What Would Jesus Damn?

I hope it is possible to say this with all reverence, but Jesus was a tough customer. Contrary to popular opinion, the Lord of the gospels was not the original flower child, and He did not come in order to make us all feel better about ourselves. The image that many have of the Lord’s personality and strength of character comes more from man-made traditions and saccharine portrait painters than it does from the Bible. One easily envisions the image of a genteel limpwrist standing outside the door of someone’s heart, gently tapping, because of course the doorknob is only on the inside. The only thing missing from this vision is the ribbon in his hair. I have sometimes thought that a far better picture of Jesus knocking at the door of my heart would be a commanding hand from offstage, two rows of angels with a battering ram, and a worried-looking troll peeking out over the wall of a castle.

Otto Scott put it well when he said that the God of the Bible is no buttercup. And when Jesus came He revealed all the attributes of the Father, and not just those things which we can easily interpret as comforting to ourselves. But the Lord’s words were simultaneously blunt and pointed, and as Chesterton put it, He did not hesitate to throw furniture down the front steps of the Temple. However, we like to hear all about love, and mercy, and comfort, and kindness. This is not bad in itself; these are all biblical revelations of God’s nature and character. But we present them out of context; we neglect the wrath, and holiness, and justice of God. We do not neglect these attributes because they are contradictions to the first set; we neglect them because we do not know how the Bible reconciles them. Notice how the apostle seats them at the table together, as though they were good friends. “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness” (Rom. 11:22). We must constantly remember that a half-truth presented as the whole truth is an untruth. God is kind, and God is severe. Jesus reveals the nature of the Father to us; Jesus is kind, and Jesus is severe.

Now this necessarily relates to the slogan, “What Would Jesus Do?,” a slogan which is quite popular in evangelical circles. Of course the problem with this is not the question — it is a fine question. The difficulty is that we do not answer it biblically. We ask the question, but then the biblical answer comes back that just about now He would make approximately a hundred and fifty gallons of fine Merlot wine for the wedding guests. We ignore this answer as being inconvenient for our traditions, and say that of course the Jesus “we know” would never, ever, drink alcohol. And this is because we do not know Him according to His Word.

We can illustrate this point on a more profound level by asking who Jesus would damn. Tragically, the modern evangelical Church has slid considerably from the historic Christian understanding of heaven and hell. It is unfortunate, but in order for us to answer the question, we must first reassert the reality of damnation. It has become increasingly acceptable (even within purported evangelical circles) to question or deny the reality of eternal punishment. But such evasions of the biblical teaching are hardly to be taken seriously. The greatest and most obvious “hellfire and damnation” preacher in the whole Bible is the Lord Jesus Himself. Some like to talk as though Jesus came down to us, preaching a simple message of love and peace, scattering rose petals as He went, but then along came the tight-lipped apostle Paul after him, hauling all that grim stuff into Christianity. This caricature persists only because of rank biblical ignorance. While Paul plainly affirms the reality of God’s eternal judgment, he doesn’t mention hell by name once. Jesus talks about it all the time, and with the most graphic imagery. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'” (Mark 9:43-44). Jesus talks about hell as a place of horrifying punishment, and a place every bit as real and everlasting as heaven (Matt. 25:41,46).

In addition, in Acts 17, the apostle Paul tells us that the judgment of God is visited upon the world under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. “He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). The Lord said of Himself that one day He would come to say, “Depart from Me, workers of iniquity.” So we see clearly the fact that Jesus will damn, but we still need to know who will fall under His judgment.

At first glance, the answer would appear to be theologians, Bible teachers, and writers of articles for Christian magazines like this one. “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matt. 23:13). The Lords’ usual preaching target did not appear to be drug dealers and hookers; His assaults were usually directed at religious professionals. Further, He did not address them in a true collegial spirit, as one truth-seeking rabbi to another. “Fools and blind! Blind guides! Hypocrites! Serpents! Brood of vipers!” From all this we might conclude that seminaries should be called a bag of snakes from time to time in order to help them keep their vision and focus clear.

But it would actually be a mistake to think that the issue is a particular vocation or calling. It is not as though the Lord arbitrarily decided to attack scribes instead of plumbers. The Lord’s basic target in all such assaults is the cancer of self-sufficiency, self-worship, self-righteousness. Just as the wealthy are prone to certain temptations, so the Lord shows us that the devout and pious are prone to their own sets of temptations, and among them is this deadliest temptation of all — the corruption of self-righteousness. A man is much more likely to think himself a fine fellow indeed if he is singing hymns in his car than if he is engaged in fornication. He is much more likely to approve of himself if he is doing externally virtuous things. Of course, in a perverted time, the licentious can develop their own brand of self-righteousness, and when they do, it is twice as deadly. “This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wickedness'” (Prov. 30:20).

The Lord is our only righteousness. As the Lord of righteousness, the only true righteousness, He must of necessity be constantly at war with every form of counterfeit righteousness. Who will Jesus damn? The answer is everyone outside His righteousness, everyone who therefore relies on their own righteousness. We know that God loves no sinner redemptively outside of Christ. We should also know that outside of Christ is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

As Christians we all understand that we are supposed to imitate the Lord Jesus in all His actions and words. This is what lies behind our readiness to gladly receive the question, “What would Jesus do?” Unfortunately, once we get past this general point of consensus the agreement breaks down as soon as we cite specifics. Some specifics seem to be be quite alright. “Neither do I condemn you.” Other specifics are problematic. “Snakes!” As a result we are highly selective as we choose what we will imitate. We think it is somehow “safer” for us to be imitate His words of kindness and ignore all His words of scathing rebuke. But we must think through this carefully. It is dangerous for a sinner to imitate Christ in any way, including His love and kindness. Do we really believe that love and kindness cannot to be grossly perverted? For a fallen man to pick and choose how he will imitate Christ is treacherous territory indeed.

Our safety lies in remembering His warnings, the central object of His attack — self-righteousness. So when we have answered the question, “What would Jesus condemn?,” we must take care to condemn it ourselves. And the best place to condemn self-righteousness first is in one’s very own self. In a war, it always makes good sense to shoot more at the closer targets, and less at the distant ones. As we imitate Christ, and attack sin in the church, and all the various forms of self-righteousness that pervade the modern church, we must take special care to have carefully hated the manifestations of this same spirit as they appear daily in our own hearts. The Lord is not only a Savior, He is also a Judge.

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