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Is tolerance a Christian virtue?

December 2015 | by Timothy Cross

In our pluralistic society, ‘toleration’ is definitely a supreme virtue. It is held up as a good, even ‘Christian’ virtue.

Not too long ago an incensed father was quoted in Metro when his son George was prohibited from joining the scouts due to professed atheism. Said Mr Pratt, ‘Christianity is meant to be about being tolerant, forgiving and understanding’.

But is blanket ‘tolerance’ really true of God?

No rivals

Contrary to common belief, the God of the Bible is actually an ‘intolerant’ God. He brooks no rivals. Idolatry — giving worship and honour to anyone or anything other than him — is condemned throughout the Bible’s pages.

God, who is incomparably holy and glorious, is jealous for his own glory. He affirmed to his Old Testament people in the idolatrous nation of Canaan: ‘You shall worship no god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God’ (Exodus 34:14).

He demands, requires and is worthy of our exclusive obedience, allegiance and worship. He alone can affirm: ‘I am the Lord. That is my name; my glory I give to no other’ (Isaiah 42:8). And the very first of the Ten Commandments, says, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3).

Our great Creator has the right to lay down his moral law and demand obedience to it. Breaking the Ten Commandments and his commandments to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself is, in effect, rebellion. It is treason against the King of kings.

Will God punish all who have broken his law? Yes. But the good news of the gospel is that sinners can yet find pardon and escape from the punishment they sorely deserve. For in his wisdom and mercy, God devised a way by which sinners can be justly pardoned.

In sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to die in the place of sinners and take their punishment, God was true to both his own justice and his own love. Calvary’s cross was the supreme demonstration of both his wrath in condemning sin and his mercy in pardoning the believing sinner. God there demonstrated ‘that he himself is righteous and that he justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26).

No other gospel

So the Bible is utterly intolerant when it comes to salvation, for what Christ procured is exclusive. There is no other pardon for sin and no other way of salvation apart from his death on the cross: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven, given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

There were those in the province of Galatia, in New Testament days, who preached an alternative way of salvation from the cross of Christ. They ‘did it their way’. In response, far from enjoining toleration, the apostle Paul expressed his indignation and wrote one of the most ‘intolerant’ letters of the New Testament!

It is doubtful whether the letter to the Galatians would pass the censors today! Paul was gripped by the necessity of the cross — its indispensability for our salvation and the utter futility of seeking salvation anywhere else. ‘If justification were through the law [our own efforts] then Christ died to no purpose’ (Galatians 2:21), he wrote.

The exclusive nature of the gospel does not sit easily with the spirit of our age. Christian belief and behaviour are counter-cultural in a world that lionises ‘tolerance’, while, paradoxically, is increasingly intolerant of anything that implies Christian faith.

But if God is so ‘intolerant’, why doesn’t he intervene straight away in fearful judgement on a world that is a total affront to him? The amazingly wonderful answer is that almighty God is also longsuffering!

No other hope

In his great mercy, he tolerates sinners for a while longer. He exercises his patience with them so that they may yet come to Christ and be saved. He withholds his final judgement, so that Christ’s church — the church of the redeemed — may be built.

As the apostle Peter explained: ‘The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).

So while God’s intolerance is to be revered, his forbearance remains a lifeline for us to trust in his Son as Saviour — and a reason for heartfelt praise.

Timothy Cross has written many Christian books and articles and has an honorary doctorate from Christian Bible College, Rocky Mount, NC (www.TimothyJCross.org)

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