by Patrick Lafferty
I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
If he’d said it only once we might be inclined to give it only passing attention. That Paul conveys the notion on several occasions in many of his epistles forces us to give it greater scrutiny. To the churches in Galatia, Corinth (1 Cor 6:9), and Ephesus (5:5), the apostle makes the sobering comment that those who engage in what he calls the “desires of the flesh” shall have no part in what God is doing in this world to reclaim it for Himself. Not now and not ever. It’s a promise echoed by the author of Hebrews (12:14) and John in his Revelation to the seven churches in Asia (e.g. 21:8). Jesus, Himself, warns similarly that those whose lives are marked by an absence of the character of God can expect nothing but exclusion by God (e.g. Matt 25:41–46). Hebrews 10:31 perhaps summarizes these collective warnings well: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.”
The unambiguousness of the warnings unsettle, but they may also provoke some just as fearful questions. Much of what Paul condemns ends up on many people’s bucket list these days; the prohibitions, rather than restrain, actually incite indulgence (Romans 7:8). But what of the Christian who upon self-examination finds evidence of enmity, strife, and jealousy within himself? Drunkenness, sorcery, or orgies may not be his struggle. But what if fits of anger and envy pockmark his soul? What do the portentous comments of the New Testament bode for him?
More importantly, how do these warnings square with the other momentous promises of God—in particular, those that speak of an inexhaustible grace that will forgive and cleanse those who confess and repent? If our very salvation is bound up with an eternal decree of God (Eph 1:4); and was predestined prior to our ever making an overture to God (Eph 1:5; 1 Jn 4:10); and nothing can snatch us out of His hand (Jn 10:29)—then why proclaim such dire admonitions if the basis of His favor lies in His, not our, will?
Permit me a crude analogy that may explain. If you’ve ever driven a mountain highway with its rises and falls connected by what seems like an endless set of switchbacks you may have noticed the guardrails on the outer lane. Both common sense and the presence of the guardrails confirm one clear truth: venture beyond their limits and you will almost certainly taste death. (The fall isn’t the problem, but the sudden deceleration).
Barring absolute negligence, the guardrails will be what keeps you safely on the road throughout the journey. But even with the guardrails’ restraining influence, the very sight of of the peril beyond them is its own deterrent from testing the limits of safety. The rails are necessary for our safety but our sense of what they keep us from adds to their efficacy.
So how does that image explain the purpose of God’s portentous warnings to the one predestined to obtain the inheritance (Eph 1:11; Heb 1:14, 10:14)? Though His grace places rails upon our path that ultimately keep us from destruction, His word gives us a view of the destruction “beyond the rails,” which His Spirit then persuades our souls of. And it’s that Spirit-led awareness of what destruction is like that adds a deterrent to our denying Him. The mere thought of life off His path is one means by which He keeps us persevering within His grace and purpose. That His grace will forgive and cleanse does not make His warnings empty threats. Rather they serve as what leads us to the repentance that ensures our finishing well.
His Spirit makes us sing at the goodness of God, but He also makes us shudder at the thought of offending Him. How could we be convinced of the love of God if He did not convict us of our propensity to violate His love?
So what if, in your request for God to search you and try you (Ps 139:23), He reveals the seeds, if not the bloom, of what the New Testament says excludes from His kingdom? At the risk of oversimplifying repentance, it begins with acknowledging the sin—calling it what it is and taking ownership of the choice, notwithstanding the potential host of circumstantial or historical reasons that might’ve helped prompt the sin. But then, an odd sort of accompanying response: give thanks. Give thanks for how the conviction of your sin is an evidence of His love. It is no hyperbole of God to warn of the judgment for those who sin with impunity. But the Spirit of God ensures our entering into the inheritance of God by impressing His warnings heavily upon our souls. It is sometimes an unpleasant disciplining but only more testimony to the love that sent the Son (Heb 12:5–6).
Repentance elicited by the warnings may often be a slow, arduous task, involving more—perhaps far more—than what’s outlined here; but it will never involve less.
So hear the warnings. Invite an inspection of your heart. Confess what is contrary to His heart and kingdom. Give thanks for the kindness that both prompts repentance and will sustain you in working through the godly grief of repentance (2 Cor 7:9).
And then drive on.