There’s been a big bru-ha-ha this week about Rugby player Israel Folau’s social media posts. Folau’s posts were an old-skool “The end of the world is nigh” style post which warned that all manner of people are going to hell unless they repent. His post was stark and made without context. He has been pilloried on social media and Rugby Australia is going to end his contract.
Is Folau right? Is social media and Rugby Australia right? And where does that leave us? This is important because when things like this unfold, good Christian people feel unsure and lose confidence. If he’s right, why does his message make me feel so queasy? If he’s right, why does it feel like the world is right to argue against him? Am I wrong? This becomes a stumbling block to us. It stops us engaging with the world because we feel like what we have to say is not valid. It makes us question what we believe.
Let’s pick it apart because in one sense its complicated and in another, its very simple – He’s not exactly wrong but without context and nuance, he is misleading and his methods were not right or helpful.
Folau’s list of the condemned is taken from Galatians 5:19-21:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy,outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
So on the face of it, one might say Folau is merely taking his words directly from the Bible. But what his post (without context) effectively says is that “All these groups of people are going to hell unless they accept Jesus.” This is problematic.
- These sin-groups are not “those other people” who need to come to Jesus, its all of us. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, is not saying this to non-believers. He’s saying it to early Christians. They’re not great Christians (hence the letter correcting them), but they are believers who already have Jesus. Folau, in sending his message out to “all you other people” (which is what his post read as), created division and hierarchy – it implied that believers are OK and better, while you other people need to get with the program;
- Nobody was ever converted through anger, hate or fear-mongering. Jesus said repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:5) – not repent because you are damned so you better.
- We are commanded to spread the good news (Matthew 28:16-20) but the greatest evangelist of all – Paul – was very clear on how the message is protected and communicated. In 1 Corinthians 9:20 Paul explains that he changes his communication style so as to remove barriers to his audience. Then we see his doing this in Acts 17 as Paul goes to the areopagus in Athens to argue the facts of the gospel in a native forum. Furthermore, Paul throughout his letters, repeats that Christians should treat “outsiders” with grace (Col. 4:5-6) and that the conduct of Christians themselves should be beyond reproach and full of respect so as not to bring the gospel into disrepute (1 Peter 2:12).
Let’s go back to the message itself because those are God-breathed words of scripture. What Folau did that is quite annoying is quote scripture out of context. I noted above that Paul’s words were directed to people who already had Jesus, so lets look at the whole context of the passage.
Paul is writing to the Galatians who, as very baby Christians were being led astray by people preaching a false gospel. In addition, they were not living as Christians ought – with love and obedience and grace. At the beginning of Chapter 5 of Galatians, Paul explains that we have been given freedom in Christ – but not freedom to do whatever we want and to live as they did before. And then he says:
“I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy,outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,goodness, faith gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:16-26).
Now, there’s an awful lot more that could be said about this, but for the sake of brevity, let’s keep it simple. What he is essentially saying is, don’t live by your rules and do whatever you want because that’s not what God wants for us. If you walk by the spirit, all those other things, by necessity will fall away. The more we live by Christ, the less we will live for ourselves. He describes this by contrasting spirit and flesh. Signs of living by the flesh are obvious, he says. It’s all those things that Folau has listed. We want to not do that, and do do the things of the spirit.
So part of the context of the passage is contrasting the behavior we want to avoid, with the behavior we want to cultivate as Christians.
It does say in this passage that people that practice those things will not inherit the kingdom of God – they won’t go to heaven. But lets be clear. The people who do these things are not going to hell just because they are doing those things. These things are a signal of whether you are in Christ and growing in Christ-likeness. They are a sign of where your heart is.
There are a few things to say about this. First, there is not special categories of sin that get special degrees of condemnation. My mate is not going to be kept out of heaven because he’s gay, he’s going to be kept out because he doesn’t believe in Jesus. I don’t try and witness to him about stopping being gay. He was born that way. I witness to him about Jesus. That’s my part in God’s plan. When and if he finds Jesus, the rest gets worked out between him and God as he grows in his faith journey. I would walk along side him as best I can but his sexuality is not my primary concern and I’m not going to judge him for it – his relationship with Christ is my interest. And I try and witness with patience and grace and love, sometimes through words and most of the time through loving behavior. Not with Bible bashing and brow beating and scare-mongering.
Second, there are sins on this list that we all have in our past, and some that we all still struggle with. To imply that anyone who does these things ever is going to hell is disingenuous and is contrary to God’s revealed plan and character. There are plenty of sober alcoholics who still struggle. There are many same sex attracted Christians who have chosen celibacy. I, as a single person, choose celibacy over bonking with impunity. None of these choices are easy. On top of that, we are all liars. We are all idolaters. But we, like the Galatians, have Christ.
This list of people who will not inherit the kingdom reminds us how powerless we are to get over ourselves. It reminds us how desperately we need Jesus to build the bridge from our sin to God’s presence.
Third, we should not read into Galatians – or Folau’s post – that the instant we do any of those things, we lose our salvation. If you, as a believer, go out and get drunk this weekend, you aren’t going to hell. Paul knew better than any that we are prone to sin. Again, that’s why we need Jesus. The point is that we don’t intend to go and do those things (if you do, then there’s a convo that needs to be had with some close Christian friends). Having done something though, whatever the sin is (and they will be many and frequent), we repent quickly and honestly. But we don’t lose our salvation when the sin happens and get it back when we repent. We always have our salvation. The quickness of our repentance is a sign of how we are maturing in Christ. And hopefully (although brokenly), the gap between particular sins gets longer and longer as we grow in Christ-likeness.
So yes, in it’s starkest form, sinners will not inherit – that’s the whole basis of the gospel. They will not inherit, but that’s why Jesus came, so we could.
And yes, in it’s starkest form, without accepting Jesus, then we are rejecting the means to inherit the kingdom.
BUT we should not present that message in a manner designed to scare people into action. Fear (reverent awe) of the Lord is good, but terrifying someone to compel them to act is ultimately flawed (and mean). Conversions made by fear (if any!) will quickly disappear once the fear fades. Only conversions made in a genuine choice of love and gratitude last.
BUT just because we are going to heaven, does not mean that we get to judge people (that’s God’s job, not ours) or be a sanctimonious ass.
So if anyone asks you what you think about the Israel Folau issue, tell them that what he wrote was true in the sense that everyone needs Jesus to get into heaven. But what he wrote shouldn’t suggest that we all aren’t sinners, or that we don’t still struggle with these things. Tell them that we are instructed to communicate with love and respect – and if you don’t feel that’s how Folau communicated, its OK to say that. Folau is not a bad man, his communication just lacked context and grace. Draw the focus from Folau back to the gospel, which is good news.