I must confess that I’m not entirely comfortable with the fact that our God is severely judgmental. On the one hand, I respect the need for judgment and punishment. I am sure that if we were to abolish our courts and jails, culture and society would fall headlong into chaos. Every society has required social controls or penalties to maintain order.
On the other hand, I’m often distressed by the idea that if God is truly omnipotent – and He is – He could have designed a world without the need for such severe and enduring penalties. My Savior has converted my heart. What prevents Him from converting the hearts of others who are blind and unrepentant?
As Christians, we pray that He would change their hearts and bring them to repentance and salvation. It is therefore doubly troubling to read the imprecatory Psalms in which the Psalmist calls upon God to thoroughly punish - and even damn - his enemies. Here’s a few of the many examples of imprecation:
· Declare them guilty, O God! Let their intrigues be their downfall. Banish them for their many sins, for they have rebelled against you. (Psalm 5:10)
· Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace. (Psalm 6:8-10)
· Arise, O Lord, let not man triumph; let the nations be judged in your presence. Strike them with terror, O Lord; let the nations know they are but men. (Psalm 9:19-20)
· Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out. (Psalm 10:15)
Are the imprecatory Psalms normative for us today? In other words, should we pray for God’s wrath to fall upon our enemies? Pastor JohnPiper offers a tentative “yes”:
- Suppose the Gestapo or some contemporary form of it is sweeping through your neighborhood and, in the most brutal way, wiping people out. Killing people. I think you would pray, "God, stop them! Do whatever you have to do to stop them!" Or, when they're in prison, "God, this was so wrong!" So I want to say that there may be a time when you're calling God's judgment on somebody.
However, Piper is more comfortable with simply not praying for the hardened sinner who has gone too far:
- I'm thinking of 1 John, where it says, "There is a sin that is unto death, I do not say that you should pray for that sin," meaning, "If you can discern in somebody that they have sinned in such a way that they are beyond repentance, don't pray for that sin. Don't pray for their forgiveness."
Others will insist that because we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, many of the harsher teachings of the Old Testament no longer apply. After all, we are no longer under the Law but under grace. We have been forgiven. Therefore, we must forgive our enemies and not pray for their destruction. Consequently, such imprecatory praying is sub-Gospel.
However, the God of the Old Testament is still the very God of the New, and He is still a God of judgment and condemnation. Interestingly, imprecation comes forth just as readily out of the mouth of Jesus as it did from the Old Testament Prophets:
- "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
- “Those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5:29)
Evidently, the Good News of the Kingdom does not preclude judgment. Although for us, grace and judgment might seem to be mutually exclusive, they seem to be inseparable mates within the Bible:
- If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot. (Hebrews 10:26-29)
If anything, it seems that with the extra revelation, there is extra punishment! Rather than mitigating punishment, it can be argued that grace actually heightens the levels of punishment. The more knowledge, the more culpability!
God is still the wrathful God who is zealous about righteousness and judgment. Even after the Cross, He still will not tolerate sin. Consequently, He ordained criminal justice to punish and restrain sin:
- The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…For he [the civil magistrate] is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)
Ironically, judgment and mercy go together. If we love our children, we punish them. Likewise, because God loves, He has instituted a system of justice to restrain and punish sin.
Consequently, we need both judgment and mercy. It is God’s wrath mediated through the justice system that enables us to love our enemies and to leave revenge to God and the system He has ordained. We need not seek revenge because this is God’s responsibility (Romans 12:14-21). Mercifully, this frees us up to love and forgive, even as we uphold the role of the justice system.
Consequently, if a Christian is assaulted or burglarized, I encourage them to forgive but also to press charges. The two not only go together; they are essential to each other. Without mercy, the law is disdained. With the law and justice, mercy is abused.
I think it is also important to realize that there isn’t a radical difference between the Old Testament and the New in regards to grace and mercy. The Old contains the same truths as the New. In fact, the New often quotes the Old in order to justify its stance. Take these verses for example:
- Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice. (Proverbs 24:17)
- If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. (Proverbs 25:21)
- Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)
In light of the continuing reality of God’s judgments and the fact that grace has not replaced justice, it is hard to argue that imprecation, the call for God’s justice, no longer applies.
Likewise, anger plays an important role in the life of the Christian. Anger can energize us to pursue justice and judgment if used righteously. Jesus displayed righteous anger (Mark 3:5) and so must we:
· "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. (Ephes. 4:26)
It is therefore possible to be angry without sinning, however difficult this might be. If judgment and justice are holy – and they are – there is nothing wrong with praying for what is holy. The angels even commend God for His punishments:
· Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say: "You are just in these judgments…because you have so judged; for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve." (Rev. 16:5-6)
It is good and righteous for God to judge. It is therefore good and righteous for His people to ask God to judge. The martyrs assembled before God implored Him to judge:
· When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev. 6:9-10)
Even those who had left the deceptions of this life found virtue in imprecation. However, I would suspect that these martyrs were praying, at the same time, that their assailants would come to repentance. Perhaps they understood that God might have to “avenge our blood” in order to accomplish this?
I must confess that even though I am not entirely comfortable praying for God’s wrath to fall upon others, I have prayed in this manner. But I also remind myself that as God’s mercy trumps His judgments, I too must be merciful before all else. Likewise, I can “not rejoice when [my] enemy falls”:
· Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:13)
As I write this, I can hear the taunt of the atheist:
· If your god is all-powerful, He wouldn’t have to resort to eternal torment.
I cannot answer this challenge to my complete satisfaction. Of course, I trust that whatever my Savior does, He does for good reasons. However, I think that the atheist has an unbiblical understanding of omnipotence. The fact that God can do all things – and there’s nothing too hard for Him – does not mean that He can do all things in any manner. He certainly can’t accomplish His goals by using sin. Also, He can’t or won’t go against His nature or promises.
Jesus had asked the Father to spare Him from the ordeal of the Cross if it were possible. Evidently, it wasn’t. God’s nature required that there be an adequate payment for sin. This could only be accomplished by Jesus’ crucifixion. Perhaps eternal punishment is another one of those requirements?
There is much that I do not understand. Abraham did not understand God’s directions for him to sacrifice His son Isaac. It was a trial of faith. However, Abraham had been following his God for almost 40 years. He therefore knew Him well enough to step forward into a darkness lit only by sheer faith. However, he had taken this step many times previously, and had learned that His God is faithful.