Sinners in the Hands of a Good God: Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy

Sinners in the Hands of a Good God: Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy

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by David B. Clotfelter

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Are heaven and hell real? How does God’s election correspond to our freedom? Why did Jesus have to die? Why doesn’t God save everybody? These are questions most believers and seekers have asked, and they are biblically answered by author David Clotfelter. Contrasting the theologies of Jonathan Edwards with George MacDonald, the author reconciles the… See more details below


Are heaven and hell real? How does God’s election correspond to our freedom? Why did Jesus have to die? Why doesn’t God save everybody? These are questions most believers and seekers have asked, and they are biblically answered by author David Clotfelter. Contrasting the theologies of Jonathan Edwards with George MacDonald, the author reconciles the difficult doctrines of divine judgement and predestination. Sure to be a thought-and discussion-provoking message.

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Sinners in the Hands of a Good God

Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy

By David Clotfelter

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2004 David Clotfelter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57567-517-6



I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.

ISAIAH 13:11

WHEN HE WAS FIVE YEARS OLD, my son came to me one day with a tearful confession: "Daddy, do you remember a long, long time ago, when the VCR broke? Please forgive me, Daddy; I'm the one who put that piece of plastic inside. I'm so sorry."

I had known all along who was responsible for the problem with the video cassette recorder, yet my son's confession brought me a great deal of joy. It was gratifying to see him owning up to his action and confessing that he had done wrong. I took him up into my lap, thanked him for being honest with me, and reassured him of my love and forgiveness. It never occurred to me to punish him for his action; it was more than sufficient that he had come clean.

It is tempting to extrapolate from this sort of everyday parental experience and develop a theology in which God's only concern with our sin is with the harm it does to us or to our relationship with Him. Isn't He, after all, a God of love? And doesn't He present Himself to us as a loving Father who, though He may at times chastise His children, does so only for their good?

In this view, God may well hate sin but always loves the sinner, and so His goal must always be to bring the sinner to repentance. If punishment can be of assistance in bringing about this repentance, then God in His love will punish. But He will punish only as long as is necessary to bring about the desired change. An everlasting punishment, or one with no reformative or preventive value, would be merely cruel and so cannot possibly be part of a loving God.

MacDonald on Divine Punishment

Destroying Sin

This is precisely the kind of theology George MacDonald preached. For him, God's justice was not His determination to punish sinners but to make them good: "Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin; He is bound to destroy sin. If He were not the Maker, He might not be bound to destroy sin—I do not know. But seeing He has created creatures who have sinned, and therefore sin has, by the creating act of God, come into the world, God is, in His own righteousness, bound to destroy sin."

MacDonald was not saying that God is the author of human sin, but that because He is our Father He can never be satisfied with anything less than our complete restoration to holiness. The traditional understanding of hell—that it consists of the everlasting punishment of the impenitent—was in MacDonald's view ridiculous and pernicious:

Take any of those wicked people in Dante's hell, and ask wherein is justice served by their punishment. Mind, I am not saying it is not right to punish them; I am saying that justice is not, never can be, satisfied by suffering—nay, cannot have any satisfaction in or from suffering....

Such justice as Dante's keeps wickedness alive in its most terrible forms. The life of God goes forth to inform, or at least give a home to victorious evil. Is He not defeated every time that one of those lost souls defies Him? God is triumphantly defeated, I say, throughout the hell of His vengeance. Although against evil, it is but the vain and wasted cruelty of a tyrant.

It seemed evident to MacDonald that if God could not bring His creatures to repentance, His only possible option would be to annihilate them. Yet MacDonald was equally certain that this would not be necessary, but that one way or another—even by a punishment that would last for eons—God would have His way and restore all people to Himself.

Trying to Understand the Heart of God

Before criticizing MacDonald's views, we need to admit that they are attractive. There is indeed, for many Christians, real difficulty in accepting certain parts of the orthodox explanation of the gospel. Does God really view all people as sinners and hold them responsible for their sins, regardless of the opportunities they have had to learn of His truth? Does His justice really demand that payment be made for sins, such that we must either pay the price ourselves or else have it paid by Christ? Is it actually possible that someone can pay for another's wrongs? And does it make sense to think that a loving God would requite those whose sins are not paid for by Christ with a punishment that has no end and no power to reform?

These are serious and difficult questions, and a theology like MacDonald's, which angrily brushes them aside as based on grievous misunderstandings of the heart and mind of God, has deep emotional appeal. I would like very much to think that God views all people as His children. I would like to believe that the only punishment any person will receive is that which is tailored to promote his or her repentance. I would like to believe that all finally will be saved. I find, however, that the Bible keeps getting in my way.

More Than a Father

The Biblical Principle of Being God's Child

The fundamental problem with MacDonald's theology is his insistence that the analogy of fatherhood provides a sufficient basis for understanding God's relationship to human beings: "Men cannot, or will not, or dare not see that nothing but His being our Father gives Him any right over us—that nothing but that could give Him a perfect right." Scripture does not back him up at this point. While God is acknowledged to be the creator of all (Isa. 45:12) and the judge of all (Gen. 18:25), the analogy of the parent-child relationship is almost always restricted in the Bible to God's relationship with Jesus, His relationship with Israel, and His relationship with the individual Christian believer.

It is when we trust in Jesus that we are given the right to become children of God (John 1:12) and to speak to Him as children to a Father (Matt. 6:9). To be able to call ourselves His children is not our privilege by nature but a sign of the immense love that God has lavished on those He has chosen (1 John 3:1).

To be sure, God could not become the Father of believers if He were not inherently of a loving and fatherly character. And the psalmist affirms that God is "kind in all his works" (Ps. 145:17). But to say that God treats all people as His children goes far beyond the actual assertions of the Bible and undermines Scripture's teaching about the special status and privileges of believers.

Sinners Before a Judge

But if human beings, apart from faith in Christ, do not stand before God in the relationship of children before a Father, then what is our status? The core biblical answer is that we stand before Him as sinners before a judge. Despite MacDonald's angry assertions to the contrary, and despite our own natural distaste for this aspect of the Bible's teaching, most of the language used in Scripture to describe our natural standing before God, as well as most of the language used to explain what Christ has done for those who believe, is legal language, the language not of the family but of the courtroom. Human beings are viewed in the Bible as convicted criminals awaiting a punishment that is both just and severe. God is presented—He presents Himself—as a judge who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:7) and as One who pours out wrath (not just corrective chastisement) on evildoers. And His ultimate answer to our plight is to inflict on Jesus the punishment that we ought to have had:

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6, emphasis added)

We will return shortly to develop this thought. Much hangs on our ability to see that God holds all people to be guilty of sin and deserving of punishment, regardless of whether that punishment leads to repentance. But first let us pause to note that while MacDonald's view of God is based upon a biblical truth and has a certain logical consistency to it, it can be maintained only by affirming that one truth at the expense of other truths also taught in the Bible. We are attracted to MacDonald's theology in part because of this very fact: It seems so logical, so self-consistent. But what if that logic is a faulty logic? What if God is bigger than that logic? What if He is, in fact, not only a father, but a father and more?

The truth, I believe, is that we can rightly understand God only if we forswear the temptation to draw our own extended conclusions from the analogies He gives us, and stick as close as possible to what He has actually said. MacDonald's ideas, according to one of the reviewers quoted on the back cover of my copy of MacDonald's sermons (Creation in Christ) have about them "a translucence, even a quality of radiating light." I would have to add that they also have about them a certain hubris. As we continue our inquiry into God's justice, we do well to keep in mind that the person who is esteemed by God is not the one who waxes eloquent as he develops one biblical idea to the detriment of others, but the one who is humble and contrite in spirit and who "trembles" at God's word (Isa. 66:2).

We may not always find it easy to reconcile the various truths of the Bible. Nevertheless, we must humbly keep in check both our desire for logical consistency and our outrage at truths we do not like. God will no doubt reward our search by giving us ever-greater insight into the relationships among the truths He has revealed about Himself. We may be quite sure that all that God does is, in fact, logical and self-consistent. But we should not presume to reject that which we have not had the patience or humility to accept on God's own terms.

The Wages of Sin

We have said that apart from Christ, fallen human beings stand before God as convicted criminals deserving nothing more than punishment, and that God is not obligated to limit a sinner's punishment to that which will lead to his or her repentance. What is the biblical evidence for these assertions?

The evidence is overwhelming, so much so that it is hard to see how any serious student of the Bible could come to any other conclusion. It is plain, first of all, that all human beings are regarded as sinners: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23); "None is righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10); "God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes" (Eccl. 7:29).

The Bible's Statements of Our Liability

In addition, it is also plain that the commission of sin brings a just liability to punishment. This may be shown in several ways. First, there are explicit statements of the Scriptures. Consider these five:

The soul who sins shall die. (Ezekiel 18:4)

Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41)

Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die. (Romans 1:32)

The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)

... inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 1:8)

Such statements can be multiplied, but these are sufficient to make the point. What is promised to sinners, as sinners, is punishment. There is in none of these statements any hint that the purpose of that punishment is the reformation of the sinner. The plain implication of them all is that sinners will be punished because it is just for them to be punished.

Our Liability Implied in Calls for Discipline and Punishment

A second way of proving that Scripture views all human beings as guilty of sin and liable to punishment is by observing the language used to describe God's attitude toward sin and sinners. We learn in Hebrews 12:5–11 that God "chastises" or "disciplines" those whom He regards as His children. This terminology is quite consistent with the idea that God uses hardships or troubles to promote the spiritual growth of Christians. But consider for a moment passages such as these: "I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me" (Deut. 32:41); "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19); "But for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury" (Rom. 2:8); "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries" (Heb. 10:26–27).

This is hardly the language of fatherly reproof. As Jonathan Edwards wrote in his response to views similar to those later championed by George MacDonald, "To say that vengeance, wrath, fury, indignation, fiery indignation, wrath without mixture, mean a mere wholesome, fatherly discipline, designed for the good only of the subjects, is to say that the inspired writers were grossly ignorant of the proper and common use of language."

I think we must agree with Edwards. If God intended that we should understand from these passages that He punishes only to bring about repentance, one cannot help feeling that He expressed Himself very poorly. And if it should be argued that God threatens more than He actually delivers—that He uses the frightening terminology of wrath, fury, and fire only to move us to repentance but has in fact no intention of inflicting such punishment—then we must ask whether God really is so weak that He cannot get His way without making empty threats. No, the clear implication of these passages is that God fully intends to punish sinners, and there is nothing at all to suggest that the punishment is reformative in nature.

We may go further. The universal guilt and liability to punishment of human beings is implied in all that is said in Scripture about salvation. If we do not deserve punishment, then it should be possible for us to be saved on the basis of justice rather than mercy. Indeed, we should not have to speak of being "saved" at all, since the idea of salvation implies that we are justly exposed to something bad. Because of our sins, we are subject to God's wrath (Eph. 2:3; Rom. 5:9). Because of our inability to keep God's Law, we stand under a curse (Gal. 3:10).

It is because we are guilty—because we have no right to expect anything from God but punishment—that we speak of redemption through Christ as a work of mercy and grace.

Punishment and Repentance

But perhaps we may introduce an objection at this point: Even if we concede that all human beings deserve punishment from God, can't we still hold to the idea that the punishment they deserve is nothing more nor less than that which God, in His divine wisdom, knows will bring them to repentance? In other words, perhaps we may retain our conception of God as always working for the restoration of people, even while we admit the justice of divine wrath. Could we not even agree with MacDonald that it is because the punishment is intended for the sinner's good that it may be called just?

I do not believe we can. Note first that this whole line of reasoning, which sees divine punishment as intended for the sinner's good, is foreign to the passages we have already considered. Nor does such reasoning address those passages that declare people who die impenitent are "thrown away," "lost," "destroyed," or that they "suffer the punishment of eternal destruction" (Matt. 13:48; Luke 9:25; John 17:12; Matt. 10:28; Heb. 10:39; 2 Peter 3:7; 2 Thess. 1:9). Although it comes naturally to us to hope that all divine punishment is disciplinary in nature, the Bible does not give us much encouragement in that direction.

Furthermore, the moment we assert that the punishment or curse threatened to the unrepentant is the very thing needed to bring the person to repentance and faith, we find ourselves in impossible logical difficulties; since this implies that Christ died to save sinners from the one thing (punishment) that can bring about their salvation. Indeed, it would not make sense to call a disciplinary punishment a "curse" at all; we should instead call it a blessing and say that Christ saves some people (who repent in this lifetime) by delivering them from the curse and saves all others by inflicting the curse on them! But there is, of course, nothing in the New Testament of any such double work of Christ; we are told only that He came to redeem "us" (believers) from the curse (Gal. 3:13).

The logical problems deepen. If we say that the only punishment that a sinner deserves is that which will bring him to repentance, then we must admit that after he has suffered that punishment and repented, he must be admitted to heaven on the basis of justice rather than of mercy. Any further punishment beyond that point would be unjust. Yet the Bible says nothing of a salvation that is earned or secured through suffering: It is by grace alone that anyone can be admitted to eternal joy. MacDonald's position is hopeless.


Excerpted from Sinners in the Hands of a Good God by David Clotfelter. Copyright © 2004 David Clotfelter. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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