I have recently been reading through Jeremiah alongside one of our Precept Sunday School classes and was struck by this passage:
“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. But first I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” (Jeremiah 16:16-18 ESV)
I find passages about God’s ordaining acts of justice to be quite peculiar because of a number of self-evident laws of life:
- Libertarian Free-Will: Even if you believe that human will is greatly constrained (as I do), I still believe that the best description of human agency is to hold to the umbrella term of freedom and then, secondarily, to have a discussion on the extent of our constraints. Some theologians prefer to describe a sense of responsibility but will shy away from the term “freedom.” These theologians tend to expend energies towards trying to mentally make sense of the license we have within the greatly constrained responsibility. I find it easier and more realistic to do the opposite.
What, then, we have in this kind of divine-human arrangement is a universe where humans have real agency in their decision making. Thus, humans also bear somewhat of a burden in having responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Because I believe in freedom, I see our world as one where humans have freedom to pursue ungodliness without direct coercion from Jesus Christ. Jesus can persuade, move, draw, and frame the human will. But He will not coerce the human will towards any particular choice (Although He certainly could do otherwise).
I find that this kind of arrangement results in humans who believe that we live in a consequence-free environment. Both backslidden Christians and pagans alike can, phenomenologically speaking, find themselves making bad decisions and apparently avoiding any real consequences from God’s hand. Or so it appears . . .
- Justice. Passages like this one from Jeremiah indicate that God will bring his measuring stick to our decisions at some point within created time. There is no if, and, or but. God will make all things balanced.
- Patience. 2 Peter 3:9 reminds us, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
So what is going on here within the three terms? Again, I get the sense that those who sin boldly and deny the real righteous nature of God do so because they believe that they live in a consequence-free environment. But, if the Bible is true, these people are able to sin boldly, not because they are in a consequence-free environment, but because they are in a consequence-delayed environment. God is not slow…
It appears, then, that it is difficult for humans to perceive the difference between existing in a consequence-free environment and a consequence-delayed environment.
The first environment only exists if Universalism is true. However, if the Bible is true, then we exist in a consequence-delayed environment. And this is the mother of all “Oh, no” gasps. Forget the panic that ensues when you discover an outstanding medical bill. How about the panic that ensues when you discover an infinitely weighty hamartiological bill. That is a debt that no human could ever hope to pay.
And, Jeremiah reminds us of the character of God. “They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. But first I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin.” That is a Godfather type repayment (warning: graphic violence).
What This Means For Believers:
As a Christian, this truth both comforts and scares me at the same time. It comforts me because it means that God is really serious about the whole of His universe. In short, everything matters. God is serious about all the love, grace, mercy, and salvation stuff. And he is equally serious about all the discipline, wrath, and justice stuff.
It scares me because I mess up often and with great acts of arrogance. And, I generally lean on God’s mercy and grace to ease my conscience. But, the truth is that I don’t live in a consequence-free environment. The way I talk to my wife matters. The way I treat my co-workers matters. The ideas I teach matter. The tone I use with others matters. The words I write in a blog matter. They have consequences and weight. And one day God will hold me accountable as to how I spent one of His most precious gifts and resources for us: our time on earth.