Although many of our apostate kinsmen in the West no longer have any decent knowledge of the Old Testament, almost all theologians (even the most liberal) would agree that God poured out terrestrial judgments throughout the Old Covenant. However, many today unfortunately adhere to the weak antinomian and semi-Marcionite heresy that the Law and Old Covenant are completely abolished with the coming of Christ. This includes the vast majority of adherents for both mainline Protestantism and evangelicalism. Many, particularly within evangelical or fundamentalist circles, will often confess that the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New, but the practical outworking of their theology involves worshiping an ever-changing God. One of the effects of this heresy is the refusal to acknowledge God’s judgments on earth upon individuals, families, and nations as such. In this part I would like to focus on the implications of the New Covenant and Christ’s incarnation for this doctrine concerning God’s terrestrial judgments.
The Fulfillment of the Law
Christ’s clear proclamation in Matthew 5:17-18 should be sufficient to silence all antinomian sentiments among those who claim to be His followers: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Paul reiterates this after the resurrection of Christ was complete (Rom. 3:31). The intrinsic moral order underlying the Law of God is eternal, as Jesus’s statement confirms. The moral Law is just as applicable under the New Covenant as under the Old.
Galatians 3:13 teaches that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, and Romans 5:12-19 teaches that Christ restores the imago Dei in those whom He redeems. However, the effects of this curse and its restoration are easily misunderstood. I still remember my disappointment when sitting in Bible class in the Christian high school I attended. I heard the teacher (a minister’s wife) explain that the curses of Deuteronomy 28 were no longer valid since Christ had freed us from the curse of the law. This is a completely wrong understanding both of the nature of Christ’s atonement and of the purpose of the Law. The regenerated Israelites were never under the curse of the Law, but were liberated (Ex. 20:2). The very fact that they could enjoy the blessings which accompany obedience to God’s Law is a testimony to this. Those suffering under the curse of the Law, in both the Old and New Covenants, are those at enmity with God. The differences between the covenants are in terms of administration, not in substance, as Paul explains in Gal. 3:1-11. While those under the Old Covenant were redeemed by Christ, they still had to look forward into the future, and the light of Christ’s redemption had not shined as bright to them as it does to us under the New Covenant. In explaining the meaning of Gal. 3:13, Paul says in verse 14 it was done “that the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ.” It is therefore clear that, when Paul says that we were under the curse of the Law, he was not referring to a prior covenant, but to a prior state of man’s heart, that is, before it was regenerated. Galatians should always be read in the context of Paul addressing the legalistic Judaism that threatened the Church, rather than the pure Old Testament faith.
Christ’s Announcement of Terrestrial Judgment
Jesus said that He came to the earth for judgment (John 9:39). Jesus famously cursed the fig tree in Mark 11:14 – an obvious allusion to the curse of the Jews, which they would later confirm upon themselves (Matt. 27:25). He would follow the curse by avenging the honor of His Father’s temple, casting out the salesmen and moneychangers (Mark 11:15). He also cursed the Pharisees several times (Matt. 12:34; 23:1-39; Mark 12:35-40; Luke 11:37-54; John 8:44). However, the best example of Jesus’s announcement of the coming of His pre-parousial judgment on earth is found in His famous prophetic discourse in Matt. 24:15-24, where He announced His vengeance on the Jews that He would execute later in that century.
The Early Church
It is widely known that the early church was marked by suffering. Stephen was the first known Christian martyr (Acts 7:57-60), and eleven of the twelve apostles died as martyrs for the faith. The pagan Roman historian Tacitus records Nero blaming and heavily persecuting the Christians for the destruction caused by a fire in Rome in 64 A.D.1 The period stretching from the second to the fourth centuries A.D. is often called “The Age of Martyrdom” because of all the martyrs who suffered for the faith during this time. Famous martyrs during this time include the saints Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Alban, and George, among others. It should be noted in this regard that there were also times of peace for the church, even during that age, and the martyrdom would come to an end under Constantine’s rule. The suffering of these holy men served the purpose of glorifying God and advancing His Kingdom by strengthening the heart of the church through their suffering. Hence the famous proverb, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” True to His promise in Psalm 30:5, God would also bring an end to this suffering, as He blessed Europe with the birth of Christendom in the fourth century.
Others who are often grouped with the true martyrs were really downright heretics, such as the Neo-Platonist Origen, whose death, although resulting from Decius’s persecution around 250,2 should be understood as the execution of God’s vengeance, the Roman authorities merely being the instrument of His hand. Apart from Origen, there are various examples in the early church where God intervened supernaturally and punished evil on earth. The destruction of Jerusalem has already been mentioned, but from the book of Acts we learn of two more examples of God executing His vengeance upon the wicked. Chapter 5:1-9 tells about God pouring out His wrath on Ananias and Sapphira for lying to Him. Verse 11 also makes it clear that these acts of God had a chastising purpose for His church. The second example is the striking down of Herod by one of God’s angels, since he did not give glory to God (Acts 12:23). Thus the Acts of the apostles give us examples of Christ’s vengeance upon the wicked and His chastisement upon the church.
The Witness of Providence Throughout World History
As Ehud Would previously stated: “The Christian doctrine of providence is the only true repository of meaning in the study of history.” Apart from His special revelation in Scripture, one of the means by which God reveals Himself to man is through His providence in the history of the world. By His providence we come to know His purposes with creation, as the flow of history is nothing but the manifestation of God’s perfect eternal plan. History itself bears witness that God raises up and tears down empires at His pleasure – the Macedonian, Roman, Sassanid, and Mongol empires all came to an end after having fulfilled their respective divine purposes. Some nations He raises up covenantally, tearing them down for apostasy as He did with Old Testament Israel. The British Eastern Orthodox writer, Vladimir Moss, beautifully explains how Constantinople’s fall at the hands of the Islamic Ottomans arose from the Byzantine failure to persevere on the path of righteousness. Likewise it is clear that the Ottomans in this case played a similar role as Assyria in the time of Isaiah.
The Reformation itself, and in particular all the bloodshed that accompanied it, served as a chastising wake-up call from God to the West, who had been increasingly falling away from the true faith since the time of Charlemagne and the great Christian armies, who, by the grace and blessing of God, drove the Arab Muslim invaders from their Christian lands in the eighth century. Just like in the early church, many of the sufferings of the martyrs during the time of the Reformation served to strengthen the church, who otherwise seemed to be inevitably heading to a dishonorable death. Just think of how names like John Huss, William Tyndale, and Jane Grey inspire many believers even today. The Reformation had a deep effect on both the Protestant nations of Northern Europe and the Roman Catholic nations of the south, even reforming the latter to an extent via the Counter-Reformation. This would not only ensure God’s blessings upon Europe’s people until the advent of the twentieth century, but would also directly contribute to the founding of great nations in North America and South Africa in the centuries following.
From both the canon of the New Testament and the witness of history, it is clear that the unchanging God, as He reveals Himself in James 1:17, deals with the world in the same way under the New Covenant, where the veil concerning God’s redemptive purpose of creation has been lifted in Christ, as He did under the Old Covenant. This is particularly encouraging for us as His children, since God has proven Himself time and time again to have remained true to His promises. In the final part of this series, I will look at some contemporary considerations for the West with regard to God’s execution of His terrestrial divine judgments, with the purpose of emphasizing our current need for repentance.
- Annals XV.44 ↩
- Eusebius and Pamphilus. Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine – Book VI:XXXIX. http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1819-1893,_Schaff._Philip,_3_Vol_01_Eusebius_Pamphilius,_EN.pdf ↩