What’s the Comfort If the Coronavirus Is Judgment?
Hello, everyone! Well, Pastor John’s new book, Coronavirus and Christ, is now available in 20 languages, including American Sign Language, and is soon to be in 29 total languages, with the potential for even more languages to be added in the future. It’s been very encouraging to see how fast the book has been translated and how far it has reached across the world in such a short time.
Here in the States, we’ve seen pastors buying cases of the book and putting them on a table outside the front of their church building so that members could drive up throughout the week and take a free copy. We’ve seen family and friends posting links to the free book and the free audiobook online. It’s been amazing to watch the DG community help us spread the word online and offline. So many encouraging updates have been arriving by the day.
But of course, not all the updates have been positive. This week, a major news outlet reported on the book in a story of a US Army chaplain under fire for commending the book. Senior Army Chaplain Col. Moon H. Kim — the US Army’s command chaplain based in South Korea — apparently passed along an email to the Coronavirus and Christ book. He passed it along to fellow military chaplains, commending the book to them — and for it got severely criticized. So criticized, there’s now a call for him to be disciplined and even possibly court-martialed.
In a letter to the secretary of defense, published online, from an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the foundation accuses the chaplain of “an absolutely egregious and deplorable act.” It says that in sharing the book, he gives a “full-fledged endorsement and validation of what the book espouses and proclaims.”
The letter recommends that Kim be “officially, swiftly, aggressively, and visibly investigated and disciplined in punishment for his deplorable actions,” that is, for commending your book to fellow chaplains. Because what you write is, the letter says, “unmitigated drivel.”
The letter to the secretary of defense is remarkable because of how much of your book it actually quotes — at least ten citations in the letter. As you read this response, what do you think of how you are quoted and interpreted? And is the letter a fair interpretation of your book?
Well, Tony, some of it is. I think it would be fair to say that some of my views about what the Bible teaches, even rightly understood, the author of that letter hates; he hates what I think. “They are,” he says, “incendiary,” “bigoted,” “vulgar” — not just because he misunderstands, but, in part, because he does understand, and that’s how he thinks and feels about some of what the Bible teaches. For example:
The truth of Romans 5:16 that not only some death, but all death — including yours, Tony, and mine — is the result of God’s judgment on the human race because sin entered the world.
That God is sovereign over the coronavirus, and sends it and ends it when he wills.
That homosexual intercourse is a sin.
That the coronavirus is a call for repentance to all of us — all of us — to bring our lives into alignment with the infinite worth of Jesus.
I think the author of that letter considers all of those views as wrong, and that’s putting it mildly. I mean, his language is very colorful. I consider all of those views to be true because they are what the Bible teaches, and therefore, they’re very valuable to know. So, I think it’s not just that he misunderstands, but that he gets some things right in those quotes, and he just doesn’t like them. Period.
Yeah. And obviously there are places where the author of this letter gets your meaning wrong. Take us through those areas.
Well, I see at least three things that the letter and the interview with one of the news outlets gets wrong about the book. For example, when I say that “some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions” (Coronavirus and Christ, 69), he assumes that I know who those people are, or at least what kind of people they are. But here’s what I write on page 72. And if anybody wants to just check it out, pages 69–72 are the real ones he’s after, and you can go look. But here’s what I say in the summing up of that little chapter.
The coronavirus is . . . never a clear and simple punishment on any person. The most loving, Spirit-filled Christian, whose sins are forgiven through Christ, may die of the coronavirus disease. But it is fitting that every one of us search our own heart to discern if our suffering is God’s judgment on the way we live.
“The most loving, Spirit-filled Christian, whose sins are forgiven through Christ, may die of the coronavirus disease.”
In other words, God does judge people with sickness. That’s very clear from 1 Corinthians 11:32, and there it’s even talking about Christians. But John Piper or you or anybody else can’t determine from outside who is experiencing the coronavirus as judgment in a punitive sense, and who’s experiencing it, say, as purification, or who’s experiencing it for other reasons that God may have. My point was that God does do all of these things, and all of us should do sober-minded self-assessment to discern — as well as we can — what God’s purposes are in all that happens to us. And I take the Bible, the Christian Scriptures, as the main guide in these things. The author of this letter apparently doesn’t, and there’s the big canyon between our worldviews.
‘Never Clear and Simple’
Yeah, that’s a really important point. You said there were three misunderstandings. It seems that one of those obviously is the question of homosexuality.
Right. You could say, probably, that that issue is a specific instance of the first misunderstanding. As far as I can see, the author of that letter wants to say that Piper thinks every person who engages in homosexual acts and who gets the coronavirus is being punished by God for those acts. And my response is “Well, no, it’s not that simple.”
For sure, in Romans 1:27 the Bible says that living in homosexual behavior is sometimes punished by God with a “due penalty,” which could be a disease, but not always. And sometimes disease comes not as punishment, but as a merciful wake-up call that results in repentance and reconciliation and hope. God’s ways are simply more complex than the letter acknowledges.
So, I say again, from page 72, “The coronavirus . . . is never a clear and simple punishment on any person.” It may be punishment; it may not be. And our prayer should be that all of us experience our suffering as redemptive, not punitive.
I suspect though, Tony, that this clarification won’t even come close to satisfying the author of this letter, since he considers it drivel and vulgar to even suggest that God controls this disease and would judge anyone with it.
Greater Than All Our Sin
In the Christian Post interview, one of the rhetorical questions the author of the letter poses, as a kind of unanswerable argument against your view, is this: “What are you supposed to tell a couple that has a gay child who also has COVID? ‘Well, this is your due penalty?’ It’s just horrible and wrong.” How would you answer that?
Well, actually, that is the third mistake I was referring to earlier. He thinks that if you believe what I do, you can’t possibly have any good news for someone who is dying of a disease that came to them because of their sin.
Now, that’s the objection in this letter I care about most. Actually, it wasn’t in the letter; it was in the interview. And that’s the one I care about most. When I read that, I thought, “Okay, even though he states this sarcastically or cynically, as though there couldn’t possibly be any answer to it, I want to take that question seriously, because it’s a very good pastoral question.”
But his viewpoint about what I think, or would be able to say, is so wrong. It’s wrong at the very point where God’s sovereign grace shines most brightly. Two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, the Jewish king Herod, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, the angry crowds, the brutal soldiers — all of them — combined to kill Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
But here’s the all-important fact: Crucifixion is a horrible thing, especially when it’s done to the most innocent person that ever lived and the most glorious person that ever lived. And that horror was not a random historical event. The Bible says in Acts 4:27–28 that God predestined it and his hand brought it to pass. Why? Because he loved his enemies. He loved them. I should say, he loved us, all of us who are his enemies, enough that he didn’t spare his own Son — his only, infinitely loved Son — but gave him up for us (Romans 8:32). That was love when that happened, according to Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In other words, we have the best news in the world for someone who has lived in a homosexual lifestyle or practiced homosexual behaviors and who is dying of COVID-19. And it’s the same news that I would bring to any other sinner who is dying of COVID-19, including myself. It is what I want to hold onto when I die, perhaps of COVID-19, being old like I am with compromised lungs. I’m not out of this thing yet. Maybe I’ll be on my deathbed, and I’ll be bringing all of my thousands of sins before the Judge of the universe. What am I going to do? And my answer is that I’m going to hold onto the very same message — the grace, the good news — that I’m going to bring to the person that this author says I don’t have anything to say to.
The thief on the cross, who had spent a lifetime in sin, just hours before he died, looked over to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42–43). Are you kidding me? I mean, this has got to be a bolt of lightning out of the blue. “Can that possibly be true, Jesus? Are you really going to forgive, in this split-second before I die, all of my sins?” That’s how great God’s grace is for those who repent and trust him.
Best News in the Hardest Moments
So, Tony, I hope the world hears that we have spectacularly wonderful news for all sinners who are dying — however they are dying, whatever they are dying from, whatever sins they have committed. And the news in a nutshell is this: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Turn to Jesus Christ. He died for sinners like you and me. Trust him, and you can know that your suffering is not the punitive judgment of God. You can know this, and you can know this as you die: I’m not being punished now; I won’t be punished later.
“The very heart of Christianity is that, through Christ, God rescues guilty sinners.”
How can you know that? Because Jesus said in John 5:24 these amazing words: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” That thief on the cross, while he was hanging on the cross, passed from death to life. A dying person, any dying person, can know the sweet voice of God in Romans 8:1: “There is . . . now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
So, this letter to the secretary of the army asks, “Where’s the pastoral care and comfort in that belief?” — namely, Piper’s belief and the belief of this accused chaplain. “Where’s the care and comfort in that?” And then he answers, “There is none.” That’s what he says: “There is none.”
My response is “Sir, no. You are profoundly wrong. We have the best news in the world for the hardest moments in the world — the best care, the best comfort. The very heart of Christianity is that, through Christ, God rescues guilty sinners. That’s me and you and all of us. Through Christ, God rescues guilty sinners from his own wrath.” Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by [Christ’s] blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” That’s what God sent Christ to do: rescue us from his own righteous punishment.
Amen. That is the best news in the world, and it’s what motivates us even now to do ministry during this hard time. “We have the best news in the world for the hardest moments in the world.” Amen. Thank you, Pastor John.