The righteousness of God demands that He judge sinners. This is a fundamental principle of Christian theology. All sin must necessarily be punished, for it is committed against the King of the universe (Ex. 14:18; 20:7; 34:7; Job 10:14; Rom. 5:12). Many postmodernists falsely claiming to be Christians would deny sin and the just punishment thereof by a just God,1 but this has never been in question among the true faithful. The doctrine of God’s just punishment of sinners is explained by the Westminster Confession, VI.VI: “Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.” It is only because of this just punishment of sin that mankind is in need of Christ for redemption through His atoning sacrifice on the cross (Romans 5).
As the forces of darkness are constantly waging war with the true Church, they will not rest until heresy has contaminated the Church of Christ and transformed her into a synagogue of Satan. Ironically, some of the most effective instruments within this army of Satan are prominent figures within the Church visible itself. This is why Scripture speaks out so clearly against these men infiltrating the Church (Matt. 7:15; II Peter 2:1; James 3:1; etc.). By attacking God’s righteousness as described in the Westminster Confession, these false teachers attempt to destroy the very foundations of our religion. Many apostates deny the existence of hell altogether, but even among professing Christians under the influence of heresy, there is a denial of God’s omnipotent freedom to punish sin here on earth prior to the final judgment of Christ (also known as the Parousia, from the Greek παρουσία). They hold that God reserves all punishment of sin until King Christ’s return, damning sinners in the eternal fires of hell, so they deny the reality of God’s terrestrial punishments (and blessings) in this life, manifested upon all those spheres of existence in which man is related to Him: individual, family, nation, race, and so on. To reveal the ludicrousness of this position and its arguments is the purpose of this series. I will commence by establishing the theological foundations upon which this doctrine rests.
The Love and Righteousness of God
God is love (I John 4:8). God loves His creation (John 3:16). He reveals this love by not having forsaken it at the time of its creation, but continuing to sustain it by His loving providence (Psalm 115:3; Eph. 1:11), which is all-encompassing (Daniel 4:35; Matt. 10:29). Therefore, the Heidelberg Catechism can on its twenty-seventh question describe God’s 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 the same thing 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.2 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 the reprobate (Prov. 6:16-19; Rom. 9:13). Because sin distorts the perfect harmony that exists between God and creation, God’s righteousness demands that it be punished (Deut. 32:4; Ezra 9:15; Neh. 9:33; Psalm 119:75; 129:4; Dan. 9:14; John 5:30; Rev. 16:5-7). God loves us and therefore restores His image in us through Christ (Romans 5), so that we can reflect Him and His purpose for mankind can be accomplished through His Church.
Original Sin and Total Depravity
The denial of the existence of earthly judgments is most prominently at odds with the gospel of Christ as an implicit denial of the doctrine of Total Depravity. Consider the relation between Total Depravity and Adam’s fall, which is recorded in Genesis 3. God promised that Adam and Eve would face death if they disobeyed Him (v. 3), and when they did (v. 6), all of creation was cursed because of the effects of sin (vv. 14-19). It is therefore clear that our very existence in the fallen state as “not able not to sin” (non posse non peccare) is itself a punishment from God upon sin. No hardships or suffering existed in creation prior to the fall; neither can they at all be viewed independently from sin. If all sin ceased, so would all pain and suffering, and man would be in complete harmonious relationship with His God (Rev. 21:4).
Nonetheless, this statement also needs some qualification in light of the confusion created by heresies. The infamous Health, Wealth, and Prosperity heresy, as popularized by such Word of Faith teachers as Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, and others,3 is radically different from what I suggest here. 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 the carnal man, not Christ, but exactly what he wants in his depraved state to satiate his appetites. The Bible teaches, however, that regenerated Christians, by virtue of their part in God’s Kingdom, should expect only Kingdom prosperity in our obedient walk under God’s law. God’s Kingdom will always continue to prosper as God works all things according to His pleasure (Eph. 1:11), and Christians, as subjects in Christ’s Kingdom, share in that prosperity (Ps. 35:27; Rom. 8:28; Phil. 4:19; I Tim. 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 (Deut. 8:18; 28:1; Josh. 1:8; Prov. 3:6; John 15:6). This is why the apostle Paul, in the midst of persecution and suffering, could write to the Church that we are “more than conquerors” (Rom. 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.”4 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; Prov. 30:8).
Secondly, the prosperity gospel errs when teaching that suffering is always a direct result of a specific sin in a person’s life, such that 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 fulfill 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 (Rom. 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, David, and the blind whom Jesus cured are 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 is as judgment upon wickedness for the sake of chastisement, along with God’s pre-parousial judgment upon reprobate individuals, families, and nations.
The Foundation in God’s Law
After God gives Moses His perfect law in Deuteronomy 5, various additional precepts are added throughout the book which serve to explain and elaborate upon 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 people’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 eternal validity of the 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 within God’s Kingdom there is only blessings and outside it only curses, God remains free to execute this curse-and-blessing paradigm according to His free purpose. In the next parts of this series, we will see various examples of this throughout scriptural redemptive history.
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 (whether pre-parousial or in eternal hell) purely for the sake of satisfying His 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 (Ps. 5:5-10; Prov. 16:4; Rom. 9:22). However, God remains free to execute these judgments how and when it pleases Him. 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 (Rom. 8:2).
However, a major misconception exists among many Christians today that God, due to 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 transforming John 14:6 into a temporal truth. Orthodox Christianity 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 (Is. 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 (Prov. 3:12). Various texts in the Old Testament point to God’s dealing with His children in this way. The Westminster Confession of Faith agrees:
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. (V.V)
The Heidelberg Catechism also articulates 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” (Ps. 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 the upcoming parts of this series, we will delve deeper into the nature of these judgments of God, focusing on His providential acts in both covenants.