Perspective: Five Scriptures We Christians Should Ponder

(system) #1

Before his retirement from denominational employment in 2011, James Coffin served for nearly 36 years as a youth pastor, senior pastor and editor for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He currently is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. His executive committee has representation from an array of faith traditions: Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian (both Catholic and Protestant), Hindu, Jewish, Muslim (both Sunni and Shia), Sikh and Unitarian. In the following article, Coffin calls on fellow Christians--on the basis of our own Christian scriptures--to be more gracious, less judgmental and more reticent to engage in dogmatic pronouncements when dealing with those of other faiths or no faith.

Five or six years ago, the rabbi from the synagogue next door to the church I was pastoring asked if he could bring a group of Jewish youth to my church for a tour and a question-and-answer period about Christianity. I was happy to oblige.

The questions the Jewish youth asked were well-considered. But I quickly noticed a pattern: “What is hell?” “What does it mean to ‘be damned’?” “What does it mean to ‘be lost’?” “What does ‘not saved’ mean?”

It soon came out that at the schools the Jewish youth attended they were subjected to a steady stream of comment and innuendo from Christian students about their eternal destiny–because they hadn’t accepted Jesus as their “Lord and Savior.”

It was disconcerting to me as a Christian to see those Jewish youth so distraught by the “unchristian” taunts of the pro-Jesus majority in their schools. Although I use the word “taunt,” the Christian students–and their parents–would probably say they were just “speaking truth.” Bearing the straight testimony. “After all,” they probably would say, “facts are facts.” But such an approach didn’t endear them to the Jewish recipients of their judgments–quite understandably, I’d say. Such insensitive comments don't win friends or build bridges to those of other faiths.

What the Jewish youth faced wasn’t Golden Rule behavior–at least, not according to my understanding of the concept. In great measure, the militant Christian students who felt so free to pass judgment on their Jewish counterparts were no doubt parroting what they’d heard at home, in scripture classes and from the pulpit at church.

Granted, the Christian scriptures indeed do claim that Jesus is the sole path to salvation (see John 14:6, Acts 4:12). However, there are other verses in the Christian scriptures that help provide a much fuller perspective, verses that too often we overlook–and that certainly were overlooked by the Christian students in their taunts. I’m going to consider just five such verses here.

Verse One. Let’s start with John 10:16. Jesus says: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.” That’s a radical statement. Jesus is saying that there are truly spiritual people who don’t wear the labels and have the trappings that most of his listeners would have associated with being part of “the elect,” “the saved,” “the chosen,” “the remnant,” “the saints.”

His statement is more than a little frustrating to us–curious creatures that we are!–because it means that, even based on Christianity’s holy writings, we don’t have a clue just who and where those “other sheep” are. Did the youthful Christians stop to think that all or some of the Jewish youth they were taunting could actually be in that spiritually OK group that Jesus himself identified?

Verse Two. The Christian scriptures provide certain “job descriptions,” and one of the most important is recorded in John 5:22: “The Father judges no one but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.”

For Christians, this text has deep significance and provides a great sense of relief. God the Father, a being beyond our comprehension, isn’t the one who will judge us. Rather, Jesus, who lived, worked and rubbed shoulders with humans for some 33 years, is the one who will decide our fate.

In Jesus, we’re truly facing a jury/judge of our “peers.” We’re not being judged by some being who has no personal understanding of what the human experience is really all about. Rather, we’re being judged by one of our own.

But the main point I wish to emphasize is that the scriptural job description says all judgment falls under Jesus’ purview. No exceptions are stated or implied about any humans having been commissioned to the task of judging the eternal fate of their fellow humans.

Verse Three. The preceding verse about Jesus being the sole judge contains no ambiguity. But humans are slow learners. So in Luke 6:37 we have a sort of reminder memo about who’s supposed to be doing which tasks, plus a bit of the rationale: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

If the Christian students who taunted the Jewish students about their assumed salvation/damnation status had truly taken Luke 6:37 to heart, their approach would have been altogether different. The text makes it clear that judgment begets judgment and condemnation begets condemnation. Had the Christian students stayed out of the judgment business altogether–as our job description in the Christian scriptures calls for–there would have been no condemnation bouncing back at them.

Most traditional Christians teach that some people will be saved and some will be lost, even among Christians. But few preachers would presume to look out across a congregation and specify who’s in and who’s out. So why do we as Christians feel so free to look out over the totality of humanity and speak as if we know who are in the group of “other sheep” and who aren’t?

In our conversation, in our preaching and in our religious writing, we as Christians repeatedly label anyone who isn’t “us” as being “lost.” We often couple the word “lost” and the word “souls”–“lost souls.” However, according to our own Christian scriptures, making such pronouncements is w-a-a-a-a-y above our pay grade. To use such judgmental language is trying to play a role that’s unique to Jesus’ job description, and his alone. That’s solid Christian-scripture teaching.

Verse Four. It’s widely believed in Christian circles that God is relatively tolerant toward people who haven’t heard the Christian version of spiritual reality. But when it has been heard, each individual must make a choice. Refusal to believe at that point seriously calls into question the likelihood of salvation.

The problem is, would-be evangelizers often fail to take into account the complex array of factors involved in accepting a new spiritual paradigm. Does the person being evangelized already have a satisfying faith? While a new belief structure might answer some previously unanswered questions, does it also raise new and even more disturbing questions? What does the collective behavior of the adherents of the evangelizing faith suggest about the power and benefit of that belief system? How does the new paradigm line up with all knowledge gained to date? So many questions.

All of the foregoing and much, much more are involved in “conversion.” So the evangelizer shouldn’t be surprised when certain obstacles are seen by the evangelized as insurmountable–when a person, in good conscience, simply can’t buy into the new spiritual paradigm.

Which, I believe, is the reason the writer of the little book of Jude said (verse 22): “Be merciful to those who doubt.” Could it be that the designated sole judge in our Christian scriptures–Jesus–recognizes that belief isn’t as simple and straightforward as some assume. Therefore, we should be merciful toward those who don’t see it our way, keeping in mind that they may well be part of that “other sheep” group that Jesus talked about positively.

Verse Five. My final text is Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We call this passage the Golden Rule. It’s such a simple concept. But it’s so hard to apply–especially when you’re dead certain that you are right, and equally certain that “they” are wrong.

But if the tables were turned, and if we Christians were in the minority, and the students in the schools were taunting Christian youth about their eternal destiny, I think we might be just as concerned as the Jewish youth were when they talked to me. So, in harmony with the Golden Rule, let’s be willing to share the reasons for our belief, but–as our own scriptures call for–let’s leave to Jesus the determinations about who’s damned and who’s saved, and who has the right heart relationship with Unltimate Reality and who doesn’t.

I’m not asking any of us as Christians to water down our certainty about Christianity. I’m not seeking to negate the gospel commission, which Jesus himself gave. I’m just saying that there’s a time to speak and a time to keep silent.

But there’s never a time for us to presume to know anyone else’s eternal destiny, because, according to our own Christian scriptures, that job has already been assigned. And it definitely wasn’t assigned to us.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Tom Loop) #2

I like this very much. I am a member of the SDA church and I return my tithe to my church to support its worldwide
ministry> I have believed however that as a denomination we should not get to smug in this “we are the remnant church” attitude. Absolutely, Jesus said he had sheep in other folds. To me this demonstrates Christ’s inclusiveness that transcends demoninationalism. Jesus goes on to say that His sheep hear His voice, and follow Him. He says that at the end there will be one fold and one shepherd. This tells me I need to listen to the voice of Shepherd, and know it when I hear it.
Too often I hear shouts of “We have the truth.” Such boasts leave me to ask, “does the truth have us?” Tthe truth is that Jesus died for both you and me and he wants to save both of us in his Kingdom. He also wants us to spread the word around and in winsome ways try to convince people of the everlasting gospel and the new covenant in Jesus. Jesus was always merciful to the doubting Thomases of the world. Unconvinced, many still marveled at his winsomeness and eagerness to make them part of his flock. We should do no less.

I rermember well a lady who was torn between leaving her beliefs and embracing some new ones near the end of one of our evangelistic series. Her chruch had been there for her when her husband left her and had shown love and support. Too often we get the notion that folks should just up and leave an old beliefs system for what we believe. She needed more than persuasive argument. She needed love, understanding, room for the Holy Spirit to lead her and for us to not crowd her, but demonstrate genuine love and inclusiveness. Well we did just that, and she finally decided to join our church. That was 24 years ago. We have moved since then, but returned for a visit last fall. That lady is one of the sweatest Adventists I know.

The Golden Rule transcends all religions and faiths and lies at the very foundation of all that fits us for heaven. “When we love the world as He loved it, for Him His mission is accomplished. We are fitted for heaven, because we have heaven in our hearts.” Our Father Cares p. 261 (Morning Devotional from pen of EGW)

(Thomas J Zwemer) #3

it is great to have Pastor James Coffin back. Tom Z

(Chris Blake24) #4

Shane Claiborne told me a story of Peter and Paul at the pearly gate of heaven. Both are puzzled because more people are in heaven than are officially on the “saved” books. Soon John comes running and breathlessly informs them, “I found the problem! Jesus is over there helping people over the wall.”

Thanks, Jim. Keep up the good work.

(Rheticus) #5

Excellent material - strongly agree with it.

The Christian version comes in two forms - Christ’s version and the version people professing to follow Him promulgate.

The former may or may not be attractive - only those alive when He was have heard it.

The later is often repulsive.

One of my pet peeves against professing Christians is their obvious abuse of “certainty”. They are so certain of things that no-one has the right to be certain about.

They need to distinguish between “there is overwhelming evidence in favor of”, and “I am going to act on this, even though I acknowledge the lack of evidence”.

No one is certain God exists, that Jesus was anything other than a man, that there is life after death. If you tell me you are, I conclude that you are using a different meaning of the word than I use, or that you are extremely gullible.

This gullibility is one reason why people reject the message promulgated by Christians - because Christians come across as extremely gullible people because they are certain about things that clearly lack evidence.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #6

the testimony of eye witnesses in court is accepted as evidence. Never the less, It is trust or by faith one acts upon that testimony. The cock sure attitude is certainly a turn off. particular those who would be a show off with a put down of all others. They are a bigger turn off than the scoffers. Tom Z

(Rheticus) #7

and yet modern legal experience has discovered how incredibly unreliable eye-witnesses are

and we don’t allow third hand accounts at all

(Elaine Nelson) #8

If there is one thing above all that the world finds intolerable it is the judgmental attitude of Christians. No, not all Christians, but those who ar most vocal and claim that their positions are the only ones.

This is a very timely reminder that we should constantly remember. It should be preached in every SdA church.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #9

read 1 Cor. 15. 500 eye witnesses brother., Tom Zwemer

(Elaine Nelson) #10

The number of witnesses is not confirmed by one of the Gospels which record that he ascended the day of His Resurrection; another that it was 40 days later and another who gave a different account. Which one should be accepted as the only true one? The Gospels have so many contradictions that it cannot be determined which, if any, are the only factual and true account.

(Allen Shepherd) #11

This is a more difficult problem than is stated here. Especially when Jewish sentiments are involved.

  1. The teaching of the apostles assumes a sort of replacement theory. Peter and Matthew are particularly guilty of this. Matth 21:33ff, Matthew 23, and I Peter 2. Peter even appropriates the “chosen people” statement from Deut. If you were Jewish, wouldn’t that be a bit offensive?
  2. Christians were in the minority at one time, and are taking some hits now. And they were persecuted by the majority. Now I am not tit for tat, but I am not sure that this statement about majority or minority status is helpful.
  3. I agree there is a time for speech and for silence. Coffin, taking a post such as he has, is telling where his sentiments lie (mostly silence?). The gospel is offensive. Jesus said there would not be peace, but a sword. We do not need to be offensive to offend, it is just a natural result of the gospel. The evangelistic kids may have been perfectly within bounds. To believe in the truth of one’s position and to advocate for it is not sinful.

(Allen Shepherd) #12

That is why an effort is made to get as many witnesses as possible. One still has to rely on them, for there is often no other witness available. That is why there are 4 gospels.

(Rheticus) #13

One does NOT have to rely on them. Instead one can admit to uncertainty and choose ones actions accordingly.

Choosing to follow the Golden Rule does not require me to be certain about anything. Choosing to follow the narrow way that I find traces of in the Gospels and other places does not require me to say with certainty that God exists and I am saved.

Indeed, given the commandment about bearing a false witness, one could argue that it is directly against the Bible to claim one is certain about such things - unless one uses a rather perverse definition of certainty.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #14

yes Christ had not retuned to heaven at the encounter with Mary. he had been to heaven and back by the time of His walk with Emmaus. He remained on Earth for 40 days before His visible ascension. Tom Z

(Allen Shepherd) #15

I did not use the word “certainty” in my post, but I know the more liberal set really doesn’t like that attitude. Sort of equated with “dogmatism” certainly an anathema. But I think some certainty is allowed, and good. Paul said, facing death: I KNOW whom I have believed and am PERSUADED that is is able… I would like to have such certainty when I face that great leveler as well.

And without the witness of the gospels, what to we have to build our faith on?

(Rheticus) #16

The unknown editor of the book of 1st Corinthians writes that Paul writes that Paul has heard others say that there were more than 500 witnesses to Jesus being resurrected.

It is enough to give me some level of willingness to accept.

It is not enough to make me certain, because I can produce reports of thousands of witnesses to events that I don’t believe happened.

(Rheticus) #17

There is a difference between building a true sense of faith and building a false sense of certainty.

(Elaine Nelson) #18

Paul never either heard or saw Jesus but He became an ardent believer, converted many, and yet the Gospels were not written for decades later. He converted many to CHRISTIANITY by other witnesses. Jesus never sought to convert anyone from Judaism, but gave us principles of love, mercy, and forgiveness which are the hallmarks of Christianity.

There are far too many contradictions in the Gospels and first chapters of Acts of the time following Jesus’ Resurrection to be certain of the time and details. If Luke is the writer of Acts, he gave two different accounts of the time following the resurrection to Jesus’ ascension. In his Gospel he reports the ascension the day of the Resurrection; but in Acts, he writes that it was 40 days later.

Mark reports that Jesus was “taken up” the same day of the resurrection (verses 9-20 are not in the best manuscripts and have been added later). John doesn’t report an ascension.

Christian faith is not built on or supported by literal factual accounts, but the sincerity and belief of those who instilled that same hope in others.

(Carrol Grady`) #19

Thanks, Jim, for this powerful argument against judging others. We cannot even read our own hearts rightly in order to judge ourselves, much less anyone else. And If we have the hope that Jesus will forgive us, shouldn’t we be willing to offer others forgiveness and mercy? Just one thing - since God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all aspects of one person, we shouldn’t fear any of them.

(Sirje) #20

It seems, from my own experience, that those who speak most ardently about their certainty on these issues are demonstrating the fragile nature of their faith. Most strident believers are simply trying to convince themselves because they’re afraid of loosing their faith, and all that that could possibly mean. This is most evident when we face a crisis; and repeating that, “all will be fine,” demonstrates how afraid we really are that it won’t.

What we’re talking about is feelings, more than actually believing. There has to be some degree of proof for anyone to believe in anything. When it comes to believing in what the Bible says, we all know it depends on who has taught us what it means - not what it says. Meaning is placed on Bible passages based on interpretations. Our belief system is very much dependent on how we have been brought up. For most, certainty in a system of beliefs is on the same level as all other customs that surround us from our childhood. This is so very evident here, where a lot of ex-SDAs hang out. Even if cognitively we disagree or even reject SDA beliefs, the ties from childhood still bind us to the familiar. The more insular the communities we grow up in, the harder it is to let go - because, not only is religious belief involved, but all the cultural influences that religion impacts - and it all makes us WHO WE ARE. For those who come to a belief system later in life, it’s much easier to be more objective about statements of belief. We’re not saddled with all the other ties that bind.

It seems, however, that a belief in Christian certainties has to transcend a simplistic belief, and should be attended by some spiritual element that convinces. Otherwise, what the Christian faith proports can’t be true.