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Correcting a flawed Christian analogy

Unsplash/Emiliano Bar
Unsplash/Emiliano Bar

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times. Well, I’m exaggerating; it’s more like 950 times. 975 max.

When discussing God’s plan of salvation with another Christian who believes that the ultimate decision of whether we’re saved or not rests with us, they at some point toss out the following illustration:

Imagine a person who’s currently on death row, but suddenly the governor offers them a full pardon that allows them to be released. The person can either accept the governor’s pardon and go free or reject his offer, remain in prison, and be executed. That’s exactly how God’s offer of salvation works with us.  

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If you’re someone who has that allegory in your back pocket to refute those ornery Calvinist sorts, please take my advice and bury it. Bury it with a shovel and then bury the shovel.

It’s just wrong.

But why?

So why is the illustration incorrect? Let's start with the fact that the god of this analogy far more depicts a god like Allah than the God of the Bible.

It’s in Islam that you find Allah dispensing pardons at the expense of his justice. Whether it’s through the concept of the good/bad scales or in various events contained in Islam’s eschatology, in the end, Allah overlooks a person’s wrongs when delivering his rescue. In other words, justice is overlooked in Islam, which is precisely what you find in the prison analogy.

Next — and I really can’t emphasize this enough — to make the illustration square with Christianity you must add a very important thing: the governor needs to execute a willing, innocent man in place of the guilty prisoner on death row. Only after that can the pardon be extended.

If you listen real closely you can now hear the sound of the prisoner analogy’s wheels falling off in spectacular fashion.

Even in our incredibly malfunctioning justice system, the concept of double jeopardy and/or the payment for a crime only occurring once applies. And if even we get that right, it’s a fair bet that God does.

Put another way: there are only two types of people — those with their judgment behind them (because Christ paid their penalty) and those with their judgment ahead of them. There is no free pass nor double-payment-for-sins concept in Christianity.

Let’s now turn our attention to the governor. Ask yourself what kind of monster would he/she be to allow the execution of two people for the same individually committed crime. A pretty bad one in my opinion; they would be considered anything but just.

Last but not least — and this is where some of you will argue with me the most — the story has the criminal rejecting the governor’s offer of freedom. Yes, it’s true that people certainly refuse Christ every day in droves, but they do so only because God hasn’t intervened in their lives so they see His light.

When Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9), to what does the term “that” refer? It can only point back to what preceded it, which is saving faith.

Prior to God doing that work in us, our “free” will was moving away from Him as fast as it could. The Bible says that “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Rom. 8:7) and “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14).

That was/is every Christian who’s ever lived or will live. If you’re keeping score, that includes you and me. As Scripture says, “There is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11).

So, if this is true (and it is), then how in the world does anyone become a Christian?   

Answer: You and I didn’t receive Christ because we’re more intelligent, better, more righteous, humble, good at figuring things out, etc. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44; notice how that simple statement signifies a complete work of salvation).

Or go back to our analogy: all of us were criminals on death row who would have rejected the governor’s pardon had not the governor himself made us willing to receive it.

It’s all His doing.

In the end, whether you sneer at reformed theology, throw darts at pictures of John Calvin, and go to the mat for our supposed free will where God is concerned, I hope you can at least see through the corrections of the flawed prisoner analogy why the teaching of definite atonement is reasonable and just, and why there is good biblical evidence for believing that no one for whom Christ died will ever reject God’s offer of salvation.

But if you're still shaking your head, at least don’t use the prisoner/governor pardon analogy anymore to depict God’s offer of salvation. It’s just all kinds of awful. 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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