This week began with a very interesting conversation. I was discussing the topic of sin with some people and the question was asked, "what if someone has lived their whole life rejecting God and then at the last minute before death has a change of heart? Do they go to heaven?" The answer was yes. The question was asked again, this time with a name attached to it. "what if Adolf Hitler repented and received Jesus as his savior moments before his death? Would he go to heaven?" Again, the answer was yes. This offends people. The idea that someone as evil as Hitler could receive forgiveness and actually be in heaven is appalling to most. How could God ever allow someone so loathsome to enter his presence? There is a notion that because forgiveness is possible it means that we can live our lives however we please and then say a quick prayer of apology at the end of our days and be forgiven. This "last minute" prayer of repentance seems unfair. Someone lives their whole life far from God and still gets the blessing of eternal life?
In our humanness we look at sin on a scale. For example if sin were on a scale of 1 to 100 we would put Hitler at 100, the worst of the worst. Then perhaps a petty thief would be closer to 50. A chronic liar might only be a 35 and then the average sinner falls somewhere between 1 and 30. Not too bad - certainly nowhere near Hitler levels. So when it comes to salvation, it makes sense to us that a person from around level 70 on down could possibly be saved by God and go to heaven. But there is this threshold beyond which some people just will not go. That somehow God's grace is enough for the average sinner but the level 100 sinners are too far gone.
The idea that history's most vile individuals could be saved shocks us. How could God allow such a thing? We have been taught to put sin on a scale. We break down individual acts of sin and rate them, like our scale of 1 to 100. Genocide = 100, a white lie = 10. When we do this we miss an important fact about sin. When Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, it's not talking about individual acts of sin. The verse shouldn't be read as, "all people have performed individual acts of rebellion against God and are therefore far from God." What the Scripture is saying is that we all possess a sin nature - a nature that is prone to all kinds of evil, regardless of its scope and scale. What one person does out of their sinful nature may differ in impact from another person but the place it derives from is the same. Romans 3:10 says there is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who seeks after God or does good. Again, Scripture is not saying that no one is capable of doing a good deed. God is making the point that on our own, we are incapable of being righteous, that our default mode is sin and rebellion. How that rebellion expresses itself is irrelevant.
Jesus was crucified between two thieves, both mocking him. But at the end, one thief told Jesus he believed. And Jesus said, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Why didn't Jesus say, "c'mon man! Really? You've lived your whole life rejecting God and NOW you're trying to sneak in? No way. You missed it pal. Too late for you!" He didn't say that because Jesus wasn't looking at his past. He was looking at the man's heart, something none of us can see. And that is the scandal of grace.
What we could never, ever forgive, Jesus covers with his blood, no matter how heinous, no matter how appalling. He died for every sin. If we would deny someone forgiveness because of what they have done, how could we expect to be forgiven for what we've done? How do we know that our sin and rebellion before God is any better or any worse than someone else's? When Jesus went to the cross he knew it was for everyone. Not just the seemingly deserving or the lesser sinners among us, He died for the sin of mankind, both the individual acts of sin and the curse of sin that afflicts us all.
Grace is so beautiful and at the same time so offensive. How could God love sinners and die for them? The wonderful thing is that we don't have to try to explain it or even understand it. God asks only that we receive it. Have you received God's grace?