One of the things we discussed in last week’s post about a Christian’s role in seeing justice done was that there are very few situations where God says it’s okay for us to judge other people. There’s an important reason for that which we only just touched on last week. It’s that justice and the application of judgement belong to God. We are to become like Him, yes, but there are certain roles that He does not share with us, at least not yet.
Paul says that one day the saints will judge the world and even angels. We’re not there yet, though there are certain situations where we can practice such as settling disputes in the church or discerning when there’s a sin being committed (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11-13; 6:1-3). We’re not entrusted with final judgement, though, nor with the execution of justice or vengeance. In fact, we’re instructed to step aside and let God handle it whenever we’re tempted to take any vengeful action.
Judged by the Word of God
Back in Deuteronomy, Moses told Israel not to show partiality in judgement or be afraid of judging fairly (no matter what other people think) “for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17 all scriptures from the WEB translation). Judgement belongs to God, and He cares a great deal about seeing justice done properly. That’s one of the main reasons “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality. You shall not take a bribe” (Deut. 16:19). Of course, these instructions were given to handle legal disputes in a nation where God’s law was the standard of government. We now live in nations with secular law systems and most of us aren’t involved in that. But the principles still apply. God cares about justice done rightly, and His definition of “rightly” might not always match with our human impulses.
Judgement can be either favorable or unfavorable. We in the household of God are being judged right now (1 Pet. 4:17), and we’ll get a final ruling on our lives at the end of the age when Christ returns (Matt. 25). That being said, God isn’t sitting up there in heaven just waiting to pounce on us when we do something wrong. There’s an interesting, and at times confusing, balance to how he handles judgement. While here on earth, Jesus told us the Father has entrusted Him with judgement, but He also said that He judges no one (John 5:22; 8:15). And it’s not a translation error — in all these verses “judge” comes from krino (G2919) and “judgement” from krisis (G2920).
If anyone listens to my sayings, and doesn’t believe, I don’t judge him. For I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects me, and doesn’t receive my sayings, has one who judges him. The word that I spoke will judge him in the last day. (John 12:47-48)
From this verse, along with John 3:17-18 and 8:50-51, I think what Jesus is getting at with this “I don’t judge/I am entrusted with judgement” thing is that He reveals the objective standard by which we are judged. That standard is inviolable, and God does not stray from it to pass subjective personal judgements on people. That’s why He couldn’t just forgive us and give everyone life without having Jesus take our place. Someone has to pay the penalty for sin. That someone doesn’t have to be us, though, because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. But if we refuse to accept His sacrifice — or if we say we accept it and then continue to sin without repenting — then we stay under judgement for not following God’s standards. In a way, we choose our own judgement even though He’s the one who delivers the verdict.
God’s Justice and Mercy
We all hope that we’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. … Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:21, 34). That’s a much better outcome than, “I don’t know you. … Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:12, 41).
That last outcome is a frightening possibility, but remember God has been very clear about the criteria by which He judges us. No one who’s familiar with His word should be taken by surprise. And for those not familiar with His word, scripture indicates God judges by intentions and heart, only holding us responsible for what we know (Rom. 2:5-16). He is also an abundantly merciful God who earnestly desires all will come to repentance and live (2 Pet. 3:9; James 2:13). There’s no greater proof of God’s commitment to mercy than the fact that Jesus died to make sure we’d get the chance to choose life. Even so, there will still be those who choose death.
For we know him who said, “Vengeance belongs to me. I will repay,” says the Lord. Again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:31-31)
Judging wrongdoing is something God does because He is righteous (2 Thes. 1:6-9). And I think most of us would agree that the wicked should be punished. No one wants murderers, child molesters, and Hitlers to “get away with it.” We might even be less inclined to forgive than God is, thinking people should still pay for their crimes even if they’ve sought redemption. We get angry when we see people doing wrong things and call it “righteous indignation.” We might even want to take action to punish them and/or stop the injustice, especially when it hits us personally. But that’s not something we’re told to do. In fact, we’re told not to.
Let Go, and Let God Handle It
If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:18-21)
Whenever we feel the urge to go after someone in a way that’s anything but peaceful, we’re to step aside and let God handle it. Even the vengeful-sounding “heap coals of fire on his head” is not the torment that it sounds like in English. Both Matthew Henry and Adam Clarke’s commentaries agree that this has to do with melting and softening metal for refinement (MH on Prov. 25:21-22; AC on Rom. 12:20). It’s to produce a good effect on them, not an evil one.
It’s entirely contrary to our human spirit to let go of hurts people do to us and to those we care about. But God’s spirit in us can change that. Jesus didn’t ask us to do things that He doesn’t have the power to help us accomplish. He’ll give us what we need in order to follow His commands to love our enemies and not resist those who are evil (Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-36). That’s part of being merciful as God is merciful. He’s not asking anything of us that He wouldn’t do Himself. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, and He even forgave the people who killed Him (Luke 23:32-34; Rom. 5:8).
Paul says that it’s better to be wronged and defrauded than to do so to someone else, or to retaliate against those who do such things (1 Cor. 6:6-8). We’re not to repay anyone evil for evil, but to always seek good for one another (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thew. 5:15). I think we often underestimate the high value God places on peace, especially within His church. We might lean more toward thinking, “God wants people who do wrong to get what’s coming to them” than toward, “How can I show God’s love even toward people who do things He hates?” Sometimes that involves standing up and correcting them, but it does not involve attacking or harming them. We need to let go of an impulse to lash out at people and instead purposefully seek peace, letting God sort out how to judge everyone.
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