Before you click off this article after seeing yet another article on Israel Folau, let me assure you that this article is different. Trust me, I’m just as tired of these news stories clogging up my newsfeed as you are, and I’ve heard many an opinion on this issue from every perspective. The discussions surrounding free speech, persecution, and political and legal ramifications are all important, but I’d prefer to leave them to those much wiser and informed than myself.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the spiritual implications of the original Instagram post which began this controversy, and reflect on what it means for the online presence of Christians.
This is the Instagram post which placed Folau into months of legal mitigations and placed the Australian national spotlight burning hot on him. The post itself is actually an abbreviation or a simplified list of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, in which the apostle Paul gives a list of those who will not enter the Kingdom of God. Each of the categories (e.g. adulterers, idolaters) appear in the Bible verse though in a different order (and the category of ‘atheist’ is not explicit in the verse though it is listed in the post). Such a bold and radical statement left the world furious, but it also left me frustrated too, but not for the reason you might expect.
Is the post wrong? Technically no. It’s an abbreviation of a Bible verse, and its message is technically true, but I would also argue it is only half true. What frustrated me about the post, was that it only summarised 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, but omitted verse 11.
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:9-11
What a completely different tone the verse takes when read in its full and proper context! No longer does it read as a verse of condemnation, but one of hope and forgiveness! That for those who are struggling with sin, they need not be afraid of punishment because God has already done the work for them so that they can stand before him innocent.
Granted, the post does have ‘Repent! Only Jesus Saves’ at the very bottom of the post, but its font is significantly smaller than that of ‘Hell Awaits You’ right above it, and it feels more like a threat than a loving call in the context of the post. Even the small appeal to repent in the description is an insufficient portrayal of the Gospel.
Furthermore, the Bible verse he includes underneath this appeal is another list of sinners who cannot enter the Kingdom of God from Galatians 5. The same mistake is made as only the portion of Scripture referring to judgement is quoted, when literally the next two verses are an appeal to live according to the Spirit since ‘ those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,’ once again offering hope to sinners.
So, my primary problem with the post would be that it was not a full explanation of the Gospel, which is why it is technically true, but only half true. The Gospel is comprised of two elements: justice and mercy.
The reality of the Gospel can only be properly recognised when we understand that we are all sinners. That we are guilty of violating God’s law because we have committed fornication, and we do lie regularly, and we have all stolen. Because of this we are deserving of the punishment of death as a legal debt to God. But if the message is left there, then you have not preached the Gospel. You have only half preached it.
The good news is that God in his infinite love, humbled himself by becoming a man, leaving behind the benefits of Heaven to come to a sinful earth where he lived a perfect and sinless life, and died on behalf of humanity, taking the punishment we all deserve. Because of that, God is now able to show mercy to all of humanity, to any who come to him, confess their sins and repent, and accept the loving sacrifice of Jesus.
That is the full story of the Gospel, where at the cross, justice and mercy meet perfectly.
Boomers and Zoomers
Yet Christians today struggle to find that cooperative union between justice and mercy, and have for centuries. King David was a man full of abundant mercy towards his children. Yet when one of his sons violated his own sister, David could not bring himself to execute justice impartially and ensure that the right thing was done.
The attitude of the Pharisees was one in which the letter of the law was so emphasised, that only strict adherence to the law was accepted, and mercy was seldom given, an attitude which Jesus strongly opposed. Having an over-emphasis of either concept without the other leads to either injustice or hopelessness, both of which are terrible outcomes a Christian should aim to avoid.
In my experience, I’ve found that it is Christians of older generations who typically share posts like Folau’s, those which focus on the reality of sin, death and hell. Whereas younger generations such as my own, have a tendency to only post nice cutesy photos with Bible passages that only ever speak of God’s mercy, the problem being that God’s ‘mercy’ has no context for him to be merciful in.
The net consequence in both circumstances is the same: unsaved sinners. Because either the sinner has been told of their dilemma but been given no solution, or they have been given a solution to a problem they don’t know exists! Justice and mercy must come together to present the full and true Gospel, which alone has the power to save lost souls and bring them into the Kingdom of God.
In Folau’s defence, his Instagram page has other posts which focus on the love and mercy of God, but it was equally easy to find more over-emphasised justice posts. But let’s not use this situation to point fingers. Rather let it be an opportunity to reflect on your own understanding of the Gospel. In your depiction of God and the Gospel, do you over-empahsise one aspect at the detriment of the other? In your interactions both online and offline, do you tend to talk about one aspect of God’s character without mentioning the other?
The gospel is not only justice. The gospel is not only mercy. The cross is an amazing union of justice and mercy, and we have a duty to tell the world the fullest and truest reality of the good news of the Gospel and the ultimate love and beauty of the just and merciful God we serve. How will you share that message today?
By Christopher Petersen