Challenge: Salvation by Grace Is Unfair

Posted: September 28, 2010 by Amy Hall in Jesus Changes Everything, Weekly Challenge

Last week’s challenge had to do with a complaint about hell and judgment, so for this week, I thought I’d present you with the opposite challenge: a complaint about God’s mercy.

I heard a radio talk show host (not a Christian) express the following about Christianity (paraphrased):

I don’t like the idea that a man can do horrible things all his life and then just repent on his deathbed and go to heaven without paying for what he’s done. That doesn’t seem just to me.

If your friend said this to you, how would you respond? What concepts would you explain? What questions would you ask to draw him out? Can you answer this in a way that preserves the beauty of justice? Give us your thoughts, and tune in Thursday for Brett’s ideas on how to answer this objection.

(Special bonus: There’s a Bible verse this objection immediately brings to my mind. What is it?)

  1. Sam Harper says:

    I agree that it does seem unjust, and it grates against my moral intuitions. It is ironic, though, that some people object to the gospel by asking, “Why doesn’t God just forgive everybody?” Well, it turns out that God does require justice. He doesn’t arbitrarily forgive anybody. It isn’t as if a person’s moral crimes are never paid for. Rather, it’s that Jesus paid for them on our behalf.

    But that raises another issue–one I’ve struggled to answer. It seems like a miscarriage of justice for one person to be punished for the crimes of another person, even if done voluntarily. While nobody thinks there’s a miscarriage of justice if one person pays another person’s fine, I don’t think anybody would be comfortable with one person going to prison on behalf of another person. And no government, as far as I know, would condone such a thing. It seems obviously to be a miscarriage of justice.

    Whenever the subject of the atonement comes up, I just acknowledge that it does seem counter-intuitive. I believe it because I have good reason to think Christianity is true, and the atonement comes with the package. I assume it seems counter-intuitive because I haven’t thought it through carefully or there’s something I haven’t considered. David Hume said that “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” The counter-intuitive nature of the atonement does, I think, count against Christianity, but there is so much counting for Christianity that, for me, it overcomes everything that counts against. There are a number of things about Christianity that don’t sit well with me, but I continue be a Christian because the case for Christianity is overwhelming by comparison. Abandoning Christianity would create more intellectual problems for me than it would solve.

  2. Sam Harper says:

    Bonus question: Luke 23:41-43?

  3. Adrian Urias says:

    Oh wow, this is a tough one. I hear a lot of similar criticisms, like “Well, what if Hitler repented right before he died?”

    I’m not too sure on how to respond rather then to to just say yeah, if he repented (and got baptized…) there could be a possibility he went to heaven. I don’t want to say I’m biting the bullet, because it really isn’t such a bad thing.

    I mean, ok, so some “bad” people go to heaven. So what? If you think about, that’s what heaven is going to be like. Heaven is going to be full of sinners. Liars, thieves, pedophiles, Nazis, cheats, frauds, etc. Sinners of all stripes. But they are all going to be repentant. All the non repentant ones will be in hell.

    Jesus paid the price, and he did it for everyone. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps we could use a slippery slope. Ok, not on the death bed, when they are diagnosed with terminal cancer. Would it be wrong to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior then? If so, then deathbed would be acceptable as well. Or perhaps they got a flu and since they got really irritated with the stuffy nose, they pray to God that if he takes it away, he’ll give his life to Jesus. Would it be ok then? If so, then why not after a cancer diagnosis as well? And if it’s just a flu, why not then when your in just in average health? When you repent is morally irrelevant. the offer of salvation is available at all times.

    Key word though, repentance. How do you “just repent”? I’d ask what is meant by repentance.

    But yeah, recognize that we all deserve to be treated as our sins deserve. But then also emphasize that this means the objector is on the hook. They want to complain about not paying a price, fine, their going to have to pay for their own as well, a bullet I’m sure they wont be able to bite. But if they want forgiveness of their sins, then the people they say shouldnt be able to go to heaven are included in the gift of salvation as well.

    I dunno, that was my best shot. Hard one. Looking forward to the video response!

    • Amy Hall says:

      >>But then also emphasize that this means the objector is on the hook.

      Adrian, that would be one of my main points, as well.

    • Sam Harper says:

      Adrian, I think you make a really good point–that the timing of your repentance in relation to your death is irrelevant. One person might repent and live another 20 years as a Christian. Another person who is just like the first, might repent and then get in a car accident the next day. If you say that the first person ought to have a better chance of getting in to heaven than the second person, then you’d have to say the first person earned his way into heaven by his works, in which case you’d be denying salvation by grace. But if you deny salvation by grace, then neither of them ought to make it to heaven since both of them were sinners. And you can’t undo a wrong by doing a right, so having the opportunity to make up for your bad behavior can’t help you. And if it could, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus to atone for our sins.

  4. JT says:

    “go to heaven without paying for what he’s done”

    Thats exactly the point. None of us can pay the judgement for the bad things we have done (even nice people like Mother Teresa).. thats why Jesus made the payment for us.

    His Infinite sacrifice can pay for all of our finite-mistakes (no matter how horrible).

  5. JT says:


    The difference between “Atonement” and a “prison sentence” is where the pardoned reside.

    People go to prison for two reasons
    1) punishment for their crime
    2) separate them from society (so they don’t hurt more people as a burden on society)

    In that way.. most governments would allow someone to “pay the price ($$)” of another, yet most governments wouldn’t want to allow someone to “take the place” of another in prison- taking their place doesn’t resolve reason #2.

    However, it is different in Christ:
    “…this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality… ” (1Cr 15:54)

    “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2Cr 5:17)

    Not only have these people’s punishment been paid, but Christ makes them new. It’s not like they will be a “burden on society” in heaven.

  6. Interesting challenge.

    The best first answer to this is to say “if grace is not sufficient for everyone for every sin at any point they choose to accept it, then that grace means nothing for anyone.”

    Often a person bringing this up sees their sins as “less then that other evil person” and they don’t think that person deserves grace. The unfortunate side effect of this belief is that their sins are most likely “worse then another persons sins”. This statement is always made when sins are compared one to another in mans eyes. Reality is the bible tells us otherwise. James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” In God’s eyes if you sin once, no matter the sin, you are as guilty as all others who have sinned regardless how or how much. At this point asking the other person if they believe they have sinned would force them to acknowledge how they stand before God.

    Going further, if they were to refuse to accept the idea that one sin makes us guilty of the whole law, then I would ask them at what point one crosses the line from “a little sin” to “too much sin to be forgiven” and who decides that. This line is impossible to distinguish since it is arbitrary to the one choosing it. I would then point out that God tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” not just “some sinned too much so they fall short of the glory of God.”

    At this point if they refused to acknowledge the sufficiency of God’s grace I would let them know that God makes the choice to whom he will give mercy, not man. Romans 9:14-16 “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” That pretty much sums up the very question they are asking. Man cannot make effort to deserve mercy, and he cannot determine to whom it will be given, That is God’s decision, and God decided He would give it to all who acknowledge his son and the sacrifice he gave for us.

  7. Parable of the workers in the field: Matt.20: 1-16

    If you get what you bargained for, don’t whine about what someone else gets.

  8. Amy Hall says:

    Since Brett will be posting his response sometime soon, I’ll tell you now that the passage that reconciles God’s justice and mercy (explaining how He could be both just and the justifier) is specifically Romans 3:26, but here’s the passage leading up to it:

    For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

    • Amy Hall says:

      Update: I think Brett is going to post the response tomorrow instead of today, so it looks like I let the cat out of the bag a little to early on my bonus question. Ah, well.

  9. amy pineda says:

    It just seems like there is no way of getting around the fact that we are recipients of grace, that God does not treat us as our sins deserve. This is evidenced in his willingness to send Jesus to die for us while we are still sinners. God forgives us while we are not deserving, with no payment. It’s not as if God needs satisfying in order to forgive? Isn’t this the point?

    God is seeking our restoration and a heart that is transformed. He is the ultimate judge, able to decide true repentance, that results in the kind of heart change he is after. Rom. 11:22 states that it’s kindness for those that continue in kindness and sternness to those that fell. God uses wrath as a way of bringing someone around. God is faithful to deal with the sins of people, not just by overlooking them, but through sternness if necessary.

    If he wants to forgive, which is so evidenced in his willingness to send his son, he can. He’s God, we are not! He can harden a heart, allow someone to experience consequences, and we can’t complain because it too will be for a purpose that he is working out, the restoration of all so that God will be all in all. Romans 9:18 “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”

    God is truly just in that he seeks our restoration and is faithful to it, despite our ignorance and inabillity to get their on our own. If we think we can get there on our own, without help, that we somehow are deserving of the grace that leads to our salvation and others are not, they are hopeless, that is a problem.

  10. amy pineda says:

    I guess I agreed a lot with Kelly, that our salvation is always a result of God’s mercy, not our own effort. And somehow even hardening, as was not mentioned in his post, is part of that mercy and over all plan of God’s to bring about our restoration. Who are we to complain about how God works. who he shows mercy to, when we can trust that he ultimately is good to all of us?

  11. amy pineda says:

    My husband, Gene, won’t post this himself so I’ll do it because I thought it was such a good response. He said this reminded him of the parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal son’s brother didn’t think the party his dad organized to celebrate his brother’s return was fair and so he felt resentment about it. While he was very concerned about what seemed fair, the dador God in this case, was only concerned with the good that was coming about, his son returning/repenting. It seems like while we try to make God’s justice out to be about creating a situation that is fair, via an atonement (somekind of transaction where God required payment to appease his wrath), what really matters to God is that we are restored to him. Gene was also pointing out that as a parent it’s fitting that we forgive our children. We don’t treat them as they deserve. We love them so we forgive them. The whole point of our love for them is that they turn and do what is right so that it will go well with them. We can forgive one child of something that we have not had to forgive the other child of. We should be happy that we serve a God that is like a good parent! His sense of justice is our return to him and that’s what makes him happy! God just wants us home.

  12. Amy, that is an excellent way of explaining it. (Tell Gene Dan’s sister says hi.)

  13. JT says:

    Amy, good use of the prodigal son parable. I think that was probably one of the reasons Jesus gave it.