Judgment in the Preaching
In a pair of articles I want to say something about the proclamation of God’s judgment in preaching. Already in 1952, professor K. Dijk voiced the complaint that “the element of God’s judgment is sometimes consigned to oblivion,” and that the preaching “is much too sporadic in proclaiming the severity of God’s judgment, and not providing sufficient warning.”1 I cannot assess how the preaching is in our churches on this point, although there is reason not to be overly optimistic about this. We are not immune to all sorts of evangelical influences, where people speak about the Lord God especially as a loving Father, but with only little attention paid to what Scripture has to say about God in his wrath and judgment. Serious matters are at stake here. When one ignores God’s judgment, one will no longer be able to assert his forgiving love. Where God’s judgment is no longer preached, eventually the gospel will be diminished! For isn’t that gospel really the joyful message of him who bore God’s judgment on our behalf?
Lord’s Day 31
The preaching of God’s judgment comes explicitly to the fore in Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism. In answer 84 we confess, “The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent.” In our confessions there are relatively few indications given in regard to the content of the preaching. Yet in Lord’s Day 31 we find a very clear directive: the preaching must also speak about God’s wrath and eternal judgment. The sermon may not only be message about God’s love, his mercy, his help and nearness. Also the serious warnings, yes, even threatening tones need to be heard in the preaching. For the preaching needs to take into account that there may be unbelieving people and hypocrites in the congregation. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession speaks of people who for all appearances are in the church, and yet do not really belong to the church. All who do not belong spiritually to the congregation need to be shown how serious their attitude is. They must know: “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36); “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22). In the preaching it needs to be said how terrible God’s wrath and judgment are. In addition, mention must be made of what the Scripture says about God’s jealousy.2“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful” (Nah. 1:2, cf. Ex. 34:14). He asserts his rights. The God, who in Christ is our Father, is also “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Precisely because he is a jealous God, he is also a consuming fire (cf. Deut. 4:24). It is the fire of his love, which cannot tolerate rejection and denial. In the preaching it needs to be shown from Scripture how dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31).
In this connection it is important to pay attention to the context of these serious judgments in Lord’s Day 31. It is in the context of the preaching of the gospel, of the proclamation of the promise of forgiveness. Many matters are addressed in the preaching. The Scriptures are explained. The congregation is introduced more deeply into theology. Connections are made with daily life. Encouragement and comfort are given. Yet the focal point, the core around which this all lies, is formed by the proclamation of the promise of forgiveness. The preaching is first and foremost the promise of the great pardon, as answer 84 teaches us in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin.
The Lord Jesus himself pointed this out when he addressed his disciples telling them that they in his name must preach about repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47). Paul, too, mentions in Antioch in Pisidia that it is the forgiveness of sins that constitutes the central message of the preaching (Acts 13:38).
Lord’s Day 31 connects the preaching of judgment to the preaching of the gospel of forgiveness. Whenever God’s forgiving love in Christ is mentioned, at the same time we hear the pain felt for each one who rejects this love. The dark tones of the wrath of God and the eternal judgment are heard in the same place where the lovely sounds of the gospel are heard. This means that the preaching of judgment comes forth from the gospel and is based on the gospel. This is the context that we also encounter in the letter to the Hebrews. After the author has unfolded the rich gospel, he arrives in chapter 10 at a gripping proclamation of the judgment over those that do not give ear to this gospel, and forego the blood of Christ. Exactly when the light of God’s grace in Christ shines so brightly, it becomes so much worse when someone nevertheless chooses the darkness! Unbelief now becomes the trampling underfoot of the Son of God, and an insulting of the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:29).
How much the preaching of judgment has its place in the proclamation of the gospel of reconciliation appears already in the formulation of question 84: “How is the kingdom of heaven opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel?” It becomes clear also from the end of answer 84: “According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come.”
Apparently the proclamation of judgment was to be part of the testimony of the gospel! The joyful message is accompanied by the preaching of judgment on him who remains disobedient to the gospel (see John 3:16 with 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:20 with 5:10).
Administration of the Keys of the Kingdom
It may not escape us that the Catechism mentions the preaching of judgment in connection with the administration of the keys of the kingdom. At the end of the section that deals with our deliverance, this teaching manual mentions these keys of the kingdom. The Catechism recognizes the great importance of preaching in this, that by the proclamation of the holy gospel, the kingdom of heaven is opened and closed.
In answer 84 there is unmistakable evidence of a polemic against Rome. The fight in the sixteenth century had to do particularly with the power of the keys. With Rome, this power functioned especially in the confessional where the priest, by virtue of the power granted him by the Pope, gave absolution to the repentant sinner. Against this it became the strong assertion of the Reformation that the power of the keys was exercised not by the priest in the dark of the confessional stall, but in the public proclamation of the gospel.3 Luther calls the holy gospel the true treasure of the church and says, “This treasure is the key power of the church, given to it by the merits of Christ” (Thesis 60 from 1517). And Calvin writes with reference to Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23: “We now understand that the power of the keys is simply the preaching of the gospel in those places, and in so far as men are concerned, it is not so much power as ministry. Properly speaking, Christ did not give this power to men but to his word, of which he made men the ministers.” (Institutes IV.11.1).
How much our forefathers, in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin, saw the proclamation of the holy gospel as the service of the power of the keys, becomes clear from the reply that the national Synod of Middelburg 1581 gave to the question, “Is it not proper in the Sunday sermon to proclaim, publicly and in general, forgiveness of sins to those who were repentant, and binding of sins to those who were unrepentant?”: “It is responded, Since the binding and freeing of sins is sufficiently done in the preaching of the Word, it is therefore unnecessary to introduce a special form for this purpose.”
The Reformation not only brought the administration of the keys of the kingdom from the confessional to the pulpit, but at the same time it also provided an entirely different view of preaching. The Reformers saw preaching as the ministry of reconciliation. In the preaching the Holy Spirit is active, carrying reconciliation to the people and making it their own. Something happens in the preaching! This new vision flowed out from the rediscovery of justification by grace alone: God wants to proclaim his acquittal to his people. In the preaching we come face to face with God, who wants us to hear his voice and with his grace enters our lives. In this way the Reformers came to recognize what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Salvation gains a foothold in our life when it is preached. The message of the cross is really “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
This saving character of the preaching was rediscovered in the Reformation. For Luther it mattered that the Word “ym schwang geht”, in the preaching Christ is active in his fight against all dark powers that threaten.4 Calvin writes that “the word of the gospel, by whomsoever it may be preached, is the very word of God, promulgated at the supreme tribunal, written in the book of life, ratified firm and fixed in heaven” (Institutes IV.11.1). Whenever there is preaching, then the gates of Paradise are open for us; “indeed the voice of the preacher is accompanied by the drops of the holy blood of Christ” (Com. on Heb. 9:20)5.
This reformational view on the “contingent” character of preaching we find back in Lord’s Day 31. Indeed, something is happening in and through the preaching! There is binding and there is loosening. The power of the keys is administered. The kingdom of heaven is opened and closed. I think that it is good to once again remind each other of these things. For anyone who listens to what people has to say about the preaching will discover that today not many listeners are aware of this. For them the sermon needs to deal with what they experience as difficulties and trials. The minister is evaluated to a large extent by how he brings the message. On Sundays, many like to hear a word of encouragement. And more than once it happens that there are negative reactions when somber tones of wrath and judgment are heard in the sermon.
In light of this, Lord’s Day 31 gains new relevance. We need to realize anew what preaching is. According to our confession it is the administration of the power of the keys. The kingdom of heaven is opened and closed! Whoever wants to pass judgment on the preaching should in the first instance pay attention to this. Is the minister active, as the one sent by Christ, to indeed do that to which he is called in Lord’s Day 31? Is the joyful message of forgiveness of sins being proclaimed? Does he open the kingdom of heaven for everyone who believes? And does he not forget that he also has the task to close that realm for all who do not repent? Does he give voice in the preaching to the warning and the admonitions? Does the congregation also hear that the Lord will judge his people, because our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 10:31)? With the Liberation of 1944 we have again learned to speak of God’s covenant wrath, especially also in the New Testament dispensation (Heb. 10:30). This covenantal wrath belongs to the preaching of the gospel, and may not be forgotten or skipped over. It needs to be and remain an essential part of the preaching.
Based on the formulation of answer 84 I am even so bold to say that whoever is (too) silent about this covenant wrath, does not proclaim the gospel rightly!
In the midst of the congregation
The late Rev. M.J.C. Blok wrote at one time, “Of course it is not the intention of Lord’s Day 31 to divide the congregation into two groups, each receiving its own message. For the promise of the gospel comes to all, and that also includes the hypocrites and those who do not truly repent (how remarkable is that!), and conversely the true believers cannot possibly do without all those warnings, admonitions, and threats…”6
I think that he is correct in this. It is remarkable that in the epistles of the New Testament there is very seldom an announcement of judgment of specific individuals in the congregation. The preaching of judgment is clearly heard in the midst of the congregation. The letter to the Hebrews is a telling example of this. Also the believers need the preaching of judgment.
They need it in the first place to come to a true self-knowledge, and to realize how much they need the Lord Jesus time and again. I will leave this topic for now, as it is my intention to explore this more broadly in a second article. The believers also need the preaching of judgment in order to realize how serious it is when they sin. It is precisely the preaching of God’s wrath and judgment that can help us to get rid of the modern image of God as a kind-hearted grandfather who has great patience and understanding for what his children are doing. The Lord is “a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11), and that our secret sins are set in the light of his presence (Ps. 90:8). Especially the preaching of God’s wrath and judgment prevents us from thinking too lightly about our sins. We must always realize what an old form prayer expresses: through our trespasses we provoke God’s wrath against us.7
That is the reality in the communion between the Lord and his children. And that reality will always have to be presented in the preaching to the believers. The necessity of that was made painfully clear to me when I, more than once, on pastoral visits in the last few years, had to hear: “It may be biblical what you say, but we rather follow our own way!” As I went home I was shocked by the question: do people no longer realize how much the Lord is to be feared (see 2 Cor. 5:11)? Are people then already so estranged from what we confess in Lord’s Day 4: “God is terribly displeased with our original as well as our actual sins”? How real this is we hear in Psalm 32, where David admits, “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” It was this reality that made him exclaim, “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (Ps. 6:1). Especially in our tolerant and victim culture, God’s children cannot do without the preaching of judgment.
They need this preaching, not only to fear sin, but also to strive for holiness. Especially because God judges us (1 Peter 1:17), we must want to become holy in our walk (1 Peter 1:15). The reality of having a God who “judges” (Peter uses present tense!) will force us to take seriously what we are used to calling our daily repentance. God judges already, and he will once do so definitely. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). At one time everything will be “revealed.” And that total revelation must urge us on to already please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9).
The preaching of judgment sounds indeed in the midst of the congregation. May we never forget what the Canons of Dort confess: “As it pleases God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so he maintains, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word … by its exhortations, threatenings and promises” (Ch. V, Art. 14).
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.