This is the third article in a series about God as Judge. I have hoped to show why Christians can savour this truth and in what way. The other two articles are further down in the blog.
What does it mean that God is Judge of the whole world? It’s easy to dismiss this because he doesn’t seem to do anything, and the powers we answer to are more likely to wear wigs, or blue uniforms, and our brush with them has probably been minimal. Then again, our popular teachers say we are our own masters and that the idea of any external arbiter should be dismissed.
I am unlikely to persuade someone that God is Judge if they don’t already believe that Jesus is the world’s Saviour. Our persuading begins with him. He is the way God has explained himself. He explains what he means by judgement by sending his Son in the likeness of our sinful flesh, and as an offering for sin (Romans 8:3). What happens to him and how he receives what happens to him is what God means by judgement. Jesus said, ‘Now is the judgement of this world,’ and he was speaking about his own death (John 12:31). It is this event that gives all that we are saying its moral credibility.
The Apostle Paul had a conversation with a Roman governor, Felix, about faith in Jesus Christ. That was his starting point, but his conversation included, necessarily, ‘righteousness, self-control and judgment to come’, which left Felix frightened, and the discussion ended (Acts 24:24-27). The same thing would probably happen today. But I’m not primarily interested in what modern people are likely to believe but rather, what is true. At the end of the day, that is what is going to matter.
In fact, God is always doing what he needs to do to tell us that this world is his. When the gospel is being preached, he is revealing his righteousness—the true way of being right before God. Paul puts this in the present tense because God is revealing himself, and revealing how to relate to him, by having his servants preach the gospel. At the same time Paul says God is revealing his wrath (Romans 1:16-18). How this happens may seem surprising, and, I suspect, is often misunderstood.
Paul lists a number of things that are going wrong with his first century world, a list not too different from one we may compile for our own century. But he is not telling us that these things are wrong. He assumes we know that. He is saying that when people do these things, God is revealing his wrath—to them and to the world at large. The sin in this passage is not bad behaviour but repressing what God is revealing about himself. So when people do whatever they like, give way to lusts, degrading passions including homosexuality, depraved minds, wickedness, greed, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, boasting, untrustworthiness, lack of mercy, and pride in doing these things, God is revealing his wrath. People don’t just do these things, they can’t help doing them because God has given them up to them. This means that the very people who think there is no God to assess or reward their actions are actually in the hands of God.
Contrary to popular belief, God is not naturally angry but is provoked to anger by those who live their life as though he were not around. He is jealous for the affection and obedience of the creatures he has formed. He wants to give himself to them and to give them a full life. When he gives us up to our own choices, it is as though Christ himself is saying, as he said to Paul earlier, ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (Acts 26:14).
Paul’s letter is written to Christians and it is we who need to know how God acts as Judge. If we take judgement into our hands, we get it wrong. Wrath is God’s affair, not ours, but he is doing what is right in regard to people who ignore him. Our task is to be witnesses to Jesus Christ, and, in the context of that revelation of love, to tell people about judgement.
If we know God is gracious, we can see these things. We can see how God gives people over to their sins and to the social consequences of them. The world can’t see its own dilemma. Nor can it see the way God is caring for those who trust him.
The prophet Isaiah refers to this phenomenon (Isa. 26:1-12). He describes God caring for those who honour him and his law and who long for him to intervene in their world. They may be afflicted and helpless (v. 6) but know that God’s hand is ‘lifted up’ (v. 11) to save them. Their path is ‘smooth’ and ‘level’ (v. 7). They have ‘perfect peace’ (v. 3). On the other hand, God’s hand is ‘lifted up’, not only to bless his people but also to be angry with those who ignore him; his judgements are in the land (v. 9). As a result of this, things go wrong, terribly wrong (vv. 5-6). Still, says Isaiah, they can’t see it (vv. 10-11).
I wonder if we can see the parallels to this in our situation. God’s judgements are being revealed in our land. This can be tricky because there is often no direct correlation between evil and suffering. Many people get away with evil for many years and others seem to suffer innocently. But then, there are social consequences of some actions that ought to register as a moral result of actions.Here are some examples.
- When people give free reign to their passions, they release a euphoria that can’t be sustained. Freedom and good will are eroded by permissiveness because demands for selfish pleasure increase. Peter Lowman has some articles that show Western secular writers over recent centuries confessing that without God, we have no substantial basis for purpose, meaning, ethics or love. You can read them at http://www.bethinking.org/atheism/after-god.
- In economic terms, we are trying to build a generous economy out of selfish people and it’s not working. Our politicians try their best and speak to us warmly about how we should be able to live but they can’t produce it. And the pie we are trying to share is shrinking. We think capitalism will spread the wealth but it was not designed for that. It was put forward as the best was to generated wealth, not spread it. Only generous people can make a generous economy.
- Then again, we are trying to make happy families by changing partners, and that’s not working either. Just ask the children affected by this. On a wider scale, we want the nations to behave like a family and be reasonable, but we have no Father God to call us to account and demonstrate tender strength.
- And again, we are trying to define goodness by majority decisions and are becoming more polarized than united. Is this just because other people are unreasonable? Or is it saying that goodness must be defined by someone greater than us all of us put together?
In many respects, our postulating in the West about knowing what is good for the world sounds to me like the Emperor who paraded naked because he had been persuaded that his invisible ‘clothes’ were beautiful. A young boy in the crowd said, ‘The Emperor’s got no clothes’, not realising he was supposed to make out that the Emperor did have clothes on. The fact is, we are not doing well. This may sound like the naïve cry of someone uninformed about public affairs, but it should be obvious.
These dysfunctional aspects of our way of life are God’s judgement. He loves us too much to let us indulge our fantasies and is speaking to us by being what he is — our Judge. The world may not be willing to acknowledge this. Rather, as someone quipped, we look for ‘a breakthrough a day to keep the crisis at bay’. Something else must be the problem, not us.
It is important for Christians to know these things because they are the background for our announcing the good news of Jesus Christ. Somewhere, there will be people who can no longer be sated with the goodies of this world and who know life cannot proceed without righteousness, not in this life or the next, and they will hear our good news with different ears.
It is important for us Christians to know, also, that God’s hand has been, and is being, ‘lifted up’ in our favour. Have we seen the enormity of Christ rising from the dead to abolish death? Do we know how amazing it is to be forgiven for all our sins and to stand righteous before God, forever? It is easy, when things are going well, to ‘not need’ the favour of God because the world already favours us enough. We slip into thinking God is only interested in the present world and that he doesn’t want to give us any more. Let us remember that his hand is ‘lifted up’, as Judge, in our favour, and nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). That is what we need to know.
We have stood where judgement fell on this world because God sees us as united to Christ in his crucifixion. Judgement fell on us well and truly. We know the fervour of his wrath and the heat of his holiness. Jesus Christ endured its pain, but we know it as a moral power (Rom. 6:4-6; Gal. 2:20; 5:24; 6:14; Col. 3:3-6). We love God for his holiness and for his love in reaching out to us in this way. We see the need for people to know this gracious God and cannot think God unkind when his wrath is revealed. God gives us confidence to stand before him, even when things are tough, and this is evidence, at least to us, that we are being saved. It may also be evidence to some that they are not (Phil. 1:28; 2 Thes. 1:5).
The world’s Saviour is still our Judge. We call on him as Father but should fear him as one who judges impartially (1 Peter. 1:17). Then again, Peter tells us, ‘It is time for judgement to begin with the household of God’ (1 Peter 4:17). He then talks about judgement coming to those who reject the gospel. We have to get the balance right because we will not be convincing to the world about God being Judge if we do not live before him ourselves. All the letters Christ sends to the churches in the book of Revelation (chapters 2 and 3) talk about Christ standing, effectively, as Judge among his people. He speaks about what he has for and against them, what they should do to remedy defects and what he promises to those who hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He does this, not to throw doubt on the salvation of his people but to ensure that the light from his churches burns brightly.
Picking up the exhortations Christ gives in these letters, let us ask ourselves these questions. Do we love Christ fervently, endure under trial, hate what he hates and love what he loves, live by his word and trust in his righteousness alone? These are the things Christ watches over us to produce in his church. Those Christ loves he rebukes and chastens.
If we know God is our Judge and that this judging has been entrusted to Christ, we have the proper sense of how our gospel must come to those who don’t know Christ. Paul said, ‘Knowing the fear of God, we persuade others’ (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, we have a proper understanding of our responsibility to God, a deep gratefulness for the love of Christ, a due sense of its cost and a hearty enjoyment of our new place in God’s favour. As such, we can say to others, with moral earnestness, ‘Be reconciled to God’. The stakes are high, and the rewards real. It is no fiction to say, ‘How good it is that God is Judge!’
I wrote the following poem some years back and I hope it captures some of what I have been saying in these articles.
Sovereign Lord your hand is guiding
All the destinies of man.
Nations, families, cultures, kingdoms,
Flow as water through your hand.
Yet your rule is kind and good, Strong and wise and gentle;
Leaving none who seek you crushed
But calmed and gladly humbled.
Sovereign Judge the world is aching
Through its shame and wrongful ways.
You are showing your displeasure
In the tumults of our age
Yet your wrath is righteousness,
Purging our pollution;
Wishing not we be condemned,
But that we be chastened.
Sovereign Father, all your actions
Lead us to your own dear Son,
By whose death all failure’s terrors
Are absolved, forever shunned.
By your unexpected love You have won us Father.
Let us do what pleases you,
Be your new creation.
Sovereign Lord and Judge and Father,
Hallowed by your holy name.
May your kingdom come in glory,
May your gracious will be done.