Does the Gospel Threaten?
March 23, 2015
Does a Christian have any reason to be afraid of God? Does the gospel make any threats to God's people or does the gospel simply promise and comfort? There is no doubt that the gospel promises and comforts. That is not in dispute. What is less clear is whether the same gospel message also threatens God's people in any way.
John Murray made the salient point that "it is the essence of impiety not to be afraid of God when there is reason to be afraid...The Scripture throughout prescribes the necessity of this fear of God under all the circumstances in which our sinful situation makes us liable to God's righteous judgment."
God, as Adam's father, threatened Adam in the Garden. His threat was an act of love (grace?), designed to keep Adam from sinning. Adam had good reason, then, to be afraid of God when he sinned. It would have been the "essence of impiety" not to have been afraid after he rebelled against God. Adam's first sin was unbelief. But he clearly forgot to fear God, which was a factor in his unbelief. Adam doubted God's threat to him as well as God's love.
Some of the most terrifying threats in the Scriptures are made to God's people. Are they rightly called "gospel threatenings" as many Reformed divines have suggested?
The Canons of Dort shed some light on this question. In my book on Antinomianism I addressed the question of what the official versions of the Canons actually say. The Fifth Head of Doctrine ("Of the Perseverance of the Saints"), article 14 is perhaps the most relevant section. English versions usually read:
"And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments."
I suspect those who might wish to say that the gospel does not in any way threaten would argue that the threatenings belong to God's Word, and in God's Word there are "two words": law and gospel. The threatenings are obviously "law" since the gospel cannot threaten, but only promise. This cannot, I believe, stand up to our Confessional history or the clear teaching of the Scriptures.
If we pay close attention to the authorized translations and the intent of the Canons of Dort, we will find that the gospel threatens. The Latin, Dutch, and French versions of the Canons of Dort are the authorized versions, not the English.
These versions (and their English translations) read as follows:
Latin: "Quemadmodum autem Deo placuit, opus hoc suum gratiæ per prædicationem Euangelij in nobis inchoare, ita per eiusdem auditum, lectionem, meditationem, adhortationes, minas, promissa, nec non per usum Sacrementorum illud censeruat, continuat, & perficit."
English Translation: "As it has pleased God to begin his work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so he preserves, continues and perfects it through the hearing, reading, meditation, exhortations, threatenings, [and] promises of that same gospel, and also through the use of the sacraments."
Dutch: "Gelijk het God nu beliefd heeft dit Zijn werk der genade door de predikatie des Evangelies in ons te beginnen, alzoo bewaart, achtervolgt en volbrengt Hij hetzelve door het hooren, lezen en overleggen er van, mitsgaders, vermaningen, dreigementen, beloften en het gebruik der H. Sacramenten."
English Translation: "Just as it now has pleased God to begin in us this work of grace by the preaching of the gospel, so also he preserves, continues, and brings it to fullness by the hearing, reading, and meditation thereof, also through exhortations, threats, promises, and the use of the holy sacraments."
French: "Et comme il a pleu à Dieu commencer en nous par sa grace, ce sien oeuvre par la predication de l'Euangile: de mesme il le conferee, continne, & l'accomplit par l'ouye, la lecture, meditation, exhortation, menasses & promesses du mesme Evangile, comme aussi par l'usage des Sacremens."
English Translation: "And as it has pleased God [lit., given pleasure to God] to begin in us by his grace, this his work by the preaching of the gospel: just so he confirms it, maintains and fulfills it by the hearing, reading, meditation, exhortation, threats and promises of the same gospel, as also by the use of the sacraments."
If we look at the French translation, we see that the threats come by "the same gospel" ("du mesme Evangile"). The Latin version is clear. The phrase "hearing, reading, meditation, exhortations, threatenings, [and] promises" is modified by "eiusdem," a genitive pronoun meaning "the same," which can only refer back to "Euangelii," meaning "the gospel." Thus, the "threatenings" belong to "that same gospel" which is preached. So the gospel, according to the Canons of Dort, contains threatenings as well as promises.
There are many threats in the New Testament that are made to the people of God, if they continue or persist in a certain path of unrighteousness (e.g., Heb. 10:25-31; 12:15-17; Rev. 3:14-22; Rom. 8:13; Mk. 1:14-15; Matt. 6:15; 1 Cor. 10:1-22; Gal. 5:21; indeed, the whole book of Hebrews). Whenever we preach on the necessity of repentance, there is an implied gospel threat (assuming Ursinus et al were right to place "repentance" in the category of "gospel", not "law"). Moreover, church discipline is indisputable evidence that believers can be threatened, and sometimes handed over to Satan if they fail to repent. It must be a "gospel threat" because the sin is directly against Christ and his work.
I am currently reading the Synopsis Purioris, and in it I came across this interesting quote: "The gospel contains its own commands, promises, and warnings." Not too different from the Canons of Dort!
In short, sometimes we need to strongly warn those who are in the church when they indulge in a sin that can send them to hell. Paul warned the Corinthians when they acted wickedly; Christ warned the Laodiceans; and we must warn God's people when we have a biblical reason to warn them. Our warnings do not mean we jettison the indicatives of the gospel, but in fact the indicatives act as a strong incentive as to why a Christian should not go down the path of ruin.
According to John Owen, "every threatening of the gospel proclaims the grace of Christ" to the souls of Christians (Works, 3:285). He adds, "Man threatens me if I forsake not the gospel; but God threatens me if I do" (Works, 3:286). "How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?" (Heb. 2:3).
Owen's final words have a very startling relevance to some of the ideas that are passed today as Reformed:
"A fond conceit has befallen some, that all denunciations of future wrath, even unto believers, is legal, which therefore it does not become the preachers of the gospel to insist upon: so would men make themselves wiser than Jesus Christ and all his apostles, yes, they would disarm the Lord Christ, and expose him to the contempt of his vilest enemies. There is also, we see, a great use in these evangelical threatenings to believers themselves. And they have been observed to have had an effectual ministry, both unto conversion and edification, who have been made wise and dexterous in managing gospel [threats] toward the consciences of their hearers. And those that hear the word may hence learn their duty, when such threatenings are handled and opened to them" (Works, 3:287).
When many "twitter-Popes" are constantly telling Christians - Christians they do not know and cannot possibly know - only the promises ("Dear Christian, God loves you no matter what you do"), it is refreshing to have a healthy dose of realism from Owen. As a pastor, I know for a fact that some people need to be warned in their ongoing, unrepentant sin.
I only wish I wasn't so unfaithful to those who need to be warned.