Many years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr warned against proclaiming, “a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
His words have a sad prophetic feel to them as I look at the landscape not merely of mainline protestant denominations, but of popular evangelicalism.
The subtlety of how this often begins is captured in the following advice.
“We shall do well to play down the picture of God or Christ as Judge. A range of alternative models, the healer, the therapist, the patient lover, the counselor, all seem more appropriate for bringing out the primary interest of divine judgment, namely, the restoration of the creature to integrity and the winning of his love, despite what he has done or made of himself in the past” (B. Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 215).
I suspect that this counsel would be heard by many (even among evangelical leaders) as wise. But it’s actually very dangerous in that it risks a therapeutic gospel where a Savior from sin might feel unnecessary — or at least not the most pressing concern.
Ultimately, we must see that this kind of counsel mocks God by proposing man-centered philosophy in the place of the word of God, the cross of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Those who faithfully proclaim a God of righteous judgment will increasingly find themselves on the outside if this counsel prevails.
God’s servants in Old Testament times faced similar challenges:
- II Chronicles 36:16 – “But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.”
- Ezekiel 8:17-18 – “Have you seen this, son of man?” he asked. “Is it nothing to the people of Judah that they commit these detestable sins, leading the whole nation into violence, thumbing their noses at me, and provoking my anger? Therefore, I will respond in fury. I will neither pity nor spare them. And though they cry for mercy, I will not listen.”
Let us heed the warning, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
Let us also remind ourselves of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as taught by Jesus himself, “…when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” (John 16:8-9).
The apostle Paul closed his message to the philosophers of Athens declaring that, “God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
Salvation occurs in connection with a series of experiences that trace to judgment and guilt. Four sequential elements are involved – conviction, contrition, confession and conversion.