The problem with earning salvation through keeping God’s commandments is that it calls for fair punishment. Salvation by merit implies that the severity of punishment should be in line with the severity of the specific failure. For example, it would be unfair to punish someone who never acts on a lustful thought and another who sleeps with his best friend’s wife in the same way.
That is exactly what happened in John 8. When a woman was caught in the act of adultery, the Law prescribed severe punishment (v. 5). It makes sense when you think about the damage that infidelity causes in families and communities. It is no minor feat. People lose their incomes, homes, and most important relationships as a result.
Fair punishment has a rightful place in society. Parents do not send their children to a juvenile facility for leaving socks on the floor, but selling drugs at school may warrant serious punishment like that. And fortunately, I do not go to jail for driving 80 km/hour in a 60 km zone, but 200 km/hour may well get me there. The damage done to society determines the severity of punishment.
Problem is, there is a major difference between human society and God’s Kingdom. While society consists of imperfect people, God’s Kingdom is perfect. So any sin, no matter how small, leaves the same black mark on a perfect white canvas. Jesus points out this truth in the scene of the adulterous woman. “They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, ‘All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!’” (John 8:7, NLT).
Do you know of people whose sins are more serious than yours? Which punishment would be appropriate for the sins that you have committed over the past 24 hours?
Let us remind ourselves of the equal punishment that all sinners deserve. And let us not be fooled into thinking that we are keeping enough “serious” commandments to earn salvation without Christ’s grace. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, NLT).