As we saw in Part One, Adam and Eve fell for Satan's temptation by weighing only the penalties and the benefits of the fruit that appeared so pleasant to their eyes. They overlooked what their choice would do to their unique relationship with their Creator. When it is our turn to evaluate a course of action, rather than simply asking, "Is it salvational?" a wiser question is, "Is it relational?" That is, how will this decision affect the relationship with God?
In John 17:3, we find the well-known definition scripture for eternal life: "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." Salvation and eternal life are not strictly the same things, but they overlap enough in meaning and application that they cannot truly be separated.
Here, Jesus defines eternal life as knowing the Father and the Son, of having experiential and intimate knowledge of Them. He thus describes eternal life in relational terms. Because of this, we may need to adjust our thinking away from just penalties and benefits, curses and blessings, sticks and carrots. We must learn to think about eternal life and salvation in terms of our relationship with the Father and the Son.
Scripture proclaims an unbreakable bond between the love of God—which is the relationship—and our obedience to Him. In Christ's essential words during His last night with the disciples, notice how often He binds love and obedience as inseparable:
» "If you love Me, keep My commandments." (John 14:15)
» "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him." (John 14:21)
» "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me." (John 14:23-24)
» "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love." (John 15:10)
Jesus teaches that keeping His words is an act of love toward Him, so obedience to His instructions is at the core of the relationship. On the flipside, not keeping His words detracts from the relationship, demonstrating disdain for it.
To be clear, this in no way supports the popular notion that God's commandments are no longer binding and are to be kept (except for the Sabbath, of course) only because we love God. The Bible does not teach this at all. Rather, if there were no binding law, sin would not exist, for the law defines what sin is (Romans 3:20). We know that sin still exists, however, because of all the biblical warnings against it, and therefore, a definition of right and wrong must still be binding on us. Consequently, the way we approach the whole counsel of God demonstrates the value we place on that relationship, which is eternal life and salvation.
To understand how this works, consider another relationship: marriage. Little things make a big difference in a marriage because actions speak volumes. As we come to know our spouse, we learn what will cause a problem and what will make for good times. We discover what will irritate and what will encourage and edify. In this vein, approaching God's instructions by focusing on whether something is salvational is like behaving in marriage with the idea, "I'm going to do this thing I want to do, as long as my spouse won't divorce me for it."
Granted, habitually squeezing the toothpaste tube in the "wrong" place or putting the toilet paper on the "wrong" way probably will not cause a divorce (though, given the state of marriage today, it is not entirely out of the question). However, if we know that the other person cannot stand something, and we do it anyway, that pattern of choosing our desires over the other person's is bound to spill over into more critical areas.
This corrosive approach is guided by what we can get away with rather than what is best for the other person and the relationship. It is a calculus of lines to avoid, often combined with the assumption that we can talk our way out of trouble later. This tactic might work for a while, yet little by little, the relationship disintegrates because, on some level, it registers with the other person that he or she does not mean as much to us as we mean to ourselves.
This same principle of cause-and-effect applies in our relationship with God. Simply watching out for the so-called "big sins" suggests that we are not genuinely interested in conforming to Him—just in not crossing a major red line. Only a handful of verses explicitly name categories of sinners who will not inherit the Kingdom, yet God's revelation contains thousands upon thousands of verses that teach us in some way how to live with Him. He has called us to much more than merely glancing over lists of "deal-breakers" and concluding we are in good spiritual shape. We may honor God with our lips and go through the motions, but if we believe we are right with God simply because we do not think we have sinned in a way we consider to be salvational, we may be shocked on Judgment Day, as we will see in Part Three.
On the other hand, if our greatest desire is to live with God and like God for eternity, we will do our utmost to live that way right now. We will still stumble along the way, but our guiding approach will be whether an action will detract from the relationship, not simply whether we can find a threat of eternal death associated with it in the Bible.
Truly, everything matters. Everything does not matter to the same degree, but each action, each word, each thought that we do or do not bring into captivity (II Corinthians 10:5) matters because it has some bearing on our relationship with God. Adam and Eve took their peaceful and abundant relationship with their Creator for granted, and separation from God has been the norm ever since.
David C. Grabbe