“I’m going to ask you for the ninth time. Have you really sought God’s direction as to whether this is the message he has for you to give these people?”
“Jesus was very clear…”
“No. I’m asking you a personal question. Have you prayed about this? How do you know, out of the thousands of sentences you could write on a sign like this, that “The Party Ends in Hell” is the best one?”
“It’s a good message.”
“But have you asked God whether it’s his idea or yours?”
A girl about 18 years old had been standing in observation of this exchange, between myself and the bearded sign-holder at the corner of South and Walnut, and she broke in.
“OK. Let’s say I’m one of the people who came here to party, and let’s say I come up to you holding your sign, and ask you how I can keep the party from ending in hell. I mean, I know I’m going to heaven. But if I didn’t, and I asked you how I could get there, what would you say?”
“I would say to avoid adorning yourself with braided hair, gold and pearls or costly array; to adorn yourself in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety.”
“Wait,” I said, “Nothing about the cross, about Jesus’ blood?”
“Jesus said if you love me you will obey my commandments, and we will to do these works through the blood of Christ.”
The girl spoke up again, “But if I don’t even know Jesus, and I don’t love him, then I could put on a turtleneck and a long skirt and it wouldn’t do me any good!”
“She’ll be a very modestly dressed hell-dweller,” I quipped.
Our conversation with this middle-aged sign-holder had been going for fifteen minutes or so before this particular exchange began, and it continued along this vein for a few minutes more. He was not a hot-head as you might imagine. He was at all times either thoughtful, patient and shy, or somewhat of a dead-eyed automaton. If any words came quickly, they were clearly words which had been well-rehearsed, and more often than not, unhelpful to the question being asked. Nevertheless, his manner was calm and respectful.
As we went round and round, another sign-holder stepped up, with only a one-word message in his own hands: “Repent.” This was a younger man, with blond hair and beard, with whom I had talked once before. Unlike some of the other sign-holders, I thought I had seen a glimmer of real reason in his eyes, and had been impressed in the past by his heartfelt motives, even if I severely differed with his method.
This younger man stepped in, ostensibly to bail out his middle-aged friend, who was apparently having trouble.
“Galatians 5:19 says that adulterers, fornicators, drunkards and revellers will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and Jesus says that those who love me will obey my commandments.”
We both protested. “But it is the blood of Jesus that actually saves people.”
“You are caught up in faith-only theology, pitting Paul against James and Jesus.”
“But I think Paul, James and Jesus all agree about faith and works.”
“Jesus taught that you are saved when you obey his commandments,” the young sign-holder said.
“It sounds like you’re saying that you have to earn your salvation, ” I suggested.
“Look,” he said, getting more agitated. “I was raised with the preaching that God forgives everything… that we can all do whatever we want and God will always forgive us no matter what. I was in the youth group, and I just sat in the back of the bus whenever we went anywhere and smoked pot.”
“I was raised learning salvation by faith, and I never heard a pastor suggest you can live however you want. Works are the sign of a living faith,” I said.
“But faith alone always ends up in people doing whatever they want.”
“So what you’re saying is that you’ve paid for your ticket to heaven by being good.”
“I don’t deserve the credit. Jesus made it possible.”
“But it sounds like he’s just keeping his end of the contract. What’s so great about that? He said himself that a worker deserves his wages. If I do a good job, and Jesus pays me with a ticket to heaven, then what was the whole point of the cross? Jesus didn’t even do me any favors; I did it all myself! He’s no different than an employer writing paychecks…”
“But your boss did you a favor by hiring you, right?”
“Maybe, but if I turn out to be a good employee, you could say I did him a favor by applying in the first place.”
Things were started to get heated. I felt like I was maintaining my composure well enough, but I could see the fire in his eyes; his agitation was obvious. This was not the same thoughtful young man I had met before, so I began to wonder what had happened to him between then and now. Had he become more committed to his message since then? or less? I don’t know if it was right or not, but I was starting to feel like Jesus talking to the Pharisees.
“You know, I used to think that your heart was in the right place, but now I hope you don’t win anyone over at all. You would only set them on a path of legalism and self-righteousness. It’s like you’ll travel over land and sea to win a single convert, only to make them…” he didn’t let me finish.
“So you’re saying I could sit in the back of the bus and smoke pot and still be saved?” He was started to sound like a lawyer badgering the witness for a confession. Objection, your honor…
I stalled momentarily. “It depends on whether your heart is…”
“Yes or no!” he demanded. “Could I smoke pot and still be saved?” I paused for a moment, slightly stunned, while I decided whether or not to play his game. Technically he could still be saved, but clearly “yes” was an oversimple answer. Nevertheless, his expression made it clear that he would only tolerate a one-word response. Right or wrong, I took the bait.
In a furious about-face, he and his companion turned their backs on us, and stormed away down South Avenue, away from the party, away from the drunkenness and revelry and fornicating. The three of us who remained just stood there for a moment, stunned by the fury and impulsiveness exhibited by a group we had formerly assumed to be gentle and patient. It occurred to me that anger and hatred are listed along with fornication and drunkenness in the Galatians 5 passage they loved so much.
“What do they have to be angry about?” the girl wondered aloud. “What did they think they were getting into by coming here with those signs?”
“It’s like going to play paintball and getting angry when you get hit with a paintball.”
“Oh no!” she said “nobody told me there’d be paint in these balls! Now I have paint on me!”
Maybe we were wrong to joke around like that. But the tensions had run so high over the past 30 minutes that it felt good. We stood around a little longer, two girls who were friends (one of which never spoke during the exchange) and two guys (myself, plus one who had randomly walked up,) who were acquaintances from a year ago.
We talked about how we should really pray for them, and I wondered if I would ever get a shot at another conversation with the young hot-head. If so, what could I say? I don’t think another debate would be appropriate. A heart-to-heart maybe? I don’t know, really. I thought about making a sign of my own to hold while standing next to them that says, “Talk to these guys to learn how to earn your own salvation,” or something of the sort, in the interest of full disclosure. An interesting idea, but probably a bad one.
It comes to mind that quite a few people stood around while I did most of the debating with these two sign-holders. I tried to give them opportunities to chime in, but most seemed content to simply observe. I can only hope that they observed something different in me; that I could debate without being hateful, and disagree without being disagreeable.
I hope that they saw less of me and more of Christ. But looking back on the exchange, I can’t be sure.