“Will you go to hell if you commit suicide?” asked Wesley from the back of the class silencing an 8th grade Bible class gone awry. We were in the midst of reviewing Judas Iscariot’s possible motivations behind his betrayal of Jesus, and I had lost control of my class. “My brother told me that if you commit suicide, you’ll go to hell because you can’t ask God for forgiveness,” finished Wesley. The rest of the class waited in anxious anticipation for my response. I felt compelled to ruminate over his question for several reasons. Primarily because Wesley had asked a serious question; secondly because my class was finally quiet.
Wesley’s brother—like so many other followers of Jesus have done in the past—had taken two very distinct soteriorlogical concepts (justification and sanctification) and mixed them together to where one couldn’t ascertain the forest from the trees. The idea of justification versus that of sanctification quite often becomes muddled together.
When the Israelite worshiper would enter through the gate of the tabernacle courtyard, he would encounter the Bronze Altar and sacrifice an animal for the atonement of his sins. After his sacrifice, the Israelite would be justified (made just or made righteous) before God. Once the Israelite submitted his sacrifice, he was finished; the priests would have to perform further acts of worship on behalf of the people. At this point, the priest would prepare to enter the Holy Place. In order to enter into the very presence of God, the priest would have to wash himself in the “Living Water” of the Bronze Laver. Ritualistically, the laver would “purify” or “sanctify” the priest, setting him apart for worship within the Holy Place. Once inside the Holy Place, the priest would prepare the bread for the Table of Showbread, maintain the light of the Golden Lampstand, and offer incense on behalf of the people. Without his sanctification in the Bronze Laver, the priest could not move any closer toward God’s presence.
According to the Old Testament sacrificial system, the justification one received from God via the Bronze Altar was temporary. Jesus’ sacrifice via the cross made it possible for the Christian believer to be justified permanently through faith. The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory” (Romans 5:1-2).
No matter how you say it, whether it be “justified,” “made righteous,” saved,” or “going to heaven,” our faith in Christ makes it happen instantaneously and permanently regardless of our good or bad works. Nothing we do can merit justification—it is purely a gift from God through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). It isn’t emphasized as much, but the antithesis is also true. Once we are justified, nothing we do (bar denying the Spirit and rejecting our faith) can merit damnation—even suicide. If it did, only those of us who are “fortunate” enough to know when, where, and how we’re going to meet our demise would be saved. Because honestly, aren’t we all just perpetual sinners? To abuse our justification and continue in sin, however, is to walk all over Jesus as well as insult the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 10:29). Sin affects our relationship with the Father in a negative way. We confess and practice good works, not for justification, but for sanctification—to renew that relationship with the Father…to seek holiness, to conform to the likeness of Jesus Christ, to become a work of the Holy Spirit in God’s Kingdom, and to set ourselves apart in order to bask in the presence of God. Justification is an instantaneous legal action—once and for all. Sanctification is a continual process of becoming
more and more like Christ. Sanctification is a journey through peaks and valleys, triumphs and failures, joys and pains…from the moment we were justified by faith to the day we meet our Creator face to face.
When we are justified by faith, God Pennington decides to show up in His bus only to begin the premier of Extreme Makeover Heart Edition—aka Sanctification. I find it best to conclude with a brilliant quote from C.S. Lewis (who is quoting a parable written by George MacDonald):
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity