Judgment or Abundant Life?

In our last post in the series reviewing Bill Johnson’s new book God is Good: He is Better than You Think, I turned to the question whether God’s judgment of mankind at the Fall makes God a child abuser, and concluded from Scripture that the answer is no. Rather I argued that, far from being evil, God’s judgment of the world displays His perfect justice, and to think otherwise is to potentially suggest Jesus’ death on the Cross was unnecessary.

Far from being evil, God’s judgment of the world displays His perfect justice. To think otherwise is to suggest Jesus’ death on the Cross was unnecessary.

But God’s judgment is admittedly an uncomfortable topic for many in the church today. We often hear that a good Father could not possibly have a hand in judgment. Nowadays, we do not like a God who is in the business of judgment.

Part of the reason for this is a fear that if we acknowledge that God is still in the business of judging sin, then it will be impossible for us to perceive God as otherwise. We fear His judging nature will overshadow whatever trace of goodness He may possess. He will become a vindictive and wrathful God, provoked at the slightest offense. Acknowledging God as Judge will sentence us to a life under the shadow of His judgment, instead of a life basking in the presence of his goodness. We have to choose one or the other, we reason.

A False Dichotomy

This either/or dichotomy is entrenched deeply in some areas of church culture, whose theology about God’s goodness comes primarily from Jesus’ following statement: “The  thief only comes to steal and kill and destroy. But I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

Many understand this passage to define Satan and God’s respective roles in human suffering: Satan is the cause of all human suffering, and God is the cause of all blessing and favor. As a result, most believe it is impossible for God to either cause or allow human suffering.

Many believers understand Satan and God’s respective roles in human suffering to be Satan the cause of all human suffering, and God the cause of all blessing and favor.

But from my perspective, this type of reasoning runs into difficulty the moment we acknowledge that God is not equal with Satan. As Johnson himself acknowledges and we have discussed previously, Satan is a mere created being. God has complete control over him just as He has complete control over all creation.

For Satan to bring destruction, God must grant him permission. In fact, the only way to maintain this simplistic view of God and Satan as it pertains to human suffering is to believe that ultimately, God is simply not in control.

Bridging the Gap

But if God is supremely in control of His creation as the Bible claims, how then do we make sense of this passage of Scripture?

The answer I believe is found in making a distinction between what God causes and allows, and what He intends.

As we have discussed, God being the cause of human suffering does not necessarily make Him evil; His intention behind allowing suffering alone determines this. In the case of God pronouncing judgment upon mankind, his motivation was justice: His holiness demanded that sin and rebellion be punished.

There is a difference between what God causes and allows and what God intends.

But  now, something quite revolutionary is taking place: Jesus Christ has come on the scene voicing a new intention. His intention is for us — all of us — to have life and have it abundantly. The thief’s intention is to steal, kill and destroy; His intention is to do just the opposite. And Jesus — being the perfect representation of the Father — is therefore voicing God the Father’s intention as well, a point that Johnson emphasizes.

God’s Intention

But I believe it is important here to note that Jesus is stating God’s intention: He is not making a statement about God’s nature. In other words, Jesus is saying, “This is my goal for humanity, and this is why the Father has sent Me.” He is not saying, “Everyone, you did not know it this whole time, and I am afraid we have been really bad about communicating this up to this point with all this judgment business, but I want you to know God is only responsible for the good stuff that happens in the world. He has no part of that suffering stuff that has been taking place: That has always been the devil.”

When Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly,” He was making a statement about God’s intention, not about God’s nature.

This distinction is very important, for the way this passage is often taught and treated today is just the opposite: It is used to define who God is, not what He intends. It is used to paint a picture of God in which He only occupies the good stuff that is happening in life and in the world. It is ultimately used, as Johnson does, to build the argument that because of the merciful nature expressed by God the Father through Jesus Christ, He simply is not capable of judgment or allowing us to suffer. This of course is a concept foreign to Scripture and very bad theology besides.

Reconciling Justice and Abundant Life

But this raises a question: If God’s intention behind His judgment of mankind was (and is) justice, how does this relate to God’s seemingly new intention of abundant life represented by Jesus Christ? In other words, how do the two relate to one another?

This is a vital question to answer — and answer correctly. In fact, it can be said that Johnson’s book at its core is an attempt to state plainly God’s heart and intention for mankind. And our difficulty rests on this very question: Is God like the God of the Old Testament, or is God like Jesus? Is God pouring out wrath upon us and judging us for our sins, or is He graciously pouring out abundant life? Which is it?

If God’s intention behind His judgment is justice, how does this relate to His seemingly new intention of abundant life represented by Jesus Christ?

Johnson puts it this way:

While there are glimpses of grace in the Old [Testament], it is the ongoing judgments, diseases, curses, and the like [which] seem to have God’s blessing that become a theological nightmare — at least for me. I will admit that many people seem to have no problem with the conflict, but in all honesty, I refuse to embrace their theology. For the most part their concept of God violates all that Jesus Christ stood for and modeled for us to follow. And that really is the reason behind this book.”

The problem for us however is that the concept of God as one who judges mankind for sin is clearly revealed in Scripture. If we refuse to embrace a God who judges, I believe we run risk of refusing to embrace Old Testament — even New Testament — revelation itself. We also run risk of the very foundation of the Gospel changing.

The Answer

Needless to say, Jesus did not come to say the God of the Old Testament is not the true God, nor to say God’s Judgment of mankind was a mistake. Nor did He come preaching that the Law and the Prophets got it wrong about God. On the contrary, He came preaching that He came to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. His message was a message affirming Old Testament revelation from start to finish.

So what then is the answer to our question? I believe it is quite simple and in fact hidden in plain sight: The reason Jesus Christ came preaching a revolutionary message of forgiveness, mercy and grace, seemingly devoid of all judgment, is because He Himself was the answer to God’s judgment.

The reason Jesus Christ came preaching a revolutionary message of forgiveness, mercy and grace seemingly devoid of all judgment is because He Himself was the answer to God’s judgment.

Jesus Christ was the sacrificial Lamb who had come into the world to die in our place for the condemnation we rightly deserved. With the coming of Jesus Christ, we are not witnessing some inexplicable change in God’s nature: We are in fact witnessing God’s judgment — God’s righteous judgment — about to be satisfied.

The Cross alone made possible the abundant life we now experience as believers. This, and nothing besides, is what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” In emphasizing our abundant life, he was prophesying His own death.

What Jesus Taught and Modeled

Though Jesus came to reveal the heart of the Father, Jesus’ ministry was not a demonstration of mercy alone. Johnson himself points out that Jesus had much to say about hell. Jesus also had much to say about judgment. So judgment is still very much a part of the message.

However, the emphasis has now changed: When Jesus talks about judgment, it is no longer based on our moral conduct, but rather on our acceptance or rejection of Him. Instead of pointing mankind to the moral Law that exacts judgment and requires sacrifice, He points to Himself, the final sacrifice. According to Jesus, the consequences of rejecting God’s mercy offered through Himself are just as severe as refusing to obey the Law.

One may argue that in preaching a message of abundant life, Jesus is showing us another side of God’s character. But in all honesty, this side of God’s character has been present from the very beginning. As early as the Garden, we see God’s attribute of mercy alongside His attributes of holiness and justice. And we continue to see them interwoven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Christ was not the rejection but the fulfillment of the Old Testament God.

Conclusion

We are right to emphasize the blessing, grace, mercy and freedom that is now abundantly made available to us from God through Jesus Christ. And Johnson is also right that there is a religious mindset upon the church at this time in history that fails to recognize this, one which justifies its complacency instead of challenging it to greatness. Johnson’s message of God’s extravagant goodness is no doubt his calling and gift to the Body of Christ, one for which we are indebted.

But in our emphasis of God’s goodness, I believe it is important not to lose sight of the fact that this abundant life is only made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. God very much remains judge of the world and of mankind; it is Jesus however who makes possible the forgiveness of sins and the abundant life it brings.

I welcome your input.

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