If an old-time preacher, one who believed in uncomfortable realities like the wrath of God, human depravity, and divine judgment, rode his horse through some of the streets of American Christianity, what might he experience?
Sounding the alarm as Paul Revere, this watchman might gallop down our paved roads yelling,
“Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming! Make way for the King! Repent and believe! Stay awake! Keep the faith! Only those who endure to the end will be saved! Put the flesh to death by the Spirit! Obey him! Finish the race! Look to Jesus! Trust him for his grace! He is coming to judge the world in righteousness!”
To his delight, a good number would trim (or would have already trimmed) their lamps. These already live looking out the window — trusting, praying, fellowshipping, killing sin, living awake — ready for their Master to return.
But to his amazement, some voices would shoot back from dimmed rooms:
“You must be lost, dear sir. We are Christians. You must have meant to stir up the next town of Never-Heard or perhaps Secular City down the way.”
“Good works,” laughs another. “Why, good sir, do not tell me you are Roman. ‘By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight’ (Romans 3:20). Our faith justifies, we will not quiver as though our doings made us right with God.”
“Forgive me,” the preacher says, taken aback. “I did not mean to have you rise and live and work to earn salvation — it cannot be done and cursed are all who try. I meant rise with your new nature, new affections, new allegiances, new Spirit, and new commandments, live and stay alert with holy urgency. Walk the narrow way, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Strive for the holiness without which we cannot see the Lord. Confirm your calling and election.”
“Yes. Yes. We have heard of your kind before,” remarks the first. “More emphasis on our works than Christ’s. Listen here, Christ lived a perfect life for me and died in my place. I have failed, will fail — and often fail — but Christ, sir, Christ lived such a life in my place. I refuse to return to law. I am gospel-centered, you see.”
“Oh, sir,” adds the second, “now I know you to be trouble. What is this talk of wrath and judgment? We are Christians. All these warnings, threats, exhortations, admonishments come to my ears as the fearmongerings of a legal religion. No condemnation is mine in Christ. I wish you a speedy return to Heretics Highway.”
With that, before another word could be spoken, several windows might shut, otherwise their snores would soon become audible from the street.
Are the Warnings for Me?
The above account, albeit exaggerated, captures the instinct of some professing Christians today when they come across the imperatives and the warnings of Scripture.
Some self-professed “gospel-centered” Christian teaching leaves little room for discussing our efforts and actions besides repeating that they do not justify; sees Christian living as an almost irrelevant holding cell before heaven; understands justification as the totality of salvation; has little-to-no category for conditional divine promises; and holds dismissive ideas about the warnings and commandments of Scripture.
“Once saved always saved,” they say in defense. “Jesus obeyed so I do not have to.” When they stumble across an imperative or warning, they dismiss it as yet another gospel-reminder — “Of course I could never cut off my hand of lust, or live a self-disciplined, pure, humble, hospitable, forgiving, or faithful life — but thank God Jesus did all that for me.” However, true cross-centeredness takes up all the aims of the cross: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
“The red ink falling from the cross did not redact the imperatives or cautions of the New Testament for believers.”
Now, thank God that Jesus has lived the life we could not live, and died the death we should have died, and rose again from the grave in victory — the heart of our faith. But the red ink falling from the cross did not redact the imperatives or cautions of the New Testament for believers. The cross does not silence its Lord.
God, from the beginning, has graciously warned his people of the hidden and inevitable consequences of their rebellion. Beginning in the garden, he spoke to the sinless man, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). When he commands and warns us in the New Testament, do we listen?
Passing over Verses
Let’s take, for example, the cohabitating realities of justification by faith alone and a living warning of hell bound up together in Romans 8.
First, the treasured language of justification of Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For the true believer, joined to Christ by faith: zero condemnation right now because of what Jesus has accomplished. We stand “not guilty” in the courtroom — and more than that, declared righteous through faith (Romans 3:28). Because of a work done outside of us yet applied to us, all our sins are forgiven, our guilt taken, no condemnation.
Some, then, take this promise, this glory, and infer that they are safe, already in heaven, with essentially nothing required of them until Jesus returns. Nothing but sunny skies ahead. But such forecast changes just a few verses later: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
“If we live according to the flesh, we will die, no matter what we profess about justification.”
After telling them (and us) no condemnation exists in Christ, the apostle Paul tells them — the same group he addressed in Romans 8:1 — that if we live according to the flesh, we will die, no matter what we profess about justification. Does our gospel-centeredness mute this warning? Do we skip over these verses? We shouldn’t.
To Professing Christians
Again, Paul warns, “Professing Christian, if you do not put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you will surely die” — meaning, the eternal death of conscious punishment in hell. The true belief that no condemnation remains for them right now in Christ did not negate the true warning right now against living in sin.
Now note, for those wondering about assurance, Paul also will soon remind us that all the truly justified (the same ones who persevere in killing their sin by the Spirit) — will be glorified. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). And by the end of the chapter, he exclaims that nothing in all the universe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37–39).
So which is it? Do I believe I am free from condemnation, or do I fear the possibility of condemnation? Both.
Contemplating Life Apart from Christ
We believe in the assurance Christ offers, and we fear turning from him, being lured away by the flesh, the devil, and the world. God issues real warnings about hell to keep us from that very hell. They serve as real (not hypothetical) means God uses for our perseverance.
God promises and God warns — carrot and stick — to bring us home to himself safely. His “precious and very great promises” sing us to unseen realms where his glory dwells, while his thunder shakes us from earthly temptations toward suicidal pleasures. All of his sheep will make it home treasuring both his promises (Romans 8:1) and his warnings (Romans 8:13).
And God promised this long ago:
They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:38–40)
The fear of God is a new-covenant adhesive to keep us near God. Israel did not have this fear; a fear that fastens when temptation comes. Such dread is unlike fearing an abusive father, a violent fear sending us cowering away. The Christian’s fear draws him ever to Christ in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22). Christ will find us at peace at his return (2 Peter 3:14). In Christ, we know that God won’t renege his covenant, nor do we look over our shoulder waiting for unexpected blows.
The fear soberly considers life outside of Christ, weighs the real consequences of jumping from the ark into God’s waves of judgment — and trembles.
Delight to Fear
Such faith believes that if we deny Christ, Christ will deny us (2 Timothy 2:12); if we forsake God’s kindness, we will be cut off (Romans 11:20–22); if we sow to corruption, we will reap corruption (Galatians 6:7–8); if we pamper our right eye of lust, we will be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29); if we do not hold our original confidence to the end, we will be lost (Hebrews 3:12–14); if we continue sinning deliberately, no sacrifice for our sins remains (Hebrews 10:26–27); if we live according to the flesh, we will die (Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:19–21).
This faith takes hold of the promises that woo us to Christ, and gladly receives the warnings that shout to our souls, Do not leave him!
The new-covenant warnings are not washed away by the blood of Christ. The new-covenant people of God are those that fear him forever, with the fear of faith, for their good. Like Nehemiah, they “delight” to fear God’s name (Nehemiah 1:11) and believe, with gratitude, the cautions he gives about falling from him. They mind his warnings and rest in his promises. They love his word, serve his people, and cherish his likeness. They sing, “No condemnation in Christ,” and cry, “Flee from the wrath to come.”