There is a bit of a meme1 that goes around regarding the God of the Bible. Some would articulate it in various ways but it goes something like this: “The God of the Old Testament is wrathful and bringing judgment, while in the New Testament God is loving, meek and mild in Jesus.” In this view, it is almost as if the Old Testament has a different God. Here it seems God is only angry and having a bad hair day. He forgot to take his meds or woke up on the wrong side of heaven. In the New Testament God has gone to therapy, grown up and worked out his anger issues. There are a couple of massive problems with this view.
First, it is simply not accurate and displays an ignorance of the teaching of Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God reveals himself as “gracious and merciful abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, partially in Nahum 1:3). This identification is in the narrative portions in the Bible and is repeated in the poetic and in the prophets. The vision of the Old Testament is unified in this. Furthermore, in the New Testament Jesus has white hot words for those who deny the gospel and lead people astray in self-righteous legalism. Somehow, people forget that it was sweet Jesus that taught us most clearly and most often about the impending disaster of Hell. Second, this meme misses the theological story of the Bible in that the whole Bible presents God as good and loving, human beings as sinners and rebels and God as our holy, severe and completely just creator and judge. God’s kindness is manifest to us precisely because we know our guilt before Him as a holy God. In other words, we understand the grace of God only as we realize the just and good judgment of God upon sin and sinners.
Our culture today is hyper sensitive about many things. We have very thin skin and are offended at the smallest of things. The thought of anyone judging anyone sort of freaks us out. Many people may not actually know much of the Bible today but many can quote a segment of Jesus’ words; usually in King James’ English: “Judge not lest ye be judged. ” (Matthew 7:1) What Jesus was saying in this teaching is that humans are quick to judge others even when they have not done any self examination. His point was not that there should be no judgment but rather people judge hypocritically. Let me go on record that self-righteous, hypocritical judgment is offensive and all too often the native language of some religious people. Jesus compared it to people having a huge log sticking in their eyeball while going around picking out little dust specks off of other people’s corneas. He found this ridiculous but people, religious and unreligious, do this all the time. Yet Jesus never intimated that God would not be the judge of people; in fact, he clearly made judgments and taught us that we all will ultimately be accountable to God. Jesus teaches us the difference between certain human judgments and divine judgment is that the latter will be completely and fully based on truth (See John 8).
In this essay I want to do something a bit daring. I want to defend the judgment of God as a reasonable and very good thing. I will do so by first defining what we mean by using the term judgment in a theological sense. Second, I will argue why judgment is not only right but also makes sense when we stop to think about it. Third, I will make the case for why we must know and understand God’s right judgment of us. If we come to understand God’s judgment we will be in both a fearful and wonderful position before the almighty. We will know that we must be forgiven and rescued from God’s coming wrath and we will see the beauty of the cross of Jesus Christ as the place where judgment and mercy meet and grace wins.
What we mean by the term Judgment
Though the act of making judgments can be applied to various things we are using the term in a theological sense as related to God and human beings. The Pocket Dictionary for Theological Terms has a comprehensive, yet concise definition which I find helpful.
In a broad sense, [judgment is] God’s evaluation as to the rightness or wrongness of an act of a creature, whether human or angelic, using the standard of God’s own righteous and holy character. In a more specific sense, judgment refers to the future event when God through Jesus Christ will judge all people, whether righteous or wicked, for their works done while on earth. The NT indicates that all people, whether Christian or not, will be judged according to their deeds; however, Christians [those who place their trust in the persona and work of Jesus alone] will be accepted in light of the work of Christ on their behalf.2
Taking the word “act” above to mean mental as well as bodily acts we can say what we mean by judgment is God’s evaluation of our thoughts and actions either approving of or condemning the same. With this in mind, is it harsh of God to “judge us” or is it the reasonable and right thing to do? Any judgments? OK, moving along.
Why Judgment is Reasonable
In both the reading of the Bible and simple every day observation of our lives there are many reasons why the judgment of God makes sense. Before we begin let me make a plea to the reader who may not want to imagine that God is not real. I ask only this of you at this time—I want you to think about what the world is like in your experience and I want you to suspend your disbelief and think about reality as if God were at its center. I know you may find this hard to do, but humor me and you might have your mind opened to some new insights. Ok, why does God judging us make sense?
God is Holy
The creator of all things made all things for his purposes. He created human beings male and female in his image and likeness and made them unique (See Genesis 1-2). Any understanding of God’s justice must begin by bifurcating Creator and creature. We must understand that God is completely different from us in that his character is utterly holy and righteous. Human beings are flawed and as such they can err, be unjust to others, have skewed opinions and are capable of downright malicious guile towards others. God is not like this, he is holy (Leviticus 19:1,2; Psalm 99) and set apart from sin and altogether righteous by nature. God’s judgment is pure, based on truth, based upon righteousness in a way that human judgment is not. So when God exercises justice, it IS JUSTICE.
Many of us have seen that human justice is incomplete and flawed. We have seen people oppressed unjustly and we all could acknowledge that the guilty sometimes go free (particularly if they are rich) and the innocent are sometimes condemned (particularly if they are poor). The particular case of OJ Simpson comes to mind. If OJ was falsely accused, then God knows this and will vindicate him in the end. If OJ did it, then he did not get away with it; one day he will stand before a holy God. In our experience, when we see injustice we either cry out longing for wrong to be made right or we rejoice in it showing our own guilt before God. In fact, in the Old Testament Psalms, judgment is desired because the Psalmist realized that God would be the only one who could truly set things right! The truth that God is holy and righteous makes the judgment of God actually something for rejoicing!3
Something deep in our own hearts tells us that something is wrong in the world and many of us are angered by injustice we see in us and around us. It is not hard to imagine God caring about sin and injustice infinitely more than we do. Furthermore, because God’s own nature is holy and righteous all together he abhors wrong doing. This brings us to the other side of the coin of judgment as it becomes personal. I rejoice in the truth that God will bring a just judgment to all human affairs in the end, but I pause and tremble as well because of my own sin and pride. So while God’s holiness and righteousness make judgment a good thing, our sin and our guilt make is clear that God judging us a most sobering thing.
Human Beings are Guilty
First, both Scripture and experience tell us that there are no human beings who are not guilty of thinking, believing and doing things that are wrong. All of this flows forth from an autonomous rebellion against our creator and his commands. I have yet to meet anyone who claims that they are a perfect person. Even those I have known who question the category of “perfect” readily admit that they do not live up to even their own standards all the time at every minute throughout their lives. If we are guilty it makes sense that God would know and rightly see our lives and actions. Scripture teaches us that all have sinned and fall short of God’s intentions for us, that we all like sheep have gone astray and that we all stumble in various ways (Romans 3, Isaiah 53, James 3). It seems to me if we are in some way guilty then God is in the best position to judge. God’s holiness and our sinfulness result in him rightly bringing us into judgment.
In Judging Us God Treats us as Human
One of the ideas that our modern world tends towards is an overly environmental and therapeutic view of everything. In this view people are not seen as responsible, wrong and evil any longer. Rather we see people as misunderstood, undereducated, victims of circumstance or simply mentally ill. People need to be cured not judged for their actions. Now I am not saying that circumstance, environment and illness do not matter. They do. What I am saying is that our modern view blinds us at times that we are just bad. Someone can be well educated, wealthy and believe jacked up stuff. Someone can be privileged and completely sane and drive an airplane into the side of a building. As such, judgment is worthy upon us and we don’t simply need to be given therapy. The classic essay on this is CS Lewis’ critique of what he called “The Humanitarian View of Punishment”. In this work he argues that in order to treat human beings as human we both judge and punish them when their acts deserve it. Dealing with people due to their just deserts, what they rightly deserve, is actually humane. To treat people only as sick in need of a cure robs them of their humanity and the dignity of their choices. In our world a small group of professional experts make judgments as to the saneness of us all and then are given rights to “fix us” as they see fit.4 One quote from the essay is worth sharing here:
To be “cured” against one’s will and be cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better”, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.5
In judging us, God treats us as our beliefs, choices and actions truly matter. What we do means something! Our acts have consequences and accountability and are capable of being good or evil. Only human beings have this moral nature standing upright or fallen before God. As such God’s judgment of us is fair, just and expected.
God’s Judgment Removes our Self-righteousness and Brings Humility
Finally, God’s judgment is good because it levels any pretensions of self righteousness and brings a proper humility to our lives. CJ Mahaney is his book Humility, True Greatness defines humility in categories familiar to us above: Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.6 Knowing that all of life is lived before God and that my life will be judged rightly by God in the end brings a sobering effect upon us. We are slower to hypocritically judge others and see our righteousness as far above “those other people.” If we know and understand God’s judgment we have grasped an important prerequisite to understanding God’s mercy. In fact, if we are to “get” the good news of Jesus Christ we must realize that we are rightly under the wrath and judgment of God for our own sin.
Why we must understand the judgment of God
As we close I want to review a bit and think together about the judgment of God. First, God’s judgment makes life and our choices consequential. What we think, believe and do in light of these things deeply matters. We are responsible and accountable for our lives. Further, God’s judgment of me is a fearful thing. I know my own heart and realize that if I were to come under the judgment of perfect holiness I would not find a place to stand. The Psalmist echoes this clearly: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3,4). This passage reminds us that God telling us the truth about our sin and his judgment is in fact a great kindness. It is a kindness that can lead us to something the Scripture calls repentance (Romans 2:4). The repentant heart sees God’s holiness and its own sinfulness and has sorrow. It is a godly sorrow in that we come to our only judge to say we are sorry, to turn from sin to that same judge for his grace and mercy. It is here that new life begins.
Jesus came to the earth to live the life we have not lived, a life without sin fully following the commands of God. Jesus also came to die the death that we deserved as the penalty for our sin when it is judged by God. The wrath that we deserve was taken upon Jesus willingly for us so that the mercy and love of our heavenly father might give pardon and peace. It is at the cross of Jesus that judgment is poured out—the righteous willingly giving his life for the unrighteous! It is at the cross that grace and mercy win and justice is satisfied. God is our only true judge; he is also our only true savior. He came in the flesh in Jesus to make peace with rebels. I’ll close by having Paul, an early Christian leader and messenger, explain in the inspired words of Scripture.
1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Amen and amen…
1. From Wikipedia— A meme is is a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.
2. Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki & Cherith Fee Nordling Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), judgment.
3. We see this in the Psalms when many times the poets are crying out for God to act against the oppressor and judge between people on the earth when great evil is done. See the first chapter of CS Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms (Orlando: Harcourt, 1958).
4. See the essay “The Humanitarian View of Punishment” in the collection of Lewis’ writings entitled God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1970), 287.
5. Ibid, 292.
6. CJ Mahaney, Humility, True Greatness (Sisters: Multnomah Books, 2005), 22.