Jesus once told a parable about servants getting beaten up and cut to pieces by their master. It sounds like a sadistic version of Downtown Abbey. And it’s a story that fills many Christians with terror:
That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47-48)
What are we to make of Jesus’ words? They seem so inconsistent with the grace and unconditional forgiveness that he demonstrated on the cross. I guess what we need is balance. We need to remember that Jesus frequently beat his lazy disciples, sometimes with many blows, and sometimes with a few. We also need to remember that God scourges his children and his whippings are a sign that he loves us.
Of course this is not true! Jesus did no such thing and your Father doesn’t scourge you!
But according to the nose-punching preacher, he might, so you’d better get busy. You’d better pick up the pace, you lazy Christian, and starting producing his fruit. Because one day the master will return, line up his servants, and beat them according to their faithfulness.
I’m being facetious so that you might see how ridiculous this picture of Jesus is. Yet it is a picture that is regularly preached. We are told that God judges us and there are degrees to his judgment. Those who sin ignorantly get lesser punishment while those who sin willfully get a greater punishment:
If you lose your job it’s because you sinned. And if you lose your child then you must’ve sinned big. You need to repent!
This is a most wicked message yet I hear these sorts of stories all the time. When a natural disaster strikes or there is a shoot-up at the local school, and you can bet your house that some self-appointed prophet will say God is judging the church/city/nation for its sin.
Law = degrees of judgment
“But doesn’t the Bible indicate degrees of punishment?” Indeed, it does – in the law.
Under the law-keeping covenant, different penalties were applied for different sins (see Lev. 4-6). Unintentional sins required a sacrifice; intentional sins required a sacrifice plus restitution; and really big sins like murder demanded death. Seems fair, doesn’t it? Small sin = small punishment; big sin = big punishment.
But there’s a problem. In God’s eyes, sin is sin. Since any sin is enough to mar the sublime perfection of his holiness, the smallest sin is enough to disqualify you from his holy presence. As a friend of mine describes it, the law is like a plate-glass window that you can just as easily break with a piano as with a BB-gun pellet. Sin big or sin small and you’re a law-breaker either way.
Read the old covenant and you will find chapter after chapter prescribing different remedies for sin. But read the new and you will only find this:
He sacrificed himself once and for all, summing up all the other sacrifices in this sacrifice of himself, the final solution of sin. (Heb 9:26b, MSG)
Under law, there are many sacrifices for sin, but under grace there is only one: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Christ’s sacrificial death is the once and final solution for all your sin – past, present, and future.
Grace = no degrees of judgment
I am not saying there are no consequences to sin. Sin is destructive. Sin hurts people. I am saying that under grace it is meaningless to talk about degrees of judgment. Either Jesus paid the penalty in full or he didn’t. There’s no in-between.
It’s important that you see the difference between law and grace. Under law, you have to work down your sin debt and the bigger the debt the more you must work. But under grace, Jesus has cancelled the debt and you don’t have to work because he already did.
So all this talk about degrees of judgment and greater condemnation for certain types of sin seems rather pointless.
No zombies in the House of Grace
“Paul, you have referred to the old covenant law. But what about that New Testament verse where James says teachers will be judged more strictly (Jas 3:1)?” Do you really think Jesus is going to line up all the teachers on Judgment Day and beat some of them? As I have explained elsewhere, that’s not what James was saying at all.
In the final analysis, there are no degrees of judgment. You’re either in or out, dead or alive, a sheep or a goat. There are no half-goats or half-sheep or zombies in the kingdom of God.
So what does Jesus mean when he says, “the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows”? Does he mean that some of the sheep are going to be taken aside and given a quick beating before being admitted into heaven? Does he mean some of the goats will be given fire extinguishers for their trip to hell?
Okay, I’m being facetious again. But I can’t help it because I have heard all sorts of silly sermons about proportional punishments and greater judgments. I’ve heard smart people say dumb things like, “God judges us according to our knowledge of sin.” No he doesn’t. That’s the old covenant. In the new God does not judge us according to sin at all, but according to Jesus.
The fact that we are even having this conversation shows us how sin-focused we have become. We need to renew our minds, stop dwelling on our badness and our remedial works, and focus on Christ’s goodness and his finished work.
Brennan Manning used to say:
I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you?”
The ultimate question we must ask ourselves is not Have I done good or bad? or Have I balanced my bad deeds with good deeds? The ultimate question we must ask is, What have I done with Jesus?
It’s how we answer this question that leads to the different responses Jesus describes in the story of the beaten servants.
I will look at those responses in my next article.