On Preaching Judgment (Part 2)

The previous column in this space arose out of a concern for balance in our preaching and teaching of the Gospel, whether from the ambon of our churches, in Bible study groups, or at our children’s (and grandchildren’s) bedsides. In a stress-filled and often threatening world like ours, there is a temptation on the part of many of us to lay one-sided emphasis on God’s mercy, grace and love, while we overlook or consciously avoid the equally important element of God’s judgment.

If we grant the need to give full consideration to the many New Testament passages that speak of divine judgment, then we need to ask how that judgment should be preached or otherwise conveyed. One of the greatest imbalances in Christian preaching, and consequently in Christian experience, occurs when judgment is confused with condemnation or when the judgment proclaimed is our own rather than God’s.

Jesus repeatedly spoke of judgment and warned his hearers of its consequences. If Jesus chose the title Son of Man to indicate His identity and function, it was to present Himself as fulfillment of the apocalyptic figure of Daniel 7 and Ethiopic Enoch, one “like a son of man,” who would be sent by God, the Ancient of Days, to judge the earth in the endtime, vindicating the righteous and condemning the wicked. Repeatedly Jesus builds his parables around the theme of judgment, Matthew 25 being the most familiar. He has come into the world to judge the world (Jn 9:39), although later he can declare, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (Jn 12:47). His judgment has a single purpose: to call and lead to salvation all those who have ears to hear.

As Judge, Jesus never condemns. If goats are separated from sheep, if the unrighteous are cast into outer darkness, and if those who are angry at their brother are “liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22), in each case that judgment is self-inflicted. In other words, we bring judgment upon ourselves. The “wrath of God” St Paul warns us about (Rom 2-3) does not at all describe God’s attitude or emotional state, as though God were vindictive. He does not punish us with His righteous judgment, as though it were some weapon to be wielded against those who offend His dignity and authority. The wrath of God, as a seminary professor of mine once put it, means that God allows us “to stew in our own juice.” God respects our freedom to rebel against Him. His judgment consists in allowing us to suffer the consequences of that rebellion.

Judgment is indeed self-inflicted. God offers us life, and we choose death. He opens before us the way into the Kingdom of heaven, and we continue down our own pathway, which leads to destruction. Yet like the father of the prodigal son, God pursues us along that pathway, desiring only that we repent and return home. It is our decision to do so or not.

This means that judgment can only be preached in the light of the Cross, as an expression of divine mercy. St Paul expresses the ineffable paradox of God’s love fulfilled through the sacrificial death of His Son: “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Christ is our Judge; yet it is He who took upon Himself the consequences of our sin by submitting to crucifixion. The judgment we merit has fallen on Him, and He bears it for the sake of our life and our salvation.

Whenever the theme of judgment appears in Jesus’ parables or other teachings, it is always to summon people to repent, to return home. The motivation behind divine judgment, then, is neither vindictiveness nor self-righteousness. It is love. Jesus’ word of judgment is intended neither as a threat nor as condemnation. It is an appeal, a call, an invitation. As such, it is an integral part of the Gospel of love.

We are to preach and teach the message of divine judgment, then, not as an expression of God’s vindictive wrath, but as an expression of His saving love. Too often we pass judgment rather than proclaim it. Then the word of judgment degenerates into a word of condemnation. And more often than not, that condemnation expresses our own feelings, attitudes, anger and righteous indignation, rather than the true “wrath of God.”

By preaching judgment upon another, rather than to another, we run the risk of bringing condemnation upon ourselves. To proclaim the Gospel faithfully requires that we preach not only God’s love and mercy, but also God’s righteous wrath, which is “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness” (Rom 1:18). The crucial point is that we preach God’s wrath with love.

As paradoxical as that may seem, it becomes possible when we center our proclamation about a truth transmitted to us by James the Just, the brother of our Lord. “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy,” he warns; “yet mercy triumphs over judgment!” (Jas 2:13).