The Justice Of GodErwin W. Lutzer | November 15, 2015
Selected highlights from this sermon
God’s fairness is questioned by God’s opponents. They point to the suffering here on Earth, the doctrine of election, and the concept of hell. But God is just. He judges the wicked, and He punished His Son for our sins. Unlike what we view as fair and just, God’s justice is perfect.
My topic today is The Justice of God. This happens to be number seven in a series of messages titled The Mysteries of God. And today we go into some very deep mysteries. But let me tell you why this message is so important and why, if I were a teenager or a young person at any age, or an older person, why I would listen so very carefully. It is because there are times when all of us go through times of doubt. There are questions that people ask us for which we ought to know the answer, or at least point them in the right direction. And furthermore, is there anything more noble or wonderful than trying to probe the purposes of God?
If you ask people, many of them would tell us that God isn’t just at all – not at all. There are those who say that He doesn’t play fair. He is an unjust God, and some people would say that He is a monster. Why would people say this? First of all, it’s because of the suffering of the world. I don’t have time today to go into that in any detail, but you know the story. Buckets of tears wept by children every single day! Starvation, abuse, abandonment!
Well, you say, “It’s because of human will. It’s the human will.” Well, that can never be a full explanation. Even if you say, “Well, Adam had free will and we all have free will,” what about natural disasters? They have nothing to do with the human will. There’s no way that they are connected. God could speak and the storms could stop and the earthquakes go away, and the tsunamis refuse to come. It’s all in God’s hands. The suffering of this world!
And then it gets worse than that. The doctrine of hell! Are you serious? And especially, you know, having people in hell just because they don’t believe in your Jesus? I’ve heard that from the mouths of people who are skeptics. And then to add insult to injury, you have election and the fact that the Bible talks about God choosing some people and not others. I mean a fair God, a God of justice? Give me a break. What many people do at that point is they collapse into the arms of atheism. They think that that is going to help them.
In this series of messages I know that I frequently scared up more rabbits than I am able to shoot, and I now come to one of those instances. If I had time and if I had a whole message on it, I could show you why atheism is such a bad idea because there’s no way that you can possibly argue against God as an atheist without stealing from God all kinds of presuppositions. Atheists, when they say God is unfair, are using the presuppositions of theism, of the existence of God, to make their case. In fact, a whole book has been written about this entitled Stealing from God. I wish I could go into it, but I mean atheists build their atheistic house on a foundation of theism. They have to. Out of atheism no morality whatever can ever possibly arise, and that can be shown on the basis of pure reason and logic.
Well, you say, “Can’t atheists be moral? Don’t they have a moral sense?” Of course they do because they are created in the image of God, and therefore, they have a conscience, and that conscience informs them, and they can be good people. And when we leave and go on vacation we can give them the keys to our house because of God’s creation, but not because of atheism. But nonetheless some find refuge there. Listen, the problem of evil in no way speaks about the existence of God. What it does is it calls into question the character of God, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
A couple of points by way of intro before we get to the text of Scripture! First of all, could I just simply say that when it comes to the Bible and the Christian theistic view, you don’t get to choose the God you want? You see, some people who don’t go into atheism say, “Well, you know, my God of my sexuality, my God of my gender, my God would never do A, B, C or D. My God basically agrees with me about everything.” (chuckles) You don’t get to choose your God.
One day I was talking to somebody like that and he said, “You know, my god approves of this and that,” and I said, “Tell me more.” Always ask somebody to tell you more. How do you know this? And I said to him, “Have you ever been rebuked by your god, or does your god agree with absolutely everything that you believe?” It turns out that God agrees with everything he believes. Every one of his opinions God is in favor of. Smile for a moment, but when that man looks into the mirror, he’s looking at his god.
We don’t get to choose. When God said to Moses, “I Am that I Am,” what he was saying was, “I Am who I Am and not who you want Me to be.” We all wish at times that we could perhaps change God. Who of us in all honesty has not thought that? But that’s not up to us. We have to deal with the God who exists, not the God whom we would prefer.
Second, and maybe I’ve already emphasized this in this series, God didn’t choose the attributes that He has. God didn’t say to Himself, “You know, I am going to be omniscient, I’m going to be omnipresent, and I’m also going to have wisdom, and I’m going to be loving. I’m going to be just.” He didn’t choose those attributes. That’s who God is from all of eternity. And if you can think back that far, the first message in this series was God eternal – the eternality of God. We talked about what that means and how we can try, at least (though we cannot totally) to get a handle around that. So it is what it is, and we need to deal with it, and I’m so glad that the Bible does not present God as a monster.
The text today is actually Revelation 15. Everybody look at your Bibles today. If your Bible is your cell phone, your iPad, your computer (laughter), well this is the time to drag it out and to look at the fifteenth chapter of the book of Revelation. I’m still reading from a book. I love a book, but God bless all of you.
Alright, we’re all on this page because you have to see this. Revelation 15: “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.”
Before we go further notice the wrath of God. The wrath of God is referred to in the Bible I would think hundreds of times. Get used to the fact that God is a God of wrath. Now this message is going to end in optimism and hope, but I’m not going to enter this into a contest as the greatest touchy-feely message you’ve ever heard. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of messages but this is not one of them.
You’ll notice it says in the book of Nahum (just listen), “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God. The Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries and keeps wrath for His enemies. But the Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and He will by no means, however, clear the guilty. Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the heat of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by Him. But the Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble. He knows those who take refuge in Him.”
Well, we’ll say more about that ambiguity in God from our standpoint. Good, righteous, loving, just and vengeful!
Well, here you have what is known as the seven plagues, the seven bowls of Revelation. And there are in the book of Revelation, first of all, the seals, the trumpets, and now we get to the last judgment of God on this earth, and it is terrible. You can read it on your own. I won’t take the time to read it, but this is why I’m speaking about this passage on the justice of God.
Verse 2: “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire — and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying (notice now),
‘Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you, (notice)
for your righteous acts have been revealed.’”
The Song of Moses was sung when Moses came across the Red Sea. It was a song of deliverance from Egypt, and The Song of the Lamb is sung here at the Crystal Sea. As John sees the Throne of God, and behind this throne or as a foundation to this throne, he sees a sea of glass – of crystal mingled with fire. What an event, what a vision that must have been.
We know the Song of Moses – Exodus 15. The Song of the Lamb! What’s that all about? Well, remember in Revelation 5 it says, “Thou has redeemed by Thy blood people from every tongue and people and nation.” And then it goes on to say, “And I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, and the beasts and the elders and the number of them were ten thousand times ten thousand. And thousands of thousands saying, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, who has redeemed us, and to Him be glory forever and ever.’”
So here they are now. These saints are in heaven and they are singing the Song of Moses, the triumph over Egypt, and the Song of the Lamb, the triumph over sin, and the purchasing of redemption. They are melding these two songs together in honor of God. Wow!
What I’d like to do now is to give you three facts regarding God’s justice since they sing about it. “Just and true are thy ways, Thou King of saints.” What are the three facts about God’s justice?
Number one, where is justice seen? It is seen in the punishment of the wicked. I’ll tell you that your Bible has to be open at this point because you’ll notice it says in chapter 13 (Can you turn back there to chapter 13?) we have the story of Antichrist. It says in chapter 13, verse 5: “And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven.”
Now notice! Everyone awake at this juncture!
“Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”
How does Antichrist kill people who don’t worship him? Interestingly, by the sword! That’s what it says in verse 10. Do you know what is says in chapter 20, verse 4 of Revelation? It says, “I saw all those who had been beheaded for the cause of Christ.” When you think Antichrist, think ISIS. Think Boko Háram. Think massacre. Think the sword. That’s what it’s going to be like for those who do not worship the Antichrist religion.
Alright! Now notice! I read it too quickly no doubt. It says that he was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. Now we’re back in chapter 15: “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire — and also those who had conquered the beast.” Isn’t that interesting? He was able to conquer the saints by having them killed, and even though they are killed, where do they end up? They end up before the Throne of God in great victory, harps in their hands, singing praises to God and worshiping Him and being in His presence forever.
By the way, the last message in this series, which is the next message, is going to be our dwelling with God forever. It’ll be much more positive. But the point is simply this: In chapter 13 the Beast conquers the saints. In chapter 15 we see that the saints are in Glory, having conquered the Beast. What a difference two chapters make. And now, of course, all of these judgments are thrown onto the earth and onto Antichrist.
Is God just punishing the wicked? I think He is. When you think Antichrist, when you think of the wicked, think Hitler, think ISIS indeed. Think terrorist groups. Isn’t it comforting to know that some day they are going to stand before God and be judged? And I don’t think we’re going to say, “Well, it’s too severe.”
You must recognize also that God, when he judges, judges meticulously. When people who have never heard the name Jesus stand before Him, he isn’t going to say, “Well, I am sending you to hell because you didn’t believe on Jesus.” That would be unjust. How can you hold people accountable for something that they don’t know? The Bible teaches that responsibility is based on knowledge. They will be judged with what they did with what they knew. Now the Bible doesn’t give us any hope, saying that everyone, or anyone, lives up to what they know intuitively with conscience and nature, so without the protection of Jesus, they are in difficulty. But, of course, the judgment is not the same. It’s not “one size fits all” by any means. I believe that God is going to so finely tune justice and punishment that we will sing along with these saints forever, “Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints.”
Now, why so much severe judgment though? The answer is simply this: You and I do not understand the depth of God’s hatred against sin. What if Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian, is right when he said, “The greatness of the sin is determined by the greatness of the being against whom it is committed”? Do you realize that even little sins are big to God? You know that if you throw a snowball at your brother and he throws one back there won’t be a problem. Throw a snowball at a mailman; you could get into trouble if you have good parents. Throw a snowball at the police – a little bit more trouble. Throw it at the president of the United States – mucho trouble! (laughter) Yeah! Sin against God – huge trouble! So the reason that the punishment seems so severe to us is we have no idea the extent to which God is holy and hates sin.
Something else before I leave the whole idea of how when God judges His people it shows His justice, I had a Jewish friend who lived in the neighborhood. We used to walk together at times and have great conversations, and he was an atheist. He was an atheist because of the terrible things of World War II – the Holocaust. But I said to him one day, “Are you ever disquieted within? Does it ever trouble you that Hitler and his cronies will never be brought to justice in an atheistic world, and that everyone who is unjust gets by without any punishment, without any adjudication?” He said, “Yeah, that does trouble me.”
I think that when we look at the judgment that God is going to have on the earth, we will say, “Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints.” But there’s a second fact, and that is that God’s justice, and this is much more beautiful now, is going to be seen in the lives of the redeemed – the redemption of those who have been redeemed. Everybody now – think and look at the big picture. Okay?
Here we are in the middle of the book of Revelation. You have all of those judgments that are falling upon the earth. You have hailstones. You have plagues. You have read all about them, I am sure. And here in the middle of this are these saints in heaven rejoicing, accepted by God. Doesn’t that seem to be unjust? I mean why over here so much judgment, and over here so much bliss? But I submit to you today that the redemption of the saints is God’s most beautiful, breathtaking example of justice. You see, here you have these plagues and all, and you are saying, “Wow! That’s a lot of judgment on the wicked that are there on the earth.” And that’s true. There is a lot of judgment there, but my friend, the reason… And there are some people before the throne who committed sins just as great as the people who were on earth enduring all this affliction and punishment. Is that just? It is eminently just. I’ll tell you why.
You see, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, there were two attributes of God that needed to be resolved. On the one hand you have God’s love, and love wanted to redeem. Justice said, “No way. Punishment must be made for the wicked.” So, on the cross, Jesus took the trumpet judgments, the seals with their judgments, these vials, these bowls of judgment that were heaped on the earth. They were heaped on Jesus who paid the debt of all who would believe, so we got our punishment, thank you very much, but it didn’t fall on us. It fell on Him.
Death and the curse were in our cup,
O Christ, ’twas full for Thee!
But Thou hast drained the last dark drop —
’Tis empty now for me.
And that’s why the Bible says in Romans 3 (and I wish we had time to look at it) the reason that Jesus came is to set forth the justice of God – the righteousness of God – to be a propitiation. That word occurs three times in the New Testament if I remember correctly. And some translations say (You know, moderns don’t know what propitiation is, so let’s not use the word. Let’s use the words) atoning sacrifice. Well I think that we have to understand what propitiation means. It really means the turning away of God’s wrath by a sacrifice. And so Paul says Jesus was the atoning sacrifice. Yes, He turned away God’s wrath. And then do you know what Paul says? He said He did this so that He might be just and the justifier of all who believe on Jesus. Wow! In other words, when we stand before the throne because of our faith in Christ, legally we will belong there because of Jesus and because He became sin for us – the one who didn’t know any sin so that we might be made the righteousness of God. Do you love a Savior like that today? (applause) We see justice in those who are redeemed.
There’s a third lesson, a third fact that we have to grapple with, and that is that justice is not seen in this life nearly as clearly as it will be in eternity. These folks are in eternity now, and they see things that we don’t. You know, the Bible says this, and I quoted it also in this series in another message. “Oh the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out.” Notice that it doesn’t say, “How difficult are His judgments and how difficult to find out.” No, He says, “They are unfathomable beyond finding out.”
I took, when I was studying philosophy at the university, an entire course on the problem of evil. We had to read atheists. We had to read Christian responses. We had to try to see how in the world we can live with a God who is omnipotent, but at the same time is good, and the existence of suffering. And we read it all. I wrote papers about it. But I have to say that at the end of the day, there is mystery, and we cannot answer all of the questions because God’s ways are unfathomable.
Now one thing we have to hang on to is this: There is no way that there could be all of this suffering on earth, and all the things that we have talked about unless God were to use it for a good purpose. Do we know what that good purpose is? We get glimpses but we don’t read the details. We cannot read the fine print of God’s purposes. We know that eventually all of this leads to God’s glory. Eventually all things were created by Him and for Him. By His will they were created. It says in the book of Isaiah that people were created and the nation for the display of His splendor: “And I created Israel for my glory.” Colossians says, “By Him were all things created, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.”
Catch this now! “All things were created for Him and by Him.” Eventually we will agree that the purposes of God are absolutely perfect, but I confess. We don’t see it in this life. And so we believe.
“Well,” you say, “that’s interesting. I thought you were going to answer all the questions. Could we have our money back?” No, you can’t. The offering baskets have already been taken (laughter) and they have been put into the vault. It’s too late for you to get your money back.
What do we do when we are so confronted with mystery, when we are on the edge of our minds trying to understand the purposes of God? Luther talked about the hidden God. And he says, “When we probe God’s mysteries, and we come to the end and we cannot understand beyond those mysteries, we flee from the hidden God to the revealed God.” Luther didn’t mean that there were two different Gods. What he meant was when you are lost in the wonder of God’s eternal purposes, and you can’t go any further, and you have these doubts, what you do is you flee to Jesus, who said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” And then what you discover is that the God that Jesus reveals, far from being a monster, is actually gracious and merciful, and says to those who believe on Him, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God. Believe also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you, and when I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and receive you to Myself.”
He reveals the Father. Jesus said, “When you pray, don’t have all that vain repetition that the heathen do. They are chanting (and whatever).” He said, “Your heavenly Father knows in advance what you have need of.” He sure doesn’t sound like a monster to me, but what Jesus reveals is both the goodness of God and the severity, which is a phrase from the book of Romans. God can be severe. Jesus talked about hell, but He also talked about grace and love, and both exist in the complexity of who God really is. And He is a very complex being.
And so what we do when we don’t know what to do is we rush to Jesus, and we find there in Jesus the hope that we seek. You have a decision to make. You have a choice. What the choice ultimately comes down to is this: Do we trust ourselves when it comes to the realm of eternity and what kind of God exists, or do we trust what Jesus told us, and what He demonstrated? That’s really the choice. So for you skeptics out there (and by the way, thank you for listening if you fit into that category), I want you to know that it’s between you and the authority of Jesus. Don’t be offended, but I’m going to throw in my lot with Jesus. (applause) I hope you do too.
There’s another choice that we may have to make, and that is we have to give up our desire to judge God, and we’ve all had that desire, and we’ve all responded to it at some time or another. You know that you are foolish to judge God and not submit to Him and to submit to Jesus.
One day a workman came into our home, and as I would normally do, I witnessed to him. And I remember him sitting at our table. In those days Rebecca and I had a very small table so he was very close to me. And he said, “I am an atheist. If there is hell and God throws me into hell,” he said, “for eternity I’m going to defy Him.” Wow! I’m sure God in heaven quivered a little bit! (laughter) I don’t want to make fun of him, but I said to him, “That’s one possibility. If you are angry with God and you think He’s unjust and you want to defy Him forever, you know, that’s a possibility. But it’s not a wise possibility, especially when He offers you the forgiveness and the acceptance that is the right of all those who believe on Jesus. Why not believe on Jesus and trust Him and the grace that God has shown us through Him? Isn’t that a wiser idea? And furthermore, throughout all of eternity (This is sobering stuff.) taking on God? He’s not going to be bothered. It won’t affect Him, and you might not even be in a position whereby you have what it takes to defy Him mentally.” The Bible says that when Jesus comes it will be in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those who know not God and obey not the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.”
You say, “Well, now, you know, you’re trying to scare us.” You had better believe I’m trying to scare you. This is serious business. Eternity is long. Hell is real, but so is Jesus and His invitation for you to believe on Him and be saved, and come under the righteousness of God.
If you come to Christ… By the way, it was William Cowper who said this, and I wanted to quote these words. He struggled with depression and tried to commit suicide. Can God use people who struggle with depression? Boy, can He use them! Cowper has blessed the world through his poetry despite the fact that he lived with depression all of his life. But one thing he said about people who judge God is, “They take from God’s hand the balance and the rod. They rejudge His justice and they become the judge of God.” Don’t become the judge of God. Bow humbly and receive His mercy and His grace.
And it’s okay to come with doubts. You know, one day John the Baptist was in prison, and he was at least a second cousin of Jesus because Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, you remember, and John baptized Jesus and you have all of this wonderful experience that he had. And then he was thrown into prison, and he began to have doubts. There’s nothing that will cause you more doubt than suffering.
He began to put it together. “Oh, He’s the Messiah, this man. Really! What am I doing here in prison if He’s the Messiah?” So John is going through a time of doubt and he sends a delegation to Jesus and he says (and I’m sure they were very polite), “Art Thou He that should come, or should we look for another?” “Did we misread you? You know, You are the Messiah. You can speak the word. You can get me out of jail, and here I am.” And of course, eventually he was beheaded. That doesn’t sound much like a Messiah caring for His people.
Have you ever had doubts like that? By the way, do you know what Jesus said to the disciples later about that? He said, “Among those born of women there’s none greater than John the Baptist.” He said that when John the Baptist was having doubts in prison. God can handle honest doubts. If you have honest doubts God says, “I’ll take care of that.”
But anyway, before Jesus said that, this is what He said to the delegation. He said, “Go tell John that the dead are being raised. The deaf are hearing. The lepers are being healed.” And then Jesus added this line. “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
Everybody has their translation nowadays. Everybody has their study Bible, so I might as well give you my line. (chuckles) This is the Lutzerian translation. (laughter) “Jesus said (in effect), ‘Blessed is he who is not upset with the way I run my business. Blessed is the person who says, “I do not understand it all but I trust a Savior who has the credentials to save, and I bow before His authority as a sinner to receive His grace.’” I’m so glad for the grace and the love and the mercy of God. Are you glad for that too? (applause)
Now, if you’ve never received Christ as Savior, no matter how you are listening to this (whether it’s radio or Internet or right here in the sanctuary of The Moody Church), why not believe on Jesus and be saved?
Let’s pray together.
Father, we ask that You shall take these words and make them transforming. We confess that we are unable to understand all of Your ways. Your ways are past finding out, but we love to probe them, and we love to worship You better because of them. And now, as I speak to these people who are listening, would You work in the hearts of men and women to bring them to saving faith? Even now where they are seated they can say, “Jesus, I receive You today. Be my Savior. Save me from sin. Save me from condemnation.” And we thank You, Father, that we can do that.
Would you believe on Him? As a sinner we come to a wonderful, wonderful gracious Savior, Amen.