Friday, November 1, 2013

The Grace of Judgment: Is Hell Consistent with the Love of God?

God has appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged; but likewise all persons, that have lived upon earth, shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 33.1).

It seems a bit strange for the Westminster Confession of Faith--such a joyful and God-rejoicing document--to end with a chapter on judgment. Yet, it is not that grace is lacking in this text. There is plenty of peace here. For instance the next section of the Confession speaks of “the manifestation of the glory of His mercy in the eternal salvation of the elect,” and “the fullness of joy and refreshing which shall come from the presence of the Lord” (see 33.2). And yet we remember that this is a Puritan document. And so it is quite fitting that this great confession, as it was originally written, ends with a stern warning to obedience and faith. For this reason we are not surprised to hear of hell mentioned in the closing words as well.

Is the concept of hell consistent with a loving God? It is.

Jonathan Edwards explains why:
“The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another, is proportionally more or less heinous, as he was under greater or lesser obligations to obey him. And therefore if there be any being that we are under infinite obligations to love, and honor, and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty. Our obligation to love, honor, and obey any being is in proportion to his loveliness, honorableness, and authority…But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty…So sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations must be infinitely heinous…and therefore renders no more than proportional to the heinousness of what they are guilty of.”[1]

The Christian faith is no “lollipop religion.” It is not the chaff of popular self-esteem banter. It is not the easy-to-digest frivolity of “do it yourself” religion. And the Westminster Confession of Faith makes no pretensions of recommending such glitter. The Christian faith does, however, remit serious warnings of judgment as often as it promises incomprehensible rewards; often in the same breath. And so the Confession ends here, a bit like the Apostle John ends his first epistle, with a staunch reminder of the sheer weightiness of the matters presented within the rest of the document.

When we decide to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ with our lives, we have also decided to worship and serve the one who will judge us on that last day (John 5:22, 27). This is wonderful news. The one who will judge us is also our Savior!  If our own judge took off His garments of honor and nobility to condescend to be our Savior, how much more then will His judgment be according to His own mercy.

As we consider the sternness and mercy of God today, let us pray with the Reformer John Calvin regarding this great and terrible doctrine of the judgment,
“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, grant us the grace that, being warned by so many examples of Your wrath and vengeance (in the Bible), the memory of which You have willed should endure until the end of the world, we might learn thereby how redoubtable and terrible a Judge You are against the obstinate and those who have hardened their hearts. Grant us also the grace that, today we might not be deaf to this doctrine which we have heard from the mouth of your prophet. Rather, grant that we might apply all our studies in order to appease You and find favor in Your sight, and, abandoning all hope in mankind, present ourselves directly to You. Moreover, being supported by Your loving kindness alone, which You have promised us in Jesus Christ, may we never doubt again that You are our true Father. May we be so touched by a spirit of repentance, that, even if we have been bad examples for one another, and scandalized each other, we might rather become banner-bearers, or guides, to the right way of salvation. And may we strive to help our neighbors by living a good and well-ordered life, so that all together we might attain that heavenly and happy life which Your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has dearly acquired for us by His blood. Amen.”[2]

I have sitting on my desk a tiny trophy that I “earned” for playing T-ball as a young boy. T-ball is the kind of baseball that is played before children are able to hit and pitch the ball on their own. The baseball just sits there on the tee waiting for the batter to strike it. At the end of my first season playing for the “T-ball Tornados” the coach handed us each a small, itty-bitty trophy no higher than six inches. It sits modestly on a 1-inch high pedestal of plastic. What seemed to me a more than generous reward for my efforts as a child, now seems to me a humorous reminder of the irony of my achievements. Our earthly trophies are so small and ignoble compared to the righteousness of Jesus, aren’t they?

Often I have found that the more I can meditate on the day of my own judgment, the more I am able to ferret out the wood and hay before I am foolish enough to try to build something out of them.  Philippians 2:12 warns us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We fear, not because we are concerned that God will destroy us, for there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1); rather we fear because our hearts have been regenerated in order to love Him more and more. Our fear is not that we would ourselves be condemned, but we fear that we would live in such a way that the honor of God is tarnished. Similarly, we tremble not because we are afraid of punishment, but with the ground-shaking responsibility of carrying His name-plate on our hearts. 

The above has been adapted from Matthew Everhard's book, Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647 (Reformation Press, 2012). Matthew is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, quoted in John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. (Sisters OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003) p. 60.

[2] John Calvin, quoted in Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin.  (Orlando FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007) p. 127-128.

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