I’d like to sharpen our theological thinking a little on some doctrines having to do with our salvation. If you feel lazy in your thinking today, either get yourself in gear or come back tomorrow. In this post, I’ll take a brief look at a few verses in John 3 on the condemnation of the lost, and I’ll lead it off with a statement that will surprise many.
The reason unbelievers go to Hell is not the sins they have committed. If you believe that is the reason people go to Hell, you aren’t thinking clearly about what John 3 tells us, and you don’t have a good grasp on the nature of our pardon in Christ.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
Why is a person condemned? “Because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” What is his condemnation for which he is condemned? Because he loves “darkness rather than light” and his deeds are evil.
This passage tells us a condemned sinner receives punishment for sins committed (loving darkness, evil deeds), but the reason he receives it is because of unbelief. He is not going to Hell because of his sins, he is going there because of unbelief. The punishment he will receive is appropriate and fitting for his sins, but the reason he receives that punishment is because he has not believed in that which Christ has done for him.
The Murderer’s Sentence and Pardon
Let’s consider a murderer, convicted and sentenced. His punishment is that which the law determines is fitting for his crime.
Suppose someone visits our prisoner with an amazing message! With no hope of escape, he has no way out of his fully deserved predicament — but the Queen knows of him, and is willing to pardon him, should he make application. He could go completely free!
Our prisoner doesn’t believe it. “Maybe the messenger lied! I still hope for an appeal! I have an excuse that still might work!” Perhaps he thinks he can escape and doesn’t want to owe a debt of love to the Queen (“I want to live my life for myself!”). In any event, he doesn’t believe the message and never applies for a pardon.
The murderer will serve his sentence — but not because he is a murderer. The murder determines his penalty, but the cause of him serving that sentence is a rejected pardon.
Back to the Message of John 3
Every unbeliever is condemned already. He’s just like that murderer, condemned, no way of escape, nothing that will convince the Judge to let him off, no way out.
Just as our hypothetical murderer is condemned because he rejects the pardon, so also the unbeliever is judged because he (in unbelief) rejects God’s pardon. The murderer, judged for his murder, serves the legally fitting penalty. The unbeliever, condemned for evil deeds and his love of darkness, receives the legally fitting penalty, eternal punishment in Hell. The murderer would not be condemned at all if he received the pardon, so also the unbeliever would not be condemned at all if he received God’s pardon.
The reason, then, that an unbeliever is condemned and goes to Hell is simply this — unbelief. He is condemned for one reason, because of unbelief. It is because of his sin that he deserves Hell, but that is not the reason he goes there. He goes there because of an ignored pardon.
This helps us understand our glorious pardon in Christ. If we believe in the Pardoner and His pardon, He removes the punishment we (still) deserve. This anchors us in humility. We still deserve that penalty — we aren’t dodging it because we are righteous or because of any good in us, we’re freed from it by pardon. Faith destroys self-righteousness — our salvation is rooted in pardon.
It also helps us understand my next topic along this line. Clarity on the distinction between fitting punishment (for evil deeds and love of darkness) and the cause of punishment (unbelief) sheds light on an important doctrine related to salvation — imputation.
Great God of wonders! All Thy ways
Are matchless, Godlike and divine;
But countless acts of pard’ning grace
Beyond Thine other wonders shine.
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?
With trembling joy, in wonder lost,
We take the pardon of our God:
Given, yet purchased at greatest cost,
A pardon bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon from an offended God!
Pardon for sins of deepest dye!
Pardon bestowed through Jesus’ blood!
Pardon that brings the rebel nigh!
O may this glorious, matchless grace,
This Godlike miracle of love,
Fill the whole earth with grateful praise,
And all th’angelic choirs above.
Next post: “Imputation” — The Way it Works