Israel Folau, Brian Houston – Two Sides Of The Same Coin.

Numerous people have asked me for my opinion on the Israel Folau controversy. There are many roads to this one, and they don’t all lead to Rome so let me start at the outset by stating a few things.

  1. I will not address every angle to this story (even though this is lengthy). I have not followed it closely enough, nor have the insight to do so. Click the links to read other more equipped people around cultural analysis and freedom of speech issues. Allan Jones, Elizabeth Farrelly Phillip Jensen Nathan Campbell
  2. It is my heart to be gracious and charitable to both personalities, not self-righteous and judgemental. To be clear however I need to identify errors.
  3. My conclusion: The gospel message is about both love and judgement; law and grace. Israel Folau appears to overemphasise judgement; Brian Houston appears to overemphasise love. Put them together, and we get Both Sides of the Coin.
  4. My Exegesis: I finish with a detailed (and I hope faithfully) unpacking of John 3:14-19 which highlights both love and judgement in the gospel.


The Story

It is essential to state that I never met Folau nor Houston as it means I do not have a reputable report on their faith, maturity nor their true motives. I can only make conclusions from what I have seen them or others post on selected forms of social media, blogs and news reports. The story centres on Israel Folau, a professional football player in Australia. He has played three of the four major football codes (ARL, ARU & AFL) professionally, and played for his country in two of those codes – a seriously impressive feat. Folau is a celebrity in our culture. He’s also a devoutly religious person who refuses to compromise on his beliefs. It is his expression of his views about sin and salvation through social media that is at the heart of the controversy. And not for the first time. Folau’s latest indiscretion was to post again comments on social media about God’s coming judgement on sin in an attempt to call people to repentance. This so-called transgression has led to severe public outrage and corporate pressure to end his contract and career with a hearing set for May 4th 2019.

In a culture of tolerance, the only things intolerant is speaking in a way that the culture deems intolerant. In a culture where there are no absolute truth claims, the only absolute is there are no absolutes. We live in a postmodern, post-Christian age where love is valued (yet very undefined) and judgement is despised. Therefore Folou’s attempt to call people to repentance, whether from a motivation of love or self-righteous judgement will never be received well. That’s just the way it is. In reality, that’s the way its always been and will always be. As Christians, we must consider both what we communicate and how we communicate it.


Truth and Grace

We are called to live like Jesus, the one who was full of ‘grace and truth’ (John 1:14-17). We are to live within the difficult tension of being faithful to Christ while sharing that truth of our hope in Christ with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:14-17). I am constantly wrestling with this as a Pastor living out my faith in relative obscurity, let alone in the public’s eye. I believe it is here that both Israel Folau and Brian Houston (Global Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church) underscore this difficulty. With people calling out both for different reasons, I believe it is crucial to assume the best where possible and clarify truth where needed.


News of Love – One Side of the Coin

For a myriad of reasons, I would not personally replicate Folau’s approach. However, at the very least I believe we can say Israel Folau has attempted to love both God (by not compromising) and his neighbour (by warning them of danger ahead). His Christian critics, however, will point out that while some of his comments have reflected orthodox Christian doctrine, some have not, and I’m not talking about the Trinity stuff. I have some sympathy towards Folau’s non-Trinitarian views based on his previous Mormon upbringing. So it is possible he is a genuine Christian who is still learning and unlearning. However, it is also possible that he is not a Christian at all. Here in lies the confusion as to Izzy’s message even amongst Christians. Does he believe we enter the kingdom (saved) through works (how we live) or grace (how Jesus lived on our behalf)? A quick sweep of Folau’s social media would indicate his message has more of an emphasis on law than grace, on judgement more than love. The gospel requires both.

While it is possible to be faithful to God by quoting or alluding to passages in the Bible (Gal. 5:19-21), true faithfulness requires we tell the whole truth. The truth that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard and therefore we all need God’s grace and forgiveness. Something God freely offers us in love. (Admittedly Izzy has tried to state that here but I do believe it gets lost in translation due to his overemphasis on law).

This past Easter weekend we celebrated Good Friday, the day Jesus died. It is celebrated as ‘Good’, because of what Jesus accomplished through his life and death. Jesus came and lived the life we could not live (sinless) and died the death we should have died (as sinners). It is Jesus work, not ours, that makes salvation and even repentance efficacious. The motivation for this work is love.

John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’

God loved us so much that he did not wait for us to pull ourselves together and become better. No! He came and died while we were still sinners. When we weren’t all together. As Romans 5:8 says – This is love!

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

When communicating the gospel message faithfully, we must not only highlight sin and the need for forgiveness we must present the good news of God’s love and grace. Jesus, the God of love and grace, has made forgiveness possible through the cross. Jesus died because he doesn’t want us to remain in our sin and separated from God. For the gospel message to be proclaimed faithfully, God’s love must be held up centrally.


News of Judgement – Another Side of the Coin

It is also true that the gospel message includes judgement, for Jesus is taking upon himself our deserved punishment. Jesus doesn’t die only due to love, but also due to justice. Death is required — either of us or someone in our place. Either way, God cannot merely overlook sin. He must rightly punish it as a holy God of justice. Pastor Brian Houston’s (Global Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church) wrote a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald in response to the Folou controversy.

As stated earlier I do not know Pastor Brian personally nor do I not know what it is like to live your faith under such public scrutiny. He too has attempted to love God and neighbour and live in that tension of grace and truth. Houston’s Christian critics, however, will point out that while some of his comments have reflected orthodox Christian doctrine, some appear to er on the side of fear of man or compromise. I think this is an uncharitable reading of Houston’s piece in the Herald. Instead, I think what we have is an overemphasis on one side of the coin. It’s just the opposite side to Izzy.

I agree with his call that “the world doesn’t need more judgemental Christians”. As a pastor within the reformed tradition, nothing bothers me more than people declaring the doctrines of grace, yet demonstrating a life absent of grace. I do think however that his comments not only appear to side with the culture’s worldview concerning making moral truth claims, it also is judgement itself on Izzy Folau and thereby somewhat hypocritical. This aside I do appreciate Houston’s acknowledgement of sin, “sin is a real issue…” and his focus’ on God’s love “the God I know and seek to follow is a God of love.” Where I disagree with Pastor Houston is his implication that to call people to repent of sin is to be unlike Christ, “He (Jesus) says that He did not come to condemn the world, He came to save it. And as Christians we would do well to follow the example of the founder of our faith.”

His message while focusing on God’s motivation in dying on a cross (love) does not explain ‘why’ Jesus needed to die on the cross (judgement) and ignores the fact that Jesus and his followers called people to repent. The very verse (Jn. 3:17), Pastor Brian quotes, is bookended with both love and judgement. It contains the gift of eternal life, through believing along with condemnation and judgement of evil works. The message is both/and not either/or.


Exegesis of John 3:14-19

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

For us to understand the gospel message, let us unpack the passage.


Judgement and Condemnation:

This is bad news. It’s the part nobody likes to hear and the more difficult part of our culture to affirm. Many will at least grant a Christian the possibility of God’s existence. Most would accept a God of love and one that gives purpose. Where difficulty and even hostility is often found is in the claim that Jesus Christ is more than a man. Instead, he is Lord and saviour, one that died to save sinners.

It is important to note that everyone stands condemned at some point. Isaiah writes, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Paul declares that, “…all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” (Rom. 3:23) and “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10–11; cf. Ps. 14:1–3).

John gives two answers as to why we are condemned. Firstly, that we have, “not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (Jn. 3:18b) What is the name? Jesus! Jesus means Jehovah Saves. Therefore John says that we are condemned because we have not or will not believe in Jesus as our saviour. Secondly, that “light (Jesus) has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (Jn. 3:19) In other words, we are not only condemned for rejecting Jesus as saviour, which could result merely due to a lack of knowledge or understanding, but also because we prefer sin (darkness) to Jesus (light).

James Montgomery Boice in his commentary puts it this way,

“The condemnation is not merely that we fall short of God’s standards of perfection. The condemnation is there because we do not even aim in the right direction. We do not really want God’s goodness…the problem with sinners is not merely with the great distance between our own level of conduct and God’s standards. The trouble is also that we do not go in the right direction even when we aim at those standards.” (The Gospel of John, Volume 1: The Coming of the Light – John 1-4 pg 249)

Therefore we all stand condemned, alienated from God and deserving of his judgement.

Eternal Life and Salvation:

We have seen our problem, but the passage also reveals God’s desire and motivation. God is motivated by love, “For God so loved the world…” (Jn. 3:16a) and his desire is for us to, “be saved through him (Jesus)” (Jn. 3:17b) and “have eternal life” (Jn. 3:15b; 16b). To ‘have eternal life’ is to know Jesus personally and intimately. To be in a relationship with him in such a way as to experience all the blessing that flows from that relationship both now and into the eternal future.

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

John illustrates (Jn. 3:14) that what God has done through Jesus being lifted on a cross will produce even more meaningful life, eternal life, than when Moses lifted the serpent on a pole in Numbers 21:4-9. Jesus came into the world to die for the world on a cross and take God’s judgement, God’s alienation and perish on our behalf. Jesus perished so we could truly live. Therefore the cross = love!

Repentance and Faith

How are we saved? How do we move from perishing under judgement to eternal life? According to John, “by believing”. Five times in this short passage John points to believing or not believing.

John 3:15 tells us, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 3:16b says, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 3:18, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned”

The word ‘to believe’ (pisteuō) denotes believing in the person of Jesus. It implies personal trust “in Christ”. It is synonymous to “receiving” and “knowing” in the sense of coming into an intimate relationship with Jesus (1:12; 17:8). Wayne Grudem notes, “The preposition translated “in” (Gk. eis) is striking, for eis ordinarily means “into,” giving the sense that genuine faith in Christ in a sense brings people “into” Christ, so that they rest in and become united with Christ. (This same expression is found in 3:16, 18, 36; 6:35; 7:38; 12:44, 46; 14:12; 1 John 5:10.)

While the word ‘repent’ is not used by John the notion is there because repentance and belief are likewise two sides of the same coin. Mark opened the account of Jesus public ministry saying,

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:14

The call to repent is a call to believe. To believe that Jesus, the Son of God came into the world, sent by the loving Father, to save the world, not condemn it, by dying for the world. The judgement of God for sin was placed on Jesus, and the free gift of eternal life is made available for all who believe in Jesus – the dying son of the loving Father.

I encourage you to believe. Believe in the Son of God, Jehovah who saves and receive eternal life. I leave you with the words of Martin Luther…


“When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!” (Martin Luther)

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