03 May 2012

"But otherwise": skewed priorities (classic re-post)

by Dan Phillips

Various bits of pastoralia have me too full-plated to finish half-done posts. So here's a timely post from October of 2006. Enjoy.

Consider this description of a guy. We'll call him... Guy. Guy G. Guy.
Guy's really a good person. He's as honest as the day is long. He's hard-working, a straight-shooter. He gives to charity -- and not just to formal charities: I've never seen Guy turn down a panhandler on the street. He's devoted to his wife and children, he's a regular church-attender. He drives within the speed limit, always seems neatly dressed and clean. I hardly ever see him sitting around. He's often out working on his yard, or even helping elderly neighbors work on theirs.
Good guy, right? Oh wait. Left out a trait.
Guy does have this one pastime. When the mood strikes, Guy molests small children.
But otherwise, a good guy, right?

Well, no. I'm pretty sure I lost you with that last, stomach-jolting little attribute. It's what we call a deal-killer. However nice the other descriptives might be, that last one counter-balances and stains them all. It's a vice so repellant, so intuitively appalling, that extended argumentation isn't necessary. Our image of this imaginary fellow does an abrupt volte-face, with one simple, specific bit of information.

So why do we, Christian and non-Christian, so regularly commit even a worse error in moral evaluation?

I just finished laboring through Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World for a class. My, that was a chore. Four sets of authors batted around the question of "the fate of the heathen." They ranged from (IMHO) the clueless (John Hick, Clark "Evangelical! Really! I Swear!" Pinnock), to the sorta cluey (Alister E. McGrath), to the considerably more clued (R. Douglas Geivett, W. Gary Phillips [no relation]).

Hick and Clark "I Am an Evangelical! Really! I Am, I Am, I Am!" Pinnock wrung their hands about the horrible injustice of God sending good, moral, decent, religious people to Hell just because they didn't believe in Jesus. McGrath stood a bit to their Biblical right, though in a muzzy way; Geivett and Phillips considerably more so.

Unless I missed it, however, no one challenged what I think is the fundamental issue. Clark "Did I Mention That I'm an Evangelical?" Pinnock stood pretty much with John "At Least I Don't Claim to Be an Evangelical" Hick in accepting the proposition that "there are pagan saints in other religions" (p. 119) So Pinnock shrinks back from the thought that God could condemn everyone except believers. Even in their responses, the other three writers did not focus on what I think is a central issue.

Which "central issue" would that be?

Well, back up with me for one second. Can a person be rightly considered moral if he does all the wonderful things I mentioned, but just has this one little recurrent indulgence that he embraces and practices, involving little kids? If you can't give me a hearty "No" on that one, further conversation probably would not be fruitful.

Why can't we say that he's basically good, though? He does more good things than bad, doesn't he? But none of that matters, because we intuitively recognize a certain hierarchy in morality. Replace the sin of pederasty with a failure to signal his right turns, and we'd relax a bit. He might be a decent fellow after all. On any hierarchy, failure to signal one's turns ranks well below the abomination of child molestation. A child is infinitely more precious and valuable than a traffic regulation.

Let's stay with the same man, then, with an alteration. Remove the pederasty, leave him with all the other virtues (and if you like throw in a score of others). Just add this one specific: he does not hold Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

What do you think now? Is he a moral man?

Your answer to that question will tell me everything about your moral hierarchy.

Someone asked Jesus once what amounted to this: What is the chief imperative of the universe (Matthew 22:36)? What is at the pinnacle of the moral hierarchy?

As you may know, the Lord Jesus answered the man's question. Plus, at no extra charge, He laid out the second imperative of the universe.
And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40, emphases added)
Jesus laid down two categories: first the vertical, then the horizontal. First, the theological. Second, the social. First, love the Lord your God with everything you've got. Second, love your neighbor as you already love yourself.

When we rank a person's morality, we usually primarily judge as to whether he is kind, honest, generous, decent, giving, merciful, loving -- to people. What outrages us is pederasty, rape, murder, theft, violence -- against people. Horizontal crimes. These are, indeed, important areas. In fact, they comprise the second-most important area of morality in the universe.

Second. Not first.

The chief indicator of a person's character is his relationship to God. In other words, his theology, his doctrine, his faith.

Nor should we anachronistically imagine that by "your God" Jesus means "whoever you conceive God to be." No honest Jesus-scholar would suggest that He means any other than the living God of Israel, who reveals Himself in the Law and the Prophets. It is that God -- and, by extension, the God who reveals Himself through Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:27; 17:5; John 1:18; 17:3, etc.) -- who must be loved above all else.

Can a person be a moral person, and violate what Jesus calls "the great and first commandment," the commandment that comes before and above all others?

An affirmative answer reveals a genuinely worldly viewpoint. It indicates that we're seeing the moral universe through man-centered glasses.

But if you believe Jesus, you must answer "Of course not. It's a deal-killer."

Yet we have the odd spectacle of folks who may well confidently say of a rapist, pederast, murderer, or terrorist, "He'll burn in Hell" -- but balk at saying the same of someone who violates the ultimate moral imperative in all of creation. A good guy who rejects Jesus is, by our skewed priorities, still a good guy. But if he harms women or children -- well. That's different.

When you make yourself think it through, it's odd.

But the spectacle of folks who claim to be "really, really" evangelical, balking at the justice of laying the most severe judgment on the most heinous crime in all creation? "Odd"?

Worse than odd.

Dan Phillips's signature


yankeegospelgirl said...

I think if we consider all this in light of Rob Bell's heresy, to me the fatal flaw in Bell's thinking is believing that man would NEVER choose Hell over God. His understanding of human nature is so dangerously shallow that he just thinks, "Well of course God will win everybody over in the end. I mean who'd want to go to Hell?"

More people than you think Rob. More people than you think. And they are the people to whom God will say "Thy will be done."

kalamazoomom said...

I love how this argument is laid out. I gave my parents a very clear and loving presentation of the gospel. Needless to say, they were furious - because as they explained "But, we're good people!" And indeed, from the human perspective, they are. I love them, they raised us very well as man judges. After telling me to never speak of it again, they set about asking all of their "Christian" friends what they thought about what I said. Responses ranged from "Sounds like a pharisee" to "She doesn't understand God's love" to "Jesus died for everyone and you're good people, so don't worry about what she said" to "She must be in a fundamentalist cult". For the record we attend a small country church which is Reformed & dispensational. We believe in the Sovereignty of God. They called me and triumphantly announced that my opinion on how to be saved was wrong as all their (they claimed 30+) friends they asked assured them they would go to heaven. I quietly explained it was not MY opinion, it was what God's word declares. The horizontal as you explained, they have in spades. The vertical is what they don't want to consider. I pray for them. The explanation you gave is spot on & very visually helpful, thanks!

Jim said...

I read this post some time ago, and it's absolutely essential to my thinking about sin, the justice of God, and my own pride. Thank you, Dan.

ad nauseum said...

Great post Dan, also consider that even the christian is unable to fulfill this "chief imperative" as much as id like to love God with all my heart sould strength and mind i cannot this side of Heaven. Praise be to Jesus that he did this in my stead, and promises us of a day to come where our affections will be only for God and neighbor (neighbor being his bride of course). People who think that because a person is "basically good" God will give them a pass proves that they are still bobbing in the Tiber, no matter how really, really evangelical they proclaim to be.

DJP said...

That's right, ad. At no point do our attempts at holiness and obedience even come within rifle range of meeting the standards. It's grace by blood through faith all the way, or there's no hope.

dac said...

yet, but what about the pederast who is saved? Are we, in the end, not all immoral? Do we not all fall at your standard?

DJP said...


Tom Chantry said...

Holy Cow! It's...it's almost as though dac somehow misunderstood the post!

Steve Drake said...

The pedarast who is saved (albeit this may be an oxymoron), should rightly (because he cannot control his own behavior) turn himself in to the governing authorities and accept the consequences of the laws against pederasty within the civil system. Is the sin of pederasty the same as the sin of adultery? Should all adulterer's turn themselves in to their church governing bodies for censure? If saved, then the proscriptions for 'evalutating oneself', especially evaluating one's sin should require this, no?

Chris H said...

"Saved pederast?" Rather akin to an open sealed box. By definition, such a thing cannot exist.

yankeegospelgirl said...

Could dac have meant a pederast who GETS saved (and then stops being a pederast)?

(Shooting in the dark.)

Steve Drake said...

What person (man or woman) has not committed adultery? Jesus equates the thought with the act, right? Is this true of pederasty? Is it true of homosexuality?

DJP said...

If so, YGG, then he's far afield from the post. But that wouldn't be a first.

Mizz Harpy said...

Dan, thanks for this post. I'm grieving for someone I knew who has taken his life. It has made aware of how false my confession has been. I'm praying that I would see my sin as God does and learn to fear Him because I don't. I'm not convicted enough for this sin. I've been having anxiety attacks since the suicide but it's probably just anxiety not true conviction of sin.

Bishop55 said...


Two days ago you argued that God was not fair in judging the Canaanites by sending the Israelites to wipe them out. Now you are saying that it is OK for God to punish (humanly speaking) "good" people for all of eternity in Hell. Do you see any disconnect in your thinking?

Just curious.

mike said...

i suppose for discussion sake it might, sure. and the same for shoplifting, and ...

not really the point of this post.
this post isn't about what sins are unforgivable, it is about whether we see the first commandment as negotiable.

we all readily accept that some sins against men are too great to be overlooked at judgement, but is that one sin, the rejection of Jesus Christ as the one and only God/man who came, lived, died, and rose again, as the Lord and all that then must come with it.

DJP said...

Oh, no, sister I'm so sorry. I hope your pastor's being an encouragement and help. You want to talk more, drop me a line. I'll pray for you.

Steve Drake said...

I'm not sure I see the connection between the 1st commandment (I'm assuming you're referring to Ex. 20.3) and my comments. I'm seeking further clarification from you. Thanks.

mike said...

my point exactly.

i did not see a connection between your question, and the point of this post., i was simply trying to avoid having a discussion (that may have merit) at the expense of the point of this particular post.

Steve Drake said...

Hi Mike,
What are you referring to? I don't see a connection between my posts and the 1st commandment. Perhaps you can elucidate?

Merrilee Stevenson said...

No wonder this is a classic post. All too often I choose to see people based on their "one" weakness, whatever blatantly obvious one it might be, but don't give much attention to that greater flaw of not surrendering to Christ the Lord for salvation. I think this is especially common among professing Christians who come seeking help for their problems, but have a greater Problem that has never really been resolved.

Mizz Harpy said...

Thanks Dan.

Linda said...

I can identify with you kalamazoomom.

Just last week I had the privilege of sharing with a co-worker at work the Gospel. In our convo it segued from him bringing up religion onto Sodom and Gomorrah and how evil (he thought) God was in destroying them. `Yadda, yadda, yadda

He thought he was a good person

I took him to the law and showed him that when we look horizontally yes we seem better than others. But when we look vertically according to God's law we are thieves, murderers, adulterers, liars at heart.

the core of our very being-our hearts are corrupt-

anyways keep sharing and I'm glad you did share with your parents

@ Steve Drake--no such thing. If a person is truly born again then the old has passed and behold all things become new. God really does change our hearts

God cleans our hearts and gives us new desires that long to please him. We don't WANT to sin we don't WANT to trash up our cleaned up pure hearts that soar and doth magnify the LORD of Glory. There's no greater JOY. Why would someone who has just had all their sins washed away by the precious blood of Jesus want to give up the most precious diamond for dirt or dung? No way and that's what happens when we receive Jesus in our lives. If a person still clings onto his dirt then well I'd say he's never known God's amazing GRACE.

I'm not saying Christians are sinless nor are they perfect. But a truly born again believer will be changed from nite to day and will NOT continue in the same sin he was previously committing.

I'm also not saying that Christians don't struggle with besetting sins or are not tempted-they are.

Lori said...

This is brilliant! The Lord often gives me opportunities to engage in this precise conversation with unbelievers. I'm so glad you revisited this blog entry since I missed it the first time around. I feel so blessed to be used by the Lord in this capacity. Thank you for your faithfulness!

yankeegospelgirl said...

I suppose it's an interesting question: Does God "send people to Hell," or is it more like He lets them walk to Hell, over a lifetime of rejecting grace at each moment it was offered to them?

I'll say this much---even though I do see the options as two different ways of thinking about it, the latter is really no less "shocking" or "offensive" when you stop to think about it. You'd still have the Bell crowd whining, "But what kind of a loving father would let his children go to a place of eternal torment and suffering," etc., etc.

Lori said...


I haven't read through all of the comments, but I feel compelled to comment on yours from 9:31. God can only be one's loving father if one has been adopted into the household of faith by grace. Outside of that, God is a loving but just Creator. The gospel message we preach is that Christ paid the penalty for our sin and satisfied God's wrath on our behalf; otherwise, we would be justly condemned as well. So that argument can be quashed as soon as it arises, whether or not the hearer chooses to accept it.



Kathy said...

This topic has been heavy on my mind for a few weeks now. Your post was greatly encouraging, and for me, very timely. I think even among those of us who accept the truth that there is no salvation apart from Christ, there can be a temptation to see this kind of person as a good guy who just needs Christ as a sort of finishing touch, rather than a desperately wicked person whose good works are filthy rags that needs to Christ to transform him into an entirely new creation.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Merrilee. This post belongs in the classic category. Oh, how far short we fall in all respects.

DJP said...

YGG, if one bows to the Lordship of God in Scripture, it isn't a difficult question to answer. God casts people into Hell, actively and positively and deservedly (Mt. 13:50; 25:41-46; Rev. 19:20-21; 20:12-15).

C. S. Lewis, much as he appeals to the squishy, was wrong. God does not say to the lost "thy will be done." Their will is that God die, and that they be gods, doing their will and serving themselves forever without consequence. He thwarts their will in the positive and eternal and deserved punishment of Hell.

Chris Nelson said...

Lewis taught much false garbage. I find it interesting that this post mentions child rape and child rape is a largely accepted practice in Islam and most, if not all pagan religions. It seems that only the Judeo/Christian framework hates child rape for what it is.

Linda said...


God's word is perspicuous in John 3:18 that we already stand condemned~

John 3:18 "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."

In other words we are ALL going to hell that's our current state if we have not believed in Jesus Christ

So according to God's word, God doesn't send anyone to hell we are already going there and in God's Great love he chose to reach down and save some according to his good pleasure. No one deserves His mercy and everyone deserves his Justice.

Either way God is always just,righteous, good and holy.

ANY goodness in our lives is from him. If he withdrew himself we'd all be sent to everlasting destruction

yankeegospelgirl said...

Well, I guess this is partly going to hinge on whether you're Calvinist or Arminian. Obviously, I'm not a Calvinist, and I agree with Lewis. :)

I do find it interesting that a couple different people have used different terminology in responding to me. DP argues God actively sends people to Hell, while Lori says "God doesn't send anyone to Hell, we're already going there" which sounds similar to what I was saying.

DJP said...

Well, I guess this is partly going to hinge on whether you're Calvinist or Arminian

No, mostly it hinges on whether you're going to deal seriously and faithfully with those and other related texts.

It's interesting that "I'm not a Calvinist" seems so often to be code for "so I'm not going to let all those Bible-thingies bother me much." Do they give you a note when you sign up, exempting you from uncongenial Bible verses?

yankeegospelgirl said...

Let me just quote a couple literary references and leave it at that.

First, think about Gollum in the Lord of the Rings. "The sun.... we HATES it." The damned soul wants to be as far away from a holy, righteous God as possible even if that means living in Hell.

Second, think about Satan in Milton's _Paradise Lost_: "Evil be thou my good." If you've read Milton, you know that Satan is the most tortured character in the story. But the misery is worth it to him.

When God says "Thy will be done," He is saying, "If you wish to take evil for your good, be it so."

yankeegospelgirl said...

(Or actually, I suppose I should clarify... in a sense it's misguided to think of Hell as "separation from God," because it's the manifestation of God's wrath. What I was trying to convey by saying that the damned soul "wants to be as far away from God as possible" is that the damned soul wants to keep living with his own sin and doesn't want to experience the grace that the redeemed will see in paradise. And although God is present in Hell, Hell is still a place of darkness vs. light, of sin and filth vs. goodness and holiness.)

yankeegospelgirl said...

Oh yeah, and I had just one more thought.... this is an illustration from American crime history. In the 1950s there was a teenage gangster named Sal Agron who mistook two innocent boys for rival gang members and stabbed them to death. But he was totally remorseless. When he learned that he had been sentenced to the electric chair (which was later commuted "thanks" to Eleanor "oh-the-poor-child-is-too-young-to-die" Roosevelt), he said, "I don't care if I burn. My mother can watch."

It's that "I don't care if I burn" mentality that I'm trying to uncover here.

allen said...

Go to Lewis, Tolkien, etc. for the fictional and imaginative. (This has some value.)
BUT--go submissively! to God-breathed scripture for the factual and authoritative. This has the highest of all value.
"All scripture"-2 Tim 3:16
"Every word"-Matt. 4:4
"You do well to take heed"--2 Pet.1:19

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Good post!

Many Christians (myself included many times) mistakenly shy away from seeing the Sin of Unbelief as counting against the ledger of "good" non-Christians.

Hmmmmm. Serial murderer repents and finds Jesus in prison versus the Dalai Lama.

Skewed moral hierarchy evaluation scores the Dalai Lama as better moral person than repentant serial murderer.

I think hard-core atheists throw that one out against Christians.

And I say something like, "I serve a great and holy and loving God who's just!"

And they remain unconvinced and don't see the justice and loving of God.

Oh well.

Lori said...


My apologies if I wasn't as clear as I intended. I did wonder about that as soon as I pressed "submit." Lord willing, I will not make the same mistake again where His word is at stake.

I am in full and complete agreement with DJP and Linda. I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. I believe that the Bible is one continuous story from Genesis to Revelation. I believe in a literal hell, as described by Jonathan Edwards in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I rest securely in the knowledge that my salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And I rejoice in the scriptures that teach about predestination (Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:3-6, to name but two).

My hope is that in your conversations with others about Christ, as well as those you have in your head, you might first seek Him and ask for wisdom which can be found in His word. Then, that you might not get sidetracked by superfluous arguments when the basis for them can be easily refuted. Finally, that you will be slow to speak and quick to listen; that you might grow in grace; that you might fellowship with the Triune God in all of His wondrous glory and feel satisfied.

With love,


savedbygrace said...

Thank you so much for this post! I usually read and do not comment, but I feel compelled on this one-

YGG, I would humbly ask you to prayerfully evaluate your comments from today and the other day. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov 1:7) I will quote from a note in my Bible about this verse-"we do not have true or ultimate knowledge until we are in a redemptive relationship of reverential awe with God" _MacArthur

I have another quote for you (not from Gollum)"Jews and Greeks are all under sin, as it is written, 'there is none righteous, not even one'" (Rom 3:9-26) We are all born into iniquity and are destined for hell (no matter if we have the "I don't care if I burn mentality") until we are "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus".

I thought I was saved for years until I understood what true repentance is-and I praise the Lord for revealing that knowledge to me!

The other day you seemed to set yourself up as judge over the Judge and today you are quoting Gollum and using human examples to prove your points. Believe me, I am not attacking you-I pray that you would ask God to reveal His truth to you.

By the way, the Bible says in Matt. 25:41 "Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal lake of fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels" That's where the idea of eternal separation from God comes from.

Jeremiah Halstead said...

My wife pointed out to me: there are none that seek after God. Romans makes that pretty clear

Nonna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DJP said...

Please read and interact with the post, or move on. The topic is not "Nice horse, here's my issue with Reformed people and some related unrelateds."

one busy mom said...

But the spectacle of folks who claim to be "really, really" evangelical, balking at the justice of laying the most severe judgment on the most heinous crime in all creation? "Odd"?

Worse than odd.

AMEN!!! Great post.

Either we must take God's Word as 100% true or 100% false: logically there is no middle ground. Of course, that has never stopped folks from trying to find some type of "polite" mushy middle - where all roads lead to heaven. The kicker is when that comes from church leadership. That, as you say, is far worse than odd!