This is part of a series of posts looking at your questions about theology.
Question: Does believing that Jesus died for our sins give people a free pass to heaven, no matter how much they oppress or hurt others in this life?
Jeremy Jernigan – Executive Pastor
What does Hitler deserve for eternity? Most people would answer with a creative version of Hell that would rival anything Dante dreamed up. But what if Hitler had been forgiven by God? What about all the countless damage he did to the lives of millions of people? We have no indication that Hitler ever repented, so this illustration doesn’t easily go further.
But you may remember another guy named Jeffrey Dahmer. He was a serial killer convicted of brutally killing more than seventeen people. The details in the news about his actions were nauseating. He was sentenced to fifteen life terms but was killed in prison by another inmate. What you might not know is that Jeffrey Dahmer gave his life to Jesus while in prison. As you can imagine, this created a buzz of skepticism. How could someone like him experience forgiveness after what he’d done? The minister who baptized Jeffrey in prison was named Roy Ratcliff and in speaking of his time with Jeffrey, Roy had this to say:
“One of the most common questions put to me about Jeff has to do with the sincerity of his faith. And I usually hear this from Christians. They ask if Jeff was truly sincere in his desire or baptism and in his Christian life. My answer is always the same: Yes, I am convinced he was sincere.”
Forgiveness and grace are mysterious things.
The apostle Paul talks about grace this way: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). Because of Christ, we are actually justified in God’s sight when we submit to Jesus Christ. This is regardless of what we’ve done. In fact, Paul goes further to explain that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). There’s no sin that’s a match for God’s grace. We just followed Paul’s logic from chapter three to five, and we need to now visit what he says in chapter six (on a side note, chapters and verses were all added later and do not necessary reflect the structure or flow of the original writers).
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)
If you process through this way of thinking (and there are plenty of other examples), we see a tension between the grace of salvation apart from our actions as well as an implied change to our actions based on the grace we’ve received. It is incongruous for a Christian who is filled with the Holy Spirit to hurt or oppress others. It is literally contrary to the new nature inside them (2 Peter 1:4). As Paul says, we died to that nature and shouldn’t allow it to keep on living. To use the language in the actual question itself, it can hardly be imagined that anyone clinging to a “free pass” for salvation (while also living however they want), has a clear understanding of the Holy Spirit in their life.
Yet that Christian can still live under grace and experience salvation through Christ’s actions on the cross. This continues despite the ways they fall short of God’s desire for their life. It is not our job to try and decide who is in or out based on their actions, but rather to focus on living in harmony with the Holy Spirit inside us. We can even help other Christians to better submit to the Spirit of God in their life as we live together in community. The goal for us all is to act more like Jesus and less like people who hurt and oppress others. God’s grace sorts out the middle ground in between where we fall short of this.
God can forgive whoever He wants, even someone like Jeffrey Dahmer. But we can also know that a life in submission to Christ won’t be characterized by how we hurt and oppress others.
“It’s not our job to decide who is in or out, but to live in harmony with the Holy Spirit.” @jeremyjerniganClick to tweet
Disclaimer: I’m providing you with my answer to these questions and what makes the most sense to me Biblically. There are numerous other Christians who would provide different answers. If you disagree with me, there’s no need to email me or any other staff member. I’m not making sweeping statements that define all views of Central and its leadership. The point is to create an environment where we go deeper in our understanding and experience with God. At the very least I invite you to consider thoughtfully the answers I give, even if they differ from your views. If you would like to talk through this post with someone, please email us at email@example.com.Click here for the photo credit on this post