WORTHY OF THE KINGDOM

by Thomas W. Finley


Chapter 8-5 (contd.)

THE WRATH OF GOD CONSIDERED

Although many may feel that Scripture portrays believers as delivered from any wrath of God, I believe that a careful examination of the New Testament will show that this is not the case. [Also, it should be noted that the Old Testament clearly revealed that the people of God were subject to His wrath due to their disobedience (i.e., 2 Chron. 29:8; 34:21-25; Jer. 6:8-11; 21:4-6)].

To support their contention that believers are exempt from wrath some may quote Romans 5:9-10: "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by [literally, in] His life." These verses actually show us two aspects of the Christian life. Justification and reconciliation are seen here as having to do with Christ’s death. It is by our faith in the redemptive act of Christ on the cross that we are justified initially (Rom. 3:24-26). Salvation, or deliverance, from the wrath of God in these verses, however, is not dependent on Christ’s death. These verses reveal that a second step is needed.

The salvation "from the wrath of God through Him" in the first verse is explained in the second verse. "Much more, having been reconciled [the completion of the first step], we shall be saved by His life. [the second step]" After the initial step of reconciliation there is the need for the disciple to learn to live by (or "in") Christ’s life. Justification is by our objective belief in Christ’s death on the cross. Living by His life, however, deals with our subjective experience after initial faith.

Only through our living by His life can we overcome indwelling sin and live victoriously. However, such victorious living is not automatic for the Christian. Not all believers will pursue and gain this experience. This theme of living by His life is the content of the following three chapters in Romans. God’s wrath is His holy attitude in opposition to sin. If we live by Christ’s life (and if we confess our sins when we do not), then we shall be saved from God’s wrath at the Judgment Seat. This is the meaning of these verses.

There are two passages in First Thessalonians that some claim show that Christians will not be subject to God’s wrath. The first passage reads:

For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

This epistle has a strong eschatological (end-time) tone to it. Verse ten above speaks of the Thessalonian believers waiting for Jesus from heaven "who delivers us from the wrath to come."

The deliverance from wrath here is linked with Christ’s descent from heaven. Also, note that the wrath here is specific ("the wrath to come"). The verse does not say that Jesus delivers us from "all wrath". I believe that there is some ground in the Scripture to consider that "the wrath to come" is very probably that particular wrath which God pours out upon the earth at the end of this age. The Book of Revelation portrays God as pouring out physical judgments upon the earth and unrepentant mankind. As He begins some of His more severe judgments with the sixth seal, men of the earth cry out to the mountains and to the rocks: "‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?’" (Rev. 6:16 -17) Later in the book the twenty-four elders before the throne review the cataclysmic events of that period and declare: "And the nations were enraged, and Thy wrath came" (Rev. 11:18).

In Revelation Chapter Fourteen there are two reapings directed from the heavens. Firstly, Christ reaps the "Harvest of the earth" with His sickle (Rev. 14:15). After this, an angel with another sickle reaps "the vine of the earth" and throws its clusters of grapes "into the great wine press of the wrath of God" (Rev. 14:19). The first reaping by Christ pictures a rapture or removal of believers from the earth in all probability. That occurs before the second reaping which pictures the wrath of God descending upon unbelievers upon the earth.

Further on in Revelation the apostle John records: "And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished" (Rev. 15:1). These fearsome plagues are poured out as physical judgments upon rebellious mankind living on the earth at that time. "And I heard a loud voice from the temple, saying to the seven angels, ‘Go and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God into the earth’" (Rev. 16:1).

Finally, the nineteenth chapter of Revelation pictures Christ on a white horse, with heavenly armies following Him, descending to do battle with "the kings of the earth and their armies, assembled to make war against Him who sat upon the horse, and against His army" (Rev. 19:19). The Scripture says of this warring Christ: "And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty" (Rev. 19:15).

All of the verses noted above in Revelation point to a specific wrath that God will mete out to rebellious sinners living upon the earth at the very end of this age. It would seem that when Jesus comes back to earth from heaven, it is this wrath ("the wrath to come") from which believers may be delivered (1 Thess. 1:10). This wrath is connected with God’s judgment upon the earth. The wrath mentioned in Romans 2:5, however, is more specifically connected to the judgments rendered to individuals before Christ’s Bema and at the great white throne (Rev. 20:12), since it is in context with the principle of future judgment in Romans 2:6.

The other verse in First Thessalonians pertaining to wrath is: "For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 5:9). In context, this verse is talking about the sudden destruction that will come upon earth dwellers when the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2-3). The verses preceding verse nine (the "wrath" verse) speak of our need to be sober and to live as sons of the light, in contrast to those of darkness who will be overtaken by the destruction of the day of the Lord. Those of darkness "shall not escape" that destruction (1 Thess. 5:3). It seems likely that the deliverance from wrath that is the believer’s portion through Christ in verse nine is, in context, a deliverance from the wrath to be poured out upon the earth during the day of the Lord. This "salvation" from wrath here matches the one that is portrayed in the first chapter of First Thessalonians. It is not the wrath that may be experienced through Christ’s adjudication at the Judgment Seat.

Besides the verses in Romans Chapter Two, which indicate God’s wrath may be experienced by a Christian, there are some other Scriptures which should be noted. In Christ’s parable concerning forgiveness (Matt. 18:23-35), the unmerciful slave (the believer who would not forgive his brother’s debt) was summoned to appear before his lord (picturing an appearance by the believer at the Judgment Seat). After the lord verbally chastised the wicked slave, the Bible records: "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him" (Matt. 18:34). Although not every detail in a parable can be pressed for explicit meaning, this matter of being "moved with anger" seems significant here, and it pictures Christ’s wrath at His Bema toward believers who would not forgive fellow believers. The Greek word here for anger is the verbal form of orge, the Greek word for wrath.

The last portion of Scripture we will examine concerning the potential for a believer to experience God’s wrath is Hebrews 3:1-4:11. This lengthy passage is not quoted here, but if the reader will refer to it, it will be seen that the writer to the Hebrews is using the wilderness experience of the Israelites as the basis for admonition to the Hebrew believers.

The recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews were genuine believers (Heb. 3:1) who were in danger of slipping backwards into Judaism. Hebrews is very much a book concerning the coming Kingdom of Christ, and the great warning passages in Hebrews focus on the danger to the disciple of losing his portion in that coming Kingdom (see end note number one in Chapter Nine). The future 1,000-year kingdom of Christ is the great Sabbath rest that lies ahead for the people of God (Heb. 4:9). The passage under consideration is a warning to the believer. The believer should not harden his heart against the speaking of God (Heb. 3:7-8, 15; 4:7). Believers are warned: "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12).

The possibility of any believer falling away in this manner is highlighted in the next verse: "But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today’, lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin: (Heb. 3:13). This passage points out how the Israelites failed to believe and obey God while in the wilderness. Therefore, the entire generation that came out of Egypt, except Caleb and Joshua, failed to enter the good land. Instead, they died in the wilderness during that forty-year period ("forty" means a Biblical period of testing).

The Scripture records that because of their unbelief and subsequent disobedience, God became angry with these Israelites (Heb. 3:10,17). Therefore, God’s judgment fell upon them: "‘I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest’" (Heb. 3:11; 4:3). Based upon this wrath and its consequent judgment of God upon the children of Israel, the writer to the Hebrew believers warned his readers: "Therefore, let us FEAR lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to come short of it" (Heb. 4:1). Also, the writer concluded: "Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience" (Heb. 4:11).

The author was warning those believers that if they were not diligent in obeying God’s word to them, then God, in His righteous wrath, would pronounce judgment upon them as He did upon the Israelites in the wilderness. The result of that judgment would be that they would not enter "His rest", which is the Sabbath rest for the people of God--the future 1,000-year Kingdom. A more detailed exposition of this Scriptural type can be found in the works listed in the recommended reading section on the Kingdom at the end of this book.

Now let us return for a moment to the passage we read in Romans Chapter Two. Besides "wrath and indignation" toward those who disobey the truth, the Bible states that "There will be tribulation and distress for [literally, upon] every soul of man who does evil" (Rom. 2:9). This governmental judgment will be experienced in varying degrees and duration, dependent upon one’s status (believer vs. unbeliever), but all who do evil will experience this very real judgment.

It is interesting to note that the soul of man is emphasized as the particular part upon which such judgment falls. For the believer, the judgment described here in Romans matches the concept of "losing the soul" in the Gospels. The loss of well-being to the soul of the believer takes place during the coming Kingdom age, as we have already seen. Thus, even we believers should have a proper fear of God’s wrath. Let us recall some other severe words that the writer to the Hebrews wrote to those Jewish believers who were in danger of backsliding into Judaism: "For we know Him who said ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:30-31).

Today the "fear of God" is a lost virtue. Most Christians have reduced the thought to one of worshipful reverence. We do need to revere God, but if one reviews the words and language of the Bible objectively, he will see that we also need a certain true "fear" of God.[1] We must carry within us a knowledge that we are beings responsible to God, and that if we turn away from Him in disobedience, He will visit judgment and chastisement upon us.

According to the verses we have seen, this judgment can be severe. The picture of a fiery valley (Gehenna) is awesome and fearful, whatever the reality. "Many lashes" and "few lashes", "cutting in pieces" (Lk. 12:46-48) and other judgments should truly sober us. When Paul wrote of the anticipated Judgment Seat of Christ where we would be recompensed (2 Cor. 5:10), he immediately followed the thought with: "Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; . . ."(2 Cor. 5:11, KJV).

We need a healthy, balanced view of God. We should trust Him and open our heart to Him. We know that He loves us and is "for us" (Rom. 8:31). Yet, we must balance this view with a knowledge that God is an impartial Judge. If we are not obedient to Him and remain unrepentant, then we will experience His wrath at the Judgment Seat. Peter wrote to believers: "And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth" (1 Pet. 1:17). Robert Govett rightly stated: "The fear of God is as much a principle needing to be impressed upon the believer’s mind as the love of God."[2] Also, Solomon wrote: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Prov. 9:10a)

MERCY

Today is the "day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2) in which grace is received (2 Cor. 6:1). The coming day, however, is a day of justice, when God in righteous judgment will recompense every man according to his deeds (Rom. 2:5-6). Although the Bible describes the coming day as one of justice, there are Scriptures that disclose the possibility of some believers also receiving mercy from Christ at His Bema.

Paul expressed a prayerful hope that Onesiphorus might "find mercy from the Lord on that day" (the day of judgment) (2 Tim. 1:18). Paul was hopeful of this mercy because of Onesiphorus’ faithful service to the apostle. Jesus also told us in the beatitudes: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt. 5:7). If we are merciful in our dealings with others now, not requiring strict justice, but overlooking and forgiving the offenses of others, then there may be mercy for us at the coming Judgment Seat. James tells us that mercy can triumph over Judgment (Jas. 2:13). On the other hand, James tells us that "judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy" (Jas. 2:13). Christ gives us the same lesson in the parable on forgiveness (Matt. 18:23-35).

GOD’S PRINCIPLE OF INDIVIDUAL JUDGMENT ACCORDING TO WORKS

In concert with the idea of believers experiencing forgiveness along the path of our lifetime, there is a very interesting principle revealed in Ezekiel. In two sections of Scripture there, God declared His principle of judgment with which He would judge each individual Israelite according to his ways. Since these passages are very similar, only the one in Ezekiel Chapter Eighteen will be quoted. The reader may also wish to refer to the parallel passage (Ez. 33:11-20).

20 "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. 21 But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. 23 Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked," declares the Lord God, "rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? 24 But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die. 25 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies because of it, for his iniquity which he has committed he will die. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 But the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Are My ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right? 30 Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct," declares the Lord God. "Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. 31 Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! 32 For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies." declares the Lord God. "Therefore, repent and live" (Ez. 18:20-32).

These Old Testament Scriptures seem to provide a biblical "type" which foreshadows God’s dealings with New Testament believers according to the principle of reward according to works. In the Old Testament type, or picture, obedience or disobedience of the individual Israelite resulted in physical death or life in accordance with the highlighted principle of judgment according to one’s doings (Ez. 18:30;33:20).

The application to the New Testament believer (the fulfillment of the type), however, does not involve physical life or death. Although a New Testament believer can suffer physical death for disobedience (1 Cor. 11:29-30;1 Jn. 5:16), the application of this passage does not focus on such a judgment. Rather, these Scriptures find their New Testament counterpart in the gaining of eternal life in the coming Kingdom age, or in the suffering of loss to the soul of the believer during that age. This conclusion is based upon the fact that these passages in Ezekiel are specifically addressing God’s dealing with the individual child of God in relation to the principle of reward (or judgment) according to the individual’s deeds. In the New Testament, this judgment is revealed as not occurring until the lifetime of the believer is over (unless he is raptured), and he appears at the Judgment Seat of Christ upon Christ’s return (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 16:27).

An examination of the details of these verses in Ezekiel unfolds some interesting parallels to New Testament truth. God’s principle of judgment here in Ezekiel tells us that if a wicked Israelite turns from his ways and practices doing good, he will save his life and not die. Further, the passage states that "all his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him" (Ez. 18:22).

Does not this description portray the repentance and confession of sins by the believer? Also, does not the practicing of righteousness which brings life that is mentioned in Ezekiel parallel the perseverance in doing good that is noted in Romans 2:7 as the basis of the reward of eternal life in the coming age?

Conversely, "When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall surely die in it" (Ez. 33:18). The New Testament states, similarly, that those who do not endure to the end in obedience shall not receive the salvation of their souls (Matt. 10:22; Heb. 10:35-39), but will be denied by the Lord (2 Tim. 2:12) and suffer tribulation and distress upon their souls (Rom. 2:9). This judgment is the same as "losing the soul" or the "life" (Matt. 10:39).

This great principle of judgment is both encouraging and motivating. It is encouraging because if we have left the pathway of the Christian race and stopped fully following our Lord Jesus, we can repent and confess and He will forgive us. Our sins will not be remembered against us at the Judgment Seat (Ez. 18:22; 1 Jn. 1:9). Thus, we can be encouraged to begin again.

This principle also motivates us to endure, to not stop following our Lord Jesus. We have this motivation because we realize that if we decide to deny Him at any point and begin to walk in disobedience, our prior obedience will not avail for us. We can be sure that He will deny us in turn (2 Tim. 2:12). The danger of His judgment then becomes very real. If anyone thinks that this principle of judgment as explained here is not right (not just), then he needs to read Ezekiel 18:25, 29 and 33:17, 20 and take up his argument with God. The New Testament revelation portrays realities that parallel the Ezekiel principle.

CONCLUSION

This chapter and the previous one have discussed the Judgment Seat of Christ in some detail. If we are honest concerning the revelation of God’s Word, we will have to admit that at the Judgment Seat a believer in Christ can receive either positive rewards or fearful negative consequences. God is a wise and just Father. He holds out these positive and negative recompenses as great incentives for obedience from His children, just as He did in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy Chapters 27-30. Unfortunately, these incentives have not been properly taught to believers. Who can tell how much damage to the cause and testimony of Christ has been done by the lack of teaching on these truths?

Our Christian life time is a time of testing. At the Bema, Christ will decide who will be worthy of the Kingdom according to His principles of judgment. D. M. Panton describes the current time of testing well:

Officers are required for the administration of a kingdom: so God has deliberately interposed a prolonged period between the two advents, that our Lord might be enabled to so test His servants, in His absence, as to discover which are fitted for positions of responsibility and trust at His return. The Nobleman, before He departed laid plans for the selection of officers to aid Him in the administration of the Kingdom; He devised a plan for bringing to light who those officers are on His return; this plan is in operation at the present moment, purposely so contrived as to reveal individual capacity for office, and personal fitness for trust; and--most impressive of all--the Long Journey is now nearly over, and at any moment the investigation may begin.[3]

Dear brother or sister, don’t you want to be one approved at Christ’s Judgment Seat? Do you feel that you may have unconfessed sins? Is it possible that you are still harboring bitterness and resentment toward others, instead of forgiving them? Have you been earnestly seeking to know and serve Him, or have you been off the pathway of the Christian race? If God is touching you on any of these matters, why not spend some time on your knees before Him right now? He has been waiting for you to do just that.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] For a short study on the meaning of "the fear of the Lord" see: Bill Gothard, The Overlooked Requirements for Riches, Honor and Life (Oak Brook, Il: Institute in Basic Life Principles).

[2] Robert Govett, Reward According to Works (Miami Springs: Schoettle Publishing Co. Inc., 1989), article entitled "Will all Believers Enter the Millennial Kingdom?", p. 53.

[3] D. M. Panton, The Judgment Seat of Christ (Hayesville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Co., 1984), p. 35.