“Didn’t God promise this in the very beginning? ‘If you eat of the fruit you will die.’ How does it change God’s character if it happens sooner, and in greater quantity, than we expected?”
Anne Graham Lotz has suggested COVID-19 is one of many recent signs of the Lord’s imminent return. She is not alone. While she writes carefully and encouragingly, a quick Internet search will yield many voices reminiscent of Revelation’s trumpets. This is nothing new. I remember many who dared speak for God in 2004, claiming the tsunami was divine judgment against Sri Lanka. I believe many who say such things are reacting to our human need to make sense of suffering. I’ll write more about that another day, but briefly put, we want suffering to mean something. When suffering exceeds a reasonable capacity, it is easy to appeal to the biblical record of divine judgment. However, is this a responsible reading of Scripture? Maybe.
Scripture has much to say about judgment. The human story barely begins before God is pronouncing judgment against Adam and Eve for their rebellion. If we are to think biblically about divine judgment, this is where we must begin. In 2016, I interviewed several preachers as part of my doctoral research. I was wrestling through the implacable hardness of God’s command to wipe out the entire Canaanite bloodline. While wrapping up an interview with a close friend, we felt like we had recorded a solidly meaningful conversation. My last question was, “Is there anything you feel like we did not cover.” He paused, then made that classic light-bulb-moment face; “Didn’t God promise this in the very beginning? ‘If you eat of the fruit you will die.’ How does it change God’s character if it happens sooner, and in greater quantity, than we expect?”
All death is God’s judgment. Sometimes it happens because of an individual’s specific sin, and sometimes it happens because of national or corporate sin. But it always – always – happens because of original and innate sin. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Be comforted; the curse does not stand alone. A blessing comes in the same breath, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” When we see judgment, we are to look through it to the promised blessing. Even the sweeping judgment of Romans 1 is followed by Romans 2. The text pleads with those who have survived judgment, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
Romans 6:23 points us to salvation through Jesus, and Romans 2:4 points us to salvation through repentance. These truths are one in the same. The first word of Jesus’ public ministry was “repent.” If the wages of sin is death, the only salvation from death begins with repenting from its cause. But, repentance is only one piece. As 6:23 says, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Sin must be answered with death. Jesus delivers us from this judgment by becoming judged on our behalf. “For our sake he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Jesus], so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We are invited to receive Jesus’ sacrifice in faith. “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). Salvation from judgment requires repentance of sin and belief in Jesus.
God grants us pictures of salvation everywhere we look. In Bergamo, Italy, a 72-year-old priest died of COVID-19 after giving his respirator to a younger patient. Judgment had come upon them both. The wages of sin were catching up. One man took the full measure of the curse in order to secure salvation for another.
1) It means that when we see God’s judgment we should look to salvation rather than blame. We dare not speak to the reason for God’s judgment. We are not prophets. We do not have secret knowledge. We know that we will all one day give an account, and the wages of sin will catch up to us. We don’t know if it will come through disease, or car accident, or war. But, it will come. Our hope under this current crisis does not change. “Cast all your anxiety on Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
2) It means that we can trust God with the virus, and the economic and political fall-out. Not the Chinese government, nor the U.S. Senate, nor the Italian fatality rates are outside of God’s control. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). Even the virus is subject to our Lord’s will. “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). If God is acting, and He certainly is, we can trust Him!
3) It means that we as Christian people must boldly stand for truth. A careful reading of Romans 1:18-32 reveals God’s judgment was not against any manner of social brokenness. Rather, social brokenness was the substance of the judgment. The judgment was because they refused to acknowledge God (V. 21). When we see hardship, brokenness, death, war, and disease we should be alerted that God is calling His creation to worship. He’s not calling us to fix things beyond our control. Only God can heal. He is calling us to worship.
Is God judging us? Always. And, with it comes the still small voice of kindness calling us back to Him, in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
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