I read a challenging passage of the Bible this morning—Galatians 5:19-21 on the “works of the flesh.” I usually focus on the next section—the “fruit of the Spirit” (22-23). It’s no wonder. Elsewhere St. Paul tells us that nothing but nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38). Yet in Galatians he lists several sins that will do just that: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies. While it’s relatively easy to think of God sending to hell people who practice no-kidding idolatry and orgies, some of the other sins seem a lot tamer and less severe, like envy or strife. And it's clear that not everyone who does something really, really bad goes to hell. Didn’t God call King David, an adulterer, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14)? Didn’t he choose Moses, a murder, to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt and give them his law? How can ordinary people be sent to outer darkness for doing what some of the greatest biblical heroes did? Besides, isn’t unbelief the only sin that will send a person to hell? God judges us only for what we believe, not what we do, right? Right?
Jesus explained that at the Last Judgment the kingdom-bound, righteous “sheep” will be separated from the hell-bound, sinful “goats” based upon acts of mercy they either did or did not do (Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus said it, not me. That doesn’t mean we can earn or deserve our salvation. But it does mean that the real litmus test for saving faith is not our creed but our deeds. Belief alone, without works, is not enough. Works are the biblical evidence of faith (James 2:14-26).
When a man asked Edwin Wilson, “Do you know where you’d go, if you were to die today?” he answered, “Yes, I’d go to hell.” For almost half a century, Wilson carried a heavy burden on his soul. A white Southerner, he had beaten John Lewis, a young, black freedom rider, for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room at a bus depot in Rock Hill, SC. Lewis is now U.S. Representative John Lewis, a member of Congress. Wilson confessed his sins to God, but he also needed to confess to the one he had wronged. Good Morning America brought Wilson to Washington, DC where he met with and apologized to Lewis in an emotional reunion. You can read about and watch this touching event here.
Southern Baptist hymn writer and seminary professor B.B. McKinney (1886-1952) wrote the famous hymn, “The Nail Scarred Hand.” Over and over, it repeats the words, “Place your hand in the nail scarred hand.” Wilson was finally able to place his hand in Jesus’ nail-scarred hand, because he let go of his hatred—both his hatred of blacks and of himself for what he had done to them.
Another challenging Bible passage (at least for me) is Mark 10:17-30 in which a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks a good question, What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus told him the right answer, Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. It’s not the answer I or most evangelicals would have given him, but it was nevertheless what he needed to hear. Tragically, even though Jesus gave him the right answer, the man went away sad and empty handed because he could not let go of his riches. You see, in order to reach out in faith to Jesus, we have to let go of whatever we’re holding onto—whether it’s money or racism or whatever.
What are you holding onto so tightly that you’re finding it hard to let go? You will never be able to touch God and other people until you let go of whatever it is.