Kneeling Before the Impartial Judge, Part 1
To say that our cultural moment is judgmental is to make a point so obvious that it verges on being inane. The engine of our public discourse seems to be equal parts vindictiveness and character assassination. In this charged environment, Christians are often accused of being especially judgmental, and Scripture (the Old Testament in particular) is often singled out as depicting a capricious and judgmental God. However, when we press into scripture, we find that humanity always struggles most with God’s mercy—not his judgment. In this two-part series, we’ll explore the surprising hope that comes from resting in the God whose mercy never comes as the expense of his justice.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in. Today we're going to begin a series titled “Kneeling Before the Impartial Judge.” I want to talk about the subject of judgment in this series. This is going to be a two part series. I want to begin by setting the context and examining our current predicament really. We are dealing with a predicament here. Have you noticed lately that we are absolutely obsessed with finding corruption? We are absolutely obsessed with really searching out hidden corruption. We're obsessed with finding all sorts of people who are committing fraud or people who are guilty of hypocrisy in one way or another.
Now the one hand, this makes perfect sense because as we are bringing more and more misdeeds to light more misbehavior and abusive behavior and dangerous behavior and deeply toxic behavior, we are growing more and more concerned, and interestingly enough, more and more social critics are pointing this out. This is a day and an age where there is a growing moral force and sort of moral sensibility. Not everybody is always encouraged by that alone because we also seem to be so judgmental, but think about, this is reflected in our popular entertainment as well. The true crime genre, for instance, has been around for a long time, but it's experiencing a little bit of a resurgence here. And you can see that in some of the television shows that we watch. You can think about titles like Netflix's “Making a Murderer” or “An Innocent Man,” which was based on a book by John Grisham, but really a lot of podcasts are doing the same kind of work. I'm thinking of podcasts like, The Dropout. The Dropout by the way, is examining the life of Elizabeth Holmes, a very fascinating figure who is the founder of the company Theranos, and she is now under investigation for fraud. It's a fascinating story.
But over and over again we are fascinated by all of these different forms of deception, these elaborate forms of corruption and these crimes, often hidden crimes, and then we're fascinated by the ways in which these details are being brought to light. Again, in a sense, this is nothing new. Human beings have always been interested in crime. We have always been interested in injustice, and we have a vested interest in it as well. We care after all about the wellbeing of those around us, and we care after all about our society, but there's a darker side to this as well and that has been in the responses from everyone.
Now we know that judgment, of course, is totally inevitable. We have to judge. You judge behavior and actions all the time. If you think in practical terms, especially if you're somebody who is, when we talk about children for instance, we try to teach them to exercise proper caution and proper judgment when they're in certain areas or when people say certain things to them. Now this is just for their protection. Similarly, when we find ourselves in certain areas or certain situations where there's maybe a little bit of, we're unsure. If we come home and we find that the lock on our door has been tampered with or it looks like somebody has broken and entered, we're going to exercise our judgment. If we see somebody who looks suspicious, we're going to exercise our judgment. So we make judgments all the time.
However, the types of judgment that we're making are very, very interesting. This is part of what makes this more and more discouraging, I think, to some people because they look at the judgments that we're leveling at others, and you can see this, of course, on social media, and they are not simply judging the person's behavior or in some cases judging their character. They go beyond that. They go beyond that to judging the person in a way that is really only befitting of God. Now I'm saying that to you as a Christian, but that is you see people condemning somebody in the ultimate sense over and over again. And this seems to be a habit that is really, really gaining traction, and it meets with a lot of validation as well.
And so the subject of judgment, the subject of God's judgment and the distinction between human judgment and God's judgment is obviously not foreign to scripture. And so I thought it would be beneficial for us to take a look at judgment, and we can begin with some words from the apostle Paul, and they come from 1 Corinthians chapter four verse five, one verse here. Obviously, I am only going to scratch the surface of the subject, but I do hope to get you thinking about it.
We fall into judgment so easily, and as we will see, condemnation comes much easier to us than does grace. It's fascinating because critics of Christianity, if they're somewhat biblically literate, which often is more and more rare these days, but if they are, they'll often point out a feature of God and they'll say, "Well, he's wrathful. He's judgmental. He holds people to these colossally high standards. It's so unfair." Now, of course, as Christians we can stake, take a step back here and say, "Well, there is a total misunderstanding of God's grace," but also even when look to the Old Testament, which is supposedly so, so much more distinctly harsh and wrathful of a presentation of God than is the New Testament, we will find over and over again that the people who resist God's grace the most are us, human beings. What we usually want is judgment. What we usually want is condemnation, and so what comes much easier to us often is condemnation. It's not mercy. We never struggle with mercy. We struggle with being overtly judgmental.
That's the danger, and never has this been more apparent than in our own day and age. We are in a time here where there is a growing moral furor. Now on the one hand it's good that everybody is finally, that we're seeing a real investment in justice. In some ways the kind of garden variety relativism that is not the kind that survives in academic textbooks, but really it's just more whatever makes you happy or whatever you want to do. That seems to be a little bit on the wane. It seems to be going away a bit because we seem to be recognizing that there are patterns of behavior. The more that we're uncovering. Think about what's happening in Hollywood right now with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and as there's a ripple effect there, more and more people are beginning to realize what Christians have always said all along, what scripture is always said, but sin is always communal.
When you commit a sin, when you hurt somebody else, or when you even just hurt yourself, it's never an isolated act. It always affects other people, and we're seeing that left right and center, and the spotlight is being shown on all of our institutions. It seems that every week we are seeing a new name, a new person is being uncovered, more misdeeds are being uncovered. And it's every institution, it's Hollywood, it's the music industry, it's the church. Over and over again, and there's a growing sense of outrage and fury. Some of it is understandable, but that also means that if we are living in a time when there is sort of an outsized emphasis on judgment and condemnation and if you spend any significant amount of time just looking at our public interactions or on social media, you'll find that it is, we need to be ready for this time, and I think we need the right perspective.
So whether you are a Christian or whether you're somebody who is more skeptical or on the fence or you have questions, I hope this series will be helpful to you. I've called it Kneeling Before the Impartial Judge because I believe as a Christian that there only one ultimate impartial and perfect judge and that is the living God, Father, Son and Holy spirit. And only with Him do we find perfect justice and perfect mercy on display. Apart from that, there is no hope for justice. So I maintain and I hope that you'll think this through with me.
So let's take a look at what the apostle Paul has to say here. Now Paul is writing to the church at Corinth. The two letters to the Corinthians are to the church at Corinth. Just a few background details. The church at Corinth is a very gifted church and in a very major marketplace city. The kind of place where people really went to become a massive financial success essentially. It was a place where people went to make it, and so he is talking to a church filled with people who are very successful. And as you read through the letter to the Corinthians, you find that many of them are leaders, and they are very gifted leaders, and they are even performing mighty works miracles, and yet Paul is really placing a heavy emphasis on the one true distinguishing factor of Christianity. And we've talked about this on the Vital Signs Podcast before, but it bears repeating that one major distinguishing feature is not gifting. It's not. Not everybody is somebody who can give a Ted talk. Not everybody is going to be the greatest intellectual success. Not everybody is going to be this great shining picture of success. The one distinguishing feature of Christianity says Paul and says all scripture is love, Christ-like love.
This is why Christ himself says the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. In other words, love Him with your entire person, and then love your neighbor as yourself. In 1 Corinthians chapter 13 Paul stresses this to such a degree that it really is pretty radical, going so far as to say you can give away all your possessions, you can give away your body to be burned, but if you do any of that without love, you are nothing. It is Christ-like love that distinguishes Christians. Bear that in mind, by the way, as you look for responses in this very, very judgmentalism moment in culture. On the one hand, the rising tide of moral outrage is understandable, and you can express outrage by the way, but to do so in an unloving, hateful manner is not a mark of Christianity. Bear that in mind as you see responses.
Many times people will claim the name of Christ for some very unfortunate statements and very, very unfortunate deeds. We all know this. Anybody's name can be abused. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in Manhattan once put it like this, he says, "Nobody has had their name dragged through the mud more than Jesus Christ." We are ambassadors of Christ. Christians make many mistakes, but there are plenty of people who claim the name of Christ, but who do deeds that really have nothing to do with Christianity, that are utter contradictions. And again, if you search the scriptures, you'll see evidence of this as well. And the Lord can work through people in spite of those shortcomings. But we need to bear that in mind.
A recent survey was released and a lot of reports are coming in that are saying that those who leave Christianity, those who are walking away from the church right now, and by the way, these are numbers we need to take into account, that there are many different complex factors that we would have to reckon with, and a lot of researchers say that people who walk away from the church end up coming back years later too. So we need to remember this, but some of the big reasons are actually quite substantial, and one of the major ones are repeated claims of hypocrisy. For those who say that they follow Christ and that they aim to do as He tells them to do, to keep His commandments and yet are living in a way that totally contradicts that. On the one hand, this is massively confusing. This spreads confusion, this spreads real cognitive dissonance. But on the other hand, if human beings are fallen, hypocrisy is a natural feature of life. And we know we're going to see this. And by the way, if you're interested in the topic of hypocrisy, there is a, I did an entire series on hypocrisy called “Confronting the Challenge of Hypocrisy,” but just suffice to say, many, many people claim the name of Christ and do many terrible, terrible things.
If you want to look for the ultimate example of Christianity, look to Jesus Christ Himself. But we all have occasion to search our hearts here if we claim to follow Christ. Think about your public interactions. Think about the way you respond to those who disagree with you. Think about the way you respond to those who attack you. Remember the command to love your enemies. This is difficult to hear, but again, Christ-like love is miraculous love. We can't do it on our own. There is no way to love others as yourself, especially your enemies unless you first love God with all that you are. Bear that in mind.
Here's what Paul has to say about judgment. I think these are very challenging words for us. He says this in 1 Corinthians chapter four starting in verse five he says, "Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time." Do not pronounce judgment before the time. What time? Well, he goes on to say "Before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God." Then each one will receive his commendation from God. Pay close attention to those words there. "Who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart." The purposes of the heart.
I want to explore this topic of kneeling before the impartial judge under three headings. Number one, withhold ultimate judgment. Number two, wait with patient expectation, and finally three rest in God's justice. In this episode, we're going to explore that first heading, withhold ultimate judgment. Now, we always struggle with mercy. If you want to understand this, look no further than the Book of Jonah.
This is a fascinating story. The tale of the reluctant prophet. There's a reason so many people have fastened on Jonah as probably, Jonah is probably one of the most popular minor prophets, and we see this huge tension. First of all, he receives the call from the Lord to go preach a message of condemnation actually to the City of Nineveh. And he flees. He doesn't want to do it. He runs away. There's a whole massive episode. He's swallowed by the whale, and in the belly of the beast, he utters those timeless words, "Salvation is of the Lord." Pretty amazing phrase. "Salvation is of the Lord." In other words, the only one who can save us is God alone. And he finally makes his way through all of the struggle, through all of this turmoil to Nineveh, and he preaches a message of total condemnation.
In fact, he leaves really no room for hope whatsoever in that message, and amazingly enough, the people repent, the leaders, everybody begins to repent and they say, "Maybe if the Lord is merciful, He'll recant. Maybe He will spare us." And so they actually repents, and he is furious. And what he says to God is so revealing, one of the more bitter prayers recorded in scripture. One that I think is sadly so relatable, but he says, he's essentially says, this is my rough translation. "I knew this would happen. I knew you would do this because I know you're a merciful God, and you would spare these people," and he's so viciously angry. We are told as the book goes on and deed, he actually says, "I'm angry enough to die." He begs the Lord to kill him. He begs the Lord to murder him. He's so consumed with hatred. Why?
Well, the relationship between the Jewish people and the Ninevites was not the best, and Jonah happens to harbor quite a bit of resentment and hatred in his heart. These people are his cultural enemies. Do you have any cultural enemies, by the way? We all have different ways of labeling our cultural enemies these days. We can file them under all sort of, we might say, "Oh no, not those social justice warriors" or "those progressives," or what about "those terrible, narrow-minded, hateful, bigoted conservatives." We go on and on and on and on. We can use all of these labels, and we could keep going, and I could keep going, and everybody listening would be offended, but the point here isn't to score points rather with any specific person, but to show the ways in which we all have our different enemies. I've mentioned this phrase before, I think on this podcast, but it comes from, Alan Jacobs borrows it from an anthropologist, the phrase repugnant cultural, other. In other words, that person who simply embodies all of the viewpoints, all of the standpoints that you find not only misguided but pernicious, harmful, disgusting, despicable. We all have our repugnant cultural others. For Jonah, the Ninevites are his repugnant cultural others.
Now, I want you to really stretch your imagination here and I don't, think this will be too much of a stretch, but I want you to picture somebody in this camp. Maybe it's somebody you've known, an acquaintance, maybe it's a family member. We often have these deep, deep divisions in our own families or in our own inner circles, or maybe it's somebody that you continually see or interact with on social media. Whoever this is, here's my litmus test for this, by the way. Here's my litmus test. You know that you've got a repugnant cultural other, if any general concession to the fact that they might be a human being, you regard as a compromise or some kind of a violation.
So in other words, if the person has become such a symbol of all the corruption, all that is wrong with this world, with this culture in your mind, that you can't even grant them that they may be a human being, no matter what they've done, no matter how heinous, I realized this is a big request, but then you've got your repugnant cultural other, you may have somebody you totally despise and loath, don't you see? This is the very thing that is precluded by loving God with all that you are. No matter the person is, no matter what they've done, no matter what they've done to you. Now that doesn't mean justice doesn't matter. That doesn't mean they're off the hook. That doesn't mean there aren't consequences. That doesn't mean healing has to take place.
That doesn't mean that forgiveness, true forgiveness is sometimes a two way street, and it always is a two way street if there's going to be true reconciliation, but it does mean that none of us, we are called to love unconditionally. Everyone, our neighbor. We could go further with repugnant cultural, other and we could start naming groups like ISIS. We could go further, and we could start naming terrorists. Terrible things continue to happen. Think about what has happened in New Zealand with this terrible shooting with this man who is completely an advocate of white supremacy, an absolutely despicable, hateful, vile, evil ideology. Do we have the right to hate this person as Christians? Christianity says no. Why? Because we are not the ultimate judge. Does that preclude earthly justice? Does that preclude the law being involved? Absolutely not. Consequences will follow and should follow, but I'm talking about our hearts here, which is what Paul is talking about. You see, the Lord is the impartial judge. We have to always withhold ultimate judgment. This is very, very hard, and I think it's impossible without God.
You see, I often talk about the fact that there's that crucial chronological sequence. We love the Lord with all that we are, and then on the basis of that love, we are liberated and empowered by the Holy Spirit to love others as ourselves. This is the negative way to illustrate it. When you see wicked, wicked acts, when you see this kind of stuff, especially if you are a victim, you will know. You will know firsthand that this is impossible, this request, without the empowerment of the Lord. And you know why you can do that. Because if you believe that God is real, ultimate justice is in his hands and his hands alone. Justice will be done.
But do you see the much more difficult facet of life, what is so much more difficult for us is always mercy. It's always mercy. It's not condemnation, it's not judgment that comes so naturally to us. We always struggle with mercy, but we need to learn to cultivate the vital spiritual habit of withholding ultimate judgment. Does that mean we don't judge? Again, it's impossible not to judge. We have to judge, and even in those passages that are often routinely invoked to disparage all forms of judgment, "Judge not lest ye be judged," people will often say. Yes, but then the verses also elaborate to make sure that you look at your own life. You exercise proper introspection, and you take care of the problems in your own life so that you can help others. And yes, that involves judgments. Sometimes we make judgments all the time, but judgment in the ultimate sense, in the sense of condemning a person, revoking their humanity, that right is not any persons. That right belongs to God alone. That is the right essentially to damn somebody.
Christ alone can do that. None of us can do that. Why? Because we're not impartial judges, and we are not perfect. We are all of us fallen. We are all of us cut from the same cloth as well. Here's another really disturbing feature of human life that we need to take seriously. We can't gloss over it. I know that so much of our more sunny secular voices will say that we are getting better gradually and that we're doing away with all of our major problems and one day we'll usher in an age of more reason and science will help us to guarantee greater cooperation and we're going to be able to solve all of our major problems and yet look at our true crime obsession. We're so interested in people who have been convicted of very, very serious crimes. We're very, very interested.
Let's look a really dark subset here. We're really interested, continue to be, in so-called serial killers. But the more you listen to these people talk, the more you will realize there is a very striking, frightening revelation in store for you. Yes, these people did terrible stuff. Yes, these people have records that most of us will never have, and yet they had favorite meals, they had favorite colors, they had musicians they liked. In other words, they were persons. Part of me wants to believe that there are certain human beings that are in some sort of a sub category or are cut from some different line of cloth so that I can just dismiss them and think, "Well, they're just the evil ones, the wrong ones," but already are you hearing this line of thinking? This has led to some of the most vicious and evil regimes and habits in history.
If you put anybody in a sub category, think about all of the vicious behavior that is flowed from that line of thinking. Whenever human beings set themselves up as ultimate judges, we see great atrocities being out. Human beings are not ultimate judges, and one of the fundamental ways we recognize that is that we are all human beings. This is why Solzhenitsyn was so wise when he said "Evil cuts through the heart of every human being." You know what he said before that? He said "It would be so much simpler if we could just find all of the evil people, isolate them, destroy them, and then when we would have peace, but it's not that simple. Evil cuts through every human heart and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" Very, very wise words. This man who was imprisoned in what was once called the Evil Empire, who was in a Gulag prison, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Solzhenitsyn and to say, "Yes, those guards in uniform, they were evil. I was the innocent victim." That's not what he said. And he even went so far as to say, "If the roles were reversed, and I was in the uniform, and they were in the prisoners outfits, I might have done the very same thing." And the only proper response to Solzhenitsyn there ought to be, "So might I."
We desperately need to be saved and we need to be helped by our savior, and we cannot judge anybody in the ultimate sense, in the ultimate sense, in condemning them. God alone has that right. We need to rest in the assurance, and we'll get to this part, but we need to rest in the fact that he is the ultimate and impartial and the perfect judge. We always struggle with mercy. We don't struggle with condemnation. That comes totally naturally to us.
Now, I know that this has been a very difficult podcast in many ways and this is a subject matter that can really, really be very, very difficult to wrestle with, but my hope and my prayer is that what we're doing here is actually confronting the real heart of the problem here, which is the human heart. My only hope here is that you maybe see the reason behind the fact that we cannot judge somebody, cannot condemn them in the ultimate sense, and that the only one who can possibly do this and uphold justice is the impartial judge. If we try to dictate ultimate justice, it's always a disaster. This is why even our earthly judges who actually work within our legal system, that's why we tried to set up systems of accountability. Here in the United States, we have all sorts of systems of accountability for all of our leaders, checks and balances, and we know that nations where those checks and balances are absent, where people are given absolute power, that this is incredibly dangerous and a recipe for atrocities and grave evil. That tells us something about who we are. We need to pause and think very carefully and examine our own hearts.
And so in the next episode, we're going to talk about examining our hearts, but we're also going to end on a very hopeful note as we talk about resting in God's ultimate justice. I hope you'll tune in for that. So thanks for hanging with me here. This has been a little bit of a heavy episode, but you've been listening to Vital Signs, a podcast where we talk about signs of life in today's culture. My name is Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
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