Restrained Judgment

Restrained Judgment

“Do you really think — anyone of you who judges those who do such things yet do the same — that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; but wrath and indignation to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth but are obeying unrighteousness; affliction and distress for every human being who does evil, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. There is no favoritism with God.” (Romans 2:3-11 HCSB)

The world I grew up in was quite different than today. I realize that my age tends to make me look back on my childhood with a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of loss, but it really was different. Today, I wouldn’t ever consider letting a five-year-old go play outside without a fence and the ability to monitor his activity or closely watch him. When I was a kid we mostly played outside and, most often, without direct adult supervision. Another area of change are the ways in which parents train, discipline and punish their children. I’m not trying to stir up any controversy, but I can tell you that I am a product of my parent’s disciplinary actions. Looking back on those disciplinary actions, I recognize that most of them were very much deserved and produced the desired effects.

One incident, in particular, stands out in my memory. I was about 9 or 10 years old and we lived in old two story house near downtown Tulsa. This old house was perfect for a 9-year-old’s curious mind as it had lots of places to hide and to explore. One day, I decided to try and climb to top of the closet in my bedroom (shared with my older brother) and into the attic through an access panel. As I climbed higher into the closet, the clothes rod I was standing on suddenly broke under the load of the clothes and a 9 year old’s body and I fell, landing safely on top of those clothes. With no way to fix the damage and in a typical 9-year-old response of not wanting to be caught doing something I knew would get me in trouble, I closed the closet door and acted like nothing happened. When my mother discovered the damage and the clean clothes lying all over the floor, she demanded to know what happened and… I lied, of course. After questioning my brothers, who knew nothing about what I had done, she gave the ever-ominous pronouncement, “Just wait until your father gets home!”

When dad arrived home he brought all of three of the older boys into the bedroom and began the dreaded interrogation. When nobody confessed, he threatened to spank each of us until the real culprit took responsibility. I persisted in my lies and denied knowing anything. Now my dad was a very kind and gentle person and it wasn’t until many, many years later that I realized how much he meant it when he said, “this hurts me more than it does you.” He then proceeded to spank each of us in turn trying to solicit a confession from the guilty boy – but I clung to my plea of innocence knowing full well that I was completely guilty. I don’t remember how many times my father spanked each of us, but I know that after the first one I could never admit my guilt because my older and younger brothers had each taken a spanking because of MY actions. I was certain I was better off with Dad’s punishment than their retribution. To be honest, it wasn’t until we were grown men that I finally and hesitatingly confessed my guilt to them. Fortunately, their wrath had long since subsided and we laughed about the memory. Boy, was I glad of that. <wink>

Why do I tell you that story of my childhood? The thought of my dad with his gentle spirit, calm demeanor but almost tearful statement that this punishment would cause him more pain that it would cause me is still a very vivid memory. Now, I’m certain that some psychiatrist might try and psychoanalyze me and claim that the trauma of those spankings are what is burned into my memory. However, I don’t remember the details of the spanking or even how many times he spanked us… but I do remember his words and the look of pain and sorrow on his face. That had more impact on my psychological development than any supposed trauma from the physical spanking. So, I want to focus in on three aspects of God’s character and actions that Paul highlights in this passage: God’s restraint, His righteousness judgment and His equitable wrath based on truth.

Now, I told you the story of my father and his actions but I want you to stop and consider our Heavenly Father and how Paul describes His spirit and demeanor… His rich or abundant kindness, His restraint and patience towards our sin and how that is intended to draw us into repentance. This passage ISN’T about a vengeful, wrathful, hateful God who can hardly contain Himself as He awaits the appointed time when He can finally unleash His anger on you and me. This passage is about our Heavenly Father, a DAD whose heart is breaking as He prepares to discipline the children He loves but who refuse to confess their sin and failures and continuously reject His love, mercy and forgiveness.

Does God HATE sin? Absolutely! He hates it because of what it does to us and what it has done to His creation. Then why permit sin to exist? If God is good and all powerful then why doesn’t He just wipe out sin and evil? While I would love to take the time to explore that question in depth, we don’t have time today. But, let me take the father analogy a bit farther to explain. As a father, one of the things I must do for my children is to not only permit them to grow but encourage them to grow, mature and develop into responsible, God-loving, law-abiding, socially-contributing, self-sustaining adults. In that process, they have made and continue to make decisions based on what I’ve taught them about God and the truth they perceive in His creation.

Some of those decisions are good, honorable and life-sustaining and some of them are poor, wrong or just plain destructive. If I try and force them into my will or desires then I am tyrannical and destroying their love, creativity and self-worth. Do I hate it when my children make poor, bad or self-destructive decisions? Absolutely! Do I hate them or just the poor choices? I love them and hate their choices, but I love them so much that I must allow them the freedom and self-will to make those choices and to reap the benefits and the consequences. If you didn’t catch it, I also made similar decisions with the freedom my father gave me and so have you. We’ve also made similar decisions with the freedom our Heavenly Father has given us, some good and some bad.

Now, here’s where things get very real and very interesting or as we say – this is where the rubber meets the road. As noted last week, Paul points out that we often judge others when we are guilty of doing the very same things (see last week’s lesson here). So, he asks his listeners (which includes us) if we despise God’s rich or abundant kindness, restraint and patience that is intended to give us an opportunity to recognize our mistakes, failures or, to put it more bluntly, our sin and to guide us towards repentance. Repentance is one of those religious words that is often misunderstood because of the baggage, history and cultural connotations that gets attached to it in our minds. Even those of us from a Protestant background seem to have associated the idea of a Catholic confessional with this idea of confession and repentance. So, let me tell you what they really mean…

To confess means to “say the same as” or to agree with God regarding our actions and, more specifically, our sin. It means that we agree with Him regarding not only our guilt but also sin’s destructive character. God doesn’t just hate sin because we’ve done something He told us we “shouldn’t do.” He hates it because He knows the true character and consequences of sin. He KNOWS what it does in us and to us that we are incapable of seeing or understanding, right now. To use our father/child analogy a little more, a young child doesn’t grasp the consequences of running into the street and may only see his father’s restrictions about not running near or into the street as just RESTRICTIVE. He doesn’t recognize the danger but only that his father is keeping him from playing and having fun. As spiritual children, we often don’t recognize or understand the dangers of our sin. We see God’s Word and prohibitions as just being restrictive to our freedom and choices. We are too spiritually immature to recognize the inherent dangers and consequences in our action and choices. Confession means that we recognize and agree with God that our actions, choices or our attitudes are destructive. By the way, sin is – at its core – even idolatrous because we believe we know better than God does what is best for us.

To repent means to “turn away from” our sin, bad choices or rebellious attitude and to turn towards God’s purpose, will and design for our lives. In other words, to repent is to fully acknowledge the destructive nature of sin and to turn towards God, the true source and giver of life. So, to confess and repent doesn’t mean that we just feel remorseful that we got caught or our conscience nags at us. It means we feel real, godly sorrow over our choices and actions because of their destructive nature and we take appropriate measures to learn and make better choices the next time. In our focal passage, Paul calls God “rich in kindness, restraint and patience” because His desire is that we learn and develop the spiritual maturity where we recognize the inherent dangers and destructiveness of our sin and begin to willfully and purposefully desire and choose those things.

Again, if a child ignores his father’s instruction and begins running towards the street then a good father is going to react quickly and attempt to verbally stop his child and, if that fails, to physically stop his child from making this foolish and dangerous choice. He’s not going to ignore his child’s immaturity and poor choices and allow him to play near the street unsupervised. Of course, as the child matures and grows then his father expects the child to have listened and learned those early and repeated lessons – don’t run into the street, it’s dangerous – and he gives him more freedom as the child demonstrates more and more wisdom and maturity. God does the same and is rich in kindness, restraint and patience as He teaches us the dangers and consequences of our foolish and rebellious choices, actions and attitudes. God doesn’t want a foolish, injured or even worse, a dead child. He wants a spiritually mature, wise child that enjoys the fullness of life that God designed and intended for His children.

So, God’s desire is that we trust, believe and obey His commands because they truly are the source of life and happiness that we ultimately desire. There are times when His commands and expectations feel restrictive or limiting, but our Father knows better than we do what is best for us. That is really the essence of faith, to love God and to trust His love, power, wisdom and will enough that even when it doesn’t match our desires, even when it seems out of alignment with our culture, even when it doesn’t make sense to our finite minds we still love, follow and obey the wisdom of our infinite God. To do so, we must confess – agree with God that our disobedience is sinful and destructive – and repent – turn away from our disobedient and destructive behavior and strive to live obedient to God’s will, design and purpose for our lives. That is faith which leads to life – eternal life.

Next, Paul deals with those who refuse God’s loving kindness, restrained wrath and patient work to bring them to a life of confession and repentance through faith in Christ. Pauls says their hearts are hard and unrepentant – unwilling to turn away from a life of destructive choices, behavior and self-centered attitudes. The result? God’s wrath building up and spilling over on that day when His righteous judgment comes to complete fulfillment. Remember when I told you that my father’s judgment on my actions resulted in him saying that the punishment he was about to release hurt him more than it would hurt me? That’s how I believe God feels and what scripture reveals about the day of judgment. God takes no pleasure in judgment just as my father took no pleasure in it. I didn’t understand this concept until I became a father. Even though we know, in our finite and very limited human wisdom and understanding, that a good, loving father would NEVER give his child anything and everything the child desires we somehow think that God should. Why? As I said before, because of our idolatrous attitudes towards God. Like an immature child, we think we know what’s best for us. We think we’re smarter than God. We think we know the secrets of life but we’re just immature and foolish.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12 HCSB)

Next, Paul says that God’s judgment is righteous and, thus, must be just and true or based in truth and justice. There is a modern concept regarding the idea of God’s wrath upon sin and His judgment upon sinful man that throws out the notion of righteousness, truth and justice. This “modern” view God is a god of love and He will continue to love until the sinner turns from sin to God, thus, there’s no room for wrath, judgment and justice in that concept of God. But Paul points out that man can be hard hearted and unrepentant and refuse to turn away from sin. Proponents of this view of “universalism” believe that when unrepentant man is confronted by the holy and righteous God, his heart will soften and he will repent. This is a “second chance” view of judgment that just doesn’t seem to be supported by scriptural references to God’s righteous judgment.

In a similar vein, for God to be just then unrepentant man must be held accountable for his disobedience. While there are certainly those who question the idea of judgment, I rarely find anyone who has suffered some significant injustice or been the victim of a heinous crime who questions whether justice and judgment are good qualities of a holy and loving God. We want evil men and women punished and held accountable for their actions. Some think that God could never condemn someone to an eternity in Hell for a single sin like lying (I’ve never known anyone guilty of a single sin – by the way, this idea takes a very high view of man’s goodness but a very low view of God) but what of those who are guilty of gross injustices and heinous crimes? Is it just to ignore their sins and lack of sorrow and personal repentance? How would you feel if someone committed a heinous crime against you or a family member but the judge looked at them and said, “I don’t think you’re really a bad person. Even though you are not remorseful or repentant of your actions, I’m going to excuse your guilt and set you free.” I would imagine that you would be telling anyone who would listen that justice was NOT served in your case. Let me say it again just to be clear, the key in this issue is the hard and unrepentant heart of the guilty person.

The last thing I want to address this week in our focal passage is Paul’s quote from Psalms 62:12, “He [God] will repay each one according to his works.” Remember, this is a continuation of last week’s lesson where Paul tells those who want others to be condemned by God while they practice the same sins expressing no guilt and expecting no judgment. Some might read this quote and wonder: “what happened to salvation by grace, through faith?” Is Paul contradicting himself? Didn’t he just say in chapter 1, verse 17 that “the righteous will live by faith”? What’s up with that?

In my back yard, I have a peach tree. If you were to see a photo of that tree in the winter, you might wonder whether it was even alive. However, each spring the leaves and the peach blossoms appear. After a few weeks, the blossoms begin to form into small peaches. It takes several months but eventually, with the right weather and proper care, those very small green peaches grow and ripen and become tasty treats that I enjoy to pick, eat and share with others. The mature, ripe peaches are not what give the tree life, but they are a sign of a living and healthy peach tree. In the winter, when the leaves and peaches are gone the tree is not dead, even though there’s no evidence of life. The tree is alive because its roots are deep in the nutrient rich and moist soil, the leaves and fruit are simply the evidence and results of its life.

In the Christian life, faith is the root that gives life and our actions are the fruit, the natural result and evidence of that life. If you were to go back and read all of Psalm 62 (and I suggest you do), you would discover that it is a lament of David as he was being pursued by Saul’s assassins (see 1 Samuel 18-29). David has placed his full trust in the Lord even as Saul continues to seek to take his life. David’s only hope for life, indeed, his entire salvation rests in God alone, but he calls upon to God be true and just in His dealings with those who are treacherous, who are liars and who seek to take his life. David’s salvation lies in his faith, but he calls for God to see the fruit of his opponent’s obedience to God’s will (David had already been anointed King by God’s prophet, though Saul as still alive and trying to kill his rival, David) and to render judgment based on their obedience. Paul doesn’t contradict himself, he simply supports his argument that those who claim faith but do the same things as those they condemn are unrepentant, hypocritical and subject to judgment.

So, where does that leave us? It leaves us needing to address the sin in our own lives. If we are unaware of sin, we are blind or hard hearted. If we are aware of sin but unwilling to address it, we are unrepentant. Either way, we are subject to God’s wrath and judgment. But, if we are believers then aren’t we forgiven of our sin? Absolutely! But a believer who is aware of sin in his/her life cannot leave it unconfessed or remain unrepentant or they reveal a lack of obedience and, thus, a lack of belief or true faith. If you are not a believer but the Holy Spirit has used this lesson to soften your heart and reveal your sin and disobedience then do NOT miss this part. Paul says the purpose of God’s restrained judgment is to give YOU an opportunity to know and experience God’s amazing grace, His mercy on sinners like you and me, and His call to faith, confession and repentance. Don’t let this opportunity pass by. Call on Him, agree with God that your actions are in violation of His will and destroying your life, and then repent and turn away from sin and turn to God by faith.

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