Piper: “Behold now the…severity of God!”
I listened to an excellent sermon today by John Piper entitled « The Echo and Insufficiency of Hell, Part 1. » (Read transcript here) This sermon touched on a topic which has been rolling around in my brain recently, and provides a strong and much needed word of correction especially to the liberal/emergent influence which provides a confusion and distortion of Biblical truth in our day.
SUMMARY OF CONTENT:
The passage which he was preaching on is Romans 11:17-22,
17But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19You will say then, « Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in. » 20Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith Do not be conceited, but fear; 21for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either.22Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.
Piper’s argument for solidly facing the subject of God’s wrath, judgment and the doctrine of Hell is two-fold: 1) We are commanded to. The verse does not say, « Behold now the kindness of the Lord…but avert your eyes from His severity. » We are commanded to « behold » – or stare directly into – the severity of our God. To fail to do so is disobedience – that is, sin. 2) It is not kind to neglect the severity of the Lord. Piper gives the illustration of a stove. If we were to tell our child that a stove is good, that it makes nice food, that it is our friend, etc…but never once stopped to get very serious and stare them right in the eye and say, « Oh, and son, be very careful with this stove. When it is red on top it can burn you and cause you lots and lots of pain. We call this ‘hot.’ Do not touch it up here ever, especially now when it is red, okay? Do you understand? » …if we do not deal honestly with the dangers and potential pain of a powerful, dangerous thing, we are simply not kind.
Piper makes the point that many today are moving away from a view of God which includes Hell. One person among these is Clark Pinnock who writes, « I was led to question the traditional belief in everlasting conscious torment because of moral revulsion and broader theological considerations, not first of all on scriptural grounds. It just does not make any sense to say that a God of love will torture people forever for sins done in the context of a finite life… » (Italics added)1
Piper points out that Pinnock is at least honest about the fact that it is his own moral and theological considerations rather than Scriptures which lead him to abandon the traditional view of hell. According to Piper, this is typical of all who abandon Scriptural truth on this topic, because Scriptures themselves are quite plain on the topic. He identifies sixteen separate passages which deal with Hell,2 and writes that,
« …is a profound and dreadful reality. To speak of it lightly, or not to speak of it at all, or to speak of it in a way that changes suffering into feeling nothing, simply proves that we do not grasp its horror. I know of no one who has overstated the terrors of hell. We can scarcely surpass the horrid images Jesus used. « Weeping and gnashing of teeth, »4 « their worm shall not die » (Mark 9:48); « unquenchable fire » (Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43); « eternal fire » (Matthew 25:41); « the hell of fire » (Matthew 18:9); « eternal punishment » (Matthew 25:46); « anguish in the flame » (Luke 16:24). The point of all these is that we are meant to shudder. We are meant to tremble and feel dread. We are meant to recoil from the reality. Not by denying it but by fleeing from it into the arms of Jesus, who died to save us from it.
Revelation 14:11 is probably the most graphic New Testament statement of the eternal suffering of the unrepentant. « The smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest day or night. » Torment forever and ever. The endless suffering of unrepentant sinners is a reality taught in Scripture and therefore good for us to know about. »
Piper concludes by urging his listeners to reverse the ordering of their thought-processes. Rather than beginning with assumptions about reality from popular culture, then modifying Scriptures to accomodate these assumptions, we should begin with Scriptures and modify our cultural assumptions accordingly. Specifically, we should not begin with the assumptions that 1) man is basically good and 2) love is about always being nice to everybody, then 3) modify Scriptural teaching on hell so that God is not really being « mean » to people who « don’t deserve it, » but in reality is doing something not-so-bad, which we won’t talk about much anyways, in an effort to shelter our poor sensitivities. In contrast to this, we should begin with scriptures, and work backwards into our culture. As Piper says,
« Since the Bible teaches it, it must be just and therefore, O how infinitely dreadful sin must be! How infinitely blameworthy it must be to treat the glory of God with contempt! How infinite must be the insult to God when we do not trust his promises! What infinite beauty and glory and purity and holiness God must have, that endless suffering is a just and fitting punishment for disobeying his Word! Annihilationism reduces sin from high treason to a misdemeanor. Hell is meant to fill us with awe at the glory we have scorned.
And it is to fill us with wonder that the death of one man—the God-man, Jesus Christ—could bear the infinite penalty as a substitute for everyone who repents and trusts in him. Hell is an echo of the glory of God. It reveals the greatness of the glory that has been rejected and the greatness of Jesus’ suffering because he bore that hell for all who believe. »
In a previous post (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God), I reflected that if we allowed the concept of hell to intrude into our thoughts, it must dominate. This is no peripheral issue: to ignore it would be like ignoring the Holocaust, like ignoring aids, like ignoring abortion. If Hell is anything even remotely similar to the place described in Scriptures, and if Jesus really is the only way to avoid it then there should be no causes which should be allowed to eclipse the dominant, over-arching, all consuming cause of Christian proselytization. This attitude seems compatible with that of the early church – who could not be stopped even at the threat of death by crucifiction, burning or dismemberment to keep this vital message of the gospel to themselves. And how could they? After they were shown so much grace, how could they keep it to themselves?
If we believed in hell, I think it would – quite literally – light a fire benieth us all. It would motivate us to pour out our souls in weeping over the lost, to take risks for the Kingdom, to joyfully endure the loss of all things for the saving of only one soul. It would, in short, set us on a mission to seek and to save what has been lost – rejoicing with exceeding joy when even one soul is saved!
By contrast, the Evangelical church seems to be having an identity crisis, precisely because it has forgotten why it was sent. Why do churches, missionaries, soul-winning campaigns exist again? For happier marriages? For solid and stable homes? For financial security? For happy, content people who are able to get through the week that much better once they have had their « spiritual fix » once a week?
Without hell, church becomes nothing more than a social club, the goal of the club becomes nothing more than having « good » meetings, and a good meeting-hall, and evangelism becomes a gimmicky attempted expansion of the club. It becomes very, very hard to remember why our « club » is the right one and other clubs are less valid or invalid, and why we should make any real sacrifices for the cause of our club.
When we remember the clear teachings of Scripture, everything snaps sharply into focus. We are not a club which exists to serve our own needs, but an army which exists to serve and to save that which was lost. We are not selfishly trying to get more tithers and warm bodies into our churches, we are on a mission to rescue souls from an eternity which is too horrible to think about to an eternity which is too wonderful to describe. We are not in competition with fellow churches – if they are saving souls, more power to them! We are in competition with other religions, however, because we believe that at root their beliefs are doctrines of demons, invented to keep people captive in their sins and seperation from God.
If we had the guts, then, to actually turn and face the severity of our God, I believe it would put the soul back into our preaching, the strength back into our singing, the passion back into our praying, the urgency back into our witnessing, and the focus back into our church-meetings.
You say that « hellfire and brimstone » is for the Southern Baptists, for the simple-minded, for the past. I say hell is for real, and if we are going to take God at His word, « hellfire and brimstone » is for us, now, to face, to deal with, and to act accordingly.
Indeed, it may be that this is the very thing which we have been missing so dearly, and searching so hard to find!
1. Clark Pinnock and Delwin Brown, Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), pp. 226-227.
2 Daniel 12:2; Matthew 3:12 (Luke 3:17); Mark 9:43-48; Matthew 18:8; Matthew 10:28 (Luke 12:4-5); Matthew 25:41, 46; Matthew 26:24; Mark 3:29 and Matthew 12:32; Luke 16:26; Romans 2:6-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Hebrews 6:1-2; Jude 12-13; Revelation 14:11; Revelation 19:3; Revelation 20:10.