Even Believers Need to Be Warned

How Hell Motivates Holiness

I stood at a friend’s kitchen sink, surprised and somewhat disturbed. My friend’s wife had taped a notecard on the wall behind the sink with some spiritual reminders. That in itself was nothing new: though still a young believer, I had seen such cards posted to desks, doors, bathroom mirrors, and the like. No, what surprised me was one particular reminder this young woman had chosen to write.

The exact words escape me, but the sense still burns in my memory: “You deserve hell.”

You deserve hell? On the one hand, I had no intellectual objection to the statement. I myself had recently come to see the darkness of my native heart. I had realized that I was not just mistaken or in need of occasional forgiveness, but actually hell-deserving — and hell-destined apart from the grace of Jesus.

But the notecard still disturbed me. Yes, we deserve hell, but should we recall the fact as often as we wash our hands? Should the reality of hell, and the remembrance that we once were headed there, stay warm in our minds?

I can certainly imagine someone thinking too much about hell. The unspeakable sorrow of eternal punishment, dwelt on overmuch, could overwhelm the sense of joy pulsing through the New Testament. But a recent survey of Paul’s letters leads me to think my friend’s wife was closer to his apostolic heart than my instinct to recoil.

We may not post reminders above our sinks, but somehow the thought needs to become more than passing and occasional. We deserve hell, and only one thing stands between us and that outer darkness: Jesus.

Remember Hell

When we turn to Paul’s letters, we actually notice something even more startling than the notecard over my friend’s sink. Regularly throughout his writings, the apostle not only reminds the churches of their formerly hopeless state; he also warns them of their ongoing danger should they drift from Christ. He says not only, “You deserve hell,” but also, “Make sure you don’t end up there.”

Consider just a few of Paul’s bracing warnings to the churches:

  • “If you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13).
  • “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9).
  • “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).
  • “Put to death . . . what is earthly in you. . . . On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5–6).
  • “The Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).

The situation becomes even more surprising when we consider Paul’s overall posture toward the believers in these churches. Paul was “satisfied” that the Romans were “full of goodness” (Romans 15:14). He was confident the Corinthians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). He saw the Ephesians as already seated with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–6); he rejoiced in the firmness of the Colossians’ faith (Colossians 2:5); he knew God had chosen the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:4).

And yet he warned. In fact, Paul places his warnings near the heart of his apostolic calling: “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). So, amid his encouragements, and throughout his doctrinal instruction, and even as he exulted in the hope of glory, he would sometimes grow solemn and still, lower his tone, and turn his ink black.

“Dear brothers,” he would write in effect, “Christ is gloriously yours. But until you see him face to face, don’t imagine yourselves out of danger. Hell still awaits any who forsake him.”

Why Did Paul Warn?

Why did Paul warn his beloved churches, sometimes with unsettling sternness? A closer look at his warnings sheds some light. Among several purposes Paul had, we might consider three in particular that rise to the surface.

These three purposes are not limited to Paul’s apostolic calling, or even to the pastoral calling today. Pastors, as God’s watchmen, may have a special responsibility to blow eternity’s trumpet, but Paul and the other apostles expected all Christians to play their part in admonishing, exhorting, warning (Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Hebrews 3:13).

So, as we consider when and why Paul warned of hell, we (pastors especially, but also all of us) learn when and why we should too.

1. To Alarm the Presumptuous

First, Paul warned of hell to alarm the presumptuous. Hell was a siren to awake spiritual sleepers, a large “Danger” sign for those drifting off the narrow way, a merciful thorn for feet too comfortable near the cliff of sin.

“We are never more in danger than when we think we are not.”

Despite Paul’s overall positive posture toward the churches, he knew that some in these communities were in danger of spiritual presumption. In Corinth, for example, some acted arrogantly when they should have felt fear and trembling (1 Corinthians 5:2). Some treated sexual immorality with frightful indifference (1 Corinthians 6:12–20). Some did not hesitate to haul their brothers to court (1 Corinthians 6:1–8).

They were growing numb and didn’t know it. So Paul sounded the warning:

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)

If a brother seems spiritually presumptuous; if exhortation and entreaty seem to land lightly; if his sin has become habitual, and his hand seems lifted higher and higher — he may need to hear a word about hell. At first, such a word may sound as unwelcome as an alarm awaking him from a deep and comfortable slumber. But if he is in Christ, then such a warning will have its God-intended effect in time. His initial offense or displeasure will give way to the dreadful realization that the house is on fire; he must escape.

By all means speak wisely, carefully, with the kind of trembling that fits so fearful a topic. But take courage from Paul, and believe that sometimes, love alarms.

2. To Protect the Vulnerable

Often when Paul warns of hell, however, he does not have presumptuous people in mind. Usually, these stern words come to beloved brothers and sisters whose faith seems firm, to churches like the Romans, the Ephesians, the Colossians, the Thessalonians. Why does he warn such saints? He does so, in part, because as long as we are in this world, we are vulnerable to becoming deceived with what Paul calls “empty words” (Ephesians 5:6).

First-century societies, just like ours, had their broadly acceptable sins, their celebrated evils. They also had scoffers and false teachers who shrugged off the judgment to come. And Paul knew that, over time, such a society could subtly dull the Christian conscience. God’s people could slowly become swayed by “plausible arguments” (Colossians 2:4): “You really think God cares about what we do in our bedroom?” “How could so many people be wrong?” “You seriously expect God to judge something that so many do?”

Such questions, spoken or merely suggested by a pervasive societal mood, can create an atmosphere where hell sits uncertainly on the soul — where eternity becomes a vague, weightless idea, a peripheral thought that holds little power against the most popular sins of the day. That is, unless we regularly hear Paul (or a pastor or friend) say, “Let no one deceive you” (Ephesians 5:6). No matter how common, no matter how lauded, “The Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).

We need such warnings today, perhaps especially from our pulpits. What sins are so normal throughout our cities, so typical in entertainment, so characteristic of our own pasts that we are in danger of becoming numb to their hell-deserving guilt? Pornography and fornication? Casual drunkenness? Love of money and luxuries? Internet reviling?

If the vulnerable among us (and to some degree, we’re all vulnerable) are going to see the deep pit at the end of such well-traveled paths, then someone needs to point it out — and not only once.

3. To Humble the Mature

Finally, and maybe most surprising of all, Paul warned of hell not only to alarm the presumptuous and protect the vulnerable, but also to humble the mature. No matter how strong others seemed, Paul did not think they were too strong for danger, too firm to fall. He knew the most established believer stands just a few yards away from spiritual peril, and just a few more yards from spiritual ruin. So, he writes, “Do not become proud, but fear” (Romans 11:20).

Remarkably, Paul counted himself among those in need of such warnings. Hear the great apostle admonish his own soul: “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26–27). Can you imagine Paul disqualified? Can you fathom the mighty missionary, the bold church planter, the zealous apostle barred from heaven? He could.

I recently encountered this rare apostolic spirit in a letter from Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813–1843), who wrote to a friend and fellow minister,

I charge you, be clothed with humility, or you will yet be a wandering star, for which is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever. . . . If you lead sinners to yourself, and not to Christ, Immanuel will cast the star out of His right hand into utter darkness. (Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 130)

Why speak so to a fruitful, faithful, mature minister of Christ? Because M’Cheyne (and Paul before him) knew the paradoxical nature of Christian perseverance: We are never more in danger than when we think we are not. And we are never safer than when we feel our weakness, distrust our strength, and lean hard upon the arm of our Lord Jesus. “He that walketh humbly walketh safely,” John Owen writes (Works, 6:217). And he who remembers hell walks humbly.

Him We Proclaim

Consider again Paul’s description of his apostolic calling in Colossians 1:28: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” We have focused here on Paul’s warnings, but we dare not miss the context in which they come.

Hell was not the main theme of Paul’s ministry. Unlike some fire-and-brimstone preachers, he did not thunder forth the judgment to the neglect of other doctrines or in ways that sunk others into all-consuming fear. He did not write, “Hell we proclaim,” but “Him we proclaim” — Christ.

Why, ultimately, did Paul warn of hell? Because Jesus was too wonderful, too marvelous not to use every righteous means available to “present everyone mature in Christ,” to win people to him and keep people near him. Others needed to know the danger of hell because they needed to know the danger of missing eternal life with him. Warnings were his way of casting us into the arms of Christ, the safest place in all the world.

And so he warned. And so the wise remember, in one way or another, that we deserve hell, and that we are not (for now) beyond the danger of hell. Read it in Scripture; say it to your soul; write it over your kitchen sink if you must. Think of hell long enough and often enough to keep you close to Jesus, humble and happy and hoping in him.