Divisions are fracturing our Christian communities, especially in America. Disagreement over Covid vaccinations and policies, black lives matter, women in leadership, and other issues are being exaggerated within our community depleting social distancing practices. The insistent background noise of political schism whining on social media adds to this fracturing.
These tensions are raising concerns: Will the center hold? Is there even a center to hold us? How can our Christian leaders keep our “loving” Christian communities and campuses united?
While it is one thing to say that Christ is that center that can hold and unite us together, it is another to detail out the presenting qualities of Christ that can most help in that process.
James Hamilton presents such a center. He argues that God’s redemptive work of judgment is the overarching theme that can help theology and the church avoid being sucked into the sociopolitical, sociocultural milieus that force us to merely reflect “the temperature of the times.”1 He traces in all books of the bible this theme of God’s judgment as the transformational centering experience that attempts to bring healing. It involves “beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18-4:6)” and seeing the “glory of God” as “a saving and judging glory—an aroma of life to those being saved and death to those perishing (2 Cor 2:15-16).”
He hammers this point home in 639 pages of evidence to show:
… salvation and judgment balance one another. The reality of judgment should keep us from thinking of God in purely sentimental terms as though he were a grandfatherly buddy who just lets things go. The reality of salvation should likewise keep us from thinking of God as merely a terrifying, vengeful judge. Paradoxically, it is the reality of his terrifying judgment that is meant to send us fleeing to him. This matches the ‘eternal gospel’ proclaimed by the angel in Revelation 14: 6-7. “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship the one who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water.2
I believe his hope is that this centering and holding theme of scripture, a doctrine of divine judgment, will help Christian’s transcend our cultural proclivities that often commandeer Christ and doctrine to serve our own interests and idols. He believes understanding and embracing this center repositions the church back into “the providence of God” that alone can get us through “the upheaveals in society” that even now” ‘portend a very troubled future and perhaps the disintegration of Western civilization.’” Within God’s glory in his salvific work of judgment the “Church could be deeply transformed for good.” That good is evidenced and experience in God’s judgment.3
I find Hamilton’s arguments compelling for several reasons. First, he brings to his witness stand thousands of texts, stories, and explanations. The reader is inundated by the biblical evidence that “salvation always comes through judgment. Salvation for the nation of Israel at the Exodus came through the judgment of Egypt, and this pattern is repeated throughout the Old Testament, becoming paradigmatic even into the New.”4
But mostly, his arguments resonate with my own journey to this center. In my late 30s and early 40s I had my own overwhelmingly difficult destabilization period in which God’s salvific work in judgment pressed on me. Once “broken” on the rock of God’s judgment (Matthew 21:44), I scrambled to clarify what I had seen, a vision, a light, and a new righteousness. In an amateur Jungian way I realized that if “that which is most personal is most universal” than others might also have tasted this God of judgment as salvific, light producing and righteousness awakening. I bought or downloaded dozens of articles and books about the judgment, Hamilton’s being one of the more encyclopedic. I knew I had to rebuild my leadership and ethics research and teaching around a God who could preserve truth but always administer it with grace (John 1:14).
Having always been one with strong moralistic views of the world, even as a young child, I could see how being “right” and avoiding “wrong” were important to Christianity and Christian ethics. I had embraced “biblical” law as good, and truly it was true, and—much like the rich young ruler—I had experienced the successes and merits of living in compliance with it (Mark 10:17-27). But like the rich young ruler, the glue holding my law abiding processes together was weak without love. I needed a stronger relational and radical love and forgiveness experience that would push me to a new type of “other-centered” morality and servanthood. Seeing Christ’s incarnational virtue and seeing how that is manifested in his salvific work of judgment has richly help me see a new “righteousness apart from the law” (Romans 3:21). This righteousness emphasizes the simple truth that God treats us, especially me, better than we, or I deserve.
This profound teaching of judgment tamed a deeply bi-polar aspect to my own moral personality and in my own experience of Christianity: it harmonize radical grace with high moral expectations in Christianity. Andy Stanley described this experience of a non-polarizing God represented in Christ as always “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).5 Stanley reminds us that Jesus was able to call someone a sinner and still go over to their house for dinner—always gracious, always truthful, always lawful, always moral, but always radically loving and accepting. Divine judgment, rightfully understood, had the same feel.
As a career ethicist, I had always cherished Micah 6:8 and taught it as a centralizing theme. I could trace it into New Testament concepts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23) and even show its details mapped out in the Sermon on the Mount (see McKnight, 2013). But after embracing this “judgment core,” I teach Micah 6:8 within the more panoramic frame of Micah 7:9 that captures God’s glory in salvation through judgment:
I will endure the rage of the Lord
Because I have sinned against Him,
Until He pleads my case and executes justice for me.
He will bring me out to the light,
And I will look at His righteousness. (NASB)
This justice quality in Christ’s work of judgment is reiterated in 1 John 1:8-9: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous [just], so that He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This theology of God’ judgment may be easier to understand when we see it choreographed or acted out. There are many places in scripture where this is seen but two of my favorite are Zechariah 3 and John 8 where we see Leviticus 16 (the main OT teaching of judgment) in operation.
In Zechariah 3, Joshua, shows up in the Most Holy place with the wrong clothes. This should have ended his life and we see Satan there to press home that truth. But God dismisses it as judgmental accusation and instead clothes Joshua with dignity and honor.
A similar “redressing” occurs in the judgment scenes of John 8. In these scenes we see, and by faith feel, how it is to be treated by a God who seeks to be salvific in his work of judgment. The women is caught in sin, but the “judge” understands the larger issues at play and dignifies her and the experience of judgment by brining salvation to the person and situation. Oddly, if her accusers had stayed “in judgment,” they could have been next in line to experience the welcoming words of Christ for themselves, “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” They preferred to cling to a judgmental spirit rather than experience the salvific work within God’s judgment.
So, what does that have to do with our cancel culture and rabid judgmentalism?
Oddly, the best cure for judgmentalism is God’s judgment—how he approaches judgment, why he does judgment, and what he hopes to accomplish through his work of judgment, which is reconciliation and atonement. And then he invites us to not only experience this type of judgment but to extend that judgment to others. He calls us constantly examine and adjust our attitudes and motives as we enter or are called to do “judgment” (Matthew 7:1-6). He invites us to engage in due process: the call to have two or three witnesses in judgment (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, 9:15, Matthew 18:16, etc) is a reminder of our biases and partiality. He then focuses us back on trying to work judgment into bringing us more warmth, light, righteousness and dignity to all involved (Micah 7:9, John 8). You can’t promote a cancel culture if you are engaging in the culture of divine judgment.
- Hamilton, James M., Jr. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 38.
- Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 57.
- Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 39, citing Wells, No Place for Truth, 91.
- Hamilton, p. 57.
- Andy Stanley, “The Unsettling Solutions for Just About Everything,” December 3, 2018, 37:11, https://youtu.be/H5ZW8tqojvU
As used in English translations of the Bible “judgment” has a range of meanings but in the first place it refers to the activity of judging/evaluating, not the condemnation/vindication that results. Oliver O’Donovan helps us understand the human judgment is always provisional but should be framed in terms of reasons that can be understood by the one who is being judged. God’s judgment is, of course, perfect and whatever the result of his evaluation it will be so clear that even one who is condemned cannot do other than assent. When it comes to the current situation in churches, Christians need to foreground the provisionality and rationality of their judging and judgments.
Scott: Yes, judgment in the Bible is multifaceted and human and divine roles are different. However, it appears God longs to move his followers closer to his heart and actions in judgment, even as he appears to do so with Abraham related to the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). And yes, the theologians and biblical scholars have done much to help us see the variations and areas to grow our attitude and thinking about God’s work of judgment. I have O’Donovan’s book and it looks good (that is why I bought it) but I have not read it as I did Hamilton’s. In fact, I have collected 20+ books as I hope to work through this fascinating biblical theme as God grants time and years to do so.
Christ is the center, the “chief cornerstone” rejected by the judgmental builders. I think part of salvation is adoption, as expressed in John 1:12. This adoption is the most central aspect of the Christian’s identity because each becomes a child of God. The reasons I believe this is vital to overcoming a judgmental spirit are:
1. adoption is for ALL who believe, regardless of ethnic background, social class, political perspective, or gender (however you wish to interpret that, it does not matter). There is no preferential treatment. The gospel is universal.
2. Because adoption is for all, any identity other than the spiritual (each is a child of God) is, from a spiritual perspective, irrelevant and therefore not a a valid criterion for judgment. This fact also renders cancel culture verboten as far as the Christian community is concerned.
Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Galatians (3:28)
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free man,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
There is also, we may say, neither:
pro-vaxxer nor anti-vaxxer,
pro-mask nor anti-max,
republican nor democrat,
social conservative nor social liberal,
since we are all one in Christ Jesus.
And let us remind ourselves of the vital duty He assigned to the Church as He spoke in the upper room:
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Thanks for your modernized paraphrase of Gal 3:28. It reminds us of the power of Christian community to extend a larger circle beyond the other more exclusive circles of identity that frame our lives.
That may not remove from us a role or work of judgment, but invites us to a different type of role as brothers and sisters to share a witness or judgment within community not across community. That may help to alter the tone and experience of judgment.