Is God angry? Can we get to heaven by “praying a prayer”? Is hell how God punishes people for sin? Can we become better by trying harder? Are we really sinners? As I searched for answers to these questions over the years, the answers I discovered surprised me. Maybe they will surprise you as well.
A blessing for you as you read this page and/or watch the video
May you encounter the living God and receive the truth that sets you free. May you experience paradigm shifts that result in insight, healing, transformation, salvation, restoration, spiritual growth. May you come away from these encounters stronger, healthier, happier, forever transformed. That is what I want for you; that is what I pray for you.
My understanding has changed…
My understanding of our Christian faith has grown and changed over the years. As I’ve walked with the Lord and studied the Bible some things have emerged that I didn’t initially understand.
And, yes, there are good people who see things differently than I do. That’s okay. But I encourage you to think through what I’m saying because for me it has changed everything.
The risk: It’s risky to share these things because it would be easy to hear part of what I’m saying and misunderstand my message or my meaning. I’m hoping that does not happen.
The reward: What I’m about to share with you has changed my life for the better. It could change yours as well.
When I got married, something happened I did not expect…
Let me start with a story.
Okay, I probably won’t win any awards for my artwork. But back to the story…
I always thought I was a patient kind person, and I would treat my wife with kindness. But after I got married, I made a discovery: When my wife got sick, I got angry. I tried to push this down and pretend I wasn’t angry, but I was. After a while, my anger came to the surface. I started saying nasty things to her like, “Why are you making me do all your work? When are you gonna get better?”
Here she was in a very vulnerable position, and I was yelling at her. Can we agree that was not a good thing?
Can we agree that it was a sin?
I was acting like a jerk. I was not being kind and loving to my wife.
Hang onto that story in your mind because I’ll come back to it. But first, let me explain how I understood my Christian faith in the past:
How I understood my faith in the past
I had a very judicial understanding of my faith in the past.
(Please understand this: I am NOT saying that my understanding was completely wrong. I’m just using this as a starting point to explain how my understanding has changed.)
Here’s how I saw things.
God is the righteous Judge.
I have sinned.
Therefore, I am a sinner.
The punishment for sin is death.
Death is a nice word for hell.
Hell is the righteous wrath of a holy God.
That creates a problem.
God, the righteous Judge, cannot forgive me, because the penalty for my sin is hell.
Jesus is the solution.
He died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin.
Now the righteous requirements of God’s law have been met.
God can now forgive me.
He will forgive me if I accept Jesus as my Savior.
The only requirement is that I believe that Jesus died on the cross for me.
If I do, God’s wrath will be diverted from me to Jesus.
Because I’m forgiven, I will be admitted to heaven when I die.
I will have eternal life.
This forgiveness from God and this admission into heaven is called God’s grace.
I don’t earn it; it’s a free gift.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV
Since the ticket to heaven was a free gift, and since it wasn’t by works, I could continue to yell at my wife when she was sick and still expect to get into heaven.
After all, my sins are forgiven right?
The option of try-hard discipleship
After I accept Jesus as my Savior,
then I should be discipled.
That means I should follow certain spiritual disciplines
like Bible study, prayer, church attendance, giving, sharing my faith, fasting, or whatever.
I should work hard to be a good Christian.
I should be disciplined about it.
But this will be a struggle
because I am a sinner
and although I now have a new nature from God
I also have my old sin nature
that causes me to sin.
I need to choose whether I’m going to feed by new nature from God
or my old sin nature.
The side I feed is the side that wins.
If I wanted to stop being angry at my wife when she was sick,
I needed to read my Bible every day,
try hard enough,
feed my new nature,
starve that sin nature,
resist that temptation,
until I defeated it, right?
Becoming a good Christian does not get me into heaven.
Getting into heaven is a gift from God.
Remember, it’s NOT BY WORKS.
But becoming a good Christian might get me some kind of reward when I get to heaven.
So discipleship is not necessary in order to get to heaven.
It’s an option.
Understand, it is the option that God wants me to take.
If I don’t take it, He’s going to be a little disgusted and/or disappointed with me.
If I want to obey God, then I try hard to be a good Christian.
This is called discipleship.
But it won’t affect whether I go to heaven or not.
That’s already decided.
That’s what I believed for many years.
But over time, I became increasingly uncomfortable with it.
I began to see problems with what I was taking away from what I believed.
Here’s the first one …
#1 People prayed the prayer, but their lives never changed…
Someone could say: “I’m going to heaven. That box is checked. I don’t need the discipleship thing. I don’t want the discipleship thing.” They got their get-out-of-hell free card, and went on living the same old life they had always lived.
In my case, I prayed the prayer.
But I still got angry when my wife got sick.
Some people were even doing the disciplines.
They were reading their Bibles, coming to church, praying every day,
and still their lives weren’t changing.
I was mostly doing those things,
but I still got angry when my wife got sick.
Then there was another concern…
#2 Jesus never tried to win converts…
If what I believed was really true, then you would expect to find Jesus out there actively telling people, “I’m going to die for your sins. All you need to do is believe that and accept Me as your personal savior, and then you will have the gift of eternal life.”
But read the Gospels. You never see Him doing that; not even once.
The closest you see Jesus coming to that is His meeting with Nicodemus in John 3, and if you read that carefully you realize Jesus is telling Nicodemus that his whole life is built on the wrong foundation; he needs to scrap the whole thing and start over.
When someone asked Jesus about eternal life, the first thing He said was, “Are you obeying the Commandments?” And when the guy said yes, Jesus said, “Okay, then sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and then come follow Me.” (See Mark 10:17-27.)
What happened to eternal life being a free gift?
And the Great Commission in the Gospels is NOT, “Go get people to pray a prayer.” Instead, it’s, “Go, make disciples.” (See Matthew 28:18-20.)
That’s what Jesus did. He made disciples.
The more I read the Bible, I began to realize that my whole understanding of my faith was based on a handful of verses that I was taking out of context and getting them to mean what I wanted them to mean. Ouch!
But the biggest concern that began to form in my mind was this:
#3 Did I have a warped idea about God’s anger?
What problem was I trying to solve with my idea of the gospel? It looked to me that I was trying to solve the “problem” of God’s anger.
And that is a really warped idea.
In my belief system, it looked like the real problem was this: we had this big, mean, angry God. Jesus comes along and saves us from this God with anger management issues.
Of course, I would never say that aloud because I wanted to honor God, and I figured there was something there that I just didn’t understand.
I saw hell as God’s righteous punishment for sin. But the more I thought about it, the more that didn’t quite make sense.
Certainly, I don’t deserve heaven. But do I really deserve hell?
Did God really want to punish me with eternal fire because I yelled at my wife because she got sick? Is that what God wants? Is that who God is? Is that His idea of justice? I mean, I could understand if God wanted to punish me for an hour or a day or whatever. But forever and ever?
Was this really God’s idea of justice? Was He really this angry? What wasn’t I getting? What didn’t I understand?
It turns out there was quite a bit I didn’t understand.
Is God angry?
For this whole thing to make sense, we need to start with the wrath of God. As it turns out, this is exactly where the Apostle Paul starts when he begins his exposition of the gospel in Romans 1.
Is God angry?
But His anger is NOT directed at people. His anger is directed at sin. (See Romans 1:18.)
That’s an important distinction.
If you’ve ever had someone in your family with an addiction, maybe you understand that. You love the family member. You hate the addiction. You would love to pull that addiction out of that person and beat the stuffing out of it. But you want to love and care for the person.
God loves people; He hates sin.
Another important insight we need to see:
God’s anger is a good thing.
If you’ve been molested, robbed, hurt, betrayed, cheated, God is angry about that.
If one of my kids was molested, robbed, hurt, betrayed, cheated, I would be angry.
If I said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” you would think there was something wrong with me.
And you would be right.
God is angry enough about sin to put a stop to it.
And we want that.
If God doesn’t put a stop to sin, then there’s no such thing as heaven.
Heaven would not be heaven without God being angry enough at sin to put a stop to it.
If we imported all our sin to heaven, then pretty soon no one would be safe in heaven. We’d have rape, robbery, suspicion, betrayal, manipulation, hurt feelings, jealousy, resentment and so on. There would be robberies and assaults; you’d need to lock your door, and sleep with a gun under your pillow.
Heaven cannot be heaven unless God keeps sin out.
Does God want me yelling at my wife in heaven?
The answer is clearly no.
God needs to separate us from our sins in order to get us into heaven.
That’s the only way we make it through the front door.
Our sins cannot go with us to heaven.
So God is angry, and we can be glad He’s angry.
His anger removes sin and everything that causes people to sin.
His anger makes heaven the paradise that it is.
God understands that sin destroys us.
I used to think of sin as this candy I wanted, but God didn’t allow it.
But that’s a warped perspective of sin.
God is not trying to deprive us by calling us to live a holy life.
He’s trying to save us from sin.
He sees sin for what it really is.
We don’t see as clearly as God sees.
We sometimes see sin as candy we can’t have.
God sees sin for what it is: candy-coated poison, corrosion, a cancer, a disease that destroys.
Sin and hell are the same thing
Just like water, steam, and ice are three forms of H2O, so also sin, spiritual death, and hell are three forms of the same thing—independence from God.
By the way:
Is hell forever?
Is hell conscious physical torment?
I’m not going to address those questions here.
Other than to say this: Hell is eternal separation from God.
If you don’t want God, then you choose hell.
Not that He wants you there, because He does NOT.
Hell, a punishment?
I used to think that hell was God’s way of expressing his wrath; it was how He punished sinners.
I’m not so sure about that.
Instead, I see hell as God removing Himself from sinners.
Hell is sin itself slowly destroying their souls.
Eternal separation from God is not a punishment for sin, it is a consequence of sin.
Let me give you an analogy:
A little boy runs out into the street despite his mother’s best efforts to prevent him from doing so. He’s struck by a car, and, as a result, spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair in constant pain.
His life of pain—is that a punishment from his mother for disobeying? No. Not at all! A punishment might have been one minute in a time out chair, not a lifetime of pain and disability. The mother didn’t want that misery for her little boy. She was trying to do everything she could to prevent that from happening.
Likewise, God is trying to do everything He can to save us from sin because He knows that sin—like running out into the street—has consequences, and He wants to spare us from those consequences.
What makes hell a miserable place?
Is it because God is torturing people? In the past, that’s what I believed. Now I’m not so sure. Instead, I think it is sin that is torturing people.
Think about it this way:
Why do we put robbers, and rapists, and murderers in prison?
To put a wall between them and us, so they can’t rob, rape, and murder us.
What makes prison a miserable place? Sure, you are locked up, the accommodations are not stellar, and the guards can be grumpy. But what makes prison a terrible place is the people who live there—the inmates. If you were a wonderful person and all the other inmates were wonderful people, you could turn that prison into a paradise.
What makes hell miserable?
Not God. Sin.
Here’s the bottom line …
God is not the enemy.
Sin is the enemy.
The problem is NOT God’s anger;
the problem is our sin.
Why the gospel is good news
“Gospel” means good news.
Maybe the good news is NOT that Jesus saves us from God’s anger.
Maybe the good news is that Jesus saves us from our sins.
But how does that work?
Let’s think that through.
The problem that needs to be solved is
we need to get the sin out of us
in order to get us into heaven.
The big decision is this:
Do we want sin, or do we want God?
You can’t have both.
You gotta choose.
If we choose sin, it will destroy us.
It will leave us in misery.
If we choose God, then He will remove our sin,
and we will live with Him in paradise.
So, it’s clear, if we want to get to heaven, we gotta get rid of our sin.
How do we do that?
Two solutions have been proposed:
Approach #1 Go it alone. Keep the rules…
This simple-minded solution says this:
Oh, if you want to get rid of sin, make it illegal.
We’ll just pass a law against sin.
And then, we’ll try real hard not to sin.
By our own efforts, we will overcome.
We will set goals, establish disciplines, and achieve results.
We will try hard.
We will work hard.
We will win.
There are several names for this:
• Try hard religion.
• Being under the law.
• Good works.
• The flesh.
• Human effort apart from God.
This sounds suspiciously like my whole program for discipleship: Practice these spiritual disciplines, feed the new nature, try hard to be a good Christian.
The problem with this is this:
You don’t need Jesus to set goals and try hard.
You might succeed; you might fail; in either case you’re not doing anything any different than what a pagan could do if they wanted to.
But that’s not how the Christian life works.
The Christian life is impossible.
God designed it that way.
It cannot be done by human effort apart from God.
When the Bible says, “not by works lest anyone should boast,” that’s what it’s talking about.
“Not by works” does NOT mean, “Don’t do good.”
“Not by works” means “We can’t do good apart from God.”
Paul spends several chapters in Romans explaining why this approach of try hard religion doesn’t work. Then he explains it all over again in Galatians.
We don’t have the power to do good apart from God.
And it isn’t just a little tack on prayer
I’m gonna try really hard to be a good Christian,
“Jesus, please help me.”
Because the Christian life is impossible,
when we try to go it alone—apart from God,
we end up pretending.
We lie to ourselves, we lie to others, we lie to God.
We put on a show.
We try to pretend that we’re good enough to do this Christian life thing,
but we aren’t.
Until they are transformed by Jesus.
I did the try hard thing for many years.
I never really understood there was an alternative.
I had heard that we needed to be filled with the Spirit, but I didn’t know what that meant and nobody seemed to be able to explain it to me.
I had heard that we needed God’s “help” in order to live a righteous life, but I had no idea how to get that help, other than to ask for it in prayer, and then go right on with trying to pretend I was good.
And, I still got angry with my wife when she got sick.
The alternative I was looking for is grace.
I thought I understood grace, but I didn’t.
Grace is not JUST that I get my sins forgiven and I get into heaven.
Grace is much more than that.
Grace is the God-given power to live a holy life.
Grace is what God gives us to remove sin from our lives and prepare us for heaven.
Grace is the engine behind inner transformation.
What does the Bible say? Consider this passage:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. Titus 2:11-14 NIV
When we come to Christ we are
That means we are choosing a different life.
The old life dies.
A new life starts.
I didn’t get that for many years.
Say it again:
The old life dies.
A new life starts.
We are NOT praying a prayer, checking a box, and walking away.
We are saying,
Jesus, I want You more than I want sin.
I don’t claim to have any power to defeat sin on my own,
but I invite You to be who You want to be, and do what You want to do in my life.
You can that right now, right here.
When we begin this new life with Jesus
and a new life begins.
Our sin nature is dead
Our old life.
Our old independence from God.
Our old sin nature.
Jesus steps into the ring with me,
takes on this bully that was beating me up
and knocks him out.
Think about it this way:
Did Jesus die for our sins?
I think one of the things that means is this:
He took our sins and nailed them to the cross.
When He died,
Now they don’t have any more power over us.
When Jesus rose from the dead,
we rose with Him
into a new life of righteousness.
We’re already righteous
and because of God’s grace
we will live out a life of righteousness.
This was a startling revelation for me.
I had always thought
we Christians have two natures—our old sin nature, and our new nature from God.
But that isn’t what the Bible says.
The Bible says our old self was crucified with Christ. Romans 6:6
What does that mean.
It means our old sin nature is dead.
Dead means dead.
Dead means not alive.
Dead means not functioning.
Dead means six feet under.
If you have Jesus, you don’t have a sin nature.
Blaming your sin on your sin nature is like accusing George Washington of stealing your car. He’s dead. He’s buried in Mount Vernon, Virginia. He didn’t do it.
Your sin nature is dead. It’s not around to cause you to sin.
Why we aren’t sinners
I will go a step further.
If you have Jesus, you’re no longer a sinner.
You don’t sin because you’re a sinner.
Are we imperfect? Yes.
Are we broken? Yes.
Are we a work in progress? Yes.
Do we sin? Yes.
Are we sinners? No.
Again, for years and years I believed we were, but then I started looking at what the Bible actually says. The Bible makes a distinction between sinners and the righteous. If you have Jesus, you are righteous. Period.
Does that mean you never sin? Of course not.
Does that mean you can’t sin? Of course not.
It just means you’re not a sinner.
But you might say, “Dwight, I sin. Therefore, I am a sinner.”
Here’s my response: I have a hammer and nails at home. I’ve pounded a few nails into boards. Does that make me a carpenter? No.
A sinner is a person who has chosen sin in place of choosing God.
We haven’t done that. We’ve chosen God in place of sin.
That means the Spirit of God has swooped down from heaven,
cleaned out our hearts,
and replaced that old sinful nature with God’s DNA.
We are children of God
We are sons and daughters of God.
God’s DNA is in us.
That means we cannot go on sinning.
Sin is totally out of character for us.
Here’s how the Bible puts it:
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 1 John 3:9 NIV
Here’s another way of looking at this is this:
Think about a race.
We were on the starting line with no hope of reaching the finish line.
Jesus picked us up and moved us from the starting line to the finish line.
We’re already there.
Who you really are
This is really important because
when we hear about all the things a good Christian does and is
it’s easy to think:
Oh, no. Here’s even more work I gotta do.
The race just got longer.
I’ll never be good enough.
Or, alternatively: I’m gonna work really hard and achieve this.
That’s not the point.
He’s telling you who you are.
You already are a generous person.
You already are a disciplined person.
You already are a person with an appetite for God’s word and prayer.
You already are a light in this dark world.
You might be thinking,
Dwight, you don’t know me.
I’m none of those things.
But, if you have Jesus,
you are mistaken.
That’s exactly who you are.
Let me tell you another story:
There once was a homeless man sleeping on a park bench. A private investigator woke him up and delivered some amazing news.
The man was NOT homeless. He actually owned a beautiful home, all paid for.
The man was NOT poor. He had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. He owned a nice car. He could eat a nice meal at a good restaurant. He was, in fact, wealthy.
What happened? How did this come about?
It turns out that the homeless man’s brother died and left his entire estate to the homeless man. He had everything.
Let me ask you a question: When did this homeless man become wealthy?
He became wealthy the moment his brother died.
Even though he thought he was homeless,
he was not.
In the same,
the moment you invited Jesus into your life
to be who He really is,
You became a new person.
Let me tell you who really are:
You are sons and daughters of Almighty God.
As such, you carry the moral qualities of your heavenly Father.
He is loving; you are loving.
He is confident; you are confident.
He is trustworthy; you are trustworthy.
You are created to live forever,
designed to make a difference,
engineered for excellence.
You are a change agent for good in a broken world.
You are an ambassador of Jesus Christ.
You are a representative for your God.
And the extent to which you don’t believe it
is the extent to which you are deceived.
If you have Jesus, the real you is filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
And this isn’t some kind of theological trick.
This is who you really are.
Why the discrepancy?
You may be asking:
“So if this is who we are,
why does my life often look and sound and feel so much different?
Why, for example, do we sin?”
I have an answer for that.
But let me say this first.
If Jesus is your Lord and Savior, sin is always an anomaly, always out of character.
Why do we sin?
To answer that, let’s look at why Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden.
Before they sinned, they didn’t have a sin nature.
They weren’t sinners.
Yet, they sinned anyway.
Because they were deceived … about …
• Self—we are deprived
• God—God is depriving us
• Live—there’s something better out there than what God gives us
They believed these lies and fell into sin.
Why do we sin?
The answer is simple.
We believe lies.
You might say what I used to say,
“What? Me? I’m not gullible. I don’t believe lies.”
The lies I’m talking about
are the things that feel true
even if you know they aren’t true.
Like: I’ll never be good enough.
God doesn’t like me.
I’m all alone.
I’m trapped and can’t get away.
My life makes no sense.
I’m not worth protecting.
And so on …
The reality is
living in a fallen world
we all pick up dozens—hundreds of these painful lies
and they hang out in the dark closets of our souls
waiting for a vulnerable moment
to come out and haunt us.
These are lies that cause pain.
What do we do when we’re in pain?
What do you do, for example, when you have a headache?
Chances are you reach for medication.
When we have a problem,
we look for a solution.
Sin is that solution.
Just as Adam and Eve ate the fruit
thinking it would solve the problem
of the imaginary deprivation
so also we reach for the forbidden fruit of sin
thinking it will solve our problems
and take away our pain.
We turn to comfort and defense
and the shortest route to comfort and defense
This is why most people don’t overcome sin.
Most people are fighting sin as a problem.
That doesn’t work.
Sin is a solution.
It’s a horrible solution.
It never works.
But it is a solution to a deeper problem.
If you want to get rid of sin in a believer
you find the problem
that sin is trying to solve.
The problem is almost always pain
caused by lies that feel true.
The truth that sets you free
Here’s where grace comes in:
Jesus grants us the truth that sets us free (John 8:32)
the truth about ourselves
the truth about our God
the truth about our lives.
But, when we’re tempted,
when we stumble,
when we sin,
we can ask ourselves two questions:
1. What problem am I trying to solve?
2. What lie am I believing?
This is how I overcame my anger at my wife when she got sick…
When I started looking at the problem I was trying to solve
and the lies I was believing
that caused me to sin against my wife,
here’s what I discovered:
When I was growing up
when my mom was sick
I didn’t feel safe.
I picked up this message:
When the woman in your life is sick
you are not safe.
And who wants to feel unsafe?
Feeling unsafe makes me feel small, vulnerable, out of control.
But feeling angry makes me feel big, powerful, in control.
So I turned to anger.
Anger was my solution.
And that anger was also my sin.
It wasn’t my sin nature that was causing me to yell at my wife.
My sin nature was dead.
Instead it was a lie I was believing.
A lie that wasn’t even clearly in focus for me.
But that lie was controlling my life.
That lie needed to be removed.
I received from Jesus
the truth that set me free.
I wasn’t there any more,
I wasn’t stuck in my childhood,
I was safe,
I was okay.
So, after that, when my wife got sick,
I didn’t have this same over-the-top response.
Our hurts matter to God
This is why it’s so important to share with God
what’s going on in your life
and ask His perspective.
This is one reason why our hurts matter to God.
One reason why Jesus wants to heal our hurts
is because that makes us stronger
and less susceptible to sin.
The line in our hearts
Here’s what we all have in common.
We all have a line in our hearts.
On one side of the line,
we’ve said “yes” to Jesus.
But on the other side of the line,
when we go to that line
find the next “no”
and turn it into a “yes.”
How do we do that?
We ask ourselves why.
Why don’t I want to say yes to Jesus here?
What’s going on?
What feels true?
What problem am I trying to solve
some other way?
We bring that to Jesus
and ask for His perspective.
He will give us the truth that sets us free.
This is the grace of God—
God working in our lives
to set us free from sin.
We’re all a work in progress:
Sometimes we believe lies
and, when we do,
that sometimes prompts us to sin.
But, when we’re tempted,
when we’re hurt,
when we stumble,
when we’re not quite ourselves,
we can reach out to Jesus
and receive from Him
the truth that sets us free.
It is the grace of God that sets us free from sin
and that grace will transform our lives.