For years I squirmed whenever I read or heard Matthew 25:41-43:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’”I thought, I’d better get out there and start visiting prisoners or inviting hitchhikers to spend the night, or God won’t let me into heaven. I was always consumed with fear, thinking that there might be something I wasn’t doing that would keep me out of heaven. I didn’t fully understand how my relationship with God works under the New Covenant.
Ephesians 2:8, 9 spells it out: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
We can be confident in the status of our relationship with God because God’s continual acceptance of us is not based on our obedience to the Old Covenant law but upon our response to God’s grace.
With this in mind, what we have to do is go back to passages like the one in Matthew 25 and reinterpret them from our perspective as people living within the New Covenant of grace. Feeding the poor and caring for prisoners are incredibly important activities for Christians, but we do them now because of our love for God and his love for hurting people, not because we’re afraid God will send us to hell.
It’s the same way with Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. The reason we forgive people now, under the New Covenant, is because of our desire to please God and because forgiving those who hurt us is the best way to live, not because we’re afraid we’ll go to hell if we don’t.
Simply put, even though we’ll be miserable if we choose to live with the gorilla rather than forgive, we can still confidently know that we’re going to heaven.
Because our standing with God is not altered by our obedience to certain commands, including the one about forgiveness.
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