Welcome to Grace and Judgment

Calvin Coolidge had to go to church one day alone, because his wife was ill. When he returned, she asked him how church was. “Fine,” he said.

“Well, how was the sermon?” “Good.”

“What was it about?” “Sin.”

“Calvin, tell me what he said about it.” (Awkward pause.) “He’s against it.”

So should we all be. But how often do preachers talk about sin nowadays? Not often enough. My pastor proclaims that he’s against it, but I have heard many other preachers over the years with little acknowledgment that sin even matters. Time was when I heard and read lots of lessons about healing or prosperity. Now it seems lots of very prominent teachers concentrate on self-esteem and controlling one’s thoughts. There is nothing wrong with any of these themes. With the possible exception of self-esteem, Scripture has a lot to say about all of them. Unfortunately it is too easy to hear these topics in terms of what our faith in God can do for us and not to hear whatever the teacher has to say about God expects our faith to do for him–and sometimes that is not much at all.

I would certainly not advocate going back to a time when evangelical preachers assumed that most members of their congregations were going to hell and kept urging them to get saved, but without careful attention to the reality and enormity of sin, that may be the reality in our society more than ever before. The fact is that God will not tolerate sin. He intends to destroy it and destroy its effects. He gives us a stark choice: we can have our sin or we can have fellowship with him, but not both. He extends grace to give us a means of choosing him instead of sin, which is hardwired into every single one of us. By grace, Jesus paid the price for our sin, and therefore God can judge our sin without destroying us in the process.

The Old Testament prophets found the balance between grace and judgment. Micah, for example, pronounced judgment against the capitals of both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in the first two chapters (judgment), but then 2:12-13 promise deliverance (grace). The third chapter rebukes the leaders and false prophets, ending with the promise that Jerusalem will become a trash heap (judgment), but the fourth chapter promises that all nations will stream to God’s temple in the last days so they could live in righteousness under his rule (grace). The fifth chapter promises a ruler from Bethlehem (grace), destruction of Israel by Assyria (judgment), and ultimate deliverance (grace). The sixth and seventh chapters lay out God’s case against Israel and promise misery (judgment), but further promise that Israel will rise, forgiven, and that all nations will turn to God (grace). All the rest of the Old Testament likewise juxtaposes punishment for sin and deliverance from punishment by a loving God who seeks to restore his creation to himself.

In Matthew 23-25 , Jesus pronounces seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees, warns the disciples that persecution will rise against them, and tells the parables of the Ten Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and Goats. He promises weeping and gnashing of teeth for anyone who is not prepared for his return–severe judgment indeed, but those who are prepared will be welcomed into glory.

People who are ignorant of Scripture often say that Jesus preached a simple gospel explaining how to live a life acceptable to God, but then that nasty Paul came along and introduced a bunch of rules and scared everyone with hell. Paul never in his life preached anything as scary as those three chapters in Matthew, although there is plenty more of the same in other gospel passages. Paul preached on how people can only be justified by grace through faith, not by keeping a bunch of rules. He so strongly insisted that being right with God could only come by grace that he had to mount a vigorous defense against the charge that he condoned sin so that grace could abound (Romans 6).

I have transferred all the devotionals from TheAll-Purpose Guru to this blog. At the end of each, I have added the original publication date. They started out as meditations at Vespers services, before I had any thought of blogging, and certainly before I decided on a name for this blog. But read them. I think the theme of grace and judgment can be found in all of them.

Please comment. Blogs seem to be much more successful as a dialogue than as one person’s thoughts.

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