A few years ago, when Boeing was first building the B-787 Dreamliner, a magazine article caught my attention. Parts of the airplane were built separately all around the world and then gathered and assembled in Everett, Washington. So it was critical for every piece to fit perfectly once it reached the final factory floor. But at the start they had some misfits. Of course the problem was eventually resolved—although some parts had to be thrown out—and the airplane finally flew.
The laser alignment devices they used were crucial. And it’s not just airplanes that need to be aligned. Today, for instance, if you need to have two items in your garage joined up you can buy the Hamar Laser continuously rotating L-740 Ultra-Precision alignment device to be sure your parts are at least within 0.00012 inches of tolerance. Not bad!
But what about Christian faith and practice? Do we ever have misfits? Are church leaders and laity ever out of alignment with God and other believers? Or do most Christians stay within the operating tolerances needed for the Body’s proper growth and maturity?
At first glance this might seem like a silly analogy—using a tangible measuring tool to explore a heart-based reality. Yet that’s what God did in the Old Testament book of Amos. Rather than a continuously rotating laser device, in Amos God used a string-and-weight device: the plumb line. Builders in the days of Amos would ensure a wall was vertical by hanging the plumb line next to it to see if they matched up.
Here’s what God said: “behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them’” (Amos 7:7-8).
God then judged the Israelites accordingly. They weren’t properly aligned, so he promised they would be “made desolate” (verse 9).
Later we find a New Testament alignment test in the vine analogy of John 15 where fruitless branches are “thrown into the fire.” God has moral boundaries. But what about God’s grace in Christ? When does that grace apply, and when does it not apply?
Indeed, in Amos we find the prophet begging God for his mercy on Israel just before God made his plumb line edict. “O Lord GOD, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (7:2) And God then “relented” twice—withholding both a plague of locusts and a set of wildfires. But once the plumb line was brought out, judgment followed.
There’s logic in Amos’s cries for mercy. If God forgives some sins, why won’t he forgive all sins? It’s a question that continues to stir debates today. So we face a question of what constitutes God’s ultimate plumb line—if, indeed, there is such a divine measure. And—as suggested by my leap from Amos to John—I believe Jesus offered an answer in John’s gospel.
But first, let’s recall the moral thread that ties both the Old and New Testaments together: the two great commandments to love God and neighbor. Jesus treated these calls in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 as the joint underpinning for “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Let’s ask, then, about how “big” a sin needs to be to fail the plumb line test. Does God see someone as a misfit for heaven because of major behavioral failures—for specific sins like adultery or murder, just to name two? Or, to add another, if a man gives his wife to another man? Or if a man denies Jesus in order to save his own life?
Our list of sins, of course, fits—in turn—King David, Abraham and Isaac, and Peter. Yet each is clearly forgiven. So we may be missing the point if we look at outward behaviors alone. Love—the focus element of the two great commands—is tied to the heart, our affective “response” center. For out of the heart come both righteous and unrighteous behaviors. And for the former a redeemed heart loves God only because he first loved us.
Let me go back to the analogy of the laser measuring device and possible misfits. Are plumb lines or laser beams able to measure a heart aligned with God’s heart? Or is a possible heart-misfit something that God alone can measure?
The answer is given again and again in the Bible—as in Jeremiah 17; 1 Samuel 16; Proverbs 17 and 21, to name a few. And Jesus used the measure of mutual love in John 15—where the discarded branches are mentioned—and in John 17, as the ultimate measure of eternal life.
Trace the word “abide” in John to catch this measure. In John 8:31, for instance: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” And then again in 15:9, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.”
Christ’s love doesn’t generate instant moral perfection—we all still struggle as did Abraham, David, and Peter—but it does mean that in knowing him, and with God’s love poured out in our hearts, we have a new moral alignment. So let’s forget the analogies and conclude, instead, with the words of 1 John 3:9.
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”