In part 1 we looked at the problem created by Jesus’ declaration and the Apostolic teaching that the is the only way to the Father. In this part we need to consider another problem: salvation itself. In the Modern(ist) world it is unthinkable that humans need to be saved from divine wrath. The god(s) of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment movements that swept across Europe, Britain, and eventually North America in the 18th and 19th centuries were benevolent, distant deities. Modernity did away with judgment and with it the necessity of salvation. Salvation became a metaphor for cultural, economic, and civic improvement. Gradually, in the 20th century particularly government became the Savior from earthly evils. In the Late modern period (in the USA, post-1968), salvation was transformed into therapeutic goals and chief among those: self-esteem. This is the tyranny of the late-modern period: the unyielding god of affirmation. Now, since we are all above average, what sense is it to talk of salvation, from what? To what?
Holy Scripture, however, begs to differ. John the Baptizer, the last of the Old Covenant prophets, summarized the message of all the prophets on this score:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 3:7–10; ESV).
The Apostle Paul taught the same doctrine. There is a coming judgment and for those who are not utterly righteous (no fair cheating via purgatory) there is “wrath to come.”
For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:9–10; ESV).
and again to the Thessalonian congregation:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed (2 Thess 2:5–10; ESV).
The Apostle John put that same teaching in symbolic form but it is clear enough:
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh (Rev 19:17–21; ESV).
There is a coming judgment. There is divine wrath, i.e., as Louis Berkhof put it,
Retributive justice, which relates to the infliction of penalties. It is an expression of the divine wrath. While in a sinless world there would be no place for its exercise, it necessarily holds a very prominent place in a world full of sin. On the whole the Bible stresses the reward of the righteous more than the punishment of the wicked; but even the latter is sufficiently prominent. Rom. 1:32; 2:9; 12:19; 2 Thess. 1:8, and many other passages. It should be noted that, while man does not merit the reward which he receives, he does merit the punishment which is meted out to him. Divine justice is originally and necessarily obliged to punish evil, but not to reward good, Luke 17:10; 1 Cor. 4:7; Job 41:11. Many deny the strict punitive justice of God and claim that God punishes the sinner to reform him, or to deter others from sin; but these positions are not tenable. The primary purpose of the punishment of sin is the maintenance of right and justice. Of course, it may incidentally serve, and may even, secondarily, be intended, to reform the sinner and to deter others from sin.1
These passages are more than sufficient to demonstrate the falsity of the ancient Gnostic claim that there is a “New Testament” Christianity wherein God is is “love” and without wrath, righteousness, or judgment. That’s not Christianity. That’s Gnosticism, a religion ladders, secret knowledge, and salvation not from wrath but from finitude. In other words, it’s the very lie that the Evil One first told in the garden: “You shall be as gods.” Uh, no.
I belabor this because when I posted the first part of this series on Twitter, a fellow replied to the effect that the doctrine that we need salvation is arrogant and bigoted. It only seems so, if we assume the Modernist stance that there is no God who is, who has revealed himself, who has become incarnate in Jesus the Messiah, and who, in Christ is returning to judge the living and the dead. As I noted to him, not only is the doctrine that there is a coming judgment manifestly biblical but it is also the catholic (i.e., universal) doctrine of the church in all times and places. Both the Nicene Creed (325, 381 AD) and Apostles’ Creed (final form c. 7th century AD) teach a coming judgment:
The Nicene (325; and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, 381) says:
thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead….
The Apostles’ Creed says:
thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead
That’s why we speak of salvation. There is a coming judgment of the living and the dead. It isn’t mean to say this. It isn’t narrow-minded to say this. Telling the truth plainly is not mean. It isn’t bigoted. It’s helpful. If you’re driving toward a road that has washed out, which now ends in a 1,000-foot drop off, it is of the essence of love to tell the driver to stop the car. One might even have to raise one’s voice to be heard over the noise of the car (and quite possibly the stereo or the phone). Even so, it’s remains a kindness to point out the coming disaster and the way to safety.
That’s why we confess:
29. Why is the Son of God called JESUS, that is, Savior?
Because He saves us from our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.
There is much more than a 1,000-foot drop off coming. Judgment is coming and it shall be executed by the all holy, holy, holy God (Rev 4:8) God, before whom no unrighteous person shall stand. Jesus is the way to safety. He is the only way through the coming flood of judgment (1 Pet 2:9) and we enter that ark of deliverance by God’s free (t0 us) favor, through faith (trusting, resting) alone. All those who’ve been given new life and with it faith and with faith, union with Christ, are saved, are being saved, and shall be saved by God’s mercy and grace and those who have been delivered ought to live lives worthy of so great a salvation.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 75–76.