2 Peter No. 10, “Whistling in the Dark”
2 Peter 2:4-10
November 4, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
I have so far selected from this chapter verses here and there to illustrate Peter’s uncharacteristically severe condemnation of the false teachers whose influence Peter is combatting in the letter, to consider statements that pose a challenge to our Reformed theology of salvation by the sovereign grace of God, and Peter’s exposure of the motives of these teachers of heresy, motives that explain and illuminate the toxic errors they are spreading. Heresies gain their popularity precisely because they are versions of the Christian faith altered in just those ways that sinners in any time or place would consider improvements. Search your own minds. Aren’t there ways in which you would change our faith if only you could? But you know you can’t because the faith has been delivered to the saints once for all, first by the prophets and apostles, and then by the Word of God that contains their teaching. It isn’t our faith to change. It is the truth that God has revealed to us.
Tonight we take under consideration another aspect of Peter’s exposure of the killing errors of these false teachers. In these verses Peter is emphasizing both that judgment awaits these false teachers who are troubling the church and that God knows how to deliver his people not only from sinful men who are seeking to do them harm but from the judgment that befalls such men.
v.7 I hope you find this description of Abraham’s nephew, “righteous Lot,” as encouraging as I do! Lot a righteous man? Really? He chose to live among the most sinful of men because they lived in the most fertile part of the Jordan Valley. He chose wealth over the promise of God. He continued to live there even when he had become fully aware of the despicable life being lived in the cities of the plain, even when it must have become obvious that the spiritual environment was toxic for his wife and daughters. “Righteous Lot?” “Righteous Samson?” What are we to think? Well, chief among our thoughts ought to be this: “There’s hope for me!” You can be a righteous man or woman no matter that you are still sinful in so many ways. This too is the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah!
The Scripture’s account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah describes Lot’s effort to rescue the visitors – angels of the Lord as it turned out – from the efforts of the citizens of Sodom to abuse them sexually and this is what Peter is referring to when he refers to Lot’s distress.
I am teaching Old Testament survey to the Covenant High School freshman. We are spending a significant amount of time in the first book of the Bible because it is the foundation of everything that follows; because it sets the stage for the story of sin and redemption that is the principal theme of the rest of the Bible. The other day we had come to Genesis 19 and its account of the judgment and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I made a point of the fact that there are two historical events in the Bible that became emblematic or paradigmatic of divine judgment: the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, both events are similar to one another in some striking ways. In both the great wickedness of the people is described as the reason for their destruction, in both the Lord rescues one man and his family, and, surprisingly, in both the deliverance is followed immediately by sinful behavior on the part of at least some of those rescued, in both cases behavior involving drunkenness. The last feature is, of course, a reminder that God’s covenant will be kept not because of our righteousness but because of his faithfulness; not because we are properly grateful for his grace to us, but in defiance of the fact that we are not!
We then discussed what a paradigm is. A paradigm is a noteworthy or outstanding or typical or particularly clear example of something. Another word for paradigm is archetype. For example, when a student learns Latin, he will find in the back of his grammar pages and pages of paradigms, the typical examples used to teach Latin morphology, the forms that Latin words take; their inflections or changes in spelling. For example, when learning the verbal system typically one starts with present tense, a- stem verbs. So every Latin student for centuries has begun to memorize the present active indicative forms of a- stem words this way:
amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.
I love, you love, he or she loves; we love, you (pl) love, they love. That’s a paradigm. A typical example of something. The writer of the grammar might have chosen another a- stem verb, but amo has become the paradigm, the standard example.
Well, both the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are paradigms, or typical examples of divine judgment throughout the Bible. This is precisely what Peter says in v. 6: Sodom and Gomorrah are an example of what will happen to the ungodly. And it isn’t only Peter. The prophets harked back to these events, so did the Lord Jesus in his preaching and teaching, and so did the apostles.
So here Peter is teaching us two things: that judgment awaits those who rebel against the Lord and that there is refuge from that judgment for those who follow Jesus Christ. But Peter isn’t bringing up these example of divine judgment as some sort of general truth. He is applying the reality of divine judgment and saving grace in that judgment to the particular situation these Christians are facing. It is precisely this judgment that these teachers were denying and by denying it were placing in mortal danger the Christians who were giving them an ear. That fact is going to become even more clear as we move into chapter 3. These people are not so much forgetting God’s judgment as they are denying it and teaching others that it will not happen. And under their teaching God’s people eventually will either forget the judgment or come to deny it as well. This has happened times without number, of course, over the history of the Christian church. It has certainly happened once again in our time. In most of American culture the very idea that God will judge the wicked and that redemption is precisely the way of escape from that judgment is now little more than a superstition that less enlightened people used to entertain. No one fears the judgment of God even among those who are to some extent religious. The man who walks the streets with a signboard proclaiming “The End of the World is Near” or “Prepare to Meet Your God” is also a paradigm. He is a typical example of a loony. The number of people in our land who have never once felt a shudder pass through them at the prospect of divine judgment grows larger by the day and already is the vast majority of our citizens. But, says Peter, there is such a judgment and to deny it is little more than whistling in the dark.
One of the most fascinating stories of conversion in 20th century America is that of Thomas Oden, the once very liberal Methodist who over the course of his professional career became a champion of historic supernatural orthodox Christianity. Here is Oden, in his autobiography A Change of Heart, recollecting his past. He is recalling that the phrase “unconditional love” began appearing in Christian sermons shortly after the phrase “unconditional acceptance” had been mainstreamed in American culture through popular psychology, especially those forms of it associated with Carl Rogers.
“Before Rogers I could find no books or articles that had been written on ‘unconditional love.’ It is a phrase that apparently had emerged popularly in the early 1960s. Even Pope Paul II would soon be preaching that God ‘loves us all with an unconditional, everlasting love.’ Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.” [In his liberal stage Oden’s theology became simply psychology.]
“In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these [preachers] mentioned wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.”
“I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes we wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.” [89-90]
Oden was remembering what he had forgotten or had never known: that Christian ministers are ambassadors, not legislators. They have no warrant to alter the message they have received. Their one task is to proclaim or to transmit the message they have been given, to transmit it as clearly and persuasively as possible.
For theological liberals in the mid-20th century, Paul Tillich’s powerful sermon “You Are Accepted” had convinced them that Christian faith was first and foremost the conviction that we are accepted, no ifs, ands, or buts. But Tillich’s acceptance was not the acceptance of the personal God of the Bible. The acceptance he preached was not based on the cross or the resurrection or even the personal love of a personal God. It was a concept, an idea. If you read Hannah Tillich’s memoir of life with her husband Paul, From Time to Time, you’ll get a very good idea of where such an idea of “unconditional acceptance” takes you. Paul Tillich was a life-long philanderer; theirs was an “open” marriage, by which is meant that neither partner was sexually loyal to the other. And though “unconditional acceptance” was supposed to lead to freedom and happy personal adjustment, as you read the book you realize that Hannah wrote her memoir in a great deal of pain. The world of theology has suffered a similar blow recently when a poorly kept secret became common knowledge, viz. that Karl Barth for many years kept a mistress, brought her into his home, and foisted her presence upon his wife. Barth’s own mother told her son that his theology must not be good for much if it couldn’t stand up to the test of his own life as a husband and father. There was too much unconditional acceptance in Barth as well; and too little warning of the coming judgment.
Peter’s argument is that we don’t have to rely solely on the Bible’s teaching of divine judgment. God’s judgment of the wicked is not simply a deduction from his holiness and our sin. The fact is, God has judged the world on many occasions, he judges it today, and these judgments are paradigmatic, examples of what is to come. Catastrophic judgments such as the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah are proof that God is a judge and that he punishes the wicked and that only the righteous will escape that judgment.
The French atheist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, is supposed to have said: “The last thing I want is to be subject to the unremitting gaze of a holy God.” I’ve found that quote in a number of places, but they are all Christian sites. I haven’t been able to locate the citation in one of Sartre’s writings. It sounds like a remark he might have made – in some essay or in a letter to a friend (Sartre was more candid than many about what he really thought) – but I worry it may be too good to be true. By the by, I hate it when Christian writers don’t verify their citations! But whether or not Sartre said it, it is an absolutely true statement. And we know it because everyone thinks the same way, as do you and I. When we are acting as if we are not Christians, which, alas, we do all too often, we don’t want God to be watching us; we don’t want him to be creating a record of these thoughts and these actions. And if so with us how much more with the unbeliever?
This is becoming more and more the case in the United States, but it is already remarkably the case in Great Britain. There are cameras everywhere. A few years ago it was estimated that every Briton was, on average, captured on camera 300 times a day! That makes us nervous. But still such cameras record the tiniest part of our daily lives. They see only the smallest part of what we do, they see nothing of what we think. Americans are up and arms to learn that their internet viewing habits are being recorded site by site and that other companies buy that data to use in selling you things. You don’t want anyone else to know what you look at on the internet. But God sees it all and hears it all, at work, at home, at play! That is not good news for sinners, but it does make for perfect justice, for a judgment imposed that is exhaustively informed as to the facts. When bringing men to judgment God will remember a thousand things that people have long since forgotten about what they thought and said and did.
Now I want us to consider Peter’s point that the Christian, the biblical doctrine of divine judgment – its righteousness, its ferocity, and its inevitability – is not simply a doctrine. That is, we don’t believe it simply because the Bible teaches us that it is so. It is one of those doctrines – like original sin – for which there is massive, unrelenting empirical demonstration. This world rings with judgment, anticipations of the judgment are everywhere one looks. It is not only that crime is followed by punishment in every country on earth, it is not only that the human heart – made in the image of God as it is – cries out for justice to be done and for evil to be punished, it is also that unexpected catastrophe looms over human life and occurs repeatedly and constantly no matter human efforts to prevent it. Whether storm or earthquake, tornado or fire, flood or volcanic eruption; whether terrorist attack or the outbreak of war, around the world time and time and time again we are reminded of the fact that our lives are not and will never be protected from the power of God, that death and destruction can meet us at every turn, and that human beings almost never remember this or reckon with it in their lives.
A tower fell in Siloam, a section of Jerusalem, during the days of the Lord’s public ministry. The Lord’s response was to say this:
“…those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” [Luke 13:4-5]
Take note, the Lord regarded that event as paradigmatic of divine judgment. The death of those people was a reminder that judgment awaits. It isn’t necessary to believe that every one of those who were killed in the tragedy was an unbeliever. The Lord’s point is that judgment is approaching, a judgment illustrated and anticipated in such catastrophes, and that unless people repent catastrophe will overwhelm them as well.
If you are old enough to remember, there were some Christian preachers, some more carefully and wisely than others to be sure, who made a similar point about 9-11 and the thousands who had died suddenly and violently in New York City, Washington D.C., and the countryside of Pennsylvania. And there was outrage at the very suggestion. Joel Belz gently made that suggestion in a World magazine editorial and people – some prominent people – called or wrote to cancel their subscriptions. But why? Why should anyone doubt this in a world that rings with judgment and when the reality of judgment and its justification is confessed in every human heart every single day? If one chooses to believe that there is no God, fair enough. Such events must then be simply tragic accidents. But if the idea is that God would not do such a thing; any Christian must know that such an idea is preposterous, both logically and biblically. If God is merciful, as everyone believes he is, would he not warn us and warn us again to prepare for that judgment and, when we paid him no mind, would he not force its reality upon our consciousness by fearful events that we cannot ignore? The churches in even New York City, ordinarily empty, were full to the brim the following Sunday after 9/11. But, of course, they emptied again soon enough as people grew comfortable once again in the daily round of life. But take the point: when the whole world is denying the judgment to come, wouldn’t God do just what he says he does in the Bible, viz. send paradigmatic anticipations of the judgment to come? All those people awoke that morning to what they imagined would be just a day like any other. Suddenly, and utterly unexpectedly it became a day terrible it its utter unlikeness to any other day. For many of them they closed their eyes and awoke in hell. 9-11 was surely a paradigm of the Last Judgment!
So let me briefly apply Peter’s point to us concerning the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of the Last Judgment.
- In the first place, as I said, we have here an important argument for the last judgment.
To those who deny that there is such a thing, we have a virtually unanswerable retort: why in the world would you deny the last judgment when there is judgment everywhere around you all the time? All the more to those who believe in heaven but doubt the existence of hell – a very large segment of our American population – we are able to say, “You believe in heaven because this world is so full of intimations of it: love, peace, joy, fulfillment, true human goodness, and so on. You only know what heaven would be, you only long for it because of your experience of heavenly things in this world. How then can you deny judgment when this world is also and just as much if not more full of intimations of hell: human sin and evil, alienation, pointlessness, gnashing of teeth, the tortured conscience, and all manner of punishment?” How can anyone deny hell who rubs shoulders with it every day and watches it every day on his or her television set? Even our obiter dicta betray us. What else do we mean when we say that if so and so does this or that there will be hell to pay?
In the teaching of the Bible the future is not simply an idea, it is the ripe fruit of human history and experience. And so we believe in heaven and in hell not simply because we have absolute confidence in the Word of God but because so obviously heaven and hell are both with us already! Those states of human existence are different only in that they bring finality and perfection to what everyone observes every day in this life.
- Second, this biblical teaching about the connection between judgment in this world and the last and final judgment of human life humanizes our understanding of divine judgment.
It is very easy for human beings to think of the judgments of the Lord, especially the Last Judgment, as somehow phenomena alien to their own experience, something with which they have no connection or personal experience. But the Bible reminds us that the Last Judgment is simply more of the same, more of what we have encountered, experienced, even longed for throughout our lives in this world. People have suffered judgment, all people have. As children we were punished for our disobedience. As adults we have done wrong and suffered the consequences in many different ways. What is more, like all human beings we crave justice. We are offended when injustice is not punished and when the innocent are victimized. No human being can complain about perfect and final justice who has so often complained against injustice or imperfect justice in this life!
We don’t want a world without judgment now; we accept not only the need for justice to be done, perfect justice, but we believe that such justice is right, a moral imperative. This is both an argument for the Last Judgment and a justification of it. Even if a skeptic doubts the existence of the Last Judgment, he ought at least to admit that he wishes there were one! Because, in effect, that is what he has been complaining about all his life: there is so little justice and even the justice we get is imperfect. True justice is a moral good that no one can deny.
- Third, that leads us to another implication of this biblical connection between judgments in this life and the Last Judgment: it is a way of emphasizing the moral nature of the judgments of the Lord.
God does not punish willy-nilly. Like some self-interested potentate, he does not judge simply to reward his friends and punish his enemies. Israel had to wait in bondage for 400 years, four centuries in Egypt because God was unwilling to punish the Amorites living in Canaan until their wickedness had passed the point of no return. His judgments are not selfish or mean-spirited. The Bible even refers to the work of judgment as God’s strange and alien work (Isa. 28:21). He takes no pleasure in condemning the guilty. But he must do it because he is just!
God’s judgments are always based on the careful, accurate, and comprehensive assessment of human life and behavior according to an absolute moral standard. Everyone is always to be judged by the same standard; everyone is to get nothing more and nothing less than he or she deserves. And the standard is known to us all. God has written it in his Word, but he has also written it on the human heart. And those who do not have the Word of God will not be judged as if they had.
When you read in the Bible what has prompted the Lord’s judgment of some unbelieving man or people, it is invariably some evil, some wrong, some sin that everyone knows ought to be condemned: the oppression of others, the cruelty of the strong toward the weak, the abuse of others sexually or financially or militarily, and overweening pride: all things we hate when we see them in our own experience. The judgments of the Lord are always moral, which is to say, always just in the same sense in which we think of justice today, believers and unbelievers alike.
- Fourth, and finally, this connection between divine judgment in history and the Last Judgment, seeing both as the exercise of the same divine justice and the same divine will, vindicates the moral order that all human beings, to one degree or another, hold sacred and dear.
It may be only honor among thieves, but all of us, no matter our religion, no matter our morality, believe in a moral order and uphold it in the judgments we are always making about the behavior of others and sometimes have the honesty to make concerning our own behavior. No one lives without a moral compass; no one is indifferent to injustice if he or she is the victim of it; and no one does not commend behavior he regards as good and honorable. The fact is, no society can survive that does not in some significant way uphold that concept of an inflexible and unchanging moral order. If, as our modern society has done, in the case of abortion or gay marriage, it legitimates behavior the Bible condemns, it does so and always does so on the strength of moral principles the Bible teaches more clearly than any other human source of moral instruction. We Americans kill babies in the womb for the sake of fairness, justice, liberty, human dignity, and deliverance from oppression. We celebrate gay marriage for the same reasons. We may wish to alter the moral standards, but by believing in such moral standards at all, we effectively concede that we didn’t invent them and that they are not ours to change!
Fact is, any society that denies such an intrinsic and inescapable moral order, such an order as, like it or not, makes judgment and justice not only an inescapable reality but a moral good, is a society that cannot sustain order and must soon collapse. We are on our way there, but haven’t quite arrived. We have more and more people publicly asserting that all moral judgments are simply personal opinions and matters of taste, but our public policy still largely operates on the assumption that right and wrong are real things and cannot be denied with impunity. And frankly, assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, human behavior proves, every day a thousand times over that no one wants to live in a world where right and wrong are not real things and where they can be denied or ignored at will without consequence.
This is Peter’s point: divine judgment is the foundation of the gospel. Remove it and the entire edifice must fall. Everything – creation, redemption, and consummation – derives its meaning from the future, from the connection between this world and the next. My great responsibility as a minister, as your pastor, has been constantly to connect your life in this world with the life to come. What were we made for? Life forever! Why do we need a redeemer? Because of the threat of death forever! And why do we concentrate on the future and why is Jesus Christ coming a second time to the world? To bring his people into the fullness of that heavenly life and to subject his enemies to the judgment they deserve. What is the great significance of time? It ushers us into eternity! So when an unbeliever mocks our faith, when sinners seem to triumph in the world, when scorn is heaped upon the law of God, it is ours to remember the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the thousands of other such judgments that have befallen mankind in this world, continue to befall it today, and will befall it tomorrow.
A few years ago I told you about having dinner in a river front café in Prague with Dr. Tom Johnson, a man whose work in Europe we support as a congregation. For many years Tom has taught philosophy, theology, and ethics in European universities and seminaries. We had fallen to talking about the universal human instinct for justice and for absolute standards of right and wrong; an argument he thought the church had failed to make as powerfully and persuasively in the public square as it needed to be made. He told us that years ago he had a student who wrote a paper advocating the now common viewpoint that moral convictions are actually only matters of taste, that they have no basis in reality. He wrote on the paper before returning it: “Excellent paper. F” She came to see him in high dudgeon. How could he give her an “F” for an excellent paper? “Well,” he said, “you persuaded me. Standards of behavior are mere opinions. I can do as I please.” She was furious and began to argue until it dawned on her that he was joking and that with his jest he had exposed her hypocrisy. She didn’t think justice was a mere opinion. She believed right was right, wrong was wrong and each should be treated accordingly. So, don’t let anyone deny the Judgment in your hearing without your reminding them that such a denial is a contradiction of what they think and say every day of their lives!
Let me say in conclusion once more that the doctrine of divine judgment is fundamental to our entire understanding of life and salvation. Or as a wise man argued against those whose sensibilities were offended by hell in the middle of the nineteenth century:
“Hell is the turning point between Christianity and pantheism [which, by the way, is a good term to describe the spirituality of the modern Western world], it is the critical doctrine — you can’t get rid of it, it is the very characteristic of Christianity. We must therefore look matters in the face. Is it more probable that eternal punishment should be true, or that there should be no God?” [Cited from J. H. Newman, Apologia Pro Via Sua in V. Grounds, “The Final State of the Wicked,” JETS 24/3 (1981) 215]
Like it or not, the existence of judgment is essential to the vindication of everything we and every other human being hold dear! But take the point: the justice we crave and will someday experience is simply the final and perfect form of the justice we see temporarily and imperfectly carried out a thousand times a day. It was both a denial of the obvious as well as a lethal falsehood for those troublers of the church to teach otherwise.