Christians are often criticized for being judgmental and condemning—wrathful religious fanatics, social brutes not to be taken seriously in a progressive and tolerant society. While we sometimes deserve this characterization, it has led some Christians to overcompensate, sending a message to the world that a loving God—Jesus—is not capable of judgement and wrath.
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” Jesus said (Matt. 7:1). By who? By God of course. The point is that when we as Christians judge others, we are assuming the role of God—a rather haughty approach to relating with the world considering the reality of our sinful nature without God’s forgiveness in Christ. We forget: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge,” says the apostle James (4:12), “the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”
There are generally two groups of Christians who will respond to the above:
The first group, let’s call them “preachers,” will argue that Christians aren’t allowed to judge others (i.e. condemn people to hell), but we are still allowed—even called—to point out people’s sins and call them to repentance. Some even gain much pleasure from having the “authority” to preach this message of guilt and repentance. In as much as I agree with this approach from a (very) basic doctrinal perspective, I’m not sure if it’s the best way to engage people outside the Church.
As the adage goes, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” that will determine whether you win or lose people at the end of the day.
Taking the tone of compassion, understanding, gracious listening, patience and heart-felt care for others, regardless of their sins, shortcomings and “sub-par” lifestyles, should be our baseline approach to how we relate to other human beings. We are to emulate Jesus in our encounters with others. And in the words of the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Where Jesus is, there is God’s love.”
This leads to the response of the second group. This group, let’s call them “lovers,” are in full agreement with this emphasis on love—emulating Jesus means we refrain from casting stones or dismissing people outright because of their militant atheism or immoral lifestyles, for instance. It’s an opportune time to be part of the progressive “anti-judgement movement,” especially when orthodox Christian positions on certain issues in western culture (abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) are seen as hateful intolerance. Yes, the Church could certainly do away with some forms of Christian judgement. But not at the expense of ignoring the very real and necessary reality that Jesus will come back as Judge.
These “lovers,” although they mean well, forget that God’s judgment stems from His love and desire to set the world right. A very cruel, evil and unjust world I might add. A world where passenger planes are being shot out of the sky without consequence, young children sold into sex slavery for profit, and where ruthless dictators drop barrel bombs—packed with nails and shrapnel—on their own people without blinking an eye. We live in a world where ISIS terrorists rape and kill women and children, gun down and blow up innocent people, and behead and crucify helpless victims—all in the name of their god. Yes, God’s first response to those who are responsible for such heinous crimes and lesser sins is to offer love and forgiveness through the costly death and precious blood of His Son on the cross. But when God’s unfathomable and costly grace is rejected, judgement is sure to come. Right?
God’s Word is clear
Jesus has been appointed by the Father as “Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Every person who has ever existed “must appear before the judgement seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Jesus has been given authority by the Father to “execute judgement, because He is the Son of Man” (John 5: 27). When Jesus returns, “He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30). We can be sure that Christ will come back to set the world right.
This is the gospel truth: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (John 3:36).
I’m amazed how many Christians are uncomfortable with this verse. The problem, I think, is with our theology of God. We forget that God, who is certainly defined by love, uses judgement to set both the world and His people right. God used wrath to correct Israel countless times in the Old Testament because they had wandered from His loving ways. The apostle Peter believed that God’s judgement was beneficial to the Church, leading to the refinement and purification of His people. A loving Father disciplines His children (Heb. 12:6). A loving God counters evil with judgement, a loving God judges those who reject His grace.
Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, thought about it this way: God holds love in His right hand, and judgement in His left. But He is right handed.
Yes love, Luther maintained, is God’s “proper work,” that which flows most naturally (and comfortably) from His core being in relation to humanity. But sometimes, and when necessary—when the world needs to be set right—God switches hands and uses judgement and wrath to bring justice into the world. But wrath is not God’s proper work. Rather, Luther contends that wrath is God’s “alien work”— wrath is alien to God’s core nature.
So God doesn’t use judgement lightly, nor does He find pleasure or comfort in punishing human beings for their sins and evil ways. Rather, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
A loving God without judgement is a divine enabler of evil and sin. A wrathful God without love is a heartless divine dictator. Neither represents Jesus. Rather, Jesus is Saviour and Judge. He came first as loving Saviour, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He will return as Judge, full of justice and righteousness, because a loving God desires to set the world right (Acts 17:30, Rev. 19:11).
The world needs a judge. Jesus is that Judge.
This article originally appeared on ChristianWeek.org, October 16, 2015.