Principles of God’s Judgment—Part 1 (Romans 2:1-5)

Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 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, (2:1–5)

After reading Paul’s severe condemnation of those who have abandoned God and plummeted into the gross sins mentioned in 1:29–31, one naturally wonders about how God deals with the more upright, moral, and religious person who has a sense of right and wrong, and leads an outwardly virtuous life.

Many such ethically upright people would heartily concur with Paul’s assessment of the flagrantly immoral people he has just described. They obviously deserve God’s judgment. Throughout history many pagan individuals and societies have held high standards of conduct. As E E Bruce points out, the Roman philosopher Seneca, a contemporary of Paul,

might have listened to Paul’s indictment and said, “Yes, that is perfectly true of great masses of mankind, and I concur in the judgment which you pass on them-but there are others, of course, like myself, who deplore these tendencies as much as you do.”

Paul imagines someone intervening in terms like these, and he addresses the supposed objector. … How apt this reply would have been to a man like Seneca! For Seneca could write so effectively on the good life that Christian writers of later days were prone to call him “our own Seneca.” Not only did he exalt the great moral virtues; he exposed hypocrisy, he preached the equality of all men, he acknowledged the pervasive character of evil, … he practiced and inculcated daily self-examination, he ridiculed vulgar idolatry, he assumed the role of a moral guide. But too often he tolerated in himself vices not so different from those which he condemned in others-the most flagrant instance being his connivance at Neto’s murder of his mother Agrippina. (Romans [London: Tyndale, 1967], pp. 86, 87)

Most Jews of Paul’s day believed in the idea that performing certain moral and religious works produced righteousness. Specifically, they could earn God’s special favor and therefore eternal life by keeping the Mosaic law and the traditions of the rabbis. Many even believed that if they failed in the works effort, they might forfeit some earthly reward but were still exempt from God’s judgment simply because they were Jews, God’s chosen people. They were firmly convinced that God would judge and condemn pagan Gentiles because of their idolatry and immorality but that no Jew would ever experience such condemnation. They loved to repeat such sayings as, “God loves Israel alone of all the nations,” and “God will judge the Gentiles with one measure and the Jews with another.” Some taught that Abraham sat outside the gates of hell in order to prevent even the most wicked Jew from entering.

In his Dialogue with Trypho, the second-century Christian Justin Martyr reports his Jewish opponent as saying, “They who are the seed of Abraham according to the flesh shall in any case, even if they be sinners and unbelieving and disobedient towards God, share in the eternal kingdom.”

Even the unregenerate have the basic knowledge of good and evil built into them and into society. Consequently, many people today recognize and seek to uphold the moral standards of Scripture and profess to be Christians. But also like Seneca, because they are not true believers in God, they lack the spiritual resources to maintain that divine morality in their lives and are unable to restrain their sinfulness. They trust in their baptism, in their church membership, in their being born into a Christian family, in the sacraments, in high ethical standards, in orthodox doctrine, or in any number of other outward ideas, relationships, or ceremonies for spiritual and even eternal safety.

But no one can understand or appropriate salvation apart from recognizing that he stands guilty and condemned before God, totally unable to bring himself up to God’s standard of righteousness. And no person is exempt. The outwardly moral person who is friendly and charitable but self-satisfied is, in fact, usually harder to reach with the gospel than the reprobate who has hit bottom, recognized his sin, and given up hope. Therefore, after showing the immoral pagan his lostness apart from Christ, Paul proceeds with great force and clarity to show the moralist that, before God, he is equally guilty and condemned.

In doing so, he presents six principles by which God judges sinful men: knowledge (v. 1), truth (vv. 2–3), guilt (vv. 4–5), deeds (vv. 6–10), impartiality (vv. 11–15), and motive (v. 16).

Knowledge

Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. (2:1)

Therefore refers to what Paul has just said in the last half of chapter 1, and specifically to the introductory statement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them, … so that they are without excuse” (vv. 18–20).

Addressing the new group of moral people, the apostle says, you also are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment. As becomes clear in verse 17, he was speaking primarily to Jews, who characteristically passed judgment on Gentiles, thinking them to be spiritually inferior and even beyond the interest of God’s mercy and care. But every man of you encompasses all moralists, including professing Christians, who think they are exempt from God’s judgment because they have not sunk into the pagan, immoral extremes Paul has just mentioned.

Paul’s initial argument is simple. In that you judge another, he points out, you condemn yourself, because you obviously have a criterion by which to judge, meaning that you know the truth about what is right and wrong before God. Even the Gentiles know the basic truth of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” through natural revelation (1:20). They also have a sense of right and wrong by conscience (2:15). The Jew, however, not only had both of those means of knowing God’s truth but also had the great advantage of having received His special revelation through Scripture (3:2; 9:4). Not only that, but almost all Jews of Paul’s day would have known something of Jesus Christ and of His teaching and claims even though they would not have believed He was the promised Messiah. Such knowledge would have made them still more inexcusable, in that their greater knowledge of God’s truth would have made them more accountable to it (see Heb. 10:26–29).

If relatively unenlightened pagans know basic truths about God and realize they deserve His punishment (1:19–20, 32), Paul was saying, how much more should Jews? The same principle applies to Christians, both nominal and true. Because they have greater knowledge of God’s truth they are more accountable to it and more inexcusable when they self-righteously judge others by it. James gave a special warning to those who aspire to be Christian teachers, reminding them that, because of their greater knowledge of God’s truth, they will be judged more strictly by Him (James 3:1). And the fact is, the moralists who condemn others’ sins are filled with their own iniquities which demand judgment by the same standard.

But it was not simply that those who are judgmental are wrong in assessing the moral standing of others but that they also are wrong in assessing their own moral standing. You who judge practice the same things, Paul insists. The self-righteous make two grave errors: they underestimate the height of God’s standard of righteousness, which encompasses the inner as well as the outer life (the theme of the Sermon on the Mount), and they underestimate the depth of their own sin. It is a universal temptation to exaggerate the faults of others while minimizing one’s own, to notice a small speck in someone’s eye but not the log in one’s own eye (see Matt. 7:1–3).

Many self-sanctified, blind Jews who read these words of Paul would immediately have concluded that what he said did not apply to them. Like the rich young ruler (Luke 18:21), they were convinced they had done a satisfactory job of keeping God’s commandments (cf. also Matt. 15:1–3). It was that self-righteous spirit that Jesus repeatedly undermined in the Sermon on the Mount. After declaring, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” He charged that the person who is angry at or insults his brother is as surely worthy of punishment as the murderer and that the person who lusts is guilty of adultery or fornication just as surely as the person who physically commits those immoral acts (Matt. 5:20–22, 27–28). Many Jewish men tried to legalize their adultery by formally divorcing their wives and then marrying the woman they preferred. Because divorce had become easy and commonplace, some men repeatedly divorced and remarried. But Jesus warned: “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (v. 32). If one has enough knowledge to judge others, he is thus self-condemned, for he has enough to judge his own true condition.

Truth

And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? (2:2–3)

Know translates oida, which carries the idea of awareness of that which is commonly known and obvious. As Paul has already pointed out, even the pagan Gentiles acknowledge that “those who practice such things [the sins listed in 1:29–31] are worthy of death” (v. 32). Surely then, the more spiritually enlightened Jews know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.

Everything God does is, by nature, right and according to the truth. Paul declares, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar,” (Rom. 3:4), and, “There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (9:14). God is not capable of doing that which is not right or saying that which is not true. David declared that the Lord “dost sit on the throne judging righteously. … He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgment for the peoples with equity” (Ps. 9:4, 8). Another psalmist exulted that God “will judge the world in righteousness, and the people in His faithfulness” (Ps. 96:13; cf. 145:17; cf. also Isa. 45:19). There is always distortion in human perception, but never any in God’s.

Men are so used to God’s blessings and mercy that they take them for granted, not realizing that they receive those things purely because of God’s longsuffering and grace. God would be perfectly just to blot out any person or all persons. But human nature trades on God’s grace, believing that everything will work out all right in the end because God is too good and merciful to send anyone to hell. As someone astutely observed, “There is some kind of a still little voice in everybody that constantly convinces them that in the end it’s going to be O.K. .” That little voice speaks from a person’s fallen nature, which constantly seeks to justify itself.

Paul sternly warns against such false confidence. Although he was conscious of no specific unconfessed sin in his life, even he knew better than to rely on his imperfect human judgment, declaring, “I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:3–4). He knew that every person’s discernment is hopelessly distorted and cannot make a proper evaluation even of his own spiritual health, much less that of someone else. “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time ,” the apostle goes on to say, “but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (v. 5).

Man’s judgment never squares completely with the truth, because he never knows the complete truth. When the proud moralist judges and condemns others, while thinking he himself is acceptable to God, it is only because he is judging by his own perverted perspective, which fallen human nature always skews to its own advantage. But God’s perspective and judgment are always perfect. The writer of Hebrews therefore warns, “There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). Every sin that every individual has ever committed flashes on a life-sized screen before God, as it were, with no detail missing from His view.

The secret hope of the hypocrite is that God will somehow judge him by a standard lower than perfect truth and righteousness. He knows enough to recognize the wickedness of his heart, but he hopes vainly that God will judge him in the same superficial way that most others judge him and that he judges himself. He plays a kind of religious charade, wanting to be judged by his appearance rather than by his true character. And because most men accept him for what he pretends to be, as most hypocrites he assumes God will do the same. But as God cautioned Samuel, “Do not look at his [Eliab’s] appearance or at the height of his stature, … for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Logizomai (suppose) carries the idea of calculating or estimating. (It is related to the English term logic.). The moralist falsely calculates his own sinfulness and guilt.

Donald Grey Barnhouse gives a contemporary and forceful paraphrase of this verse: “You dummy-do you really figure that you have doped out an angle that will let you go up against God and get away with it? You don’t have a ghost of a chance.” Dr. Barnhouse continues by commenting, “There is no escape. Do you understand? No escape-ever. And this means you-the respectable person, sitting in judgment upon another fellow creature, and remaining unrepentant yourself” (Expositions of Bible Doctrines, vol. 2, God’s Wrath [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], p. 18).

The hypocritical, self-righteous man who passes judgment upon those who practice the sinful things that he himself practices brings greater judgment on himself. God not only judges him for those evil practices but also for his hypocrisy in the self-righteous judgment of others. Such people “are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). “You are foolish and self-deceived,” Paul says, “if you think that you will escape the judgment of God.”

If a man cannot escape his own judgment, how can he escape divine judgment? If we are forced to condemn ourselves, how much more will the infinitely Holy God condemn us?

Comparing the ancient Israelites (who heard God speak through Moses from Mount Sinai) to those who hear the gospel of Christ (which comes from heaven), the writer of Hebrews declares:

See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” And this expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:25–29)

Because the Israelites refused to listen to God when He spoke to them on earth in regard to His law, that generation perished in the wilderness. How much more accountable, then, will those be who disregard the infinitely greater message of the gospel? “If the word spoken through angels,” that is, the Mosaic law (see Acts 7:53), “proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation” as that offered by God’s own Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:2–3)?

The only way any person, no matter how outwardly moral and religious, can escape God’s judgment is to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, receiving in faith the provision He made on the cross by His paying the penalty all deserve.

It has been told that nomadic tribes roamed ancient Russia much as American Indians once roamed North America. The tribe that controlled the choicest hunting grounds and natural resources was led by an exceptionally strong and wise chief. He ruled not only because of his superior physical strength but because of his utter fairness and impartiality. When a rash of thefts broke out, he proclaimed that if the thief were caught he would be punished by ten lashes from the tribal whip master. As the thefts continued, he progressively raised the number of lashes to forty, a punishment that everyone knew he was the only one strong enough to endure. To their horror, the thief turned out to be the chief’s aged mother, and speculation immediately began as to whether or not he would actually sentence her to the announced punishment. Would he satisfy his love by excusing her or would he satisfy his law by sentencing her to what would surely be her death? True to his integrity, the chief sentenced his mother to the forty lashes. But true also to his love for his mother, just before the whip came down on her back he surrounded her frail body with his own, taking upon himself the penalty he had prescribed for her.

In an infinitely greater way, Christ took the penalty of all men’s sin upon Himself.

Guilt

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 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, (2:4–5)

Here the Holy Spirit, through Paul, affirms that God judges on the basis of a person’s true guilt, guilt that is common to every human being, including those, such as ancient Jews, who considered themselves exempt because of their high moral standing, their religious affiliation, or any other external reason.

The apostle first warns his readers not to think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience. The famous commentator Matthew Henry wrote, “There is in every willful sin a contempt for the goodness of God.” Every intentional sin takes lightly and presumes upon God’s kindness and forbearance and patience.

Think lightly of translates kataphroneō, which literally means “to think down on” something or someone and to underestimate the true value. It therefore often had the connotation of disregarding or even despising.

Through the prophet Hosea, God proclaimed His great love for His people, saying, “When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. … I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in My arms; … I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love, and I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; and I bent down and fed them” (Hos. 11:1, 3–4). But “My people are bent on turning from Me,” the Lord lamented. “Though they call them to the One on high, none at all exalts Him” (v. 7). It seemed that the more gracious God was to Israel, the more she presumed upon or spurned His grace.

Without exception, every person who has ever lived has experienced the kindness and forbearance and patience of God. Every breath a person takes and every bite of food he cats is by the kind provision of God. God is the only source of goodness, and therefore everything good and worthwhile a person has is from the gracious hand of God.

God’s own kindness is reflected in His children and is one among the fruit of the Spirit that believers are to manifest (Gal. 5:22). Forbearance comes from anochē, which means “to hold back,” as of judgment. It was sometimes used to designate a truce, which involves cessation of hostilities between warring parties. God’s forbearance with mankind is a kind of temporary divine truce He has graciously proclaimed. Patience translates makrothumia, which was sometimes used of a powerful ruler who voluntarily withheld vengeance on an enemy or punishment of a criminal.

Until the inevitable moment of judgment, God’s kindness and forbearance and patience are extended to all mankind, because He does not wish “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Kindness refers to the benefits God gives, forbearance refers to the judgment He withholds, and patience to the duration of both. For long periods of time the Lord is kind and forbearing. That is God’s common grace or providence that He bestows on all of fallen mankind.

The psalmists rejoiced that “the earth is full of the loving-kindness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5), that “the loving-kindness of God endures all day long” (52:1), that He gives “His wonders to the sons of men” (107:8), that the Lord is “good and doest good” (119:68), and that “the Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (145:9).

Strangely, most people do not perceive of God as being totally good. Instead of recognizing His gracious provision, patience, and His mercy, they accuse Him of being insensitive and unloving for letting certain things happen. “How could God allow that little child to die?” they ask, or, “Why does God allow that good person to suffer pain and poor health and permit a scoundrel to enjoy health and wealth?” Such people judge God from an incomplete and distorted human perspective, failing to acknowledge that, if it were not for God’s gracious goodness and patience, no human being would be alive. It is only His grace that allows any person to take another breath (Job 12:10).

Before God destroyed the world in the Flood, He waited 120 years for men to repent while Noah was building the ark and calling them to repentance through his preaching of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5). Despite His many warnings and Israel’s continued rebellion, the Lord waited some 800 years before sending His people into captivity.

Rather than asking why God allows bad things to happen to seemingly good people, we should ask why He allows seemingly good things to happen to obviously bad people. We could ask why He does not strike down many other people for their sins, including Christians, as He did with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–10). We should wonder why does God not cause the earth to swallow up apostate Christendom as He did with the rebellious Korah and his followers (Num. 16:25–32)? The reason is that God “endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, … in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9:22–23).

The purpose of the kindness of God is not to excuse men of their sin but to convict them of it and lead them to repentance. Metanoia (repentance) has the basic meaning of changing one’s mind about something. In the moral and spiritual realm it refers to changing one’s mind about sin, from loving it to renouncing it and turning to God for forgiveness (1 Thess. 1:9).

The person who, because of stubbornness and an unrepentant heart, presumes on God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience, is simply storing up wrath for himself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.

Stubbornness translates sklērotēs, which literally refers to hardness and is the word from which we get the medical term sclerosis. Arteriosclerosis refers to hardening of the arteries. Such physical hardening is an ideal picture of the spiritual condition of hearts that have become unresponsive and insensitive to God. But the spiritual condition is immeasurably worse than the physical. Hardening of the arteries may take a person to the grave, but hardening of his spiritual heart will take him to hell.

Scripture is replete with warnings about spiritual hardness, an affliction which ancient Israel suffered almost continually. Through Ezekiel, God promised His people that one day “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26). Jesus reminded His Jewish hearers that “because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8). When the self-righteous, legalistic Jewish leaders were waiting for Jesus to heal on the Sabbath and thereby give them an excuse to accuse Him of breaking the law, He looked “around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5; cf. 6:52; 8:17; John 12:40). In each instance quoting the Old Testament, the writer of Hebrews three times warns against hardening one’s heart to God (Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:7).

To stubbornly and unrepentantly refuse God’s gracious pardon of sin through Jesus Christ is the worst sin of all. To do so is to greatly magnify one’s guilt by rejecting God’s goodness, presuming on His kindness, abusing His mercy, ignoring His grace, and spurning His love. The person who does that increases the severity of God’s wrath upon him in the day of God’s judgment. When God’s goodness is persistently taken lightly, the result is certain and proportionate judgment.

The day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God doubtless refers to the great white throne judgment, at which the wicked of all times and from all places will be cast into the lake of fire, where they will join Satan and all his other evil followers (Rev. 20:10–15).

The German philosopher Heine presumptuously declared, “God will forgive; after all it’s His trade.” Many people share that presumption, although they might not state it so bluntly. They take everything good from God that they can and continue sinning, thinking He is obliged to overlook their sin.

Modern man looks askance at the Old Testament, finding it impossible from his purely human perspective to explain the seemingly brutal and capricious acts on the part of God that are recorded there. Commenting on the release of the New English Bible some years ago, Lord Platt wrote to the London Times (March 3, 1970): “Perhaps, now that it is written in a language all can understand, the Old Testament will be seen for what it is, an obscene chronicle of man’s cruelty to man, or worse perhaps, his cruelty to woman, and of man’s selfishness and cupidity, backed up by his appeal to his god; a horror story if ever there was one. It is to be hoped that it will at last be proscribed as totally inappropriate to the ethical instruction of school-children.”

Superficial study of the Old Testament seems to confirm that sentiment. Why, many people ask, did God destroy the whole world through the Flood, except for eight people? Why did God turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt simply because she turned back to look at Sodom? Why did He command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Why did He harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish him for his hardness by slaying all the male children in Egypt? Why did God in the Mosaic law prescribe the death penalty for some thirty-five different offenses? Why did He command His chosen people to completely eradicate the inhabitants of Canaan? Why did God send a bear to kill forty children for mocking the prophet Elisha? Why did He instantly slay Uzzah for trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling to the ground, while at the same time allowing many grossly immoral and idolatrous Israelites to live? Why did God send fire to devour Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, for making an improper sacrifice while allowing many other ungodly priests to live to old age? Why did He not take David’s life for committing murder and adultery, both of which were capital offenses under the law?

We wonder about such things only if we compare His justice with His mercy rather than with His law. The Old Testament must be understood from the perspective of the creation. God declared to Adam, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16–17). From the beginning, therefore, all sin was a capital offense.

God sovereignly created man in His own image. He made man to glorify Himself and to radiate His image and manifest His character. When man rebelled by trusting Satan’s word above God’s, God had every right to take life back from man. Man is God’s creature. He did not create himself and he cannot preserve himself. Everything he has is by God’s gracious provision.

Although by justice they deserved to die for eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve instead experienced God’s mercy. And at that moment the plan of salvation was activated, because it became necessary for someone to bear the death penalty that Adam and Eve deserved and every subsequent sinner has deserved. In light of that provision it becomes clear that demanding the death penalty for only about thirty-five transgressions, as in the Mosaic law, was not cruel and unusual punishment but an amazing reduction in the severity of God’s judgment.

Compared to the original created standard, the Old Testament is full of God’s patience and mercy, with Gentiles as well as with His chosen people, Israel. Even in the case of the specified capital offenses, God frequently did not demand their enforcement. When adultery became commonplace in Israel, instead of demanding that every adulterer be put to death, God permitted divorce as a gracious alternative (Deut. 24:1–4). And even a cursory reading of the Old Testament clearly reveals that God graciously spared many more sinners than He executed (people like David). Periodically, God did dramatically take someone’s life to remind men of what all sinners deserve. Such incidents seem capricious because they were not clearly related to certain sins or degrees of sinning, but showed, by example, what all sins and degrees of sinning deserve.

Even under the Old Covenant, God’s people became so accustomed to God’s grace that they came to take it for granted. They became so accustomed to not being punished in the way they deserved that they came to think they were above being punished at all. In much the same way, Christians sometimes become offended when God is not as beneficent as they think He should be and are scandalized at the idea of His actually punishing them for their sin.

If God did not occasionally exercise deserved judgment instead of undeserved mercy, it is hard to imagine how much more we would trade on His goodness and abuse His grace. If He did not give periodic reminders of the consequences of sin, we would go on blissfully presuming on His grace. Paul soberly reminded the Corinthian believers,

For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were hid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction. (1 Cor. 10:1–11)

Every day we live we should thank the Lord for being so patient and merciful with us, overlooking the many sins for which, even as His children, we deserve His just punishment. The crucial question is not “Why do certain people suffer or die?,” but “Why does anyone live?”

When some Jews asked Jesus “about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” He replied, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1–5).

Obviously those who questioned Jesus thought that the worshipers who were slaughtered by Pilate and the men who were killed in the tower accident were exceptionally wicked sinners and were being punished by God. Jesus plainly contradicted their presupposition, however, telling them that those unfortunate victims were no more sinful than other Jews. More than that, He warned His questioners that all of them were guilty of death and would indeed ultimately suffer that punishment if they did not repent and turn to God.[1]

 


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 111–123). Chicago: Moody Press.

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