Many years ago, I attended a summer camp for Boy Scouts near an Army post. It had a large swimming pool. The Army provided soldiers as lifeguards. These soldiers warned us about using the pool as a bathroom. They told us that the Army had put a chemical in the water, and if we ever misused the pool water, it would turn a dark shade of purple all around the offender. It sounded very official to us.
For 11- and 12-year-old boys, it would have been devastating to be embarrassed in this way. So, for the first few days, anybody watching the pool would have seen all us boys constantly running out of the pool and taking a shower in the stalls that were along the pool. Each of us knew what the others were doing. We showered long enough to make sure no residue would be left on our trunks to turn any water around us purple.
But after those first couple of days, these numerous visits to the showers ceased. I don’t know who first figured out the scam. Perhaps it was a boy who took a chance on being embarrassed or who didn’t take a long enough shower, and nothing happened. He spread the word around. In my case, I do remember my best friend telling me when we were swimming around the pool, “You don’t need to go to the showers; there ain’t no chemicals in this water.”
I am sure those soldiers did it for a laugh. For two days they saw boys running out of the water and taking needless showers. But, at least in some way, the soldiers had good intentions. The thought of 200 boys swimming around in that pool, without going to those showers, was nasty. The alternative was not good. In their minds, what the soldiers told us was for our own well-being.
But it didn’t work for long. The cat was soon out of the bag. The soldiers had threatened us with public humiliation. It may have worked for a few days, but ultimately the whole thing was doomed to fail.
I think this is a great illustration of how many people look at the Christian life. They think the best way to get people to live godly lives is to threaten them. “If you sin, you will go to hell. If you sin a lot, you were never saved in the first place.” Many different verses are used to make this argument. For example, 1 Cor 6:9 says that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. So, if you are unrighteous, you have no hope. You are doomed unless you live righteously.
But these verses are taken out of context. In 1 Cor 6:9, there is a difference between entering into the kingdom of God and inheriting it. All believers will enter the kingdom. But those who live righteously will also inherit it. The bottom line is there is no verse in the NT which teaches that we must do good works to make it into the kingdom.
Oftentimes, however, the threats work. Just as we boys worked to make sure we didn’t turn the water purple, many in our churches do righteous deeds in an attempt to prove to themselves and others that they are children of God. But fortunately, many see what a scam these threats are. The threats don’t work.
They recognize that all of us sin. We sin all the time. They see that the very teachers who have threatened them live unrighteously. It dawns on them that if living righteously is a requirement for entering into the kingdom, we better have a pretty low standard of righteousness, or we are all in trouble. One day, through God’s Word, they learn that salvation from hell is a gift by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone.
The lie the soldiers told us about that pool years ago didn’t work. They wanted to have a clean pool. Their motivation was good. But it had the opposite effect. After 200 boys figured it out, I don’t even want to think about what I was swimming in for the rest of those two weeks. I am pretty sure it would have been better to simply tell the truth. “Boys, if you hafta go, get out of the pool. The water will be gross if you don’t!”
Reformed theologians think holy living is achieved by threatening their congregations with hell if they continue to sin. That is a lie. It would be better to tell the truth. You are saved by grace through faith alone. You can never lose eternal life. But remember, sin is gross. You don’t want to swim around in it.