[A person I have been corresponding with recently sent this question, along with a reply received from a newsgroup discussion.]
Q – Does not being saved mean you are damned to hell? Or does it have a different meaning? Below is what I’m talking about here. Please let me know if this is sound teaching.
I wonder if you are equating the opposite of “saved” to “damned.” I can then understand why you indicate that if God did not choose to save you, then it seems unfair. The thinking is that if God did not choose you, then he rejected you. That is, if you are not saved, then you are damned.
However, the opposite of “saved” is simply “NOT saved”. (Those who are saved are saved from the final judgment.) Those who are “not saved” will be judged (Acts 17:30-31). God will separate (judge) the sheep from the goats at the final judgment.
Notice the three groups Jesus describes in Matthew 25. There are the sheep, the goats, and his brethren. He indicates to both the sheep and goats that their fate depended on how they treated even the least of his brethren. His brethren are not considered a part of either group.
Many of the “not saved” (those who are not Jesus’ brethren) who have shown love to Jesus’ brethren will be judged to inherit eternal life. Those who reject God or are too self-centered (without love) will be judged to receive their eternal punishment.
Romans 2 indicates that those who live under the “law” will be judged by the law; those who are without the “law” will be judged without the “law.” To me, this explains how everyone who lived without knowing or accepting Jesus will be judged: fairly and with equity.
To me, this make a lot of sense; at least a lot more sense than believing that a person is either saved or damned.
Jim – The first reason I cannot agree that this is “sound teaching” is because it assumes things from the text of the Bible that the original authors never state. When developing our theology, we must be careful to “exegete” the text of Scripture. What that means is, we must be careful to limit ourselves to what the Bible actually says without importing ideas into the text that are not there in the first place. The practice of importing our ideas, creations, or presuppositions into the text is called “eisegesis.” That’s the opposite of “exegesis.”
Exegesis means “laying open” or “exposing” the meaning of a text, effectively pulling the meaning out of a text. Eisegesis means “importing” ideas or creating concepts that are not inherent or intrinsic in the words on the page. R.S. explanation is classic eisegesis and is therefore “unsound.” Let’s take it line-by- line.
R.S. wrote – I wonder if you are equating the opposite of “saved” to “damned.”
Jim – This is what happens when words lose their meaning; or should I say when their meaning becomes obscured by tradition. What does it mean to be “saved”? In common, everyday parlance, it’s an easy word to understand. It is only when the Bible uses the word that people become uncomfortable and want to change its meaning.
The Biblical description of mankind is that we are all sinful, rebellious by nature, prone to chase after our own desires and spiritually “dead in trespasses in sins.” That being the case, only those who are the recipients of God’s positive work on their behalf have any hope of standing in His presence un-condemned. Since it is God that does the activity of redeeming people, those people are referred to as “saved.” Importantly, they did not save themselves. They were saved by a force larger than themselves. They are the recipients of God’s gracious work.
Now, if all of that is true, then those who are not the direct objects of God’s gracious activity of salvation can have only one alternative outcome: they will fall under His judgment. The Bible never posits a third position. Either you are saved by God’s grace or you will fall under God’s judgment. But, people simply are not comfortable (due to our fallen, sinful nature that is all-too-quick to justify itself) with the concept of an absolutely sovereign God who is the deciding factor in every man’s eternity. So, when the Bible makes didactic statements about God’s right and authority to rule, we must take one of two paths: (1) Read the Bible for what is actually says and align our theology accordingly. Or, (2) attempt to twist the words of Scripture in order to make them say things that are more appealing to our sensibilities.
In this case, R.S. seems uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus could divide humanity into two camps, sheep and goats, and judge them accordingly. He wants to introduce a third category that is not found in the text, but which appeals to his human logic. That’s not playing fair with Scripture and it is certainly no way to develop a proper theology.
R.S. wrote – I can then understand why you indicate that if God did not choose to save you, then it seems unfair. The thinking is that if God did not choose you, then he rejected you. That is, if you are not saved, then you are damned.
Jim – The question of fairness is one that comes up repeatedly in this sort of discussion. But, it is predicated on the notion that all people deserve salvation and that it would be either unjust or unfair of God not to save everyone equally – or at least give everyone an equal chance to be saved. But, the Bible never teaches such ideas. Rather, what we find in the Bible is that everyone is sinful and deserving of God’s wrath. That’s our nature.
Read how the Apostle Paul describes our natural state:
“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” (Eph. 2:1-3)
It can be difficult to turn off our preconceptions and read what Paul actually wrote here, but look at the description he gives. Christ made us alive because we were dead in our sins. We walked (prior to our conversion) after the course of this world, following Satan himself. Those who are not converted are referred to as “the sons of disobedience” and they continue to walk after the power of Satan. We who have been converted also walked that way originally, following the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling our desires and were “by nature children of wrath,” just as the others are.
Don’t miss that. The natural state of human beings, according to the Apostle Paul (not based on any personal opinions or human conjecture) is “children of wrath.” He did not say that we were neutral, or fine, or doing the best we could. The natural state of humans is that they reside under the wrath of God. That is why it is so vitally necessary that God do something positive on our behalf. We are simply incapable, after our natural flesh, of seeking, pleasing, choosing, or in any way obligating God. Left to ourselves, we would get exactly what we deserve — His wrath.
So, what would be “fair” under those circumstances? Well, it would be fair for God to send everyone to Hell forever. That’s what “fairness” would require. But, you don’t want fairness!
The last thing you want is for God to act fairly! You want God to be gracious. You want God to act mercifully. You want God to give you what you do not and cannot deserve — Heaven forever.
The question of fairness misses the point. God is completely just and fair whenever He condemns a person and sends them eternally out of His presence. There is absolutely nothing unfair about God’s judgment. He is merely giving people what they completely deserve. But, by His grace He does not condemn everyone. Paul continued, after what we read above:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:4-10)
In other words, when a person is saved, God gets all the credit, because it is all His doing. But, when a person is condemned, the person is merely getting what they justly deserve. Notice also, for sake of this discussion, that Paul divides all of humanity into two camps: “sons of disobedience” or “His workmanship.” Even though all of mankind starts out on an equal footing – all enemies of God deserving His wrath – God’s makes a division between those who are “saved” and those who remain in their rebellion. So far, there is no third option.
Also, on a strictly doctrinal note: whatever God does in axiomatically fair by the very fact that is a holy, righteous God who is doing it. It is impossible to hold God accountable to human concepts of fairness.
To make the point more exact: the Apostle Paul assumed that his readers, those who followed his theological line of reasoning, would reach the point where they would ask how it was fair of God to condemn certain people if everyone only did what God ordained they would do. Paul understood that people would think his doctrine was intrinsically unfair. And, by the way, if you have never reached the point where you asked that question, then you have never really understood the weight of Paul’s argument.
Here’s how he approached the question:
“So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?'” (Rom. 9:18-20)
So, Paul understood the very dilemma you are wrestling with right now. He knew that people would think that it was unfair of God to choose some and leave the rest to await their final judgment. That seems especially unfair if everyone has only done what God decided they would do and no one has successfully resisted His will. So, how did Paul reply? Did he explain it away in human terms or offer a more palatable suggestion? Nope. He resorted to God’s sovereignty:
“On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” (Rom. 9:20-25)
Here again we find an example of Paul dividing all mankind in two groups: common vessels and vessels of honor. Then he called them “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” and “vessels of mercy.” And, what makes them different? The vessels of mercy were prepared beforehand for glory (as in: chosen before the foundation of the world) and called by God for that purpose. The other group (the un-called and un-chosen) await the destruction they were “prepared” for. Those are the only two groups known in Pauline theology.
So then it is important to ask; did Jesus see mankind as only two groups? And can we prove it from Scripture? Well, the answer is yes and the evidence in unequivocal.
People love to quote John 3:16 as if the whole of the Bible is wrapped up in that one verse. But, they are slow to continue to John 3:18 and read the whole passage in its context. Here’s what Jesus said:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)
The phrase “whosover believes” is the Greek phrase “pas ho pisteuoon.” Literally, it means “all the believing.” That’s one group: all those who believe. Those people will never perish, but have (present tense) everlasting life. On the other hand, in verse 18 we meet a second group: he who does not believe. What is their state? They are “condemned already.” They stand in a state of condemnation, even as they walk and talk, awaiting their death and ultimate judgment. Notice the contrast between those who believe and have eternal life and those who do not believe and are “condemned already.”
So again, the Bible only speaks of humanity in two groups: the believing and the unbelieving. There is no third group of people who get a second chance at the judgment seat of Christ.
Moving on …
R.S. wrote – However, the opposite of “saved” is simply “NOT saved”. (Those who are saved are saved from the final judgment.) Those who are “not saved” will be judged (Acts 17:30-31). God will separate (judge) the sheep from the goats at the final judgment. Notice the three groups Jesus describes in Matthew 25. There are the sheep, the goats, and his brethren. He indicates to both the sheep and goats that their fate depended on how they treated even the least of his brethren.
His brethren are not considered a part of either group.
Jim – This is the sort of fanciful thinking that comes about as a result of not looking at the text directly. And honestly, a certain amount of confusion comes from looking at ancient passages through 21st Century eyes, without understanding their historic context. Anyway, here’s the passage:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)
Contextually, this passage comes right on the heels of three parables:
Matthew 24:45-51 tell of the faithful servant and the evil servant — two groups. The faithful becomes ruler over his master’s goods and the evil is sent to the place of weeping and teeth-gnashing.
Then Matthew 25:1-13 tells of the wise and foolish virgins — two groups. The wise are called to the marriage supper while the foolish were left outside the door with the bridegroom saying “I don’t know you.”
Then Matthew 25:14-30 tells the parable of the talents — two groups: those who increased what their Lord gave them and heard “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and the one who did nothing but bury what belonged to His Lord and was “cast into outer darkness.”
In each of these parables there was blessing for the faithful, resulting in eternal life, and cursing and judgment for the unfaithful. Jesus always spoke in terms of two groups.
Then we come across the picture of judgment and the separating of the sheep and goats. The goats are on His left hand and the sheep are on His right (a place of honor). But, in the course of blessing the right-hand group and judging the left-hand group, Jesus speaks of “my brethren.” R.S. would have us believe that this constitutes a third group.
Then, in a leap of utter conjecture and bold eisegesis, R.S. concludes that “my brethren” constitutes “the saved.” Hence, both the sheep and goats are the “unsaved.” Of course, this flies directly in the face of Jesus’ own words of blessing and commendation to the sheep. Then, according to this theory, some of the “unsaved” will receive blessing from God depending on how they treated “my brethren” – the saved. I gather that R.S. assumes “the saved” to constitute the church and that the rest of the world will be judged according to how they treated the church. But, that’s just a guess on my part.
R.S. continues – Many of the “not saved” (those who are not Jesus’ brethren) who have shown
love to Jesus’ brethren will be judged to inherit eternal life. Those who reject God or are too self-centered (without love) will be judged to receive their eternal punishment.
Jim – And at this point, words become flexible and ultimately mean nothing. Now we have “the unsaved” receiving eternal life. That’s a complete contradiction in terms. Also, what we have before us is a clear statement of salvation by works. It is the complete negation of everything Paul taught about salvation by grace. R.S. posits that some of the “unsaved” will be saved on the basis of their good deeds toward “the saved.”
This just gets more convoluted as you go.
All of this can be cleared up by simply looking at the words on the page and letting Jesus define who “my brethren” are. Once we have established to whom “my brethren” refers, the rest of the problems disappear.
Jesus introduced his teaching with this statement: All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. So, the sheep and the goats are comprised of “all the nations.” Now, who stands in contrast to all the nations of the world? Well, Israel does. The Bible consistently holds Israel, God’s chosen people, as separate and distinct from all the Gentile nations. As well, Jesus was an Israelite. He was a Jew. Therefore, the most natural reading of “my brethren,” (adelphos) is to recognize it as a reference to the nation of Isreal.
Yes, the word “brethren” is later used within the Church community to refer to fellow believers. But, we must remember that at the point in time where Jesus was speaking the words found in Matthew 25, the Church did not yet exist; so that cannot be the meaning Jesus was conveying or it would have utterly confused the audience to whom He was speaking.
Look again at the language and context of this passage. It is speaking of national judgment. All the nations are gathered. And they are judged according to how they treated “my brethren,” those of the same flesh and heritage, of a common descent.
Read through that historic/grammatical lens, the difficulty becomes non-existent and we are able to read this passage in its context, continuing Jesus’ paradigm of two groups – the saved and the un-saved. I want you to see that there is a much more natural, consistent reading of the sheep/goats judgment that does no harm to the text and does not depend on importing ideas into the text that are not there in the first place.
In summary, the consistent view of Scripture is that mankind is divided into two, and only two, categories: the believing and the non-believing; the saved and the lost. To posit a third category would require more that mere conjecture concerning one passage (such as the sheep/goats judgment), but also an adequate exegetical reply to all the other passages that plainly declare only two groups.
R.S. concludes – Romans 2 indicates that those who live under the “law” will be judged by the
law; those who are without the “law” will be judged without the “law”. To me, this explains how everyone who lived without knowing or accepting Jesus will be judged: fairly and with equity. To me, this makes a lot of sense; at least a lot more sense than believing that a person is either saved or damned.
Jim – This is very confusing.
When Paul wrote: “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law” (1 Rom 2:12), he was not saying that those who did not know Jesus would be judged “fairly and with equity.” That was not his point at all. He was saying that everyone who was guilty would be judged, whether they had access to the law or not; whether they knew and understood their rebellion or not, they would nevertheless be judged. This would have been shocking to your average First Century Israelite, who thought that the fact that they had the law would guarantee their salvation, while those Gentiles who knew neither God nor His law were incapable of entering the kingdom. But, Paul leveled the playing field and said that everyone would be judged, with the law or without it. Read the rest of the passage and that becomes patently clear. Context, context, context.
Paul concludes this passage by asking: “What then? Are we (Jews) better than they (Gentiles)? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” (Rom. 3:9)
Judgment is universal. And this passage from Romans 2 does absolutely nothing to bolster R.S.’s argument. Yes, he creates a scenario that is appealing to our flesh and human reason. But, if his argument is not strictly biblical, it is of no value whatsoever.
Yours for His sake,