Saturday, June 09, 2018

Hell and Annihilationism

The following is a response to a friend about the idea of annihilationism.

Thank you R----, I appreciate your thoughts. You argued your points very well.

I have heard many of these arguments before (not everything you raised, but I've gotten the idea). It is true that many, if not most, of the verses in the Bible about the punishment of the afterlife can be interpreted as annihilation, but they can also be interpreted as eternal conscious punishment. In the last analysis, many of the passages are ambiguous and can go either way. I think both sides should admit this.

What keeps me believing in the traditional view of hell are the following considerations:

1) Clear evidence that the Jewish people in Jesus' day believed in eternal conscious punishment, and Jesus doesn't go out of His way to correct them. They would have interpreted His words as eternal conscious punishment. To this I would again add the witness of the early church (see here).

2) Annihilation arguments tend to make the Scripture contradictory. There are statements that a thing will be forever, yet it is argued that a later verse shows this is not the case. For example, "the worm doesn't die and the fire is not quenched." You argue this is referring solely to the corpses of the ungodly. But you also believe the earth will be renewed and perfected. Are we to believe that these corpses will continue to burn forever in the new Jerusalem? I don't think anyone would say that. But then "forever" is controverted.

3) I think we can all concede that the lake of fire exists forever, and the devil, the man of sin, and the false prophet will be tormented in it forever (to this we can also add those who take the mark of the beast, Rev. 14:11). Therefore even annihilationists believe in eternal conscious punishment and have to reckon with it theologically like the rest of us. But Revelation 20 says that all the unrighteous dead are thrown into the lake of fire where these are, and the natural implication is that they will suffer the same eternal punishment there with them. It seems forced and unnatural to say that they are thrown in to join those who are there, but then are annihilated while the others are not. Why the disparity? Is one group made up of worse sinners than the other? On the contrary, I think when sin is rightly understood, it will be seen that the sin of the devil, the angels, the man of sin, and the false prophet is all of a piece with the sin of the whole world (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8, 5:19). The most natural reading of Revelation 20 is eternal conscious punishment.

4) The theological point that there is such a crime that merits the traditional punishment of hell: hatred of God (see here). There is a being in the world who is that worthy. Minimize the punishment, minimize God.

5) The personal experience of people throughout history and today. Many believers can say that God brought them to Christ by opening their eyes to the fact they were heading to hell, in the traditional sense. And such Christians find Christ and His love exceedingly precious because of it. Also, there are unbelievers who have experienced terror thinking about the wrath of God that is coming. As they should (Ps. 90:11). I believe all of this is of God. Because the wages of sin is death, when you get a sense of sin, as the old theologians used to call it, you also get a sense of dread regarding what it deserves.

In any group you will always find a variety of views, the Jews notwithstanding. You're always going to find people everywhere on the spectrum. This can be said of Evangelical Christianity... the fact that some evangelicals believe in annihilation (ex. John Stott) doesn't affect the fact that Evangelicalism as a whole does not. The Sadducees certainly represented an important 1st century Jewish group that didn't believe in an afterlife at all. But they were a tiny minority. What's important is that mainstream Judaism, as represented by the Pharisees, believed in a traditional form of hell. That was Jewish orthodoxy at the time of Jesus.

Josephus wrote this about the Pharisees:

"Now for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the contract of reason: and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do: and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years: nor are they so bold as to contradict them in any thing which they have introduced. And when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit: since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament; whereby what he wills is done; but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously. They also believe that souls have an immortal vigour in them: and that under the earth there will be rewards, or punishments; according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life: and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison; but that the former shall have power to revive and live again. On account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people: and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction. Insomuch, that the cities give great attestations to them, on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives, and their discourses also. But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this; that souls die with the bodies. Nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them. For they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent. But this doctrine is received but by a few: yet by those still of the greatest dignity. But they are able to do almost nothing of themselves. For when they become magistrates; as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be; they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees: because the multitude would not otherwise bear them." (Antiquities, Book 18.1.3-4)

This shows clearly that the Pharisees 1) were traditionalists, 2) were followed by the majority of people in Israel, 3) believed in the immortality of the soul, 4) believed in the eternal imprisonment of the wicked.

Thanks for sharing that article. Instone-Brewer's comments on Yohanan ben Zakkai confirm Josephus's account, that eternal conscious punishment was the view of the Jews in Jesus' day. He wrote, "...though before 70 CE (i.e. during Yohanan's earlier career) it [eternal conscious punishment] was an acceptable point of view that would have been regarded as traditional or already old fashioned by most hearers."

I grant that the Jewish view is not identical to the Christian view. Unlike Evangelicals, the Jews believe there are generally three categories of mankind, the good, the bad, and those in the middle. So they believed those in the middle will suffer for a time and then attain eternal life. But the bad go to hell forever, which is the traditional idea of eternal conscious punishment. The only difference is that Evangelicals don't believe there are three groups, but only two, the good and the bad. So the idea of hell is the same, but the anthropology is different. Actually, the Jewish view is very similar to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but we wouldn't say these don't believe in eternal punishment.

I would add to my above reasons that the concept of annihilation is actually a comforting doctrine for many sinners. They can snub God now and face a RIP eternity. It's a shortcut to nirvana. It's the same disturbing logic of suicide... to die and end it all is better than to continue in pain. Annihilation can thus be seen as a refuge from the wrath of God. In fact, that's the very impression I get from Isaiah 2, Luke 23 and the Book of Revelation.

"Men will go into caves of the rocks and into holes of the ground before the terror of the LORD and the splendor of His majesty, when He arises to make the earth tremble." (Is. 2:19)

"Then they will say to the mountains, "Cover us!" And to the hills, "Fall on us!"" (Hosea 10:8, Luke 23:30)

"Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (Rev. 6:15-17)

"And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them." (Rev. 9:6)

When people face the wrath of God, and see what God does to Satan, the man of sin, the false prophet, and all those who follow him, annihilation will seem like a gospel!

But there's only one gospel and one refuge from the wrath of God, that is Jesus, "who delivers us from the wrath to come." (1 Thess. 1:10)

Of course, I understand that the punishment of limited torment and then annihilation is both horrific and "eternal" ( the sense of irreversible). It's not a good thing, and people are rightly repulsed by it. My point is not that annihilation is good; it isn't. My point is that compared to the traditional view of hell (or, compared to the fate of Satan, the man of sin, the false prophet, and those that followed them) it is a dream come true. On its own, an enemy. Relative to that, it becomes a friend. and that's a biblical strike against annihilationism.

Monday, March 12, 2018

In Defense of the Doctrine of Justification Through Faith Alone

I wrote this for a group of Roman Catholics who were discussing Martin Luther and his translation of Romans 3:28.


Hello everyone,

I am a Protestant, a believer in justification through faith alone. I believe Luther and Protestants are getting unfair treatment here. Please bear with me as I seek to explain our view.

When Martin Luther added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28, he wasn’t corrupting the text, but emphasizing it. The Protestant conviction that justification is by faith alone doesn’t come from Luther inserting his own idea into the Bible, but it comes from the whole teaching of Romans 1-5 and many other places in Scripture. Luther came to this conviction regarding justification while studying Romans–when he realized that God provides the righteousness He requires of us (as Augustine taught), and that this gift of righteousness is received by faith apart from works, i.e., by faith alone.

In order to understand Luther and Protestants you must understand that to them faith and works are different principles, they aren’t just things among other things to do. Faith is a principle that is by nature different than the principle of works. Faith (pistis) means believing and trusting, while work (ergon) means expending energy to accomplish or procure results. These two principles encompass all things, and when the Bible rejects one category as the means of justification (as is explicitly done in the Book of Romans and elsewhere–works are excluded), that necessarily leaves “faith alone.” Thus faith alone is taught in Romans, and Luther simply was making explicit what is there in order to help others see. I don’t support adding additional words in your translation if your objective is to provide a word-for-word translation of the Bible, but if your translation is seeking to convey thought-for-thought–what is often called the “Dynamic Equivalent”–then doing so is more than legitimate. We have lots of paraphrase, thought-for-thought Bibles today which do the same thing.

By way of example, here’s Romans 4:4-5. Notice the two principles:

“Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned according to grace, but according to debt. But to him that worketh not, yet believeth in him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reputed to justice, according to the purpose of the grace of God.”

It’s all about the principle of the thing. If you work for X and get X on the basis of the work, X is not given to you by grace. If work must be done for justification, and having done work you receive justification, justification is not by grace (compare Romans 11:6). If work is anywhere in the condition, and that condition is met by you, the “reward” is owed to you by way of obligation, not grace. However, St. Paul states here that this is not how justification with God works at all. On the contrary, to the one who “worketh not yet believeth”–notice, faith is not a work, for we do not work but instead believe–God justifies that believer; and notice, even though that believer is “ungodly!” This, friends, is the very essence of the Protestant doctrine of justification. Even though we are sinners and are not godly, without work we believe in Christ and are justified. Apart from work. Work is not part of the condition, otherwise it wouldn’t be by grace. This, as Taylor mentioned in his video, is exciting and liberating for so many people (particularly those who feel themselves to be hopeless moral failures), and I believe God meant it to be such a glorious word of encouragement and hope for them. And as Paul says elsewhere, “saved by grace through faith… not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). A careful reading of Romans 3 confirms what I’m saying, and shows that works are not a part of the condition of justification, otherwise 1) justification wouldn’t be by grace, and 2) we would be able to boast.

Because it’s a matter of two principles, they can’t be mixed. Protestants seldom object to anyone preaching “works alone”, but they object to anyone mixing works and faith, because once you mix them the principle of works destroys the principle of grace. Thus, we are justified through faith alone, or, apart from works.

And what do we do with James? It’s true that Luther and many Protestants struggled with James, but to their credit they all in the end opted to keep James, believing the contradiction to be only apparent, not real (and indeed there is no contradiction). Their struggle with James is only due to their firm conviction that the Bible teaches we are justified by faith apart from works, as indeed we just saw that it does. In fact, whoever doesn’t at first struggle with James has probably not firmly grasped and digested the Scripture’s teaching on “faith without works”. James’s language of course leads to what seems a contradiction–let’s be fair.

But Protestants do have an answer, and have had one for a long time: it is that our faith in Christ cannot but produce works, or to put it another way, what we believe inevitably affects how we behave. I don’t think anyone will disagree with that. If you claim to believe something but your alleged faith does not produce the necessary and inevitable actions that corresponds to such a faith, then you really don’t have faith. James illustrates his doctrine so we cannot misunderstand: Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac and Rahab (the harlot) hiding the spies demonstrated that they believed God. And since they believed God they were justified. Their works still didn’t justify them, their faith did. The presence of works signaled the presence of faith, and the presence of faith justified. Luther and Protestants have never seen faith as static: “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith,” said Luther. The classic Protestant dictum is “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone”; it produces works. And of course it does: how can a person believe that God loves him so much to save him by grace as a gift through faith, and not fall in love with such a beautiful God? That is the constant witness I hear from Protestant people. The grace of God, so understood, deeply affects them.

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee."

Most importantly, however (and let this not be missed), the works that are produced do not demonstrate that the person is good and moral, but that the person believes. Rahab’s action of hiding the spies didn’t make God say, “My what a good and moral person you are, Rahab”, but “You believe in Me”, and as an ungodly sinner she was therefore justified. This, I believe, is the clear teaching of James, and the only way Paul and James are reconciled. And it reconciles them nicely. If we were instead to say that works were in fact a condition of justification, alongside faith (rather than simply the evidence of faith), then we would have an unmistakable contradiction between Paul and James. Thank God we do not!

Thank you for listening and considering my words.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Living Life According to How God Made Us To Be

This letter is in response to a question about the place of leisure in the Christian life, and how to glorify God in all that we do.

Hello A--------,

I wrestle with this very same question, and I know most Christians do as well. It can be confusing to know what it really means to glorify God in all that we do, when there are so many different ways we could conceive of that. A Muslim would think very differently about what that means than a Christian, and among Christians there are different conceptions of what this should look like. On top of that, we have our own life experiences, and we all have a sense of what is "normal" and "not normal", which differs person to person and culture to culture. It's a tricky question.

It's been helpful to me to recognize that God made humans a certain way, and part of being human includes the desire and need for recreation and leisure. That is, God didn't just create humans to do nothing except work. Nor did He create humans to do nothing but sing hymns in church, or read the Bible. He created humans to do all sorts of things--to learn, to play, to enjoy, to laugh, to experience relationships, etc. So our Christian lives need to be lived in the fullness of all that God made us to be. By enjoying every aspect of the way God made us, we can give God glory by simply giving Him thanks for the things we do and enjoy.

In other words, you can go rollerblading and give God glory simply by recognizing that God created you to enjoy rollerblading. Go rollerblading, have a wonderful time, and thank God for it. This brings God pleasure. In fact, I am sure that gives God more pleasure than if you spent all your time witnessing to the lost but without any joy. It's not that we can't witness with joy, but if all we ever did was witness to the lost, I don't think we would have joy because we would not be actually living according to how God made us. We would feel restricted, awkward and uncomfortable.

Does this mean that the apostle Paul played games? Probably he did. I don't rule it out. I'm sure he enjoyed food very much, and lived a thankful life for more than just his salvation.

The balance, of course, is that there is a mission for the church. If we spend all our time rollerblading, we will be unfaithful to God. But I also think we wouldn't be joyful rollerblading all the time either, since we weren't made to only have leisure, but were also made to work, and to fulfill the mission God has given us. So living is the art of knowing when to do this and when to do that; how much to do this and how much to do that.

Ecc 3:1 There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven--
Ecc 3:2  A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
Ecc 3:3  A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up.
Ecc 3:4  A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance.
Ecc 3:5  A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
Ecc 3:6  A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away.
Ecc 3:7  A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak.
Ecc 3:8  A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.

Life is supposed to be multifaceted and multidimensional, not flat and uniform. The trick is knowing what time it is. This changes constantly even throughout one day. It really isn't always time to witness to the lost. It isn't always time to give money to the poor. It isn't always time to play games. But all these things should have a place in our lives--since that is how God made life to be.

I'd encourage you to listen to this sermon that I preached at Christmastime a couple years ago.

Also, you should check out the book Leisure and Spirituality by Paul Heintzman, who has spent a lifetime thinking about this question.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for asking, A--------.
God bless,

Monday, August 29, 2016

Thinking About Hell

Hi L----! It's so good to hear from you.

That's a really good question. And I really appreciate your struggle. I can honestly only imagine how incredibly difficult it would be to move away from the religion you were raised in and which means so much to you and your family. That's not easy at all. There is much about Mormonism that I respect, and I hope you understand that by believing that Mormonism is a false religion I do not mean that everything it teaches is wrong. But I do think that is precisely what makes false religions like Mormonism so... treacherous. It's the mixture, and that mixture is calculated by Satan to deceive people. But when a person leaves Mormonism (or any false religion) they don't have to leave behind their beliefs and practices that are actually true and good. They need to learn how to think about those things in a new way--in accordance with reality and truth.

The question about hell is undoubtedly a hard one. Really hard. But for me what's hard about it isn't in trying to see what the Bible teaches regarding hell. What can be hard is understanding why it teaches it. Hell can seem a harsh, over-the-top punishment without the promise of rehabilitation. It can seem below the God of love to send someone there. It's hard to see how the concept of hell fits with other beautiful concepts given in Scripture. But, there it is in Scripture. If I'm to maintain with myself any intellectual integrity, I can see no other way to look at Scripture than to acknowledge the doctrine of hell. Attempts to see Scripture otherwise always seem to me to mishandle Scripture, cutting corners and evading the straightforward. I know why people do that. One way to look at it is that they are trying to be intellectually coherent regarding everything else the Scriptures teach. The Scriptures teach God is a God of love. It follows, they argue, that a God of love wouldn't send anyone to hell. Therefore it follows that the Scriptures do not teach that God sends anyone to hell. How else can we make sense of Scripture? Yet by arguing this way they must evade clear Scriptural teaching, and say: "I don't know what those Scriptures mean... or, I shall here suspend my judgment on what they mean... or perhaps they mean this far-fetched meaning... I only know they don't teach the traditional doctrine of hell." So a mystery is embraced: we understand a loving God wouldn't send someone to hell, therefore we don't really understand those verses.

I've learned that in whatever system of belief there is, one will always run up against mystery somewhere. There will always be something you don't understand, or at least have great difficulty in understanding. The question is, where do I run into it? Where do I feel comfortable running into mystery? That is, where is it most reasonable to run into mystery?

There is a different way of approaching those verses about hell. This way says: "I know the Bible clearly teaches that God is a God of love. I also know the Bible clearly teaches that God sends unbelievers to hell. I don't understand how that can be, but I trust in the greater wisdom of God who knows all things. In other words, I don't know exactly how God sending people to hell fits with His love, but I do know the Scriptures teach both things, therefore I know the answer cannot be that He doesn't send people to hell." Like the other approach, this approach also acknowledges mystery, but the mystery is not located in the Scriptures. The Scriptures are clear. The mystery is located in the divine nature, in the nature of love and in the nature of sending someone to hell. Which is right? To find the mystery/difficulty in God and in the nature of how love works, or to find the mystery/difficulty in Scripture?

I believe the right thing to do is to accept that the mystery/difficulty is in God and in the nature of love, rather than in the Scriptures. The Scriptures were given to humans by God, in human language, in order to teach and instruct. God hasn't communicated to us in a way that is impossible, or is even that difficult to decipher.  The words and manner of speech in the Bible are decipherable, and are intended by God to be believed. It is much more credible to locate the mystery in the nature of God and in love and to confess that our human understanding of these things fall short. It seems right to me (doesn't it seem to you?) to accept whatever God has revealed plainly, even if it is hard to understand, and to submit our finite human wisdom to God's infinite wisdom, rather than to say that what God has plainly revealed is undecipherable because it isn't easily understandable to human finite minds.

Now I'm not saying that there is no way for us to understand these things. I'm only recognizing that they are difficult to understand. This difficultly arises because we don't think like God does. We humans tend to think very differently than God about God, ourselves, the nature of sin, the nature of justice, concepts of love, questions of value, chief ends, good and evil, and so forth. I think if we are honest, we humans are terrible judges of sin. We do not see sin the way God does. We downplay it, or are numb to it, or are enraged about its presence in others but not its presence in ourselves, or are selectively enraged, or are partial to people we like, or all of the above. Likewise we humans are terrible worshipers of God. We are idolaters, experts at ignoring truth, numb or apathetic to the existence of our Creator, clueless about the worth of His glory, and are self-centered rather than God-centered. In other words, we neither "get" God nor do we "get" ourselves. Is it any wonder, then, that we hardly "get" hell? Couldn't our failure to come to terms with the concept of hell lie, not in hell per se, but in our failure to come to terms with the very concepts--the other concepts, of God and man and sin--that make hell intelligible?

L----, I know in my own life that I often fail to grasp the reality and worth of God. I also often fail to grasp the evil of my sin--the sin which sent Christ the Son of God to that horrific death which was required to make atonement for my sins. That tells me something. I am, as a human, generally clueless. It should not therefore surprise me that I find hell so difficult. My view of God, humanity, and sin is skewed.

It's when I'm allowing my mind to be instructed by the Word of God concerning God, humanity, and sin that hell makes perfect sense to me. When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up (Isaiah 6), he cried out "Woe is me!" Grasping God enabled Isaiah to grasp himself, and in light of these two things he grasped his woe. I find the same thing in my own life. And when I'm struggling with hell, I remind myself... "Eli, you're struggling to see God and man, too. You aren't seeing things as God sees them." So I accept hell as a Christian, not because it always makes sense to me, but because I know that God has revealed it, and I know that God knows better than I do, and I know that I'm usually not the best judge of these matters. Therefore I accept the Scriptural teaching about hell.

While this is not always easy, it does, however, bring with it further important outcomes. Accepting the doctrine of hell means accepting the unspeakable and enormous evil of sin, which in turn means accepting the even more incomprehensible and astounding love of God for sinners (Eph. 3:19). If you think sin is little, then the love of God for sinners is little. If you see sin for what it is (enormous, hell-deserving), you see the love of God for what is (prodigiously gracious, altogether surprising). This has been the experience of Christians throughout the centuries: the love of God is felt to be extraordinary when you realize He has saved you from His real and dreadful eternal wrath (Rom. 5:5-11). It leaves you speechless. Thus, curiously, to get rid of hell in our thinking is in the end to get rid of the unspeakable love of God in our thinking.

Does one have to believe in hell in order to be a Christian?

I believe the answer is yes. I don't mean that a person has to understand all the ins and outs of it, or that they have to have a perfect conception of what hell is (does anyone?). But I do believe that a person--in order to even understand the saving work of Jesus--must understand something about what God is, what man is, what sin is, what the problem is, what Jesus did to solve the problem, and that He is the only way for the problem to be solved. A person puts his faith in Christ for salvation because he know that without faith in Christ he is damned. Because he understands something of the issues, he also knows that Christ is the only way, and that whoever does not believe in Him will--as Jesus taught--perish. If you don't see that God is a God of wrath against sin, how can you understand your sin, and your need for Christ's atoning sacrifice, and your need to put your faith in Him? Being a Christian is not something a Christian sees as optional.

The things we believe reveal more things we believe. Being a Christian means believing in the truth about Christ, as God has revealed it.

Thanks for asking me, L----. I'm humbled that you'd do so. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Your friend, Eli

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2 Peter 3:10-14 - Two Exhortations in Light of the Day of the Lord

Hello brother B-----, greetings to you from Logan, Utah!

As you probably know from reading my story, I grew up in New Brunswick, not too far from you. It's nice getting to know another brother from those parts. As I understand it, Christianity (true Christianity) is quite a minority in Quebec... but you should be encouraged; it's a minority everywhere. It always has been, and always will be until Jesus returns.

I'm so blessed to hear that those articles have been an encouragement to you. And thank you, brother, for your question on 2 Peter. I'm truly honored that you'd ask me.

Here is how I understand this passage (2 Peter 3:10-14):

The passage is clearly referring to the day when the Lord returns and judges the wicked as well as delivers His people, and in light of the fact of this coming day, Peter has two exhortations: 1) the reality of this day should influence how we practically live our lives, and, 2) we should be diligent to be found in Christ on that day so as to obtain salvation and not experience God's judgment. So I separate those two exhortations, seeing them as distinct.

The first exhortation in verse 11 is like Paul's similar exhortations in Ephesians 5:3-12 and Colossians 3:5-11. In those passages, Paul exhorts believers to live their lives in light of truth and reality: all sin, evil, immortality, etc. is unbecoming of Christians, since as Christians we understand that these deeds incur the wrath of God: Christ suffered the wrath of God because of them, and unbelievers will be punished eternally for them on the day of judgment. I don't believe in either of these passages Paul is threatening Christians with damnation if they don't live rightly, nor do I believe he is saying that the way of salvation is by living rightly (that would contradict everything Paul has taught about salvation elsewhere, and in Ephesians and Colossians). Rather, he is only pointing to the fact that sinners will be punished for their sin on the day of judgment, and since we Christians understand this we should also recognize that such behavior is unbecoming for us. We shouldn't participate with ignorant Gentiles in them, since we know better. It is not, "cease from sin and be saved", but "cease from sin, since you know better: Christ died because of these, and non-believers will be damned for these things." By faith alone we are delivered from the wrath we deserve. Even though we as Christians still do these things we will not be damned, for we are righteous in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, what we now understand tells us to avoid these things.

That is also what I see Peter saying in verse 11. Since Christ will return and punish all those who are outside of Christ for their sins, in light of this fact how ought we to live our lives? We ought to live our lives differently than the ignorant Gentile world, in reverence toward God who has saved us and who will punish the unrighteous for their sins. I don't believe there is a threat here for Christians. It is not that Christians must live holy and reverent lives in order to be saved (for we are saved by grace through faith, and not of works), but Peter is simply exhorting Christians to live the way we "ought" to in light of reality.

The second exhortation in v. 14 I see as more threatening. Peter is here warning us to be found in Christ on the day of judgment so that we do not perish with the rest of the world. In order for any person to survive the judgment of God he must be "spotless and blameless"; only then will he find peace with God. But if he is found unrighteous and blamable, then there will not be peace for him, but " wrath and indignation... tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek" (Romans 2:8-9).

As Christians, the Holy Spirit has taught us that there is no one who is righteous in and of themselves, and that no one can be righteous by the works of the law (their own works/efforts at being righteous). The only possible way for anyone to be righteous before God is by faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. When a person believes in Jesus they are united to Him in His death and His resurrection, so that the believer is likewise counted as dead and as risen, and is now alive unto God through Jesus Christ. The believer is no longer counted a sinner; his sins are no longer counted against him, for he is dead and he is a new creation in Christ, the righteousness of God in Him, totally blameless in the estimation of God--utterly and solely because of the finished work of Christ. "Yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach" (Colossians 1:22). "For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). Hallelujah, that is good news!

Peter himself points us to Paul's writings on the topic of salvation in the verses which immediately follow (v. 15-16). Being found "in peace, spotless and blameless" is only accomplished through faith in Christ. A believer in Christ will be found just so. Therefore what Peter is exhorting his readers to do in this verse is to believe.

But a follow-up question is: why does he need to exhort them to believe? Aren't his readers already Christians? The answer is found all over the Bible: because we inherit the promises "through faith and patience" (Hebrews 6:12). Until the coming the Lord, as long as we live in this body, there are constant forces seeking to destroy our faith and devour our hope. Trials, tribulations, persecutions, lies, deceptions, false prophets, etc. Peter warns us about them in both 1 and 2 Peter. There's a tension in the Bible between us resting and us racing, between us having been saved and us looking ahead to the coming of our salvation. From one perspective, our salvation is yet to come, and until it comes we are in need of patient endurance against the threat of these forces. Yet the Bible encourages us that "He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6), and "whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith" (1 John 5:4). That is, our faith is in reality the work of God (Jeremiah 32:39-40), and what God began He will certainly complete. So as Christians we can have assurance and confidence that we will endure to the end because we are born of God, belong to God, are in His hands, and no one can snatch us out of His hands. That's the tension: there's a race to be run, but God will make sure that we run it. Furthermore, God uses such exhortations as 2 Peter 3:14 to ensure that we run it. Those who are born of God heed the warning and persevere. Those who are not born of God don't heed it.

On the other hand, it's important to understand that if we truly believe in Jesus and are born of God, then we are right now justified before the Father. Our finishing the race does not make us God's children, nor does it make us justified, but it reveals that we were His children all along. This is what I believe Colossians 1:22-23 means: "He has now reconciled you... if indeed you continue in the faith" (see also Hebrews 3:14). So if you believe in Jesus Christ--understanding and hoping in the righteousness that comes through faith alone in the death and resurrection of Jesus (something, by the way, that no unregenerate person can do: 1 Corinthians 2:14, 12:3, etc.)--then you can assure yourself that you are born of God, now and forever justified, and that you will make it to the end.

So I see 2 Peter 3:14 as an exhortation to continue in the faith so that on the day of the Lord we will be found in Christ, righteousness and blameless through faith alone in Him. This exhortation is necessary because until that day we must run the race of faith with perseverance. God uses many means to keep us running, such as exhortations like these. Running is solely about faith in Christ; we must continue to believe with patience until the end. But the other side of the coin is the promise, that if we are born of God, we will continue to believe until the end.

B-----, I hope that answers your question about this passage. Neither verse 11 nor verse 14 takes anything away from the grace of God and the gospel of righteousness through faith alone. Verse 11 is simply an exhortation to live our lives in a fitting manner (no threat), and verse 15 is an exhortation to believe (in light of the race/rest tension).

If this raises other questions, please don't hesitate to ask.

For a helpful book on the tension between running and resting, I'd recommend Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday's "The Race Set Before Us" (scholarly), or for an easier read, Thomas Schreiner's "Run to Win the Prize".

May God bless you, brother, and multiply His peace in your heart.
Yours in Christ Jesus,