I was sitting in prison with six other men. We were gathered around a table and we each had a mug of mud-tasting coffee and an open Bible. I was the only one not dressed in a prison uniform, the only one who could pass through the gates later in the day and go home. These men were my students and they were trying to understand the Christian answer to the profound pressing question, “What must we do to be saved?”
“But why should we be condemned just because we don’t believe?” asked one prisoner.
The good news of salvation is necessarily shadowed by the bad news of damnation and my students were momentarily troubled by that bad news.
I had shown from the Bible that, by the sacrifice of his Son, God has done everything that needs to be done to achieve our salvation, which he offers to us as a gift; and in response, he requires simply that we accept the gift by believing in his Son. From the human side, the sole requirement for salvation from sin and punishment is faith, trust, belief in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31; Romans 10:9; etc).
My students seemed to agree that this is a true reflection of the Bible’s teaching about the way of salvation, but suddenly somehow they found that way offensive.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” another prisoner agreed with the first. “It doesn’t seem fair that God should damn a person just because he doesn’t believe in Jesus.”
“You’ve got it the wrong way round,” I replied. “The Bible doesn’t say that we will be condemned if we don’t believe. It says that each one of us is condemned already, but if we do believe in Jesus Christ we will be pardoned.”
I drew their attention to Jesus’ own claim that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). This statement reveals that God’s condemnation of sinners is not confined to the future. We are already subject to his righteous anger. However, he sets aside his anger if we believe in his Son, Jesus. But if we refuse to believe, his anger remains in force.
The psalmist declares, “from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die” (Psalm 102:19-20). We are the prisoners of whom the psalmist is speaking. Having broken God’s moral law, we have been bound over for judgment. But this situation gives God no pleasure. Long ago he looked down and saw us languishing in the death cells. He had pity on us and initiated a plan to set us free.
The law justly demanded our death, but God satisfied the law by executing his Son instead of us. The Lord Jesus willing went to the cross to suffer the punishment we deserve. He died in our place and on our behalf, and so he did everything necessary to secure our release. God has written a pardon in his blood. This pardon becomes ours when we personally repent of our sins and believe in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
God both commands and promises: “Believe and go free!” But he also warns: “If you refuse to believe, you cannot be pardoned. You will remain in prison, and the death sentence will be carried out.”
Can God be fairer than that?