“You won’t catch me speaking about such things.” The statement came from a minister who had just heard me preach.
“What things?” I asked.
“Judgment, hell, wrath and the like” he said.
“Oh, so why is it that you will not speak of such things when the Bible clearly does?” I then asked.
I expected him to say something like, “well the Bible is a primitive book written in a primitive culture. People are more sophisticated in our day and need to hear a different kind of message – one that is affirming, and encouraging.” That's what I expected the minister to say. I expected him to ridicule me for believing and preaching the Bible in the 21st century, but this would be a wrong assumption on my part.
From his response to my question I could readily see that this man was in fact a Bible believing Christian… a Bible believing minister, no less. Here’s what he said:
“Well brother, Romans 2:4 says that it is the goodness of God that leads to repentance, so I believe if we want to see people repent, we have to preach on the goodness of God, not these other attributes.”
I was stunned! Completely stunned! The man was totally sincere, but I could hardly believe how the text he mentioned in Romans 2 could be so badly mistreated.
Just a brief scan over the passage in Romans 2 would reveal words like judgment, wrath and fury. Clearly Paul believed in and mentioned such concepts. Here’s the passage from the NASB:
Romans 2:1-8 Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. 2 And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. 3 But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness,
The text of course nowhere states “preaching on the goodness or kindness of God is what draws sinners to repentance,” but clearly this was how the minister interpreted this statement. I wonder if he thought Jesus would need to be corrected for many times speaking of such “negative” themes as hell and judgment as he addressed vast crowds. We in fact learn more about hell from the lips of Jesus than any other person in the pages of Scripture.
The more I thought about the words of this minister, the more I was troubled. A very poor interpretation of a verse, has led, I believe, to a very poor theology, and as a result, those who hear the man will receive a very poor diet of the Word of God. More than that, this obscuring of God has led to what Dr. R. C. Sproul describes as the Eclipse of God in our churches - the full replendent glory of God has been deliberately hidden from view by the traditions of men.
Clearly, the minister would see attributes such as love and mercy and grace as “good” but other attributes as something less than good. But again, this is to miss the entire point of what scripture says about God.
God is good. On this we can agree. But I would also say that everything about God is good… God is good in every one of His attributes. God is good in His Sovereignty, His holiness, His love, His justice, His mercy, His grace, and all His other attributes.
When I say God is good in His justice, I mean that God will make sure that justice takes place to punish every sin. Why is that good? It is good because justice is a good thing. It is good when criminals are brought to justice. It is a bad thing in fact when (at least in this life) the guilty man seemingly “gets away” with his crime.
Think of it this way: if a Judge in a murder trail hears that the jury has come to a unanimous decision in pronouncing the guilt of the accused, but then says to the man, “Look, I know you have been found guilty.. and the law says that I should sentence you to serve a minimum 20 year prison sentence, but I've got good news... today is my birthday.. I’m feeling in a very good mood.. so lets just say that you’ve learnt your lesson now (I’m sure this whole trial has not been an easy time for you), so just go and try not to do this kind of thing again. O.K., court dismissed!”
If such a thing were to take place, I don’t think the judge would keep his job. Why? Because the judge himself would be condemned for not dispensing justice. An injustice occurs when justice is not administrated.
Taking this illustration back to the theme of God’s attributes, when we talk of God being good, it certainly does include the idea that God is a good judge. God is good when it comes to dispensing justice. This of course is not so good for us, because if each of us receives justice, we will all end up in hell. That's what each of us as sinners deserve. We deserve for each of our sins to be punished to the full. We don't want or need justice, we need mercy! And that's what we find at the cross... our sins were laid on Christ (Isa. 53:4-6) and He received the full wrath and punishment of God which we deserved. God's justice was poured out on Him to the full; yet in great mercy, God imputes the very righteousness of Christ to all who believe in Him. It is an unblemished righteousness, without spot or wrinkle, which has perfectly fulfilled the law and pleased the Father. 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares, "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Christ the just, suffered for the unjust. He bore our sin and its full punishment. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53).
He took what we deserved, so we could receive what He deserved. He took the justice due to us, we receive the justice due to Him as One who pleased His Father at all times. What grace! What mercy toward us sinners!
My brief inter-change with this minister makes me wonder how often faulty interpretation leads to faulty theology, not merely in other's people's hearts and minds but my own. How often is it the case that I assume what a text means? We are all slaves to our traditions, and as my friend Dr. James White says so well, "those most enslaved to their traditions are those who don't believe they have any." All of us need to humble ourselves before God and treat His word with humility, allowing God to show us if our assumptions about the text can hold up to scrutiny.
I was able to share some of these thoughts with the minister, and I could see that he went away with much to think about… but sometimes I find, traditions are so deep and ingrained, that a good number of folk will not expose their traditions to the light of scripture. I don’t know if that is the case with this minister, but I know my own heart. I, all too often, assume what a verse means rather than taking the time to study to see if these things be so.
God in His goodness brings many to repentance. Whenever someone is brought to repentance, we can be sure that God’s goodness and kindness is the unseen cause behind it. Sinners do not come to Christ by their own power, but by the good and effectual call of God.
We can also be sure that God is good, all the time… and that means that all sins will be punished - either when they were laid on Christ and He was punished in behalf of all those who would ever believe on Him; or else the punishment will be meted out as wrath and fury is poured out on the sinner in hell. Either way, God remains just as well as the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).