Category Archives: Christianity

Why was Jesus baptized?

We first come across baptism in the context of John the Baptist. John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John came as a prophet, calling people to repent and, as a visible way of showing that response, to be baptized in the Jordan River. John saw this “baptism of repentance” as an act which prepared Israel for the coming Messiah, the one who would “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

This context makes Jesus’ own baptism by John all the more perplexing. If submission to John’s baptism was an act of repentance, then does that mean that Jesus needed to repent? Did he need to turn from sin? Did he need to be forgiven?

What didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism?

First allow me to stress two things that didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism. First, he did not repent from sins. Second, he was not adopted as God’s Son.

He was not repenting of sins.

John had just finished saying that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, he goes on to describe Jesus as the Judge of all: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). Jesus was the Judge who could adjudicate true from false repentance, he had no need of repenting himself. That is why John expressed disbelief when Jesus came to be baptized by him by saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13) Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), so he had no need of repentance.

Jesus was not adopted as God’s Son at the baptism.

There was a popular heresy in the early church that said God adopted Jesus as his Son at the baptism. This heresy arose out of a misunderstanding of Mark 1:11 and its parallel passages in the other synoptic gospels when the voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I love; and with you I am well pleased.” But what we have here is the same thing we have in Romans 1:4 when Paul says that “through the Spirit of holiness [Jesus Christ] was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” In neither event, the baptism or the resurrection, is Jesus made the Son. Instead, he is declared to be the Son. That is, his divine Sonship is made clear. His identity is confirmed, not formed, by these events.

So why was Jesus baptized?

If Jesus didn’t need to repent or be forgiven, why then did he submit to John’s baptism?

Jesus was identifying with Israel.

When the people came to John in the wilderness they were re-enacting a portion of Israel’s history. By coming to the wilderness they were entering a place associated in the Old Testament with testing and decision. When Israel rebelled in the wilderness they were met with judgment. When Israel trusted God, they were brought through the raging waters of the Jordan, into the Promised Land. By being baptized, the people of Jerusalem were committing themselves to trust God. They were, in a sense, identifying themselves with past Israel.

Jesus was doing the same sort of thing, not as an act of repentance, but of solidarity. He was saying, in a sense, “your story is my story.” I am willing to walk in the same steps as Israel, committing myself to God alone.

The problem for Israel, though, is that even though they had periods of repentance, they quickly fell back into sin. Indeed, even though “all of Jerusalem” came out to be baptized, it was also those from Jerusalem who called for Jesus’ execution. While many heard and responded to John’s call to turn from sin, they never responded, or didn’t properly respond, to John’s call to look to the Greater One.

Jesus was identifying with fallen humanity

Israel’s story, though, is a microcosm of humanity’s story. And Jesus is not only identifying with Israel, but with all of humanity. The need to trust God fully goes back not just to Israel’s wilderness wanderings, but to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In submitting to a “baptism of repentance” which he did not need, Jesus identified himself in solidarity with all fallen humanity.

Jesus was declared as the true Son

After Jesus was baptized we’re introduced to a marvelous scene: “he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)

The Father describes Jesus as “my Son.” In the Old Testament, the phrase “God’s son” can sometimes refer to heavenly beings, to kings (especially in the line of David), and to Israel itself. Here Mark wants to show us Jesus’ special relationship with the Father and restate his Messianic role. Jesus is not just son, He is The Son, a truth which becomes ever more clear throughout the gospel and the rest of the New Testament.

We begin to see a continuity and discontinuity with Israel and its kings. Israel was God’s “son” who was trapped in a cycle of repentance and failure. The same story goes for its kings. But Jesus comes along as the true Israel, and as the true Messiah-king. The rest of the story reveals to us that Jesus does not fail, that he remains faithful to the Father even to death on the cross.

Again, we can go back even farther than Israel’s story, to the story of Genesis. In the creation story the Spirit hovers over the waters and it is by God’s breath that Adam becomes a living being. God’s revelation of the Spirit in Jesus’s baptism ought to draw our minds back to creation, back to Adam and Eve. Here, though, the Spirit is at work empowering Jesus to take up the role of the true human who would succeed where Adam and Eve failed.

Why does it matter that Jesus was baptized?

Jesus’ baptism doesn’t prove his unique identity by itself, but it does remind that Jesus stands both with humanity and above humanity. The rest of the New Testament shows us that Jesus was fully man and fully God. In his baptism he fully identifies himself with fallen humanity, not because he himself is fallen, but as an act of solidarity. This is a sort of “proto-cross” event. On the cross Jesus goes a step farther. He doesn’t just identify with humanity, but he takes the penalty for humanity. Jesus’ baptism sets us up for that reality.

But it’s also clear that Jesus doesn’t just come as a normal human being standing in for the rest of all normal human beings. If he did that, his death could at best only save himself. He would only be giving to God what he already owed him. No, the voice from heaven, the presence of the Spirit, and the declaration of the Father all point us to the fact that Jesus is something more. He is the Son who pleases the Father. And, because he is the true and infinite Son, his stand of solidarity can really be effective in our salvation.

Advertisements

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

I just came across this question on a blog ranting against Christians. But, if I’m honest, I’ve asked this question many times myself, sometimes honestly, sometimes as an attempt to justify myself. The “it” in question could be any number of things which the Bible teaches against, from our perspective, don’t seem to harm anyone. Why does God still call these things “sin”?

First, a quick observation: Even from a secular perspective, the notion that we tend to judge our actions or thoughts as right or wrong based solely on whether they cause harm to someone else is a notion peculiar to our culture. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, shows that the human brain has several different “moral taste buds”, or moral intuitions. One of those has to do with causing harm to others (compassion), but in other cases it’s less obvious (the remainder are fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty). These moral taste buds span cultures, but different cultures have different “preferences” between them. We in the 21st century West place the biggest emphasis on harm to the exclusion of the others. Now, our culture could be right in doing so, but in deciding that we are, we should at least note that our perspective is largely driven by our own cultural bias.

Second, the Christian perspective: Christians view sin, first and foremost, as being against God. This is why David can confess “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) David’s sin, in fact, harmed Bathsheba and Uriah and David’s entire family, but he recognized that sin at its core is rebellion against God. When we sin against others, we always sin against God. But it seems possible to sin against God, without necessarily sinning against others.

Third, our question sometimes comes from a lack of understanding. Sin is fundamentally destructive to God’s creation, even if we can’t see it. Something may not be harmful from our perspective, but here we simply suffer from our limited perception of reality. Here are a few observations on what we might call “private” or “harmless” sins:

(1)    Sin is self-degrading: Even if a sin caused no measurable harm to someone else it still causes harm to the one who sins. In turning away from God, we turn away from the one who can heal our souls. Since we as humans made in God’s image are the most precious thing in God’s creation, it is a sin to do damage to our souls.

(2)    The private self is intrinsically tied with the social self. We inevitably act and speak out of our nature. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) The social consequences of a sin aren’t always obvious, but if given the chance, they always come.

(3)    Sin grows: James describes it well when he says, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:15) We sometimes think that we have the power over the small sins, that we have control. This is a deception. Sin, unchecked, gains power over the one who indulges it.

Fourth, thank goodness for grace. God has the power to reverse sins’ trajectory, to heal what is broken and to restore whatever was taken away. God gave us the law to limit the negative impact of sin, but it is ultimately the Spirit of God that brings life, and it is the Spirit of God, through Jesus, that we all need the most.

Prayer and the knowledge and sovereignty of God. What’s the point?

Q: What’s the point of prayer? After all, if God already knows what we need before we ask, why do we need to ask?

A: First, prayer includes more than simply asking God for things. It also includes praise, thanksgiving, and confession of sin. Still, it’s right to focus on specific requests, since such prayers dominate Scriptural examples and instructions.

As to the question about God’s knowledge: Prayer – even the request – is not simply a way of getting what we want/need from God. It’s a means of forming a personal relationship with him. God knows what we need, but he wants us to ask him for it. In doing so, we learn to be dependent on him. We learn the proper relationship between Creator and created. We need. We ask. God has. God gives.

Q: I have heard it said: “We pray, not to change God, but so that we ourselves might be changed.” Is that what you’re saying above? Is the primary purpose of prayer to bring about an internal change?

A: Prayer does change us, and it’s good that it does. But I’m hesitant to say that the primary purpose of prayer is internal change. That’s simply not how the Bible usually puts it. Take, for instance, Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 6:18-20. Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for the Lord’s people, and to pray specifically for him, that he would preach the gospel without fear.

Now, there’s the possibility that by praying in this way the Ephesians would be changed internally: They would become more dependent on God. They would see God’s hand in missions. They would become less self-focused and more others-focused. They would see the need for boldness themselves. Etc.

But Paul’s main point isn’t that they be changed, but that their prayers for him would lead to his boldness in sharing the gospel. In other words, Paul is implying a cause and effect relationship here. The Ephesians pray. God answers. Paul preaches fearlessly.

Q: I’m uncomfortable with using the phrase “cause and effect” relationship when talking about prayer. It seems too much like magic. Are you saying the Ephesians’ prayers caused Paul’s boldness? Does that mean that without the Ephesians’ prayer Paul wouldn’t have been bold?

A: That seems unlikely in this case, given that Paul’s whole ministry prior to his work with the Ephesians was characterized by boldness. Still, it does seem that there might be some instances where God will only give us something if we pray for it. James writes “you do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

I don’t think that Paul is drawing such a straight line between the Ephesians’ request and Paul’s boldness. Perhaps we could say that the Ephesians’ requests “contributes” to Paul’s boldness. But even then, it isn’t the request itself that contributes, but God’s response to that request.

Here it’s important to remember that God is not a formula but a personal being with an independent will. We are called to address him as Father and the father-child relationship is the lens by which Jesus instructs his disciples to approach prayer. The Father is not bound to our requests, but neither is he deaf to them. He hears and then chooses his own response. To the extent his response is connected to our request, our request contributed to that response. But we must always remember that God is able to act apart from our request.

Q: You speak of God “responding” to our prayer requests. Does such language impinge upon God’s sovereignty? Is it right to say that the Creator responds to his creation?

A: It may be that we are now in the realm of mystery, where language begins to fail us, but this is the way the Bible speaks. God is outside of time, but we experience God in time. And, in time, in relationship, we see an interplay. God’s people call out for help. God hears. God acts. If “response” is not the right word to describe what we experience, I do not have a better one.

Q: It still doesn’t make sense. How does God’s sovereignty relate to our prayers? God knows all things and can do all things. Why should prayer matter?

A: We might as well ask why anything we do matters. God knows I need food and he has the ability to make it appear on my table. Does that mean that my work for that food is useless? Obviously not. We have the capacity to see that two things contribute to my stomach being filled: (1) God’s divine provision and (2) human actions. God’s provision is the ultimate source of food. Human action is often the means by which God provides. It’s a secondary, but usually necessary step. We see that God is able to work apart from human action, but he often works through it. The two actions – human and divine – are not mutually exclusive – but find harmony in the will of God.

This principle is harder to see with prayer, but it’s still there. I think it’s hard to see because prayer sits at the intersection between human action and God’s action. That is, when we pray we act, but our action is indirect, it’s merely a request for God to act. Perhaps this is why prayer can seem confusing to us. Still, the principle applies. Like other human action, prayer becomes the means by which God acts in the world. God can act apart from prayer, but sometimes he uses it in a more direct way, as we see throughout the Bible.

Q: Ok, it’s starting to make sense. Can you summarize this for me?

A: It’s good to see how prayer fits into a robust picture of God’s sovereignty, but the primary lens Jesus gives us to see prayer is the parent-child relationship. My own children have taught me a lot about prayer (good and bad). They come to me with requests all the time. This demonstrates dependence. It shows that they understand that I can provide. As a father, I won’t always give them what they ask for, because I know that they don’t always ask for things which are (ultimately) good for them or for others.  Often, I give them things without them asking for them. But there are some things that they only get if they ask for them.

There could be a danger in thinking of God too much like a human father. Human fathers can be manipulated and worn down. Human fathers sometimes need their kids to ask because they don’t already know what their child needs. Human fathers lack the perfect will of the heavenly father. “God is not a human” (Num 23:19).

Dangers noted, and with proper reverence in our hearts, we ought to come to God as our Father, through the Spirit, in the name of His Son. Understanding these relationships ought to help us understand prayer. Hopefully, it also helps us pray.

What does it mean to “Pray in the Spirit”?

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18

What does Paul mean when he says that we should pray “in the Spirit”?

First, we should not be surprised to see prayer connected with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes spiritual conversation possible and effective. The Spirit empowered the prophets to speak God’s words. He speaks through the Bible. He testifies to us about Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (John 15:26). The Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the gospel at Pentecost. So, if prayer is conversation with God, then it makes sense for the Holy Spirit to be involved.

Yet, it’s still unclear what it means to pray in the Spirit. After all, God speaks to us through the Spirit, but if we think of prayer primarily as us speaking to God (which Paul seems to do in the rest of the context of Eph 6:18) then what role does the Spirit play?

The most extensive teaching on the connection between prayer and the Spirit is found in Romans 8:26-27.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

The entire chapter of Romans 8 is about the work of the Spirit. We have been set free because of the “law of the Spirit” (8:1). Those who are set free live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). They “have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (8:5). They are therefore “in the realm of the Spirit” and the Spirit lives in them, just as they belong to Christ (8:9).

This inner spiritual reality creates in us an obligation, to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:12).

The Spirit also brings about our adoption as children of God (8:14-15). The Spirit communicates this reality directly to our own spirit (8:16) so that by the Spirit we can come to God as our “Abba, Father” (8:15).

This glorious reality – our freedom, our adoption, our inner transformation – is set aside present suffering, and not only our own suffering, but the groaning of all of creation. Yet, since we know that we are God’s children, and therefore heirs of the promised glory, then we can continue to live with hope (8:18-25).

This is the context for the “weakness” Paul refers to in 8:26. In the midst of our present suffering, we do not even know what to pray for. Along with the rest of creation (8:22), we can only groan inwardly. Things aren’t right, and we’re stuck in the tension between suffering and hope. It’s here the Spirit steps in and enables our communication with God. We may not know what to say, but the Spirit is able to search our hearts and minds and intercede on our behalf (8:26-27).

This context of struggle and suffering in Romans 8 is not too far from the context of Ephesians 6. In Ephesians 6:10-17 Paul instructs his readers to prepare for spiritual battle in advance of a “day of evil” by putting on God’s armor. In Ephesians 6:19-20 he specifically asks the readers to pray for him in his own spiritual battle, that he will remain fearless even though he is in chains for the gospel.

And, when he asks them to pray, he asks them to pray “in the Spirit.” In light of Romans 8, what does he mean?

1.       Pray with a recognition of the indwelling Spirit. Seeing that the personal presence of God is with you as you pray should change your outlook, from simply reciting a list of requests to communing with the living God.

2.       Pray that the Spirit will search your heart and mind. You may not know what to pray. Ask God to bring the right things to mind and, when you can’t even do that, ask the Spirit to intercede on your behalf.

3.       Pray, confessing your sins and asking for a renewed Spirit. By the Spirit we put to death our sin and we do that through confession. One evidence of praying in the Spirit, then, is a recognition and hatred of our sin.

4.       Pray to your Abba. Through the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children. We approach our Abba with the same confidence and trust a young child approaches a good and generous parent.

5.       Pray with hope. Are you in a time of present suffering? Are you in the midst of a spiritual battle? The Spirit helps you know that your suffering is incomparable to your future glory, that your temporary defeat will be swallowed up in Christ’s ultimate victory.

Sermon Summary: Stand

Note: As part of my sermon  preparation, I’m going to be condensing the main points of the sermon into a 500 or less word blog post. This is my first attempt.

Text: Ephesians 6:10-13

“Put on the full armor of God.”

In the Christian life we find security and rest. God has saved us by grace through faith apart from works. We rest in that reality. But the Christian life is also a battle. We fight, not for the grace of God, but from the grace of God. Jesus has already won the war, but as we wait for his return we must fight individual skirmishes. How do we win them?

In their fight believers are prone to three errors: We ignore the battle and grow complacent. We misidentify the enemy. We fight out of our own strength. If we’re going to win, we must recognize the battle, identify the enemy and his tactics, and fight from God’s strength.

Let’s first examine the battle. Our enemy is “not against flesh and blood.” Our enemy is the devil and evil spiritual forces. The Bible has plenty of examples of human enemies. Paul himself could have pointed to the Romans, Jewish religious leaders, pagan cult leaders, and even false teachers within the church. Yet, we must recognize the spiritual enemy behind the human enemy.

Jesus calls us to love our human enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Our battle is not, ultimately, against them, but against the spiritual powers standing behind their actions. The devil himself wants us to direct our hatred against other humans. In doing so, we step off the path on which Jesus leads us.

How does the enemy attack? God calls us to stand against his “schemes” and to raise our shield of faith against his “fiery arrows”. His primary weapon is deception. He lies. His influence can lead to persecution and the temptation to deny the faith, or pressure which by which he leads us to compromise our faith. He brings fear and discouragement to stop us from acting out of faith. And finally, his most common attack, is to tempt us into sin.

Each of these situations presents us with a battle. We can decide to follow God or give in to the devil’s schemes. God calls us to stand, to be firm and undefeated, to have a godly resolve, to resist, and to prevail. We prevail when we hold true to the faith in the face of persecution or pressure, when we persevere through fear and discouragement, and when we resist temptation by submitting to God.

We put ourselves in a position to win when we first surrender ourselves to God. We gain life by losing it. We’re strong when we recognize our own weakness and trust only in God for our strength. “Submit yourselves, resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

What sets Christianity apart from the other world religions?

A couple of years ago I asked a group of teenagers if they could tell me the difference between Christianity and other religions. Here were their common responses:

  • Christianity has different holidays

Yeah, that was all they could come up with. Other than that, they said, all religions are basically the same.

And, if all the religions are basically the same – except for externals like what holidays are celebrated – why would anyone choose one over the other? Or why would anyone say that one religion is superior or inferior to the others? Why not just be vaguely “spiritual” but not dogmatically religious?

Of course, there are significant differences between the world’s major religions, beyond just the days we take off from work and the rituals we follow. The differences are profound and far reaching.

And here we face an objection from the irreligious: If there are so many religious beliefs, what is it that sets your religion apart from the crowd of religions?

For Christians, the answer is found in one word, and that word is found in the name of our religion: CHRISTianity. What sets apart Christianity, is Christ.

I want to offer 6 ways that Christ sets Christianity apart.

  1. The historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. This evidence forces us to look more closely at the claims of Jesus and at the theological meaning of his death.
  2. Christians follow not only a teaching, but a person. Muslims follow the teachings of Mohammad and Buddhists the teachings of Buddha. Christians follow not only the teachings of Jesus, but the (living) Person of Jesus as well.
  3. Christ “in us” is the source of our “good behavior”. We do not practice what is good through a sheer act of will, of submission, or secret knowledge, but through the indwelling work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
  4. We are saved by grace. God rescues us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, by grace alone through faith alone. We cannot earn even a part of God’s favor. Other religious systems may have a god who displays mercy, but only Christianity shows how salvation is from God from first to last.
  5. Our God is both high above, and intimately close. Philosophical arguments lead us to a transcendent God. Christ shows us that this transcendent God is also intimately close to us, empathizing with our suffering, indeed entering into our suffering in order to rescue us.
  6. In the cross we understand Justice, Love, and Forgiveness. How can we make sense of our deepest philosophical questions? The cross. We see the justice, love, and forgiveness of God fully displayed on the cross. We see both our deepest need, and the most profound answer to that need.

Christianity is not just one among many religions, indistinguishable from the others. It stands out to me as profoundly beautiful, and not just because of its teachings, but because of the Person who stands at the center of our rescue, the person of Jesus Christ.

Is God’s judgment passive or active?

One of the questions that plagued me in my early Christian life was whether God’s acts of judgment were just. I was thinking particularly of Israel’s conquest of Canaan and, of course, hell. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that these still bother me, though to a different degree and in a different way.

One common way that apologists handle the question of God’s just judgment is by emphasizing its passive nature. That is, they emphasize that in God’s judgments He is simply giving us over to our own desires. For example, C.S. Lewis says the following:

“There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

Is the passive description of God’s judgment biblical?

This idea of God’s passive judgment certainly seems to get God off the hook. He doesn’t so much “send” people to hell as He lets them go there. It’s hard to find fault with such a God. The question, then, is whether this conception of his judgment is biblical.

Let’s begin with Proverbs 26:27 as an example: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.” The person is digging a pit as an act of evil. They are setting a snare; a trap designed to bring harm. The irony is that the very way in which they intend to do harm comes back to harm them. God’s judgment here – this is not mere Karma – is indirect. We see something similar in Proverbs 29:6: “evildoers are snared by their own sin.”

Next, we can turn to Romans. In chapter 1 Paul declares “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of the people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18). But part of this wrath that is being displayed is God simply allowing sin to progress to its natural end: “Therefore, God gave them over in their sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (1:24). And then again, “God gave them over to shameful lusts” (1:25). In other words, God’s judgment in this case is primarily seen as him allowing sin to take its natural course – rejection of God which leads to disobedience which leads to a more corrupt self, and ultimately to death.

Aside from proof texts, this idea that judgment is God’s “giving over” of people to their rejection of him matches a systematic way of looking at the Bible: God is the source of life. Sin separates us from God. Therefore, sin separates us from the Source of life. The natural course of sin is death. Extrapolate that out eternally, and you have Hell: Eternal death as eternal separation from God.

I think, then, that this view of God’s judgment is a helpful way of looking at the “natural” consequences of sin. Sin, by its nature, is destructive. And, for the person who holds onto it, it is eternally­ self-destructive.

But, I think this view of judgment is also incomplete.

God’s active judgment

God’s judgment is also described in more active terms. God is seen not only as giving people or nations over to their rebellion, but as punishing those people and nations.

God judged Adam and Eve through the curse. He sent the flood. He sent plagues on Egypt. He directed Israel to take over the land of Canaan. He summoned the Babylonians and Assyrians as agents of his judgment against Israel. He is often described as a warrior, fighting against the wicked and the oppressors. These images cannot be viewed simply through the lens of “giving over.” I’m not sure fire coming down from heaven – a common description of God’s judgment (i.e., 2 Kings 1:14) is ever a “natural” result of sin.

The same thing is true when it comes to the words of judgment in the New Testament. A number of Jesus’ parables end in a description of judgment. Matthew 25:28-30 is illustrative: The master replies, “take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags… And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Or Jude says, referring to God’s active judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah as an example, “They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).

God’s judgment as active punishment against wrongdoers also matches a systematic way of reading the Bible: God is holy and just. Our sin is an offense to his holiness and justice. God is obligated by his justice to punish wrongdoing. Extrapolate this out eternally and you have hell.

So which way of looking at God’s judgment is correct? Should we view it as passive or active? Well, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. The Bible supports both. They are two sides to the same coin. The one shows us the self-destructive nature, the insanity, of sin. The other shows us that sin is worthy of just punishment.

So, what about the justice of God’s judgment?

The idea of God’s judgment as a “giving over” of humanity to its rebellion would answer my objection, but only if it were a comprehensive picture of God’s judgment. It’s not. The Christian still needs an answer for God’s active judgment.

It’s hard to find fault with God’s justice in general. It’s clear that justice includes punishment for wrongdoing. But what makes God’s judgment seem unfair to so many is that it doesn’t seem to be proportional to the crime. How could anybody really deserve the sort of torments described by Jesus?

I think we get hung up on this for two reasons. We downplay the holiness of God and we downplay the seriousness of sin. We forget that God is infinitely holy – so a sin against Him is of infinite offense – and we think of sin as a small matter – as a weakness or a mistake – when in reality it is a conscious rebellion against the One who gives us life and breath. I think that if I had a clearer understanding of those realities, I would be less scandalized by God’s judgment.

Trusting in the goodness and love of God

As I wrestled with these doctrines I continued to ask God for wisdom. He led me to some of the answers above, but the intellectual answers could only get me so far. I came to a place where I could understand it, but I was yet to the place where I could accept it. For that I needed to lean on God.

I came to the following conclusion: I do not understand (at a deeper level) the judgment of God. But I do understand (at the level of trust) that God is good and loving. He will not, in the end, do anything that violates perfect justice. I can trust Him that He will act justly, even if I cannot fully comprehend that justice. He is good and loving, He is patient and kind, He is gracious and merciful. I know that through the cross. And, because I can know those things through the cross, I can also trust that He will continue to act with justice, love, and mercy.