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We need to make some important distinctions about the biblical meaning of “fearing” God. These distinctions can be helpful, but they can also be a little dangerous. When Luther struggled with that, he made this distinction, which has since become somewhat famous: He distinguished between what he called a servile fear and a filial fear.

The servile fear is a kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor, the jailer, or the executioner. It’s that kind of dreadful anxiety in which someone is frightened by the clear and present danger that is represented by another person. Or it’s the kind of fear that a slave would have at the hands of a malicious master who would come with the whip and torment the slave. Servile refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner.

Luther distinguished between that and what he called filial fear, drawing from the Latin concept from which we get the idea of family. It refers to the fear that a child has for his father. In this regard, Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love.

I think this distinction is helpful because the basic meaning of fearing the Lord that we read about in Deuteronomy is also in the Wisdom Literature, where we’re told that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The focus here is on a sense of awe and respect for the majesty of God. That’s often lacking in contemporary evangelical Christianity. We get very flippant and cavalier with God, as if we had a casual relationship with the Father. We are invited to call Him Abba, Father, and to have the personal intimacy promised to us, but still we’re not to be flippant with God. We’re always to maintain a healthy respect and adoration for Him.

One last point: If we really have a healthy adoration for God, we still should have an element of the knowledge that God can be frightening. “It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). As sinful people, we have every reason to fear God’s judgment; it is part of our motivation to be reconciled with God.

By Ligonier Ministries

A couple of weeks ago I was at a bible study which went over 1 Peter 3:18-20. Now what I found interesting is the speaker who was leading the Bible study raised the issue regarding this chapter. Apparently, there is some dispute among scholars and fellow believers as far as what happened in this event.

  • Did Jesus descend to save the Saint?
  • Did He descend to talk to demons?

This is what I hope to explain in this article. Let's start with the first argument.

Some people would argue that Jesus descended to save the souls that never head about Him. This sounds like a plausible idea at the surface, but what does the Bible say about salvation?

Ephesians 2:8 tells us that we are saved by the grace of God, through our faith in Him.

It then goes in to explain that faith in the Lord, is a gift from Him. Our faith is not produced by our own mental choice but the sovereign grace of God He gives us faith.

Hebrews 11:4-40 then explains what faith in the Lord looks like. Faith at its core is a special trust in the Lord and all He is.

Genesis 15:6 tells us that it was Abraham's faith that was counted as righteousness.

Since God is a god that never changes, he is always the same yesterday, today and forever. Then so too are his principals. They are perfect. Then even among the time of Jesus, it was faith that saved.

We also know through the story (possibly not a parable, this is the only story Jesus tells that has named characters) of Lazarus, found in Luke 16. That a man who repented of his own sins, after being condemned was informed by Moses that there is no hope for him to receive forgiveness and enter the kingdom of God.

Man is destined to die once, then face judgement.

This comes from Hebrews 9:27. after our physical body dies, we then face the throne of God in judgment. This is our final judgment. If Jesus did indeed go down to preach His gospel to save souls, then Hebrews 9:27 would not be true.

Is it demons?

Another argument people would assume justifies the idea that Jesus descended to testify could be found in Matthew 27:52 "May bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (ESV). But it is important to note, this account refers to saints, which are the people of the Lord, while our passage in question speaks of spirits, being that this is a general term we can conclude 1 Peter 3:19 is talking about demonic spirits.

Bakers Commentary writes:

The "imprisoned spirits" (3:19) are not the souls of dead human beings but fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). According to Jewish tradition (1 Enoch 6-20), they deceived and corrupted the generation who lived before the flood, teaching them the arts of sin (Genesis 6:4). As a result, they were locked up in prison at the time of the flood, "to be held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4). They were the counterparts of the angels, authorities, and powers (3:22) still active today.

Jesus' preaching to these spirits was not an offer of salvation but a proclamation of his victory - in fact, the announcement of the judgment hanging over them. The spiritual forces behind the greatest corruption the world has ever seen have received their final condemnation at Jesus' hands! Having dealt with them, He finished his journey to heaven and took His place at God's right hand, in full authority over the powers behind the suffering experienced by Peter's readers. However much they may feel themselves to be victims, Christ is the victor!

I hope this has helped you to grasp a better understanding of the biblical interpretation, as well as the spiritual government, I know as I was pondering this verse, before compiling this blog I began to think of other passages that give insight to how the spiritual realm works. It truly is a fascinating thing to think about!

Posted in Theological Dangers |

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 is likely the Bible’s most well-known verse. Most Sunday school children can quote it verbatim before they learn to read or write. It shows up on t-shirts, hats, and other gear like a sports logo or political slogan. Even staunch anti-church members of the secular public can communicate the gist of this familiar verse.

Sadly, while most people have heard John 3:16, they don’t know John 3. The verse itself may have permeated the culture, but it has been stripped of its vital context.

The third chapter of John’s gospel records the clandestine conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee. Jesus told him that he could never see the kingdom of God unless he was born again (John 3:3), that there was nothing he could do to make that happen (John 3:5), and that he needed to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5) if he was to ever inherit eternal life.

Nicodemus’s response was utter astonishment: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). It was not that he didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. It seems he got the message plainly enough. But it overthrew his deepest convictions and left him virtually speechless. That question is the last thing we hear from Nicodemus in the narrative of John 3. He had nothing further to say.

The focus of the chapter then turns exclusively to Jesus, who delivers one of His most important discourses ever—an extended lesson on gospel truth. As Nicodemus listened in total silence, Jesus proceeded to draw a clear contrast between believers and unbelievers, the humble and the hypocrites, the truly reborn and the merely religious. And it was all too clear in His judgment that the Pharisees—Nicodemus included—were on the wrong side of that divide.

John 3:11–21 is rich enough that we could devote weeks to unpacking it—and that still wouldn’t begin to plumb its depths. But for the sake of this study we’ll just consider some obvious ways that Jesus’ words upend the hopes of those expecting their piety and works to merit salvation.

Self-Deceived Shepherds

First, notice that Jesus directly implicated Nicodemus as an unbeliever: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:11–12, emphasis added).

To postmodern ears, that sounds extraordinarily harsh. Contemporary evangelicals typically bristle at the thought of challenging anyone’s profession of faith. For some, the thought of being perceived as harsh or negative is more odious than actually being undiscerning. That’s why the church is overrun with shallow celebrities and false teachers whose doctrine and lifestyle show no real fruit of salvation. People like that have flourished and even begun to dominate the non-Christian public’s perception of what Christianity is, mainly because more sound and solid evangelical leaders are reluctant to plainly denounce them as charlatans.

Nicodemus’s ignorance about his need for regeneration was proof of his unbelief. He had studied the Old Testament in an academic way, and from the standpoint of his fellow Pharisees, he was one of the top experts on the subject. But he had never bothered to apply its teaching to his own heart, and therefore Jesus was perfectly blunt with him: “You do not believe.”

No Spiritual Privileges

Second, don’t miss the point of the Old Testament allusion Jesus makes in verses 14–15: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” The reference is to an incident that occurred during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness during the Exodus. Numbers 21 records that the people grew discouraged; they began to despise the manna God provided daily for their sustenance, and in frustration they rebelled against both God and Moses. “The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food’” (Numbers 21:5).

God unleashed a plague of poisonous snakes into the camp, “and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6). In response, the people repented and begged Moses to intercede with the Lord on their behalf. The Lord commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, set it on a pole in the midst of the camp, and tell the people “that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live” (Numbers 21:8). The whole story was an illustration of justification by faith, and that was the point Jesus was making here.

But consider the difficulty of that analogy from Nicodemus’s perspective. As a ruler of Israel, he had always thought of himself as in the role of Moses. Jesus Himself said, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses” (Matthew 23:2). But the analogy suggested that Nicodemus needed to see himself in the place of the sinning Israelites. Even the Old Testament imagery Jesus used was a contradiction of the Pharisees’ spiritual self-image. To a casual observer—especially to anyone trained in the rules of postmodern discourse and the canons of political correctness—it might seem as if Jesus was deliberately trying to provoke Nicodemus, smacking him hard again and again, demeaning his pharisaical pride in every conceivable way. In reality, Jesus was not being mean-spirited, but precisely the opposite. Nicodemus needed to recognize his spiritual poverty and see his need for a Savior. And Jesus cared more for the truth than about how Nicodemus felt about it.

Before Nicodemus could receive any help from Jesus, he needed to see how desperate his situation was. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). And when a patient has a life-threatening illness that urgently needs treatment, the physician needs to give him the bad news candidly. That was the case with Nicodemus.

Compassionate Confrontation

So notice, third, the way Jesus ended His discourse on the gospel by bringing the emphasis right back to the problem of human depravity and God’s condemnation of unbelievers:

He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. (John 3:18–21)

This, too, is contrary to most contemporary ideas about how to do personal evangelism. Today’s evangelicals generally think if we offend someone by pressing the claims of the gospel too firmly or too plainly, we’ve done something terribly wrong. The reality is quite the opposite: if you think the gospel can be proclaimed in a way that is always appealing and never upsetting to unbelievers, you have the wrong idea about what the gospel message says.

That is why Jesus left the issue with Nicodemus on a note of condemnation. John 3:16, of course, is famous for its stress on the love of God and the giving of Christ so that “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” That’s the central truth of the gospel message and the promise that makes it good news. But it is not good news for those who remain in unbelief. Therefore Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus ended on a harsh and sobering note about the severe condemnation that rests on all unbelievers and hypocrites. Since Jesus had already implicated Nicodemus in verse 12 with the words “you do not believe,” this was a very direct and personal challenge aimed squarely at him and the pharisaical belief system he represented.

An Encouraging Epilogue

As a matter of fact, Jesus’ discourse on the gospel in John 3 ends on such a negative note that if this were the only place we encounter Nicodemus in all of Scripture, we might conclude that he left without saying any more and remained in unbelief all his life.

However, there is every reason to conclude that Nicodemus, who originally came to Jesus under cover of darkness, was eventually drawn to the true Light and became a genuine believer. The last time we meet Nicodemus in Scripture is in John 19:39, where he and Joseph of Arimathea hastily prepared the Savior’s body for burial. It was an act that could well have cost him everything, at the very moment when the rest of the Sanhedrin had whipped public fury against Jesus into a murderous rage. He clearly had become a different man than he was when he first approached Jesus as an unbelieving, inquiring Pharisee.

Nicodemus reminds us that evangelistic encounters should never be evaluated by how the conversation ends. If we are biblically faithful in sowing the gospel, we can confidently leave the not-yet-converted sinner in the sovereign hands of God. Only He can regenerate them, and we know that nothing can stop Him from gathering His sheep into His fold (John 10:27–30).

Christmas invariably presents us with inquirers like Nicodemus. The normal hostility of unbelief often gives way to open curiosity as we gather around the scene of Christ’s birth. May we follow Christ’s example and firmly, yet graciously, call unbelieving family and friends to repentance and saving faith in Him.

Copyright 2007, Grace to You. All rights reserved.  Used by permission

The term “Pharisee” gets thrown around a lot today. As you can imagine, I get accused of being a Pharisee constantly. I can’t tell you how much this word hurts me when others carelessly throw it my way. I also can’t help but wonder if those who are so fond of using this slur really understand the historical and spiritual implications of such an accusation.

I hope this will cause you to think twice before calling someone a Pharisee.

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Christian faith, more importantly, God. Is often hated because of some misunderstandings Satan has done so well has branded the faith with. But what is really behind them? What does the Bible really say?

1. God is a genocidal maniac.

The God revealed in the Bible is not reducible to the attributes of love or mercy. God is a righteous, holy, and just God. He must punish evil. If God didn't have reasons for doing so beyond our comprehension, he would not be worthy of worship, let alone believe. We would never praise a judge who chooses to let convicted thieves, murders, and rapists return home without justice. Even if a judge did this in the name of love, we would never be satisfied with the practical realities of having these people living unpunished in our neighborhoods or teaching our children at school. A God who never gives justice is a God who should be rejected. A God who is both loving and just is a God that is not only worthy of but also demands our worship and obedience.

(See Is God a Genocidal Maniac?)

2. Jesus never existed as a real person.

While the news media often reports the proposition that belief in Jesus’ historical existence is untenable, most scholars today disagree. Jesus’ existence is one of the best-attested facts available to us. Hostile witnesses attest to his life in Palestine. His life recorded in the Gospels is the best explanation available to us about who he was and what he did. This fact is even held by hostile sources outside the Christian sources.

(See 7 Unbiased Facts about Jesus’ Death)

3. Science has disproven Christianity.

Historically, Christianity has often led the way in scientific advancement. Many leading scientists today believe in a cosmology that is much more open to intelligent design and creation than most pundits assume. Science has not found evidence precluding the belief in God, miracles, or the resurrection of Jesus. Such fields are outside the competence of science and its methodology.

(See 3 Ways Science Supports the Miracle of the Resurrection)

4. The Bible is based on myths.

History is integral to the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul, who wrote more than half of the New Testament, grounds faith in eyewitness testimony and verifiable events (1 Cor. 15). If these things are myths and fables, Christianity is not useful or good. The tone and tenor of the Scriptures are categorically different from that of Greek myths or Aesop’s Fables.

What we believe is based on reality and grounded in history. The Bible is open to investigation and scrutiny.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1–3)

(See Our Faith is Historically Verifiable - Or It's Nothing)

5. All Religions teach the same thing.

Many people today attempt to dismantle the claims of religion before they even hear them by asserting (not arguing) that all religions teach the same thing. In truth, each religion makes very different claims and assumptions about reality. There may be superficial agreement about the Golden Rule, but the gospel of the triune God categorically separates the faith of Christianity from all religions.

(See Do All Religions Just Teach Love?)

6. Jesus never died on a cross.

According to multiple sources, Jesus was condemned to die for specific reasons. He attempted to lead Israel away from God through miraculous deeds. His enemies attributed his works to the devil as acts of sorcery. Jesus’ death was a well-known fact throughout the ancient world. Historians and politicians of the century spoke of the events that happened in Jerusalem.

(See 7 Unbiased Facts about Jesus’ Death)

7. There are no such things as miracles.

To assume miracles cannot happen because they do not do so normally is not itself an argument. Rather, most people take their personal experience as the normative basis for judging past events. This subjective view of what is possible does not allow for normal historical events to transpire, let alone miraculous ones. If we look at historical evidence, the question remains an open possibility.

(See Our Faith is Historically Verifiable - Or It's Nothing)

8. Evil precludes a good God.

Only the God of Scripture allows evil to be a problem in the first place. If evil exists, it presumes an original goodness and liberty that makes such a choice evil. The problem of evil is actually an argument for Christianity. Evil, as a choice that has real consequences, cannot be accounted for without God.

Many people wrongly assume that if God is good there should no be evil in the world. And yet, this assumes that as finite creatures we could know God’s purposes. If such a God exists, there are likely reasons he allows evil that we cannot fully comprehend.

(See 4 Ways the Bible Deals with Evil)

9. Christianity is irrational and unreasonable.

Faith is often wrongly perceived as a leap in the dark, irrational, and imaginary. Yet, historically, Christianity has seen three aspects of faith: knowledge, assent, and trust.

Faith is based on actual historical events that are rational explanations of reality. Faith assents to the reliability of the speaking God. These explanations may not be seen by the naked eye, but that does not mean they are irrational. Rather, the revelation of Scripture reveals a rational, and more importantly, a good God who is saving sinners.

(See Why Does Anyone Become a Christian?)

10. There is no evidence for the resurrection.

Many people wrongly assume there is no real evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, this is incorrect. The women who found an empty tomb attested to the resurrection of Christ. Hundreds of witnesses around Jerusalem saw the resurrected Lord and could be questioned. Hostile authorities among the Jews and Romans attested to his empty tomb and miracles. According to many scholars, the Gospel accounts remain the best explanation of the empty tomb, the transformation of the apostles, and the existence of the early church.

(See Why Should I Believe that Jesus Rose From the Dead?)

11. Science and faith are incompatible.

Science cannot exist without the assumptions of a stable creation, with meaning, purpose, or the laws of nature to govern it. Without the assumptions brought about by Christianity, modern science would have no footing whatsoever. If nature were inherently self-serving and motivated merely by survival rather than to the giving of life, the stability of natural laws would be unknowable. Nature itself would be a moving deception. We would not have the ability to even perceive such a reality if it existed.

“Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels,” writes Paul Davies. “Atheists claim that the laws [of nature] exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted” (Russell Stannard, God for the 21st Century [Templeton Foundation Press, 2000], 12). Many scientists today see this rationality—which many people want to discount as superstition. The evidence points to something of an infinite creator and to a belief in him.

Faith in what must be (i.e., God) for the world to exist as it does is actually rational. Science has not found evidence precluding the belief in God, miracles, or the resurrection of Jesus. Such fields are outside the competency of science and its methodology. Faith is not incompatible with the evidence. Everyone has to believe in a hypothesis concerning where the compelling evidence leads them. Such basic beliefs are the building blocks of understanding the laws of nature. The laws of nature, therefore, pose a problem for both atheists and materialists but not for theists.

(See 5 Reasons Why Science and Faith Are Compatible)

 

To learn more about the Christian faith, check out Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God’s Story by Michael Horton.

[Sources from The Gospel Coalition, written by Jason Derouchie]

If Christians are part of the new covenant, why should we seek to understand and apply the Old Testament (OT)?

I’ll give 10 reasons why the first word in the phrase Old Testament must not mean unimportant or insignificant to Christians.

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Many people in our culture, both within and without the church, have trouble with the idea of an angry God. Many secular people look at Bible passages where God gets angry and judges people and think, That’s precisely why religion is so primitive and dangerous. And many Christians seem to want to tone down, or even excise completely from our creed, the doctrine of divine wrath. It is seen as an embarrassment—something to be ameliorated, qualified, explained, reconfigured.

Many, for example, feel more comfortable with the view C. H. Dodd popularized in the early 20th century, that God’s wrath refers not to God’s attitude toward persons, but to the inevitable cause-and-effect process of a moral universe. Similarly, others point to passages like Romans 1:18–32 to argue that God’s wrath is simply a passive response of letting sin reap its consequences.

This whole development is not a theological sidebar, irrelevant to church life and worship. The doctrine of divine wrath is an integral piece of the gospel message, and therefore, moving away from it will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the church’s faith and life.

Vital to the Gospel

For example, I believe the driving impetus behind most revisionist atonement theologies is discomfort with the traditional doctrine of divine wrath. George Smeaton claimed all the way back in 1870, “The question of divine wrath is at present the great point in debate on the subject of the atonement.” I think his comment remains apt in today’s atonement discussions. As goes our view of divine wrath, so generally goes our view of the atonement.

The doctrine of divine wrath is an integral piece of the gospel message, and  therefore, moving away from it will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the church’s faith and life.

I think movements away from the doctrine of hell are also often connected to discomfort with divine wrath. For example, I remember Rob Bell’s question in the promotional video for Love Wins: “What kind of God would need to save us from himself? And how could that possibly be good news?” The root issue for Bell was not just hell per se, but the more general notion of divine wrath and judgment.

My heart goes out to those who might struggle with this doctrine, especially those who struggle because they’ve seen it caricatured or associate it with their experience of sinful human anger. As an effort to help, here are four problems with downplaying divine wrath (or denying its active, personal dimensions).

1. The Bible

If we want to move away from the notion of an angry God while retaining an authoritative Bible, we have some pretty heavy revisionist lifting to do. I would say the effort is roughly comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to scissor-cut the supernatural out of the Bible. Just type in “Lord wrath” or “God angry” to a Bible Gateway search. There are more than 600 references to divine wrath in Scripture.

In the Bible, God’s wrath is not the problem but the solution, not the offensive doctrine needing defense but the long-awaited vindication of justice after the tension of the prophets’ ‘How long, O Lord?’

What strikes me most, however, is not how frequently God’s Word speaks of God’s wrath, but the absence of the embarrassment or hesitation or shuffling of the feet so often present in contemporary attitudes toward this doctrine. In the Bible, God’s wrath is not the problem but the solution, not the offensive doctrine needing defense but the long-awaited vindication of justice after the tension of the prophets’ “How long, O Lord?” Hence God’s wrath is expressed in the strongest metaphors, and with the firmest language. Note, for example, the metaphor of fire (implicit in the words “burning” and “kindled”) employed by the narrator of 2 Kings 23:26 after recording Manasseh’s sin:

Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him.

Or consider the opening verse of Nahum (1:2):

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;

the LORD is avenging and wrathful;

the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries

and keeps wrath for his enemies.

Some think the Old Testament emphasizes God’s wrath, while the New Testament emphasizes God’s love. It’s more accurate to say both God’s love and God’s wrath are present strongly in the Old Testament, and both are ratcheted up even more intensely in the New. Revelation, for instance, envisions the kings of the earth calling for the mountains to fall on them because they cannot stand the wrath of the Lamb (6:15–17). Later, it champions a warrior Christ with a sword and an army coming to judge the nations and “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15). This doesn’t sound like an impersonal, passive process of simply letting evil reap its own consequences.

J. I. Packer devoted a chapter of his classic Knowing God to the wrath of God, and in it he asked a worthy question:

Clearly, the theme of God’s wrath is one about which the biblical writers feel no inhibitions whatever. Why, then, should we? Why, when the Bible is vocal about it, should we feel obliged to be silent?

2. Church History

Discomfort with the doctrine of God’s wrath appears to be primarily a recent, Western development. By and large, pre-modern Christians didn’t have a problem with the notion of an angry God. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find any major theologian before 1750 who would regard current objections to divine wrath as anything other than strange, alarming, and highly eccentric.

The doctrine of divine judgment, a sister teaching to divine wrath, even achieved creedal status. The earliest and most ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene) both affirmed that Christ “shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” and the Athanasian Creed (also ecumenical) ratcheted up divine judgment to include a sentencing to “everlasting fire.”

A God who judges evil was an assumed norm of orthodox, creedal Christianity for centuries. Nor did this point really distinguish Christianity from the other monotheistic religions. Maimonides, Muhammad, and Martin Luther were all agreed on this point.

3. Cultural Considerations

Why did the idea of God’s wrath (like God’s judgment) not even require a defense to most Christians throughout church history? Why does it tend to flourish, instead, in the most affluent and comfortable societies? Perhaps because it’s hard to appreciate the righteousness and appropriateness and even desirableness of God’s wrath when we have fairly cushy lives. When we come face to face with brutal evil—when we sit with a rape victim or walk the halls of Auschwitz—the idea of an angry God rarely strikes us as offensive. Instead, we see why the biblical writers viewed God’s wrath as a good thing—a righteous and fitting part of the world’s governance. Miroslav Volf makes this point with devastating force:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

4. The Psychology of Anger

Apart from any theological or even religious considerations, the idea that love and wrath are at odds is hard to square with basic human psychology. We all know good, loving people who get angry precisely because they are good and loving. What good parent is not angry, for example, at the mistreatment of his children? Do any of us not feel anger when we see real evil in the world—runaway greed, for instance, or blatant hypocrisy? Does this anger reveal lack of charity in us? No, just the opposite: we feel anger at injustice and wrong because we care about people. Anger is how goodness responds to evil, just as squinting is how eyes respond to bright lights or recoiling is how hands respond to hot surfaces.

Anger is how goodness responds to evil.

I would go so far as to say a God who never gets angry—a God who leaves the cry of the victim and the downtrodden echoing without answer for eternity—such a God would not be good, and therefore would not be God. Its difficult to worship, or believe in, or even imagine, such a God. As Tim Keller puts it in The Reason for God:

The belief in a God of pure love—who accepts everyone and judges no one—is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it. . . . The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears.

Offensive Gospel  

We might intuitively assume that an impersonal, “evil is its own punishment” process is a more moderate and humane way to achieve justice in this world. But an impersonal process cannot forgive us, whereas a God who has anger can. In whatever places we might be tempted to deny the notion of divine anger, we’ll find more freedom and comfort in acknowledging it, and seeing its solution at Calvary.

It might sound harsh to modern sensibilities to look at the bloodied body of Jesus on the cross and say, “I helped put him there; that is how God feels about my sin.” To say this is to humble yourself under the offense of the gospel; it is the last surrender, the death of the ego, the eye of the needle through which the camel of human pride must shrink and squeeze. But it is also freedom, because the person who can say, “Jesus faced the wrath I deserved” can also say, “I now have the love and favor Jesus deserved.” Only the person who submits the offense of the gospel can be lifted up to fully see its glory.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 5:29-30

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something that must certainly have seized His hearers’ attention: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29–30). Jesus repeats the admonition in Matthew 18:8–9, except there He adds the need to dispense with a foot as well as a hand and an eye.

The graphic word pictures of Matthew 5 and Matthew 18 still grab attention today, and they raise the question of how literally we should take Jesus’ commands in these passages. Does Jesus actually mean to say that we should pluck out our eyes or sever a hand if we are prone to sin? It may be of comfort to know that Jesus’ instructions in these particular verses are not meant to be taken literally. We need not mutilate our bodies as a punishment for our sin. Rather, Jesus means that we should be prepared to make exceptional sacrifices if we want to follow Him (see Matthew 16:24).

Jesus had just warned His audience against using their eyes for lustful purposes (Matthew 5:28), so His prescribed remedy for lust—to pluck out an eye—makes sense, in a radical sort of way. But it is the radical nature of His statement that makes it so memorable.

When Jesus advises us to pluck out a sinful eye or cut off an unruly hand, He is employing a figure of speech known as hyperbole. Hyperbole is an obvious exaggeration or an intentional overstatement. Examples of hyperbole in modern speech would include statements like “This bag of groceries weighs a ton,” “I’ve been waiting forever,” and “Everyone knows that.” The apostle Paul uses hyperbolic language in Galatians 4:15. Hyperbole, like other figures of speech, is not meant to be taken literally.

Jesus’ purpose in saying, hyperbolically, that sinners should pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands is to magnify in His hearers’ minds the heinous nature of sin. Sin is any action or thought that is contrary to the character of God. The result of sin is death, from which Jesus wants to preserve us (see Hebrews 2:9). Jesus warns of hell because He doesn’t want people to go there (Matthew 5:29–30).

Sin takes people to hell (see Revelation 21:8), and that makes sin something to avoid at all costs. Jesus says that, whatever is causing you to sin, take drastic measures to get that thing out of your life. “It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. . . . It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matthew 18:8–9). Nothing is worth missing heaven for. Nothing is worth going to hell for. Nothing.

God takes sin seriously—seriously enough to sacrifice His only begotten Son to destroy it. We must take sin seriously as well. A lack of repentance is a crime punishable by eternal death. It is better to deny our flesh—to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand, as it were—than to risk sinning against God. God demands holiness (1 Peter 1:15), but we naturally tend to pamper ourselves and excuse our sin. That is why we need Jesus’ shocking, radical hyperbole to wake us from our spiritual complacency.

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