20 November 2023
By Dr Adi Schlebusch
The necessity for and inevitability of God's judgment of sinners is a foundational concept in Christian theology, grounded in the belief that all sin as inherently offensive to the sovereign King of the universe, warrants punishment (Exodus 14:18; 20:7; 34:7; Job 10:14; Romans 5:12). Despite heretical assertions by Liberals, the idea of sin and its just reward by a righteous God remains a central and undisputed doctrine among orthodox believers. As J. Gresham Machen once noted:
Christianity ... begins with the consciousness of sin. Without the consciousness of sin, the whole of the gospel will seem to be an idle tale. But how can the consciousness of sin be revived? Something, no doubt, can be accomplished by the proclamation of the law of God, for the law reveals transgressions. The whole law, moreover, should be proclaimed.1
The Westminster Confession 6.VI articulates this doctrine by asserting that
Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over the wrath of God and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporalm and eternal.
It is precisely in light of this concept of just punishment for sin and the miseries which accompany it that humanity's need for Christ's redemptive atonement becomes evident (Romans 5). Liberalism, by challenging the Westminster Confession’s teachings with regard to the consequences of sin, seeks to undermine the faith's core tenets. Some deny the reality of hell altogether, but a far more common heresy is the denial of God's omnipotent freedom to punish sin on earth prior Christ's final judgment (or Parousia). By neglecting the immanent, earthly consequences of sin in this life, they disregard the influence of God's righteousness on all aspects of human existence.
In this article we will be highlighting and amplifying the covenantal effects and impact of sin and redemption on this earthly life of ours.
The Love and Righteousness of God
God’s essence as love (I John 4:8) and His affection for His creation (John 3:16) are manifested in His ongoing sustenance and governance of the world (Psalm 115:3; Ephesians 1:11), as detailed in the Heidelberg Catechism's twenty-seventh question, which describes divine providence as
the almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
Job alludes to this when he asks, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). God created primarily out of a love for Himself. He loves His creation because it reflects Him, and His love for mankind is especially revealed in the fact that He made man in His own image. Moreover, God’s perfect love for perfect justice forms the foundation for His hatred of sin and of the reprobate (Proverbs 6:16-19; Romans 9:13). Because sin distorts the perfect harmony that exists between God and creation, God’s righteousness demands that it be punished (Deuteronomy 32:4; Ezra 9:15; Nehemiah 9:33; Psalm 119:75; 129:4; Daniel 9:14; John 5:30; Revelation 16:5-7). God’s love and righteousness therefore always complement one another. Any argument that attempts to separate the two by pitting them against one another therefore amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding of both. God’s love is only revealed through his righteousness.
Original Sin and Total Depravity
The rejection of earthly judgments conflicts with the core biblical doctrine of Total Depravity, which is integral to the message of the gospel. This concept relates to the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) and the subsequent curse on creation due to sin. The human condition post-fall, incapable of avoiding sin, is itself a divine punishment. Without sin, pain and suffering would cease, restoring complete harmony with God (Revelation 21:4). However, it is crucial to distinguish this from the misinterpretations propagated by the Health, Wealth, and Prosperity gospel. This heresy wrongly defines prosperity and wrongly equates Christian suffering with a lack of faith. The danger of this heresy lies not in its teaching that Christians should expect earthly prosperity as God’s children, but in its carnal definition of wealth and prosperity—denying all Christian suffering, and seeing suffering always as a result of a lack of faith. Thereby this false gospel offers to carnal man, not Christ, but exactly what he desires in his depraved state so as to satiate his sinful appetites. The Bible teaches, however, that regenerated Christians, by virtue of their part in God’s Kingdom, should expect Kingdom prosperity in our obedient walk under God’s law. God’s Kingdom will continue to expand and prosper as God works all things according to His pleasure (Ephesians 1:11), and Christians, as subjects in Christ’s Kingdom, share in that prosperity (Psalm 35:27; Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:19; I Timothy 6:17).
However, while the carnal man understands prosperity as advancing his own kingdom, the regenerated man sees true prosperity within the context of God’s Kingdom (Deuteronomy 8:18; 28:1; Joshua 1:8; Proverbs 3:6; John 15:6). This is why the apostle Paul, in the midst of persecution and suffering, could write that we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). As believers in God and His Word, we are to view prosperity as a gift from God and value it. This is why I also think John Piper errs when he tries to refute the Health, Wealth, and Prosperity gospel by teaching, “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him in the midst of loss, not prosperity.”2 The truth is that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him and the prosperity of His Kingdom, regardless of how convenient our present circumstances might be (Job 1:21; Proverbs 30:8).
Furthermore, the prosperity gospel errs when teaching that suffering is always a direct result of a specific sin in a person’s life, such that personal suffering must necessarily decrease as sanctification increases. While this certainly can be true in a general sense, no Christian will ever claim that this is always the case. Instead, a Christian can be assured that God will increasingly bless his service for the Kingdom of God as he is sanctified. However, I would go even further than this, asserting that as individuals, families, and nations have different roles to fulfil in the Kingdom, we can observe their general earthly prosperity in embracing the Christian faith and becoming sanctified. The Church Militant is in the battlefield, and she can be confident that she will conquer, but some of its members will still suffer the loss of life and limb–or a loved one–even in victory. In the upcoming parts of this series, I will further expand upon this with examples from God’s providential acts throughout history.
While God works all things for the good of His elect (Romans 8:28), there are two reasons why suffering occurs within the Church militant. The first is that it serves a greater purpose in further glorifying God’s Name. Jacob, Job, and the blind whom Jesus cured are perfect examples of this. The dependence upon God cultivated through suffering and loss brings great glory to Him. The second reason why the elect suffer on this earth through divine judgment is for the sake of chastisement which serves to effectuate the repentant renewal of our hearts and minds.
The Foundation in God’s Law
After God gives Moses His perfect law in Deuteronomy 5, various situational precepts are added throughout the book which serve to explain the application these ten commandments. Towards the end of the Law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 28:1—14, God makes the promise to His people that, should they live their national life in obedience to His commandments, they shall be blessed abundantly. Again, these promises of blessing would be misunderstood if not viewed within the context of a nation’s role within God’s Kingdom. On the contrary, verses 15—68 teaches that punishment awaits the apostates. It is indeed fascinating (and so often missed by contemporary Christians) that Jesus’s teaching in John 15:5—7 is in exact agreement with Deuteronomy 28, proving the perpetual validity of the covenantal paradigm. Deuteronomy 28 should obviously be read as a divine address of God to His covenant people. Therefore, it would be improper to understand this passage to mean that all the righteous would at all times visibly experience this prosperity, and that all the unrighteous would at all times visibly experience the curses. While it is true that true blessings are found only within God’s Kingdom, this does not mean that God does not also in his providence heap coals of fire on the heads of the reprobate by granting them temporal happiness as a prelude to taking vengeance for their trespasses (Romans 12:19—20).
Vengeance Versus Chastisement
“Harsh discipline is for him that forsakes the way, and he who hates correction will die.”
– Proverbs 15:10.
Even though God often justly avenges the sin of both the elect and reprobate on earth, there is a fundamental difference in the way God deals with people from these two categories. His acts of retribution toward the non-elect are always done (whether pre-parousial or in eternal hell) for the sake of satisfying His righteous wrath towards sin. Since Christ did not bear the punishment of the reprobate on the cross (John 10), God’s wrath towards them remains unsatisfied until He executes His just vengeance towards them. Scripture accordingly teaches that God both desires and works the destruction of the reprobate for His own glory (Psalm 5:5—10; Proverbs 16:4; Romans 9:22). However, God remains free to execute these judgments how and when He pleases. He does not reserve all punishment of sin for hell, but still executes some retribution prior to Christ’s return and judgment. On the contrary, He lovingly chastises His elect on earth, which is not to be considered as retributive punishment for sin, for Christ liberated His elect from such vengeance on the cross (Romans 8:2).
However, a major misconception exists among many Christians today that God, in light of Christ’s redemptive work, deals differently with His people under the New Covenant than He did under the Old. Many consider chastisement through divine punishment to be eliminated under the New Covenant. This misconception is fundamentally based on the antinomian and dispensationalist idea that the Old Covenant believers were justified by works, not saved by grace as we are. They thereby reduce the value of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement as merely a single way to salvation, insulting His divinity by reducing John 14:6 into a temporal truth. Orthodoxy makes no dualistic distinction between the Old and New Covenants, as they do not differ in terms of their nature, but simply in terms of their ministry. God is and has always been the heavenly Father of the faithful (Isaiah 64:8). As a godly earthly father who loves his children not only blesses them, but also disciplines them, it is the same in our relationship with God, of which the earthly father is to be a type (Proverbs 3:12). Various texts in the Old Testament point to God’s dealing with His children in this way, but this truth is also expressly reiterated in the New Testament (Hebrews 12:3—11). The Westminster Confession of Faith 5.V also articulates this as follows:
The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.
Finally, the Heidelberg Catechism also reminds us of the comfort of knowing that His chastisements are part of His all-encompassing providence in Lord’s Day 10:
That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.
It is to this earthly chastisement of the elect that the Psalmist refers when he says: “For his anger is but for a moment, but his favor is for a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5).
God is both loving and just. God is also perfect. His perfect love demands perfect justice. Because sin distorts the perfect justice that exists in God’s creation in its unblemished state, sin angers God, and He responds to ungodliness with hatred and vengeance. However, God does not reserve all His wrath toward the reprobate for eternal hell— even on earth, the wicked suffer the results of sin. Christ redeemed His Church from the curse of the Law, which is nothing but the hatred and vengeance of God. However, this does not mean that God does not chastise His children, as any loving Father would; He rather reserves the right to providentially permit their suffering for the sake of His Kingdom. In a follow-up article I will be focusing on the necessity of understanding this divine chastisement covenantally in order to appreciate its significance not only for individuals, but also families, churches, cities or communities, and nations.
1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 66.