Results tagged “judgment” from Reformation21 Blog

The Unthinkable Sin

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One day I had the opportunity to preach with John Barros outside of an abortion mill in Orlando. In the message I preached, I made the point that I am also a murderer because Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matthew 5:21-22). After I finished, John cautioned me not to use this kind of argument because, though it is true, it can, inadvertently undermine the gravity and seriousness of the sin those heading to the abortion clinic were about to commit. I was, to some extent, downplaying the teaching of Scripture regarding the degrees of the severity of sin.

Most Christians are familiar with the unpardonable sin which Jesus speaks of in the Gospels: "...the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." (Luke 12:10). The fact that an unpardonable sin even exists is evidence that some sins are more evil than others. During Jesus' trail in which He was unjustly condemned, He taught us that there are greater degrees of sin. Jesus said to Pilate: "...he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin." (John 19:11).

The Unthinkable Sin That Never Entered God's Mind

There is not only an unpardonable sin in the Bible, there is also an unthinkable sin in the Bible. There is only one kind of sin that is so evil, so wicked, and so unbelievably horrific that the Bible says it never even entered into the mind of God. This is the sin of parents murdering their sons and daughters. The Prophet Jeremiah speaks of this sin three times:

"For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind." (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

"Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind..." (Jeremiah 19:4-5)

"They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin." (Jeremiah 32:35)

This unthinkable sin involved parents sacrificing their own children to false gods. These parents were murdering their own children, and they did so as a part of a religious, idolatrous ritual. God hates and forbids idolatry, but nowhere else in the Bible does He speak this way about idolatry - that it never even entered His mind.

Why might God speak this way? Because this particular form of idolatry was particularly abominable to Him because it involved the shedding of innocent blood (which God particularly hates: "There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood..." (Proverbs 6:16-17)) and it involved the unthinkable act of parents shedding the innocent blood of their own children. God designed parents to be the life-giving protectors of and providers for their children; to love their children; to be God-like authorities in their children's lives who are supposed to lead them to God by teaching them about God and displaying for them what righteous, good, loving authority is supposed to look like. When parents reject this God-given calling and do the exact opposite by murdering their own flesh and blood - this sin is particularly abominable to God - it's even unthinkable to Him. 

God Knows, But He Doesn't Know The Unthinkable

How can something - anything - not even enter God's mind? Doesn't God know all things from all of eternity? Isn't He omniscient? Hasn't He ordained "whatsoever comes to pass?" He absolutely is and He absolutely has! There is nothing that God does not know. He knows all things and no one can teach Him anything. Consider the following teaching of Scripture about God's infinitely and eternal knowledge:

"Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?" (Isaiah 40:13-14)

"...remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose...'" (Isaiah 46:9-10)

"God is greater than our heart, and knows all things." (1 John 3:20)

So if God knows about the evil of His people sacrificing their own children, in what sense does He not know? How does this practice not even enter His mind? He doesn't know it in the sense that this particular sin is so wicked and contrary to His will, that it is unthinkable to Him. Iain Duguid has explained that the phrase "did not enter into My mind" is "an anthropomorphism indicating how contrary it is to the LORD's will for His people."1 Ardel Caneday suggests, "[This is] not an expression of previous ignorance . . . [but] . . . an intensive idiom to express what is unthinkable."2 Michael L. Brown writes, 'This was the last thing on my mind! I never intended this for you, nor did I ever associate you with such vile practices.' The divine 'shock' is genuine, but not because of the 'surprise element' as much as because of the horrific nature of the sins committed."3 And, Charles Feinberg notes, "One of the most debased forms of idolatry involved child sacrifice...By strong anthropopathism, the Lord indicates that the enormities the nation committed in sacrificing children had never been enjoined on them or spoken of and had never even entered into his mind. It was totally alien and opposed to his will."4

It's as if this particular sin is so bad that the all-knowing, omniscient, all-powerful God could not even think of it because it is so contrary to His perfect, holy character.

The Unthinkable Sin Of Abortion

Like in Jeremiah's day, child sacrifice exists today. Abortion is the unthinkable sin of child sacrifice in our day. Abortion is the murder of an unborn child. God's Word makes this abundantly clear. As Nick Batzig has recently written: "It is estimated that under Stalin, 23 million men, women and children were brutally murdered, under Hitler, 17 million were tortured to death; but, under the red, white and blue, close to 60 million helpless, unborn children have been ripped apart in the womb - which, as we all know, is supposed to be the safest place for a child." Abortion truly is the great unthinkable sin of our day.

In his commentary on Jeremiah, Philip Ryken writes:

"Jeremiah's sermon on the Valley of Slaughter suggests important parallels between child sacrifice and abortion on demand...Anyone who has ever seen pictures, videotapes, or ultrasounds of children in the womb knows how early the human heart forms, and how the fetus can respond to pleasure and pain. To know those things is to know instantly and instinctively that abortion is the murder of an unborn child. There is no substantive moral difference between the child sacrifices offered in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and abortion as practiced in America."5

Some may think it a stretch to equate abortion to the pagan rituals of demonic child sacrifice; however, it is actually one and the same in a more demonic form of sophisticated idolatry. Instead of the altar of Molech, many sacrifice their unborn children on the altar of convenience, a college education, reputation, or money. Whenever couples abort their children under the rationale of any of these reasons, they are essentially shedding the blood of their children on the perceived altar of their own personal idol.

Saving Sinners From The Unthinkable Sin: The Son God Sacrificed

There is only one unthinkable sin in the Bible. And there is only one unpardonable sin in the Bible - and praise God that murdering your own children is not that unpardonable sin!

You see, the sacrifice of a Son did enter into God's mind once. God did think the unthinkable - He determined to crush, strike, condemn, and curse His own perfect, beautiful, sinless Son in place of sinners so that they might be saved.

God loves sinners! God loves parents who murder their own children! So in eternity past, God determined to save sinners by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to save sinners by His sacrifice on that cross and by His resurrection from the dead. On that cross Jesus took upon Himself the unthinkable sins of sinners and the wrath of God that son and daughter murderers deserve so that there is therefore now no condemnation for all those who repent and believe in the LORD Jesus Christ!

There is salvation in Jesus, even for the unthinkable sin of abortion. Jesus' grace is greater than all our sin! Whether you've had one, ten, or one million abortions, where your sin abounds, His grace abounds all the more - if you will admit that your abortion is the unthinkable sin, turn from this sin, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you shall be saved! "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved!" "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life!" (Acts 16:31; John 3:16).

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves the unsaveable and forgives the unthinkable: He washes away the unthinkable sin; He casts it behind His back and remembers it no more; As far as the east is from the west so He removes your sin from you; He casts it into the depths of the ocean floor forever! And God then accepts you and delights in you just as He does in His own Son. I love they way Dr. Russell Moore puts it:

"And what the Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us is that there are probably women in this congregation right now who have had abortions - probably many of you. And you are probably hiding in the secret and in the shame of that abortion, fearing that anyone will ever find out about that secret that you have. What the Gospel of Jesus Christ says is that you are not an enemy in any culture war. If you come out of hiding and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Scripture says that you are so hidden in Christ that when Satan accuses you and says: 'I know who you are, and I know what you did. I know your secret!' - your response is to say: 'Satan, you are exactly right. You are right when you say that I am deserving of condemnation, but I have already been condemned! You are exactly right when you say that I am worthy of execution, but I have already been executed! Because I am in Christ - so every bit of penalty that belongs to me has already fallen on me! I've been crucified! I've been pulled off of that cross! I've been buried under the curse of God! And you know what? God now has announced what He thinks of me when He opened up that hole in the ground and Jesus Christ - my Head, my New Life, my New Identity - walked out of there. So when God looks at me, He says of me exactly what He says of Jesus Christ: this is my beloved child, and in you I am well pleased!'"6

Hallelujah! What a Savior! He alone forgives the unthinkable sin and all of our sins! After receiving such a great salvation may we go and sin no more, and may what is unthinkable to God become unthinkable to us as well.

 

1. Iain Duguid, Notes on Jeremiah in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 1480.

2. Ardel Caneday, Beyond The Bounds, Open Theism And The Undermining Of Biblical Christianity, eds. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 194.

3. Michael L. Brown, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Jeremiah, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 115.

4. Charles L. Feinberg, Jeremiah A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 141.

5. Phillip Graham Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations (ESV Edition): From Sorrow to Hope (Preaching the Word) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 144-145.

6. I heard Dr. Russell Moore preach this in a sermon delivered on a Sanctity of Life Sunday.


Joseph Randall is the Pastor of Olney Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA.

He Won't Be Silent Forever

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6 years ago this week, John Piper posted, "We Know They are Killing Children--All of Us Know." 6 years later, New York has passed and celebrated a bill that would allow a mother to abort her baby up until the point that the baby was born. CBS actually posted an article with the title, "New York Passes Law Allowing Abortions Up Until the Baby's Born," only to change the title to, "New York Passes Law Allowing Abortions At Any Time If Mother's Health is at Risk." It appears that the conscience of the members of the editorial team awoke momentarily. However, instead of lamenting the hellish evil of abortion and calling for national repentance, they merely tidied up their wording. 

After passing the legislation of the slaughter of more children, New York lit up the spire of One World Trade Center to celebrate the demonic evil. At the bottom of One World Trade Center is a memorial with the names of the unborn children who lost their lives in the 9-11 attacks. This strange twist further shows that our country knows that we are slaughtering children--the most morally reprehensible act imaginable. Yet, we keep marching forward, protecting and legalizing a social evil that surpasses just about every other genocidal monstrosity in human history. It is estimated that under Stalin, 23 million men, women and children were brutally murdered, under Hitler, 17 million were tortured to death; but, under the red, white and blue, close to 60 million helpless, unborn children have been ripped apart in the womb--which, as we all know, is supposed to be the safest place for a child. 

When I was a boy, my father used to say, "Our country has got to stop slaughtering babies. It's only a matter of time before God judges this country for all the innocent blood we have shed." He said that 30 some years ago. So, Why hasn't God overthrown us yet? Why has He allowed this demonic evil to persist? 

The Scriptures teach us much about the silence of God in the face of persistent and widespread evil. In Psalm 50:21, after rebuking Israel for their wickedness, the Lord said, "These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you." As Habakkuk the prophet looked at the violence and evil in Israel, he cried out, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong" (Hab. 1:2). God responded by reminding Habakkuk of the judgment he was about to bring, 

"Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own" (Hab. 1:5-6). 

If there is one thing that we learn in Scripture it is that the Lord will not stay silent forever. God will rise up against any nation that practices the wickedness that we have practiced in America. No veneer of moral rectitude will stay the hand of the infinitely holy Judge of all the earth. While God seems to have remained silent in exercising judgment, He has not remained silent in Scripture. Whatever judgment He withholds and whatever judgement He will send, Scripture teaches us that we are meant to turn from the evil of our ways and trust in Him for the mercy and grace that He offers in Christ. 

In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter took up the question about the ultimate silence of God. Why has God delayed His return to consummate His purpose in human history, exercising eternal judgment on the ungodly and bestowing eternal salvation on those He redeemed in Christ? Simply put, He is giving men and women, boys and girls time to repent of the evil of their ways. Peter wrote, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." So the proper response to the silence of God in judgment is to rend our hearts before Him over the wickedness of our personal sin and over the sin of our nation. We should cry out to Him to overthrow this Satanic evil; and, we should cry out to him to grant repentance to our nation. If we don't, it won't be long. Scripture and history both bear witness to the fact that He won't be silent forever. 

Hell to Pay

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18 years ago, I heard a sermon on Matthew 27:46--Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?" At one point, the minister who was preaching this message said, "Jesus wasn't really forsaken; he just felt forsaken by his Father in his soul." I remember sensing anger welling up within me at those words. I thought to myself, "That's a denial of the Gospel. If Jesus wasn't really forsaken, then I have no grounds to believe that I will never be forsaken." Sadly, I have subsequently come to discover that there are quite a number of Protestant theologians who have shied away from asserting that Jesus was really and truly forsaken by his Father when he hung on the cross. Nevertheless, I want to explain what we lose if Jesus wasn't, in fact, forsaken by God when he stood in our place. 

Thomas Brooks, the seventeenth century English Puritan theologian, explained why we must never downplay what truly happened to Christ on the cross. He insisted,

"The more we ascribe to Christ's suffering, the less remains of ours; the more painfully that he suffered, the more fully are we redeemed; the greater his sorrow was, the greater our solace; his dissolution is our consolation, his cross our comfort; his annoy our endless joy; his distress in soul our release, his calamity our comfort; his misery our mercy, his adversity our felicity, his hell our heaven."1

Brooks then proceded to explain exactly what happened to Jesus at Calvary, when he said, 

"Christ did actually undergo and suffer the wrath of God, and the fearful effects thereof, in the punishments threatened in the law. As he became a debtor, and was so accounted, even so he became payment thereof; he was made a sacrifice for sin, and bare to the full all that ever divine justice did or could require, even the uttermost extent of the curse of the law of God. He must thus undergo the curse, because he had taken upon him our sin. The justice of the most high God, revealed in the law, looks upon the Lord Jesus as a sinner, because he hath undertaken for us, and seizes upon him accordingly, pouring down on his head the whole curse, and all those dreadful punishments which are threatened in it against sin."2

Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, stated the importance of understanding that Jesus did not merely undergo the feeling of forsakenness on the cross. Rather, Jesus experienced "an objective God-forsakenness" at Calvary. He insisted,  

"In the cry of Jesus we are dealing not with a subjective but with an objective God-forsakenness: He did not feel alone but had in fact been forsaken by God. His feeling was not an illusion, not based on a false view of his situation, but corresponded with reality."3

Charles Spurgeon explained that "hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners" and that God hid His face from Christ in the moment of his forsakenness on the cross: 

"Christ in that hour took all our sins, past, present, and to come, and was punished for them all there and then, that we might never be punished, because he suffered in our stead. Do you see, then, how it was that God the Father bruised him? Unless he had so done the agonies of Christ could not have been an equivalent for our sufferings; for hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners, and if God had not hidden his face from Christ, Christ could not--I see not how he could--have endured any suffering that could have been accepted as an equivalent for the woes and agonies of his people."4

Likewise, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, In his commentary on Romans 8:32, asserted that Jesus underwent "a separation from the face of the Father" on the cross. He wrote,

"[God] has made His Son the sacrifice; it is a substitutionary offering for your sins and mine. That was why He was there in the Garden sweating drops of blood, because He knew what it involved - it involved a separation from the face of the father. And that is why He cried out on the Cross, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'"

While the above citations ought to contain sufficiently convincing theological arguments, we still have to answer several objections to the truth that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God on the cross. Some have insisted that Jesus didn't truly endure hell on the cross, because his human nature didn't experience complete annihilation. Others have rejected the teaching that Jesus experienced the equivalent of hell on the cross because his sufferings were temporary rather than eternal in their endurance. The answer to both of these objections is, of course, found in the mystery of the union of the two natures of Christ. 

Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 38 asks the question, "Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God?" The members of the Assembly gave the following answer:

"It was requisite that the mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God's justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation."

Here, both objections are answered. First, the divine nature of the Son of God sustained and kept the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God while he was the object of the infinite wrath of God. The infinite wrath of God was poured out on the finite human nature of Jesus, while the infinite divine nature of Jesus was upholding his person. Second, the infinite and eternal divine nature of the Son "gave worth and efficacy to his sufferings...to satisfy God's justice." It was not the amount of time that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God when he hung on the cross, but the fact that an infinite and eternal being was giving worth to his human soul as Jesus bore the wrath of God in his body on the tree. 

If Jesus wasn't truly forsaken--if he didn't really endure the equivalent of eternal punishment on the cross--then substitutionary atonement is a legal fiction. If Jesus didn't really suffer the pains of hell on the cross then the infinite and eternal wrath of God is not truly propitiated. If Jesus didn't become the object of the righteous indignation of God in our place then we are still the objects of the eternal wrath of God. If Jesus wasn't truly condemned on the cross then we are not truly justified before God. If Jesus did not objectively suffer the equivalent of hell in his body and soul then there will be hell for us to pay. Praise God that there was hell to pay for Jesus when "in my place, condemned he stood. Hallelujah! What a Savior!" 


1.Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 147.

2.Ibid., pp. 147-148.

3. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 389.

4. An excerpt from Spurgeon's sermon on Isaiah 53:10.

Even the Smallest Sin...

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I was intrigued to read the results about what evangelicals profess to believe concerning key biblical truths in 2018 in Ligonier Ministries' State of Theology survey. Among the many shocking findings was the conclusion on the category dealing with the just punishment for sin. Out of 3002 respondents in the US, 58% rejected the idea that "even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation." Of the 2133 surveyed in the UK, 62% rejected that same doctrine. Unlike several of the other findings, in which there is a noticeable shift in the beliefs of 18 year olds from those of 65 year olds in the church, there was uniformity of rejection in the represented age groups. That ought to give us pause about what has and what is being taught in our churches. 

As I read these findings, my mind drifted to the interchange between Anselm and his associate Boso in Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), in which Anselm pointedly told his theologically confused understudy, "You have not as yet estimated the great burden of sin." Further on, Anselm said, "So heinous is our sin whenever we knowingly oppose the will of God even in the slightest thing; since we are always in his sight, and he always enjoins it upon us not to sin." This, in turn, reminded me of those words of C.S. Lewis, in his preface to Milton's Paradise Lost, in which he wrote of the nature of Eve's sin, "She who thought it beneath her dignity to bow...to God, now worships a vegetable." 

All sin--even the least sin--is a worshipping of self or some other created thing. It is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, "exchanging the truth about God for a lie and worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever" (Rom. 1:25). Sin is transgression against the infinite and Eternal God and therefore each and every sin deserves infinite and eternal punishment. The writer of Hebrews captures this principle when he writes that according to the Law of God, "every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution" (Heb. 2:2). God requires perfect, personal and perpetual obedience of all men throughout all time to His Commandments. This is why we need a Savior who keeps the law perfectly for us and takes the burden of our guilt upon himself on the cross. When we come to see the greatness of our guilt we begin to see our need for the greatness of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Infinite and Eternal Son of God incarnate in the flesh. 

May God give us grace to see that the least sin we have committed deserves eternal judgment so that we might more fully trust in the Eternal One who took that judgment on Himself on the cross having, as it were, suffered the pains of hell for us.

The Last Judgment

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Last night, I preached a sermon on Psalm 7--one of the lamentation Psalms of David, which he presumably wrote while hiding from Saul in the caves of Adullam.  A good portion of the Psalm is taken up with David crying out to the Judge of all the earth. The Psalmist calls on the Lord to come and judge the wicked. In so doing, he draws on the imagery of all people of the earth being congregated before the throne of God as they wait on the Judge of all the earth to render His judgment (Ps. 7:7-8). All of which reminded me of a section in John L. Girardeau's famous sermon, "The Last Judgment," in which he painted the most sobering picture of the final judgment. Girardeau envisioned all people, from all nations, throughout all time summoned before the divine tribunal on the Last Day:

"How unspeakably solemn! A world in one vast congregation! See, multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! Farther than the eye can reach extends a boundless sea of human beings, swayed to and fro with new and unutterable feelings. Before the august Judge are gathered all nations, and He proceeds to separate them one from another as a shepherd divided his sheep from the goats. He sets the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. All human and perishing distinctions are swept away. The mask is torn from hypocrisy, the veil stripped from secrecy, the paint and varnish expunged from the face of deceit. Missed are the strut and fret of 'a little brief authority.' The tiara, the mitre and the crosier, the chasuble, stole and cowl are looked for in vain. The tinseled insignia of rank and the gilded baubles of nobility, the arms of heraldry and the stars and crosses of honor are rent away from human beings, and leave them to appear as they are--'naked, unvarnished, unappendaged men.' The standards, ensigns, and gonfalons of earthly parade float not in the air of the judgment morn. Beauty, wealth, and power, gifts, talents, and fame,--of what avail are they now without true and heartfelt religion? The righteous and the wicked, the followers and the foes of Christ,--these are the only distinctions which have a place in that overwhelming presence.  Each one of that immense concourse is seen. Each one is known. Each one must give account of himself to God. No one shall share responsibility with his fellows. No one shall shield himself behind the instruction, the counsel, the example of others; no one shall cover himself with the skirt of minister, parent or friend. Families are sundered; individuals are parted from individuals by a discrimination awfully searching and particular. Oh, what a sifting! Jehovah's fan is in his hand, and he winnows the chaff from the wheat: He gathers the wheat into His garner, and consigns the chaff to unquenchable fire.

Now is the day of full redemption come to those who served their Lord amidst temptations, trials, and fears, and waited and prayed and longed for His second glorious appearing. Clad in Jesus' righteousness, washed in Jesus' blood, pleading Jesus' atoning merits, they stand at His right hand and look into His smiling face. 'Come,' says the King, 'Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungered and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger and ye took Me in: naked and ye clothed Me: I was sick and in prison and ye came unto Me. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.' 'Enter ye into the joy of your Lord.' O welcome word! O thrice happy souls! Their tribulation is past, their conflict with the world, the flesh and the Devil is ended, the narrow way has all been trod, death, their last enemy, is conquered, and not one of them remains a tenant of the grave. The last battle has been fought, the last sin has been committed, the last tear is wiped away. The world's laugh and frown are alike no more. No more the cross, the fire and the stake. No more the chain, the dungeon and the rack. Shout, ye ransomed sinners, shout! For yours are harps of gold, crowns of righteousness, the beatific vision of God, and the celestial glory that faded not away."

A few more laughs, a few more tears, a few more sighs and we will all find ourselves in that one great assembly, standing shoulder to shoulder in the collective mass of humanity before the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and the Judge of all the earth. "How unspeakably solemn" indeed.  


Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?

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One of my close friends was telling me about a recent interaction he had at a Reformed seminary with a student who was preparing to go into college ministry. In the course of their conversation, my friend and this seminarian entered in on the subject of sexual sin. This young man insisted that there is no sexual sin that is more heinous than another. My friend pushed back on that idea, explaining to him that the Scriptures and our Reformed Confessions teach otherwise. The young man then gave my friend the common rebuttal, "Jesus talked more about self-righteousness than sexual sin; and, he said that self-righteousness was worse than sexual sin." Ironically, this response only lends support to the idea that some sins are more heinous than others. However, it has sadly become the most common way in which many pastors have recently sought to downplay the severity of sexual sin. Contrary to the current narrative, the Scriptures, the Reformed Confessions and principles of nature teach us that some sins are more reprehensible than others.

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus references Sodom and Gomorrah in order to teach varying degrees of condemnation for the unrepentant. When he first commissioned his disciples to preach the Gospel to the cities in Israel, Jesus told them, 

"Whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!" 

Then, after the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum rejected His words and works, Jesus said to his disciples, 

"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes...And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you."

Commenting on Jesus' appeal to Sodom, John Calvin wrote: 

"Christ mentioned Sodom rather than other cities, not only because it went beyond them all in villainous crimes, but because God destroyed it in an extraordinary manner, that it might serve as an example to all ages, and that its very name might be held in abomination. And we need not wonder if Christ declares that they will be treated less severely than those who refuse to hear the gospel. When men deny the authority of Him who made and formed them, when they refuse to listen to his voice, nay, reject disdainfully his gentle invitations, and withhold the confidence which is due to his gracious promises, such impiety is the utmost accumulation, as it were, of all crimes. But if the rejection of that obscure preaching was followed by such dreadful vengeance, how awful must be the punishment that awaits those who reject Christ when he speaks openly!"1

The purpose of Jesus' appeal to Sodom and Gomorrah was not to lighten the sin of those cities. It was to heighten the sin of the cities in which he did his mighty works and wonders. When he wanted to find the most egregious example with which to draw a comparison, Christ appealed to those cities that were engaging in homosexual gang rape and violence. In Israel in Jesus' day, no civilizations were considered to be as far gone as those of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God spoke through the Old Testament prophets about the sin and judgment of Israel and the nations, He often did so by comparing them with Sodom (Isaiah 1:9, 10; 3:9; 13:19; Jer. 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Ezekiel 16:46, 48, 53, 55, 56; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9). 

The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 83 captures the essence of Jesus' teaching: 

Q. 83. Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous? 

A. Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others. 

The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 151 explains that the aggravations of offense are based a number of different factors. The first of which has respect to the persons offending. When explaining what they meant when they spoke of "persons offending," the members of the Westminster Assembly wrote:

"If they be of riper (i.e. older) age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others." 

Certainly, no one would take issue with this explanation--at least, not in part. Our society unequivocally acknowledges that it is a heightened offense for men who hold positions of power to abuse that power in order to prey on women for sexual gratification. When God places men or women in positions of power or influence, such individuals have an increased responsibility to use that power for the glory of God and the well-being of others. When, instead, men or women chose to abuse that power for self-pleasing ends, God considers it to be a more heinous sin. This is just one small example of what the members of the Assembly mean when they refer "aggregations from...place" and "aggravations from...office." 

While there is a great deal more to unpack and glean from Westminster Larger Catechism 151, it is important for us to note what the members of the Assembly say in Larger Catechism 152

Q. 152. What does every sin deserve at the hands of God? 

A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.

Though some sins are most certainly more abhorent than others--and deserve greater judgment than others--"every sin, even the least...deserves the wrath and curse" of God and "cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ." There are no grounds for anyone to think that he or she is in a better spiritual position than others by nature. We are all, by nature, under the wrath and curse of God (Eph. 2:1-4). Just because we may not have fallen into some particular sin doesn't mean that we are, by nature, more righteous than others. The Scriptures level the playing field, so to speak, at this point. All of us are condemned by the Law of God, by nature, because of our natural depravity (Rom. 3:19; Gal. 3:22). Neither does this, in any way whatsoever, give us a license to make light of what we may deem to be "less heinous sin." We cannot, because of Jesus' teaching on varying degrees of judgment, downplay even the least sin in our lives. The same Jesus that teaches us that there are varying degrees of judgment teaches us that if we so much as look at someone to lust after them we have already committed adultery with them in our hearts; and are, therefore, liable to judgment--unless we repent (Matt. 5:28-30). Additionally, we must acknowledge that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover the sins of any, no matter what sins they have committed or what sinful lifestyles they have embraced. If men and women will repent and turn to Christ, trusting only in His blood and righteousness, they will be forgiven and redeemed. The blood of Jesus is of such infinite and eternal value that it covers every sin of those for whom it was shed, no matter how atrocious that sin. 

Judgment According to Works

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Part 6: Judgment According to Works (see below)

It is well nigh impossible to deny that Christians will be judged according to works when Christ returns (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 16:27; Jn. 5:28-29; Gal. 6:7-9; Rev. 20:13; 22:12). The question arises, then, how do we maintain the teaching of the passages above with the equally clear teaching that justification is received by faith alone? We do not, as I have written previously, hold to the Roman Catholic version of "two justifications." We hold to one justification by faith; but we must also grapple with the nature of true, saving faith, and the not too infrequent conditional language of the New Testament (see WCF 13.1, citing Heb. 12:14; 2 Cor. 7:1).
 
In relation to faith, Owen says: "For there is a faith whereby we are justified, which he who has shall be assuredly saved, which purifies the heart and works by love. And there is a faith or believing, which does nothing of all this; which [he] who has, and has no more, is not justified, nor can be saved" (see WCF 11.2). This concept forms the backbone of the judgment according to works.
 
Justification has both an "authoritative" aspect and a "declarative" (or "demonstrative") aspect. Thomas Goodwin points out that "the one [i.e., authoritative] is the justification of men's persons coram Deo, before God, as they appear before him nakedly, and have to do with him alone for the right to salvation; and so they are justified by faith without works" (Rom. 4:2-5) (see Works, 7:181ff.).
 
But there is a demonstrative aspect to our justification. God will, at the Day of Judgment, judge men and "put a difference between man and man, and that upon this account, that the one were true believers when he justified them; the other were unsound, even in their very acts of faith" (Goodwin) (Acts 8:13). God will therefore make evident, for all to see, the difference between those whom he has truly justified and those who have been left under wrath, even though they may have "professed" faith. Matthew 25:31-46 is instructive on this point.
 
Returning to the "right" versus "possession" distinction, Goodwin, who has affirmed that the right to salvation as received by faith alone, also posits: God will not "put the possession of salvation upon that private act of his own, without having anything else to show for it." This language is remarkably similar to Petrus van Mastricht: "God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10." This is not a "Puritan" distinctive, as some seem to think. Dozens of Continental theologians spoke this way.
 
The key in all of this is to understand that Goodwin is making an argument for God's own justification of himself at the Day of Judgment. God justifies apart from works, but he also will "go demonstratively to work" and clearly distinguish between a true believer versus a spurious believer. God will "justify his own acts of justification." Or, to put the matter another way, God will justify the faith of the believer who has been justified - the judgment will prove we had a lively faith that worked through love.
 
The contrast between Paul and James is then brought into clearer view: "In a word, Abraham's person, considered singly and alone, yes, as ungodly, is the object of Paul's justification without works, Rom. 4:3-5. But Abraham, as professing himself to have such a true justifying faith, and to have been justified thereupon, and claiming right to salvation by it, Abraham, as such, is to be justified by works" (Goodwin).
 
Goodwin speaks about what sense "a man may be said to be judged by his works at the latter day." All those judged will either be justified or condemned. "So there is no more danger to say, a man at the latter day shall be justified by his works, as evidences of his state and faith, than to say he shall be judged according thereto." He essentially argues that we will be justified by works, but only demonstratively as God justifies his own act of justification in each believer. After all, Christ speaks of a (demonstrative) justification according to works in Matthew 12:36-37, "...for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
 
Goodwin adds: "neither is it anywhere said, that God will judge men according to their faith only." (As Calvin says, justification "by faith alone" is ambiguous; the sense of "alone" has to be understood adverbially, not adjectively). "God will say, I am to judge thee so as every one shall be able to judge my sentence righteous together with me: 1 Cor. 4:5, the whole world may know that he justified one that had true faith indeed." The final judgment is as much about the vindication of the triune God as it is about true believers having their lives vindicated. 
 
The result of this, for Goodwin, is that "Paul's judging according to works, and James his justification by works, are all one, and are alike consistent with Paul's justification by faith only. For in the same epistle where he argues so strongly for justification by faith without works, as Rom. 3-4, he in chapter 2, also declares, that 'he will judge every man according to his works.'" 

Most of the Early Modern Reformed did not view Romans 2:7-11 as hypothetical, contrary to what some in the Reformed camp today have suggested. Rick Phillips has addressed this question in the past, but I remain concerned about some historical and exegetical issues made therin; his post also strikes me as far too defensive. Better, in my view, is the approach taken by Richard Gaffin in By Faith, Not By Sight
 
Should this cause people to despair regarding the future judgment? Only if one is a bona fide hypocrite. Christ will rightfully condemn the hypocrites in the church (Matt. 25:41-46). They are marked out as those who did not do good works. They are those who neglect the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23).
 
Here is the good news for those who have a true, lively faith: the resurrection will precede the judgment (Larger Catechism, 88; 2 Cor. 5:10). Based on 1 John 3:2, we shall see Christ and be immediately transformed by the sight (beatific vision) of him. We shall appear, then, in a manner of speaking, as already justified at the judgment. Remember, when we first believed, we received the "right to life." This is the glory of justification (Rom. 5:1; 8:1). Nothing can separate us from God's love, especially at the judgment.
 
We do not need to fear the final judgment if we are children of God. But, as children of God, glorified in the presence of Christ, we "must [nevertheless] all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor. 5:10). And, yes, there will be those in the church who will not do so well at the final judgment because their faith was dead (i.e., did not produce fruit, Jn. 15:2-5, 10, 16).
 
Sub-trinitarianism? 

One final thought. It occurs to me that some speak of the final judgment in a sub-trinitarian way. It is all about declarative justification for some. Now, of course, declarative justification gives us the right to life. Only the imputed righteousness of Christ can withstand the severity of God's judgment. But, demonstrative justification, as I have highlighted above, is the Father's approval of the Spirit's work - that is, the Spirit of Christ - in his people because of our union with the Savior. 

The Father who gave two gifts to us, the Son and the Spirit, will look upon us as justified in Christ and sanctified in Christ by the Spirit; and he will be well pleased with his work. He will accept us for Christ's sake and reward and vindicate us because of Christ's Spirit, who has enabled us to do good works, which were prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).  

So, it seems to me, we need to do a better job - at least, from what I've been able to read - of describing the final judgment in explicitly trinitarian terms. To that end, I believe the account above aims to do just that.

If there is a better way to bridge together the freeness of justification by faith, the conditional language of Scripture (Rom. 8:13), and the fact that Christians will be judged according to what they have done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10), I'd be very interested in such an account. But I trust and hope the basic map laid out above, with help from a well-respected Westminster divine, is faithful to the overall teaching of the Scriptures. 

I do wonder, given the zeal of some today, whether Goodwin might not find himself in some trouble in certain Presbyteries, and no amount of squirming on his part ("hey, I wrote the Confession") will absolve him from his errors.

Results tagged “judgment” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 33.3

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iii. As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: (2 Pet. 3:11, 14, 2 Cor. 5:10-11, 2 Thess. 1:5-7, Luke 21:27-28, Rom. 8:23-25) so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen. (Matt. 24:36, 42-44, Mark 13:35-37, Luke 12:35-36, Rev. 22:20).

We can be brief as we finish our focus on the final judgment of Christ that will surely come to every person.

The first thing we should not pass over too quickly is the Confession's assertion that "Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment." There is a large body of literature, unfortunately including some Christian literature, that attempts to set forth the notion that certainty, for us, is an unattainable, perhaps even a prideful, goal. The notion of "certainty" has fallen on hard times of late. The reasons for this are primarily two: (1) Modernism's prideful attempt to show that universal knowledge was "the norm" was shown, like every other "-ism" (except Christian theism) to be bankrupt. Anyone claiming to be certain has too much confidence in his own intellectual powers and is, in a word, naïve.Thus, the conclusion has been that knowledge is only and always a matter of individual "contexts." (2) Related to this, skepticism has exerted enormous influence, philosophically and culturally, such that one dare not say he is "certain" of anything. The alternative, we are told, is a humble, chastised attitude that confesses that certainty is a modernist myth that has rightly made its way to the intellectual graveyard.

But this is not the biblical view. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It masks itself in pious jargon, like "humility" and "chastened," but it has its roots in that subtle and subversive question from Satan, "Has God said?" And that question points us to the true root and foundation of any certainty we might have. When we are certain about some things, as we must be, we are certain, not because we take particular pride in our intellectual abilities, or because we are able to understand things in a way other people are not; quite the opposite. We are certain only when and where God has spoken. And when God speaks, we are obligated, as His servants, to be certain that what He has said is the actual truth of the matter. So it is with the final judgment. We are to be certain about it. We are to harbor no doubts that Christ is coming back, and that He will come to judge the living and the dead.

But there are things concerning the final judgment of which we are not to be certain. The Confession mentions the primary one: "...so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come..." One of the sins, among many, unfortunately, that has caused a watching world to scoff at Christianity is the sin of certainty with respect to the day that the Lord will return. Such certainty can be nothing other than utter deception and spiritual pride, in that there is no warrant for it from the Word of God. Not only so, but there is clear and unequivocal teaching that we are not meant to know "the day or hour" (see, for example, Matt. 24:36, 42-44).

This certainty/uncertainty mix of truths is meant to provoke us to be ready, to pursue holiness, to patiently wait and pray. Especially, in this regard, note Revelation 6:10. Speaking of the martyrs who were in heaven, awaiting their final destiny, John writes:"They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

This helps us to recognize two central, Christian truths concerning the final judgment. First, those who have died in Christ have not reached their final goal. To live is indeed Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21), but to die is not to reach our final destiny. It is, as Paul reminds us, to "depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (Phil. 1:23). But "far better" is not best, from a biblical perspective. As saints in heaven, there is a better place to be, and that place is in the new heaven and the new earth (see Is. 65:17, 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1-5). Second, the souls who cry out to God in heaven are not complaining about God's timing. They are, instead, praying for the full and climactic manifestation of His holy character in His second coming. They are, in effect, praying the prayer that we pray when we say, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." When we pray that prayer, we are praying that justice will come to those who steadfastly oppose the Lord, but we are also praying that mercy will be manifest, finally and completely, as the Lord draws all of His people to Himself, for eternity.

Finally, the reason the Lord tarries, according to Scripture, is because of His patient mercy (2 Peter 3:9). Many of us have perhaps come to Christ at a definite point in our lives. We can think of this in terms of a (admittedly impossible) "what if" scenario. Suppose you came to Christ in 2012. What would have happened if Christ had come in 2011? If that had happened, the Lord's mercy would not have been extended to you; you would have perished in your sins. His patience is a merciful patience.

Given what Scripture and the Confession teach us, however, we know that such things could not happen. We know (and are certain) that the Lord will gather all of those given to Christ by the Father, and for whom Christ died to Himself, and will keep them for eternity (see John 17). In the meantime, the Lord is patient, mercifully patient, and we wait. We wait for more of His mercy to be extended to more of His own. 

In waiting, as Scripture and the Confession remind us, we pray, "Even so, come Lord Jesus, come quickly." We do not pray that, in the first place, in hopes that our suffering will be alleviated, or that we might get out of difficult circumstances. We pray that, in the first place, because we long for the full manifestation of the mercy and the justice of the Lord over all the earth, and in heaven itself. In other words, as goes our Christian lives, so also go our prayers for Christ's return. We pray that the Lord will come quickly because we long for the full, glorious and climactic manifestation of Christ Himself, in whom is the fullness of God's justice and God's mercy.

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!

Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

Chapter 33.2

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ii. The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord: but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power. (Matt. 25:31-46, Rom. 2:5-6, Rom. 9:22-23, Matt. 25:21, Acts 3:19, 2 Thess. 1:7-10).

There are three points that should be underlined in this section. First, this paragraph rightly and wisely connects the truth of the dual destinies of all of humanity with the glory of God. The biblical teaching of the final judgment has its ultimate and climactic goal in the truth and manifestation of the glory of God.

With respect to the glory of God, the Confession has consistently maintained that this glory is the rationale for all that takes place in history, and into eternity. "From Him, through Him and to Him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). This summary of all of creation is oftentimes not given its proper due in our thinking and living, and it will help us understand the final judgment if we remember its centrality. All things are what they are, ultimately, for the glory of God. This glory has two covenantally-connected aspects to it.

1. The glory of God is just who God is. That is, the character of God is itself His glory. When Moses asked God to show him His glory, the Lord explained to Moses that if his request were granted, he would perish. No one can see God's glory and live (see Ex. 33:18ff.). This glory of God, which is His incomprehensible and refulgent character, of course, fully and completely characterizes the three persons of the Trinity, in that each is fully God. But it is not something that mere humans can have or grasp or experience. He is the LORD and there is no other. He will not give His glory to another (Is. 42:8). To "glorify" God is to give Him His due weight; it is to ascribe to Him the proper praise because of who He is. This is what man, as image of God, was meant to do; we were/are meant to show God's character, in an "image" and derivative way. 

2. The covenantal condescension (WCF 7.1) of this triune God, however, includes the condescension of His glory. So, as God relates Himself to His creation, part of that relationship includes various manifestations of His glory, which is to say, manifestations of His majestic character. When Scripture tells us that "all things" are "from, through and to Him," what it is telling us, in part, is that all things are designed to show us something of God's resplendent and glorious character.

I know from teaching the "Doctrine of God" to seminary students that the centrality of God's glory is one of the most difficult truths for Christians to digest. It seems, more often, to provoke spiritual indigestion, rather than fruitfully to nourish Christian growth. But we will not be rid of our dysfunction and sin in our daily lives and in this world unless we learn joyfully to embrace this glorious truth. Everything in this world and beyond has God's glory, and not us, in view. Anything that happens to us, for us and in us is meant to point to that glory. It is not meant to point, in the first place, to us and our lives. (In light of this, re-read chapter 3 of the Confession and notice how the Confession in its explanation of God's eternal decree and meticulous sovereignty repeats the refrain, in various ways, of the "glory of God." We struggle with election to the extent that we neglect to center it on God's character, and attempt to focus it on man).

Since God's glory is a manifestation of His character, the final judgment, in its dual modality, shows us something of the glory of God; it shows us what God is like in His dealings with men. It shows us, as the Confession says, "the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient."

This leads to our second point. Every person will acknowledge that the biblical teaching of eternal damnation brings grief. That is as it should be. God Himself takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ez. 18:23, 33:11). Christ wept over Jerusalem because of their unwillingness to come to Him (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). There is no delight that emanates from the triune God when men refuse to come to Him.

But we should not allow that grief to cloud the reality, and tempt us to pervert or distort it. We may not have all the information we would like to have about why God set the world in motion and providentially directed it the way that He did. We do know, however, that His judgments are inscrutable and His ways past finding out (Rom. 11:33ff.). If we lose the true, biblical focus on eternal damnation, therefore, we may be in danger of losing the God whose glorious justice is manifest in its reality.

There must, then, be a dual affirmation with respect to eternal damnation. We must rightly grieve its existence; its existence is a manifestation of all that opposes God and His character, and it is an ugly and abhorrent place, devoid of the mercy and grace of God. But we should not grieve that existence only because some we know may be there. That is tragic, and we "think God's thoughts after Him" when we take no delight in it. But the ultimate tragedy of it is that its existence is a testimony of those whose lives were set against the holiness of God's character, and who would not honor Him for who He is. The biblical focus of the tragedy, in other words, is the opposition to God that hell displays. With this focus, we should, in turn, learn to hate and despise that same opposition to the extent that its effects still remain in us.

This brings me to a third point, which itself is not explicit in the Confession, but is implicit, and which should at least be broached here, given its influence. Why can we not hold that those who die outside of Christ simply cease to exist? Why not affirm the doctrine of annihilationism? This doctrine is not only reserved for cults, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, but has found its way into some otherwise orthodox contexts as well.

Briefly, annihilationists argue that the orthodox view of everlasting punishment misreads Scripture, in at least two important areas. They argue, first of all, that the word eternal (aionios) is assumed to mean endless, though it really means (something like) "belonging to the age to come." "Eternal" refers, they think, to a quality, and not to longevity. Thus, "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46) does not mean eternally enduring punishment, but "the punishment of the age to come." The problem with this is that, while the term ainios is used in the New Testament in the context of the biblical distinction between the present age and the age to come, the "age to come" is by definition endless, endlessness being an essential element in its quality.

Annihilationists also argue that biblical terms such as perishing and destruction in Scripture should be taken for what they mean, i.e., the end of existence altogether. The problem with this is that Scripture uses those terms not as the end of existence, but as the disintegration of a previously constituted state or condition. So, for example, in Matt. 9:17, we see that men do not put new wine into old wineskins, or they will be destroyed. What is destroyed here is not the existence of wineskins, but their ability to function as intended. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 is of special interest in this connection. It speaks of being "punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord." But if destruction means complete and total annihilation: 1. the adjective "everlasting" serves no function whatsoever, and 2. "shut out from the presence of the Lord" loses its force, since the phrase naturally implies ongoing conscious existence. Paul is speaking here of the destruction that consists in being excluded from the presence of God. Instead of implying cessation of existence, therefore, the biblical terminology actually underlines its continuation (1)

It is the glory of God that rightly focuses our view of the final judgment. All that takes place on planet earth, all that takes place in our lives, has its terminus in that judgment, and its meaning in His glory. If you are in Christ as you read this, praise Him for His grace. If you are not, now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). 

Tomorrow we will finish with the third and final section of this chapter.

NOTES:
1. This section on annihilation is a slightly edited version of the "Appendix" in K. Scott Oliphint and Sinclair B. Ferguson, If I Should Die Before I Wake: What's Beyond This Life?, (UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2004).

Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

Chapter 33.1

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i. God hath 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.

I suspect that the vast majority of readers of this site will not quibble with the biblical doctrine of the final judgment. There will, no doubt, be variations and nuances among us, but the general teaching itself should be beyond doubt for any who take seriously the authority of God's Word.

The first thing we must recognize is that this chapter is consistent with every chapter preceding; it does not come to us, nor is it meant to be read, "on its own." The affirmation that all people will "receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil," is consistent with what the Confession has said previously. So, for example, what is said here in no way conflicts with, negates or undermines those great truths articulated in chapters 10-17, which include, among others, our effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, etc. In other words, this chapter presupposes the Christian's union with Christ (see, e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 66, 69).

But we also affirm that there is no conflict in this chapter and the Confession's teaching in chapter three on God's decree of election and reprobation. The Confession is clear, because Scripture is clear, that the biblical teaching of God's unconditional election is the foundation on which our own responsibility to Him rests. Election, as chapter 3.1 says, does not in any way take away the liberty or contingency of second causes; rather, election establishes those causes, and puts them within their proper context.

With that in mind, I will highlight a few points that deserve our special attention when affirming this great truth, "Of the Last Judgment:"
God hath appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, (Acts 17:31) to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. (John 5:22,27) In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, (1 Cor. 6:3, Jude 6, 2 Pet. 2:4) 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. (2 Cor. 5:10, Eccl. 12:14, Rom. 2:16, Rom. 14:10,12, Matt. 12:36-37)
Three brief points to make about this first paragraph. First, we affirm that God, in His eternal decree, has set aside a day -- an actual day on the calendar -- that will be the last day in human history. The final judgment is the end of the beginning and the beginning of that which will never end. God brought all things into existence "in the beginning." "In the beginning" and until the end, life is offered by God, taken by some, and lost by others, until the end. Eternal life was offered by God to Adam and Eve, but was lost. It was then offered by God to those who were in Adam, but it could now only come if God Himself, by sacrifice, provided what was needed to cover our sinful nakedness (Gen. 3:21). This history of the offer of life was never meant to be forever. It would have an end, a terminus, and that terminus would be when the serpent's head was finally and completely crushed, and the last enemy was no more (see 1 Cor. 15:54-56).

Second, there is an important connection that Scripture makes, and that is highlighted in the initial paragraph of this section, that deserves careful thought. The language of the first clause of this paragraph, as the proof-text indicates, is taken from Acts 17:31. There, on Mars Hill, Paul declares to the philosophers and Athenians that history will end, and that the end will take place by way of the judgment of Christ.

Paul's address on Mars Hill presupposes the truths that Paul spells out in Romans 1 and 2. Specifically, Paul begins his defense to the Athenians by telling his audience about the character of the true God (Acts 17:24-29). This is in keeping with Paul's Spirit-wrought diagnosis of unbelief in Rom. 1:18-25. But then Paul moves from the "reminder" of who the true God is (whom they already know, but suppress), to the reality and certainty of a day of judgment.

Here we need to remember again what Paul says beginning in Rom. 1:32 and into Rom. 2. In 1:32, Paul, referring to what all people know by virtue of God's continual revealing activity to all people, and at all times, says: "Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them."

This one verse is replete with judgment implications. In knowing God, Paul tells us, all people also "know God's righteous decree." That is, they know what God requires of them. They don't know His requirements in explicit, biblical detail. But they know enough of who God is to include the knowledge that they should be spending their lives giving Him thanks and honoring Him for who He is (Rom. 1:21). Since they do not do that -- and this is the key point about judgment -- they know that their own suppression of, and rebellion against, the character of God is such that they "deserve to die." That is, included in the true knowledge of God that all people have is the true knowledge that their rebellion against the God whom they know brings with it the knowledge that death is justly deserved. This can only mean that all people who are and remain in Adam are, right now, judged by God, they know they are judged, and they know that His judgment is true and just.

This should be an encouragement to us. We live in a world in which, no matter the facades and fairy tales, all people know God and know that a violation of His character brings sure and righteous judgment. We never approach anyone with the gospel, and with the truth of his or her own sinfulness before God, who does not already have the knowledge of that sinfulness already deeply and permanently embedded in his or her heart. So when the Confession writes of this judgment, just as when Paul affirmed it on Mars Hill, it is writing into a context, and to people, who already know that this judgment is coming, and is proper. Notice, as Paul says, all people know they deserve to die. That is, we all know that what our lives and activities have merited is death, not life.

So a general understanding of the final judgment is nothing new. What is new, and this is one of the things that Paul highlights on Mars Hill, is that this judgment will come through God's appointed Son, who himself was judged on the cross, was raised from the dead, and who will come again to separate the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:32-33). This is why the knowledge of God, of sin and of judgment which God gives, always and everywhere, to all people, in general revelation, is meant to be inextricably tied to the knowledge of Christ and His work. General revelation points inexorably to the gospel, which is only given in God's spoken Word (see Psalm 19).

Third, (and we can only touch on this matter briefly) the notion that in the judgment all people will be required "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," may, taken out of context, sound as though our final judgment is based on our deeds. Consider in this regard, however, Matt. 25:34-36:
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Here the Savior is clear that those who will be accepted by Him are "blessed by my Father," and therefore will "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." In other words, behind the kingdom works that are manifest in those who follow Christ, is the inheritance, which by definition is not earned, and that inheritance was prepared before creation began. As the Confession makes clear, especially in 3.2, God's preparation for us of His kingdom cannot be because He foresaw our works as future, and on that basis, made preparation for us. Rather, He chose us before the foundation of the world. What follows from that is our union with Christ, which includes our sanctification (good works). Those not so chosen do not do kingdom works. They may do the same things that Christians do, in many cases, but they do those things in the context of their rebellion against the God whom they know, and against His character (law), not of their love for Christ. So even in the doing of what might appear (to us) to be the same works, they cannot enter in the joy of Christ's presence. This truth has significant implications as well for how we should think about the Christian's "cultural" activity.

Tomorrow we will comment on section two of this chapter.

Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).