I am beginning this evening a short series of sermons on the Bible’s teaching about divine judgment, the Lord’s judgment of human life. Before you groan inwardly, feeling that such a subject must be gloomy and depressing, let me remind you that in the Bible, God’s people characteristically longed for and prayed for God’s judgment; they welcomed it more than they feared it or prayed for it to be delayed. In the NT likewise we are taught to pray for the Lord’s judgment, which we do when we pray “Maranatha,” O Lord, come. There is more here than may at first meet the eye. More than that, there are aspects of this doctrine that are rarely considered at any length, features of the biblical teaching that are both very helpful to those making a case for the Christian faith or explaining it to others and features that I think are very encouraging for Christians living in our day.
In any case, for some time I’ve been intending to consider this theme over several Sunday evenings. And the reason is simple: you need to know these truths, every Christian does, I do, you do; but it is not a doctrine that is being taught much nowadays, certainly not one being emphasized. There is a lot about the judgment of God in the Word of God, but this is a part of its teaching that is getting very little attention. In fact, it is a doctrine much spoken against and the longer this continues the harder it will be for believers to embrace the Bible’s teaching, believe it firmly, and integrate it into their understanding and their practice of the faith.
I already knew all this, of course; I had been planning on this series for months and had been taking notes, but was again reminded of the reason for it the other day at Presbytery. Prof. Dan Doriani of Covenant Theological Seminary, who some of you will remember has preached in this pulpit, was speaking to the ministers and elders gathered in Seattle about the way our culture – any culture of course, but our culture in particular – influences the way the Bible is preached. And one of the things he said was that it is simply a fact that even Presbyterian Church in America preachers are loathe to preach about the Day of Judgment and rarely do.
It is a fact of life, one I struggle with all the time, as you do. Our culture influences us in subtle but powerful ways. We may believe what the church has always believed, we may even be willing to stand up and be counted for those beliefs if pressed in a debate, but to a greater extent than we realize the culture can make a particular truth taught in the Bible less interesting to us, more embarrassing to us, or less obvious or less intelligible to us. I think about this a lot as a preacher: what am I saying, how am I saying it, and what am I not saying because I am an American living in the second decade of the 3rd millennium? One of the reasons I so much prefer preaching through books of the Bible is that such a method works against the natural tendency to prefer some subjects to others and to ignore sometimes large swaths of biblical teaching because I find them uninteresting, controversial, or even difficult to believe. But, at the same time, I don’t indulge the illusion that preaching consecutively through passages of Scripture immunizes me from the power of our culture to blind or deafen me to some of the Bible’s teaching.
We have all encountered this reality in our own experience, though we tend to impute the problem to others rather than to ourselves. We have encountered it especially in conversations with Christians of other viewpoints. We are frustrated that we can’t get them to see what seems to us so obvious. A Baptist spiritual culture with its emphasis on conscious conversion as the only way of salvation tends to make invisible or unimportant the very considerable biblical testimony to the reality of grace running in the lines of generations and of infants already being numbered among the saved; a Calvinist culture, with its emphasis on sovereign grace, tends to create an ear deaf, or at least hard of hearing, in regard to the Bible’s comprehensive insistence of the responsibility of human beings for their salvation; a Lutheran culture, in which justification by faith is the article by which the church stands or falls, tends to render invisible the many texts that assert that we shall be judged on the last day according to our works; and a Pentecostal culture tends to render people impervious to counter-arguments both from the Bible and the history of the church that seem to make much less persuasive their claims about spiritual gifts and miracles today. Paradigms of understanding exercise a powerful influence over what we find agreeable, interesting, or even comprehensible.
In a spiritual culture in which salvation is invariably understood to take place in a crisis of conversion, a conscious and willful stepping out of darkness into light, the idea of a Christian infant simply makes no sense and when defenders of those two paradigms discuss their views with one another they rarely achieve mutual understanding because the words they both use are understood in such different ways. How can a baby be saved if salvation requires a decision for Christ? And so on. Well, then, having had that experience ourselves with other believers, we should have no difficulty understanding how a culture as a whole exercises such an influence over the thinking and reasoning of people, Christians included, making some ideas natural, others unintelligible; some ideas riveting, others uninteresting or positively repugnant.
Let me give you an example. We live today in a thoroughly antinomian culture. We do not live in a legalistic culture. Your neighbors are not counting up their merits and demerits hoping that the former outweigh the latter. People in a permissive and self-excusing culture such as ours rarely give the judgment of their lives much thought and never give it serious thought. They don’t stay up night worrying about whether God judges them to have done more good than bad. To the extent they think about God at all, it is natural for them to think of God as of the same mind as they. They don’t care deeply about the relative good or bad they do and don’t think God will either. He might be disappointed in some of the things they say and do, but he won’t make an issue of it. It is self-evident to them that God wouldn’t be into that kind of discrimination, because discrimination is a bad thing. All Americans know that. Everyone is the same and is to be treated the same. Besides, we know that almost all bad behavior is the result of social conditioning, and how can we be held responsible for things over which we had no control? It may be true that we hold these views very inconsistently and are constantly violating them in our own thought, speech, and behavior, but this is the theology – such as it is – of our culture and it exercises a tremendous influence over how people think, what they are prepared to believe, and even what they can understand. The sexual revolution is one obvious practical consequence of this theology. It is a truth so obvious to people of the modern west that God would never require them to deny their sexual desires simply because they aren’t married or because they happen to be attracted to people of the same sex, so obvious I say as to need no demonstration.
In an antinomian culture the church is very likely to emphasize the parts of their faith that fit most neatly into that culture. They certainly intend to be faithful Christians, they want to be loyal to the Word of God, but they find it very easy to talk mostly about things that are not difficult for this culture to believe and to accept. This is what the church has always done: allowed her message and her life to be shaped and often misshaped by the culture around her. So, in a culture such as ours we find it very easy to talk about God’s grace and forgiveness, for we are Christians after all. We will inevitably find it more difficult to emphasize the Bible’s teaching about the necessity of obedience, the punishment that God visits upon the disobedient even among his own people, and the distinction he makes between them in the judgment according to how faithfully they have served him and others. None of our PCA men is a theological antinomian. They all believe, as our Confession of Faith requires them to believe, that Christians are obliged to keep God’s commandments and that obedience has much to do with how God measures and judges a Christian’s life. But, no matter what they confess as Presbyterians, the culture still makes many of them disinclined to preach that emphasis on obedience and that divine discrimination based on a believer’s obedience. Many preachers, nowadays even Reformed and Presbyterian preachers are very less less likely, for example, to stress to their congregations that parents’ failure to nurture the faith of their children can be the cause of their eternal loss. They are much less likely to preach a text like 1 Corinthians 3 about a Christian being barely saved because of the poor quality of his Christian service and of much of his fruit being burned up and lost, or to ring the changes on the Lord’s remark in the temple to the man he had healed that morning at the Pool of Bethesda: “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” And decades will pass before many of our congregations ever hear a sermon on Revelation 2:23, the Lord’s remark to his churches:
“I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
They don’t deny that truth, but they don’t preach it very often either or with much emphasis; at least not nearly as often or emphatically as it is found in the Bible.
If you were to press them as to why they didn’t, some would perhaps deny it and say they did in fact preach divine judgment in its biblical proportion. They would themselves be genuinely unaware of how absent some of the Bible’s central themes actually are from their sermons. The more reflective and confident among them might say that they have chosen to emphasize the things they believe their congregation needs to hear or that they purposely design their sermons not to give unnecessary offense to unbelievers present. We can understand all of that and in some respects agree with it, of course, but we can also see how easily it plays into the hands of the dominant culture. No preacher is going to say he allows the unbelieving world around him to determine what he will preach, but that the culture does exercise a powerful influence on what he says and how he says it only a fool would deny. Preachers have to fight against that influence with might and main and read the Bible comprehensively, constantly praying that they will impart its teaching, all its teaching, to their congregations in a biblical way and a biblical proportion.
Well, then, the first reason for a sermon series on divine judgment is that our American culture abhors the subject, finds it repugnant, and, therefore, there are powerful forces at work to silence the Christian pulpit on this theme, forces that are having their way with even evangelical and Reformed preaching. And, believe me, if Christian people never hear these doctrines preached in church, if they don’t sing them in worship, if they do not hear them defended publicly and persuasively, if these realities are not made to live in the active consciousness of Christian people, they will fade, first to the back of the mind and then out of the mind altogether. And when that happens it will be much more difficult to renew the church’s conviction regarding the judgments of the Lord. This is particularly true with this doctrine, unwelcome and fearful as some of its aspects are. We all tend to find it easier to believe things we are glad to be true and much harder to believe things we wish were not true, and for many Christians, even earnest Christians, there are aspects of the Bible’s doctrine of divine judgment we find it easy to wish were not true. I hope to show you that we shouldn’t think that way, but I don’t have any difficulty understanding why we do!
But there is another reason why it is so important for Christians in our time to have a thoughtful, sophisticated appreciation of the Bible’s doctrine of divine judgment. It is the presupposition of everything else we are taught in the Word of God and believe as Christians! Almost everything in our Christian faith is somehow related to the reality of divine judgment, much is directly based on that reality. Therefore, if we lose touch with it, many Christian convictions lose their force and many Christian motivations lose their luster.
Prof. R.V.G. Tasker was a typical English divinity professor in the 1940s, professor of New Testament at the University of London, a scholar of worldwide reputation, a typical British university liberal in a theological faculty. There are multitudes of Tasker’s ilk in American universities today. In November of 1947 Tasker happened to hear Martyn Lloyd Jones deliver an address on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ at King’s College in the University of London, under the auspices of London Inter-Faculty Christian Unions, a part of what was Britain’s Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Tasker would later say, “My whole life was revolutionized by that address.” [Dudley Smith, John Stott, vol. 2, 130-131] It was the prospect of divine judgment that captivated his heart!
He forsook his liberalism, he took a stand in the theological faculty of which he was a part for the trustworthiness of the Bible, and, predictably, he was “sent to Coventry” by his colleagues, isolated, even threatened with the loss of his position! Such was the effect of facing the truth of divine judgment. Believe that and all the rest comes in train: the authority of the Bible, the cross of Christ, the absolute necessity of living faith in Jesus, the importance of the Christian life, of being willing to suffer for Christ, and so on. In 1951 Tasker himself would deliver a memorable address to the IVF on the “Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God.” He was living proof that the doctrine was and had to be life-changing. [I. Murray, Lloyd-Jones, vol. 2, 196] He began to be published by evangelical publishing houses, something that real scholars were not supposed to do.
Well, what was true in Prof. Tasker’s life must be true in ours as well. The belief in divine judgment, if only allowed to do its work in our hearts, must have profound consequences for every part of our lives. It will, as it did for him, separate us from some people and join us to others; it will make us willing to suffer loss for loyalty to Jesus; it will set us off in new directions that we never anticipated before. It does that even if we only believe it as a doctrine, if we really do believe it. But it must and will do that more and more if we take that biblical truth to heart and practice it in our lives. How could it not?
William Wilberforce and the other members of the Clapham sect were to the man and woman staunch believers in the Last Judgment. And they made no bones of the fact that their relentless opposition to the slave trade and to the immorality of so much of English life in their time, an opposition that required perseverance in the face of repeated set-backs and legislative defeats, was for them made necessary by the fact that they would one day have to give an account of their service to God, that their lives would someday be weighed in his balance.
One historian writes this about Victorian Britain.
“No-one will ever understand Victorian Britain who does not appreciate that among highly civilized…countries it was one of the most religious that the world has known.”
And one of its shared convictions was
“…its certainty about the existence of an after-life of rewards and punishments. If one asks how nineteenth-century English merchants earned the reputation of being the most honest in the world…the answer is: because hell and heaven seemed as certain to them as tomorrow’s sunrise, and the Last Judgment as real as the week’s balance sheet.” [R.C.K. Ensor in Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 173]
A banker member of the Clapham Sect, the informal group of reformers alongside Wilberforce who exercised such a mighty influence for good on British life in the 19th century, Henry Thornton, was a Member of Parliament. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, once asked Thornton why he had voted against him on that occasion. Thornton replied,
“I voted today so that if my Master had come again at that moment I might have been able to give an account of my stewardship.” [Ibid]
You hear that and immediately know why things stand as they do in America today. There is no fear of God before the eyes of the American population, still less of the powerful and influential among that population. Certainly there are exceptions of course, many of them, but not nearly enough of them.
Listen to this from the 19th century American Presbyterian theologian W.G.T. Shedd, speaking of the Puritan view of preaching. It is a somewhat difficult statement, but you’ll see its importance if you pay close attention.
“That unearthly sermonizing, so abstracted from all the temporal and secular interests of man, so rigorously confined to human guilt and human redemption – that preaching which, upon the face of it, does not seem even to recognize that man has any relations to this little ball of earth, which takes him off the planet entirely, and contemplates him simply as a sinner in the presence of God – was, nevertheless, by indirection, one of the most fertile causes of the progress of England and America. Subtract it as one of the forces of English history and the career of the Anglo-Saxon race would be like that of Italy and Spain.” [Cited in Murray, Lloyd-Jones, vol. 2, 647]
Do you understand what Shedd was saying? It isn’t sermons on the political change or social development that change a people for the better, it is sermons that bring them face to face with God and with God’s judgment, that inject into the life of a people the principle of inescapable accountability to God, sermons that thus drive them to Christ, to conversion, and to the moral transformation of their lives. Nothing makes a man or woman take his life or her duty so seriously as the prospect of having to answer on the great day!
Listen carefully, intentionally, thoughtfully to statements such as these, of which there are so many in the Word of God; many more than I expect you realize.
- “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” [Matt. 10:28]
- “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” [Matt. 7:21-23]
- “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.” [Eccl. 3:17]
- “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” [Eccl. 12:14]
- “The soul who sins shall die.” [Ezek. 18:20]
- “…many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” [Dan. 12:2]
- “It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” [Matt. 11:23]
- “I tell you, on the Day of Judgment people will give an account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” [Matt. 12:36-37]
- “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” [Matt. 16:26-27]
- “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” [John 5:28-29]
- “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” [Rom. 2:5]
- “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. … So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
- “…each one’s work will become manifest for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” [1 Cor. 3:13]
- “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” [2 Cor. 5:10]
- “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…” [Heb. 9:27]
- “But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment and destruction of the ungodly. … Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the day of the God…” [2 Peter 3:7, 11-12]
- “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected in us so that we may have confidence in the Day of Judgment…” [1 John 4:16]
- “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” [Rev. 20:11-12]
Those are some selections from the Old Testament and the New Testament, from the prophets and the writings, from the apostles and especially from the teaching of the Lord Jesus. They form together a consistent picture, but, believe me they only scratch the surface there are many more such statements that I might have added to that list; short assertions of the fact that the judgment is coming and longer passages that work out in greater detail the nature of this judgment and its consequences for human beings, both the saved and the lost.
But can anyone possibly deny that if this is true, that if this is what awaits every human being at the end of history, both those who have died and those who are alive at the end, believers in Christ and unbelievers alike, it changes everything! Nothing so certainly and profoundly transforms our lives in this world into a prelude to eternity, nothing so clearly turns our time in this world into primarily preparation for the Last Judgment. Nothing makes faith in Jesus Christ so much a matter of life and death. Nothing so solemnizes life.
When ex-baseball player and famous early 20th century evangelist, Billy Sunday, said that if there is no hell a lot of ministers have been raising money under false pretenses he was exactly right and, of course, in many more ways than in raising money does what we do and what we say as Christians absolutely depend on the reality of divine judgment. What need is there for atonement, for the death of the Son of God on the cross if there is no judgment and no prospect of punishment in the world to come? What need is there for us to risk embarrassment sharing Christ with others, if nothing is at stake in the outcome of the conversation? And why should we not take Oscar Wilde’s advice and solve our problems with temptation simply by giving in to it if we don’t actually have to answer for our behavior at the end of time? Holiness is hard work, the hardest work in the world. Why bother unless holiness of life, next to faith in Jesus Christ, is going to be the most precious of all commodities on the Day of Judgment?
If it is actually possible, even likely that a man or woman will be, in Andrew Bonar’s words, “crushed between the millstones of omnipotence,” pray tell me what else matters to that man or woman but that he or she finds salvation before it is too late? The Devil is hard at work in the world assuring men, as he assured Adam and Eve, “You surely shall not die.” But what if he is wrong; what if he is lying, as he surely is, a spirit, after all, who had been a liar from the beginning?
But it is not only in this way that the prospect and reality of divine judgment profoundly alters human life. It is also what invests human life with the dignity and the importance that we all, believer and unbeliever alike, instinctively attach to it. It is the fact that human life is subject to God’s judgment that distinguishes man from the beasts, that makes his life fabulously valuable and important, and that invests such significance to everything that he says and does. What are we seeing in our culture today but the withering of this conviction – this sense of the sanctity and value and importance of human life – in largest part because as a culture we no longer view the present life of human beings in terms of a future judgment, because we no longer evaluate human beings sub specie aeternitatis, from the vantage point of eternity. If a man is here today and gone tomorrow, if he is a piece of cosmic scrap thrown up by chance on the shore of eternity with nothing to show for his years on this earth, if he lives and dies to no further significance, he is nothing more than an animal. But if he must stand the judgment of God, if he must give an account of his life to God, if he must receive his due, if he then continues to exist in heaven or hell, a human being is no animal. He is something altogether different and altogether more important and his life is supercharged with significance.
In fact, almost everything we instinctively attribute to human life – such as meaning and importance – and everything we think essential to human life – such as morality, justice, mercy, and love – simply disappear without the last judgment. Think about it. What has the world to say, what can the social reformers say – who often claim to care more for people than Christians do – about the injustice and suffering in the world. It can say nothing about the suffering of the past. What good does it do the billions who have lived and died in this world of sorrow that scientific reformers are supposedly someday going to produce a world without suffering? Not only do we not believe them, what good does that do for the millions who are dying miserable and lonely deaths all over the world today. All they can say to them is “Too bad you were born before we were able to create the solution to all human problems.”
But Christians, who have done more to alleviate the world’s suffering than modern social reformers have ever imagined doing, believe that God stores up every human tear and that at the end justice will be done for every human being. It is not in this world that the scales are put in balance. If it must be in this world, the human condition is hopeless. Here is Harry Blamires, first a student and later a colleague of C.S. Lewis.
“If this life is the whole show, the man of conscience rejects it as one vast manifestation of injustice, one vast display of absurdity, if not of evil. If the experience between birth and death constitutes the sum total of the individual’s consciousness, then that total consciousness has in many cases been three parts unmerited misery, three parts undeserved pain. Does one want to be happy with a setup in which such is or has been the last word for a single human being? Does one want to enjoy food, music, or friendship in a setup which arbitrarily arranges that fellow creatures across the way, or across the world, shall have a total experience of consciousness which is largely privation, distress, or pain?” [Cited in Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction, 185-186]
People nowadays will resist this conclusion, but they have no answer for the argument. If there is no judgment, no putting things right, no reward and no punishment, no future for human beings, human life is stripped of its meaning and of any persuasive justification for moral distinctions. As Albert Einstein put it, there may be no real difference between the murderer and his victim, but we should act as if there were. Really? This is the argument for an ethical life? That it is better to pretend than face the truth?
In Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, the historian of Soviet Russia and, in particular, of Stalin’s purges, recounts a conversation between Stalin and one of his aides, Mironov, who was failing to get a confession from a prisoner named Kamenev.
“Do you know how much our state weighs, with all the factories, machines, the army, with all the armaments and the navy?” Mironov and all those present looked at Stalin with surprise. “Think it over and tell me,” demanded Stalin. Mironov smiled, believing that Stalin was getting ready to crack a joke. But Stalin did not intend to jest…. “I am asking you, how much does all that weigh,” he insisted. Mironov was confused. He waited, still hoping that Stalin would turn everything into a joke…. Mironov…said in an irresolute voice, “Nobody can know that… It is in the realm of astronomical figures.” “Well, can one man withstand the pressure of that astronomical weight?” asked Stalin. “No,” answered Mironov. “Now then, don’t tell me anymore that Kamenev, or this or that prisoner, is able to withstand that pressure. Don’t come to report to me,” Stalin said to Mironov, “until you have in this briefcase the confession of Kamenev!”
If there is no judgment, no accountability for our words and deeds, then it is perfectly obvious that Kamenev lost and Stalin won; that Stalin made the most of life in this world and that Kamenev, in standing up for the truth was a fool. But if there is a judgment – as there certainly is – if God himself will judge the living and the dead, if he will require an accounting of all that we have said and done and all that we have failed to say and do, if our words and deeds will be weighed in the balances, then the weight of the Soviet state was in fact a feather compared to the divine knowledge, justice, will, and power that will someday be brought to bear against every single human life which no mere human being is capable of evading or resisting even to the least degree.
The fact is, we can’t think about the judgment of the Lord often enough. Just as we cannot understand or explain Jesus without the Bible’s teaching about God, just as we cannot understand or explain the cross without the Bible’s doctrine of creation and the fall, so we cannot understand or explain salvation or life without divine judgment. And so if we think about this judgment wisely and well, if we take it up into our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, even what it means to be a human being in this world, it will do us incalculable good and do us no harm whatsoever.