More Editorials from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.
T HERE are many perplexities in God's providence, not the least of which concerns the progress of evil at the present time. We are assured that sin is the abominable thing which God in His holiness hates (Jer. 44:4): further, and contrary to popular evangelical thought (or rather lack of thought!) that He hates all workers of iniquity (Psa. 5:5). Yet in our observations of human affairs we do not always seem to see the outworking of these solemn truths. In every place men sin with a high hand – and the hand of Divine judgment appears to be stayed. The workers of iniquity are busy about their labours, but the stroke of justice never falls. Even the most flagrant sins go unrewarded, and those responsible remain defiant and mocking. Here, too, we wonder whether the punishment fits the crime.
In fact, visible judgments of God, like miracles, are rarities in Scripture. Most notable of all was the deluge which overwhelmed a corrupt and violent race (Gen. 6:11, 18). Certain nations have also been visited for their collective disobedience – particularly Egypt with a decade of plagues (Exod. 9:14). Whole cities with their perverted inhabitants were once converted to clinker (Gen. 19:24, 25). But these are remarkable chiefly because of their rarity.
More numerous in the Bible are visitations upon individuals. Cruel Jezebel is hurled to her death and eaten by dogs according to the word of the prophet (2 Kings 9:30-37): the vain Nebuchadnezzar is made to grovel as a beast (Dan. 4:33); Herod the demigod is eaten alive by worms (Acts 12:21-23) and Elymas the sorcerer is blinded for his determined opposition to the gospel (Acts 13:8-11). Oh, the terror of the Lord! This is the God with whom we have to do! "Say unto God, How terrible art thou in thy works!.....he is terrible in his doing toward the children of men." (Psa. 66:3, 5).
So we learn of the heathen. Are we tempted to think then that a religious profession disqualifies men from such dealings of God? That such strokes will never come near the Church? But have we not read of priests swallowed up alive by the earth, a prophet's servant smitten by leprosy, and a worshipper of God falling dead on the spot (Acts 5:1-5)? If it be objected that these were unregenerate men, hypocrites, then we might also point to others whose sincerity was not in doubt. David's adultery brought in its wake the death of his child and a troubled kingdom – and that after the sin had been confessed (2 Sam. 12:13, 14)! Zacharias, "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" was nevertheless struck dumb because he stumbled at the angel's message of a son to be born to him in his old age (Luke 1:6, 18-20)! Even the best of saints have their blemishes, and these are not overlooked by God.
Yet Sodom is with us now, and no fire and brimstone fall from heaven! Men still lie to God, but they are not seen to expire there and then! Do we begin to imagine that sin has become something less than exceedingly sinful because of these things? God forbid.
How then do we account for this apparent discrepancy between God's declared attitude to sin and its present daring progress?
When our wisdom would be to command fire to come down from heaven to consume God's enemies, the wisdom of God decrees otherwise. Now is pre-eminently the dispensation of grace, for in the words of Jesus Himself, "the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives but to save them" (Luke 9:56). Even His enemies must hear the gospel; some among them will become His friends. The man of sin is permitted to flourish, because popery in the first instance is to be consumed by the spirit of Christ's mouth, as her devotees are won to the Saviour through the anointed preaching of the gospel; only then will she be finally destroyed by His own glorious appearing (2 Thess. 2:8).
We must never think that the only judgments of God are those seen with our bodily eyes: it is not simply that which is visible which is real. Perhaps we wonder at the mark set upon Cain by the Lord after his fratricide, what it was; but do we detect the horror which had already filled his conscience, revealed in that cry of anguish, "My punishment is greater than I can bear" (Gen. 4:13)? The "fear [which] hath torment" (1 John 4:18) had seized him.
That the ungodly who never enter a place of worship should have their eyes closed by God does not cause us great surprise, but a heart hardening under the preaching of the Word is a most solemn thing. The pew is occupied as regularly as ever, the Bible opened and the Psalms sung with the rest: but the outward demeanour hides a heart like granite and a conscience more calloused with each sermon. The one least aware of the catastrophe is the individual himself. From the very gates of heaven he is soon to be thrust down to hell (Luke 10:15)!
If grace is glory in the bud, then such inward punishments are surely the first swellings of the awful bloom of damnation.
Men rashly translate a delay of judgment into a denial of it, and so are emboldened in their sin (Ecc. 8:11). The Lord may suffer the guilty for a season but He will by no means clear them. Their deeds are kept in record, and their appointed wrath is stored as it were in a place of safe-keeping before it is eventually poured over their heads (Rom. 2:5, 6).
After all, the greatest judgment in this life is when God leaves us to ourselves. When no gospel messengers are sent our way, no reproving voices strike our ears and no convictions smite our consciences. Such silence is the desire of many, and God very often grants them their wish.
If a man should ever wish to be damned in hell then all that it is necessary for him to do is - nothing. Nothing exceptional that is. Once when our Lord foretold the state of things at His return, He compared it to the times of Noah and Lot (Luke 17:26-30). Instinctively we focus on the violence and the sexual depravity of those days – and excuse ourselves.
But the text imparts a sharp rebuke to our self-righteousness. It is the very ordinariness of the lives which Christ highlights here: the feasting, the marrying, the trading, the labouring; these activities were sufficient to condemn millions! They were engaged in all these lawful things in a self-seeking way, to the exclusion of God and His glory. The average, decent, normal life is after all just another lane in the broad way that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13).
Let us bring this nearer to home. Believers too may fall into sin and defile their garments. The occasional can too quickly and easily become the habitual. Do we bless the Lord then for His chastisements? How Adam must have praised God for the rest of his years that He was ever arrested with those words, "Where art thou?"! David that his adultery was discovered to him by the man of God (2 Sam. 12:7)! Peter that the cock crowing melted his heart into tears of repentance!
Oh, for searching ministries that would disturb our carnal ease and spur us on to holiness! Keep me, oh keep me, from getting success in sin! It is the prosperity of fools! Make me of a tender conscience and to learn Thy fear, which is clean, and endures forever.