For two thousand years, the story of the vineyard workers in the Gospel of Matthew has confronted its hearers with an implicit question: Is God fair in the way we expect him to be?
The parable (Matthew 20:1-15 NKJV) tells of a landowner who hires laborers and sends them into his vineyard. He gathers men all day until “the eleventh hour” (v. 6), when he discovers a group of idlers and commands them to work for him with the promise that “whatever is right you will receive” (v. 7). At sunset the laborers come to get their wages. The “eleventh hour” group receives one denarius, a Roman silver coin worth about fifteen cents, the typical pay for one day’s work. The first hour’s group expects a greater reward, but they are given the same. When they complain to the owner about this inequity, he dismisses their demands. “Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as you” (v. 14).
Clearly Jesus was not teaching an economics course on how businesses should salary their employees. He used the story to attack a lie many of us believe without realizing it: we think the nature of our choices and actions is what makes God’s love for us possible.
How often have you viewed a bad day—inconvenient weather, unproductive work, illness or exhaustion, arguments, moral regrets—to be a manifestation of God’s retribution for your wrongdoing? God loved me less today, we tell ourselves, usually unconsciously. I’ve got to do better. The opposite applies, too. When we work “in the heat of the day” (v. 12), when we feel proud about a commendable choice, we’re more willing to feel God’s love for us. I really earned it today, we think. I can feel good. Everything’s okay with me and God.
When we follow this attitude, we submit to legalism—the ledger balancing the accounts of our right and wrong actions to see what we’re worth to God. We deceive ourselves and deny the contentment that grace can bring us. “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins…who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3 NIV). No human alive could ever claim God owed him a blessing. Likewise, it’s impossible to argue with God’s right to give us more than we’ve earned.
So don’t yield to the superstitious ups and downs of legalism. Forget about complaining that “these last men have worked only one hour” (Mt. 20:12 NKJV) when you think you deserve better. Refuse to feel suspicious when God opens “the windows of heaven” (Malachi 3:10) and gives you far more than you could ever hope to repay. He allows the hard days for his purposes. He gives us free gifts to remind us he’s good. He’s not just impartial; he’s radically fair. No matter our inadequacies or how persistently we do good things, our outcome still hinges on our answer to his most important question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15)
In 2011, Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, resigned from his post. The reason for his leaving was not the usual adulterous affair or crass political endorsement, but a book Bell wrote, entitled Love Wins, in which he advocates for uncertainty about the existence of hell and chides Christians for their emphasis on it. Though he embraced no particular view on the matter, Bell’s openness to universalism—the belief that all people will eventually be saved in the afterlife and go to heaven—made him a pariah in the evangelical community.
No matter your church, hell is not fun to talk about. Jesus speaks of it as “fire” (Mt. 18:9 NKJV). Revelation calls it “the second death” (21:8). 2 Peter 2:17 and Jude 1:13 both describe hell as “blackness.” Scholars generally accept that these are metaphors for the disintegration (fire) and blindness (darkness) of the soul in hell. Perhaps all we know of hell, or need to know, is that it is a state of separation from God. But does it last forever?
The Bible is adamant that Christ is the only means of grace and reconciliation to God. “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father,” 1 John 2:23 states. “Nor is there salvation in any other name,” Peter preaches in Acts 4:12, “for there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.” Some universalists, surprisingly, agree to this, but argue that the Gospel will be preached to the lost after death until all of them are converted to faith in Jesus. Eternal loss, they believe, does not fit with a loving God.
I agree with them that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But I think their view misunderstands love.
Love is a mutual bond of self-giving and fidelity between two personalities who must be absolutely free not to love each other. If one person is not free to refuse the bond of love, then the bond is illegitimate, a kind of slavery. I think everybody instinctively knows that love coerced is not really love.
The British theologian John Hick, a supporter of universalism, wrote that no one in the afterlife would resist the Gospel once they discovered their error. After all, who would choose to continue in hell instead of seizing their ticket to heaven? I would challenge Hick’s entire premise here—there are probably souls who are spiritually obstinate enough to remain on the outskirts of paradise and blame God for their errors, as in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—but let’s assume that Hick is right and every lost soul comes to God, tail between its legs. Would their salvation be from a true love of God, or would it result, as Hick implies, from a desire to escape hell? Real love cannot be coerced.
The only time when we can receive a relationship with God is now, in our present life, when we have total freedom to resist God’s offer. God does love all of us, and desires all of us to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but love is not fulfilled if its object refuses it. This is as true of a rejected marriage proposal as it is with God. And he knows love enough to know the choice rests with us.
I don’t pretend to be unaware that this is difficult for people. Everybody has a felon cousin or an alcoholic uncle or a shoplifting neighbor whose soul they might fear for. But our emotions can entangle us into a wrong view of God and an unworthy idea of what love means. In John 4:34-36, no one less than Jesus reminds us that the harvest is now, not months and years from now. Any belief that would lessen the urgency of his Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) is an insult to his Gospel.
On November 23, I joined a new family—the body of Christ. For two years, God had pressed me to seek membership in a church, and after settling into a congregation this summer, I felt compelled to fulfill the public witness of salvation that Jesus modeled at the beginning of His ministry (Mark 1:9-11 NKJV). But like a groom in the weeks leading up to his nervous moment of committal, I questioned exactly what the meaning of this ritual was. Can water save you?
My church, as part of the Southern Baptist convention, teaches that baptism and the other biblical sacrament, communion, do not have a salvific purpose that results in someone going to heaven. Despite assurances about baptism being the aftermath of grace, not a channel for it, I still felt a twinge of guilt as the day neared. If I was going to make this commitment public, I would have to clean up my thought-life. As in: Stop cursing when you bump your head getting out of the car. Or: Help me to stop complaining, God. A week from now, I’m getting dunked, and I can’t live or think this way after that. Or: Only a few more days and then I have to be really serious about my faith.
This pattern only worsened when the baptism was delayed a week. The baptismal was discovered to be leaking, and needed repairs. “Satan is afoot!” I texted to the minister who was going to baptize me.
The devil, though, isn’t worried about thwarting people; he has a good track record in doing that. His mission is to defeat God’s purpose by anchoring worry or doubt to a believer’s relationship with God, tempting them to indulge uncertainty—like the kind that used to arise when I read John 3:5. In this passage, Jesus says that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” I used to think that this meant baptism in water was necessary to a person’s salvation, until a theology teacher told me that the “water” mentioned here means physical birth, leaving the womb and meeting the doctor’s waiting grasp. We are, in other words, subject to two births, one from physical darkness into the light of the world and one from spiritual darkness into the light of God. This teaching is corroborated by other texts saying that Jesus is one who baptizes with “fire” (Matthew 3:11) and with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).
By baptism day, the truth had helped to clear this pattern of guilt from my mind. The work of baptism is not to bathe the soul in salvation, but to celebrate what God has already accomplished in someone’s life, to challenge the world to recognize His offer. So when my head, with its load of imperfect thoughts and car-roof bruises, dipped below the warm water, I knew that this day was not mine, but His. There is no better grace than a realization like that.
“I pay my taxes like everybody should…”
“Just because I’m not perfect…”
“Well, I didn’t mean to shoot him…”
Maybe you have defended or justified yourself with one of the above lines. I have to hope you didn’t use the third one (I’m talking to YOU, Dick Cheney). It is comforting to externalize evil, to believe it an out-there force embodied in terrorists and abusive parents, while our families and friends are flawed but basically good people.
That belief is wrong.
There are no good people. Truly. And I’m not speaking on my own authority here.
In June, I wrote on five kinds of preachers who don’t bring love and truth to a church, whether by incessant talk of damnation, political pandering, soft commitment to Scripture’s teachings, or preoccupation with family anecdotes. Now I want to share three ways that one Baptist church I met had a tangible difference in its message and culture.
1) The church believes missions should happen everywhere. The pastor encourages missionaries to travel to Africa, to Haiti, to Native American reservations. But he declares it no less honorable to evangelize Philadelphia, or Cincinnati (ten minutes away from us), or down the block at a liquor store, or on your neighbor’s porch. Churches often fail to reach people on their doorsteps because the Gospel seems more available to Americans. But Christians are to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19 NIV), and that includes college students, sales clerks, and newspaper boys in our hometown as much as it does tribesmen in distant wilds.
Has the place and time of your salvation ever seemed important to you? I once heard a preacher say that a person isn’t truly saved if she can’t recall the moment it happened. Really, though, would God make your eternity depend on your memory?
I admit a special irritation with pastors who question the authenticity of their worshippers’ relationship with God. I even stopped going to a church where a preacher said that if someone doesn’t feel an urge to get baptized, then maybe he isn’t really saved. The danger of thinking this way is that it leads us to look for emotional signposts of someone’s Christianity, like weeping during service or saying Amen forcefully. But God does his real work in the interior, in the deep catacombs where we deceive ourselves of our sufficiency.
With that acknowledged, though, I will tell you of the moment God saved me.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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