created. The creature rises up against the Creator – this cannot possibly end well!
The day after our recent election, in President Obama’s call for acceptance of the outcome, he said “The sun will rise in the morning.” He meant to reassure us by pointing to one of the most certain things in life.
In fact, if we seriously consider the continued rebellion of the human race against a holy and just God, we know that each new day is ridiculously unwarranted. There is no good reason for God Almighty to allow the rebellion to continue even one more day. And there is every reason for the Creator to bring a quick and ugly end to it.
But through the centuries, God has permitted the perpetuation of our pretense, in the interest of bringing glory to His Name by calling rebels to Himself, miraculously transforming their hearts, and re-making them as His cherished children. Truly amazing grace!
If the sun comes up tomorrow, be very sure that this is the sole reason: that the Name of the Savior should be glorified in the building of His Church until the end finally does arrive and the redeemed are gathered into the King’s Kingdom to live forever with Him.
And the end will come. Just looking at the rebellion of which we were once members, we know God cannot justly permit it to go on forever. Humanity is doomed and headed for the destruction that we so amply deserve. Remember, the core sin of our rebellion is selfishness, but this self-orientation is just the flip side of godlessness. The mere willingness to live out our days with disregard for our Creator lies at the root of all other sins. The days of such prideful disregard are numbered, and the penalty for its practitioners is certain.
But in my life, and a host of others, God interfered! Most Christians can tell you in general how God interfered, taking the penalty for our sins on the cross, and a few can tell you in greater detail how that deliverance was effected on our behalf. But here, in this post, my focus is on the depth of the fall that left us in need of salvation. Without a firm grasp on how utterly unqualified we are for one more breath, much less eternal life, we will not appreciate the nature of the salvation that makes us children of God.
The Christian knows that God will at last deal with the very presence of sin. That we redeemed sinners should survive sin’s final eradication is the most remarkable thing in all creation. This is the stunning salvation of the Savior, Jesus Christ! How unthinkable that we who were such resolute enemies of God should be drawn out of humanity’s rushing river of pride and deceit and brought into God’s household as His beloved children!