Perhaps I was simply too young to appreciate the absurdist humor of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," the popular television comedy (1968-1973). I never quite understood why the laugh track kicked in whenever Sammy Davis, Jr. shuffled across the screen to the sing-song catchphrase "Here comes the judge." I still don't. But the "Laugh-In" writers must have been on to something, because long after that show went off the air the judge-as-entertainer remains a pop-culture staple. The humor may no longer be explicit, but the entertainment value-as well as the absurdity-remains.
Maybe you've met Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, Judge Mills Lane, Judge Joe Brown, and Judge Hatchett. They're all there in your TV Guide. Even the venerable Judge Wapner came out of retirement (again), no longer to host "People's Court," but to preside over "Animal Court." Really. As Dave Barry so often says, I'm not making this up.
The entertainer-judge is now standard, as reliable a revenue generator as hospital dramas and celebrity chat shows. And just as one's view of an earthly father might color the picture of our heavenly father, it's a fair guess that our idea of the heavenly judge might be influenced by our perception of earthly adjudicators. Do any of those present on our screens encourage us to take the law, the court, or the judicial office seriously? Consider one recent review: "Judge Wapner's 'Animal Court' is as real as Miss Cleo's tarot card readings are. It sounds pathetic, but this show is extremely funny and entertaining."
In such an environment, is it any longer possible to take seriously the law, the judge, or the judgments? Is it possible in an irony-soaked postmodern world even to conceive of such things as objective guilt pronounced by an objective judge on the basis of objective evidence of the transgression of objective laws? If not, then we-both the church and the world-are in a very sorry way. If not, then the program of the atheistic and nihilistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has come to fruition. That influential nineteenth-century thinker, who was not ashamed to describe himself as Antichrist, was quite up front about his own intentions: "[W]e immoralists are trying with all our strength to take the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment out of the world again." Increasingly, it seems like he's succeeded. Less than a hundred years after Nietzsche, for instance, the pop-music prophets of Jane's Addiction could confidently sing, "Ain't no wrong now, ain't no right; only pleasure and pain."
But is that really the case? Does contemporary man really believe that? And how do such modern and postmodern prophets compare to those of Holy Scripture and their pronouncements concerning the divine law, the ultimate judge, and his just judgments? The Apostle Paul is frighteningly clear when he announces that the divine law-whether inscribed on stone tablets or imprinted on men's hearts-does not exist to bring us amusement. Instead it "brings wrath" (Rom. 4:15). Isaiah is equally clear that God himself "is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver" (Isa. 33:22). And Ezekiel makes plain that the Lord's judgments will not be influenced by bribery, blackmail, or even television ratings; but he will "judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices" (Ezek. 7:3).
The biblical authors certainly have no concept of an adjudicator who exists for our entertainment; instead they present us with a holy and just judge who is to be taken with absolute seriousness. And while we may not be surprised that the world refuses to take our Lord seriously, we should be dismayed when the church also refuses. We should be scandalized when the Christ who came into the world for judgment (John 9:39) is recast as an indulgent and nonjudgmental Mr. Nice Guy. We need not even turn here to the usual suspects: syrupy praise songs and self-affirming sermons. It is not uncommon in evangelical circles, for example, to hear that the problem with the pre-Reformation church was its portrayal of God as too stern and unyielding. As evidence of this we are invariably pointed to the iconography of Jesus as pantokrator, the almighty judge who sits, unsmiling, atop a rainbow. But it was hardly this image of God for which the reformers criticized the medieval church. In fact, it was quite the opposite. God, according to men like Martin Luther and John Calvin, had not been proclaimed as too stern a judge by some medieval theologians, but too soft a judge. He was one who could be appeased and whose wrath could be averted by such things as pilgrimages, alms, and indulgences. He could, in short, be bought off. Against this idea of a judge who could be bribed with offerings from an arbitrary list of good deeds, the reformers responded with Isaiah that "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). They insisted that we cannot deal with God on our terms; he deals with us on his.
Contrary to much popular belief, the first evangelicals were not at all concerned to grind the rough edges off a harsh medieval deity; they were concerned simply to proclaim the Lord as he had revealed himself in Scripture. And though we may sometimes forget it, what they found there was not only a judge, but someone more akin to that staple of old westerns-the "hanging judge." As the son of a Lutheran pastor, even the apostate Nietzsche understood this; and he wasn't entirely wrong when he described Christianity as "a metaphysics of the hangman." That, logically enough, is precisely why he wanted to banish guilt from men's consciences. Guilt is produced by an awareness of wrongdoing, of sin. And sin is a capital offence in the court of the almighty judge; its wages are death (Rom. 6:23).
When the trumpets of that heavenly court blow, and when it's an angelic host singing "Here comes the judge!" you can, in the words of Rowan and Martin themselves, "bet your sweet bippy" that the laugh track won't kick in. A hanging judge is not one to inspire laughs but to induce fear and respect. That, at least, was the pointed conclusion of the second-century apologist Theophilus of Antioch. After expounding upon God's holy and universal law, his terrible yet righteous wrath against those who transgress it, and the deserved eternal punishment of those condemned by it, he left his audience with these sobering words: "You asked me to show you my God-this is my God. I advise you to fear and trust him."
Salutary advice indeed. But to whom does it apply? Is it simply for "sinners," for the blatantly immoral or the quick-to-hand caricatures of evil such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao? Not at all. To be sure, the apologist spoke in a particular time and place, to a particular audience; but his words have universal relevance-because sin itself is universal. This was precisely the point made by Calvin when he noted that "the whole of the third chapter of Romans is nothing but a description of original sin." And since original sin-sin inherited from our original parents-is nothing less than universal sin, he could continue by saying that God "inveighs not against particular men but against the whole race of Adam's children." That is the terrifying yet eminently logical nature of sin, a logic made clear by the orthodox Lutheran father David Hollaz. "Everything follows the seeds of its own nature," he wrote. "No black crow ever produces a white dove, no ferocious lion a gentle lamb; and no man polluted with inborn sin ever begets a holy child."
But this pessimistic conclusion-that all men are sinners who stand under God's judgment-was hardly original with the reformers. Indeed, it would be difficult to read the argument of Romans 3 and reach any other conclusion. What's more, Paul takes pains to assure his readers that these thoughts are not original even with him. He simply presents the evidence of God's Old Testament revelation. He quotes from Ecclesiastes, "there is no one righteous, not even one," and from the Psalms, "there is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10, 12).
Even more telling, Paul had prefaced his discussion in Romans 3 with the argument that universal human sinfulness is known even to those without a knowledge of the Scriptures. In the previous chapter he had declared that even those ignorant of God's written word "show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts," and that their consciences therefore accuse them (Rom. 2:15). And while he does not do so, Paul could have quoted pagan authorities just as readily as he did those of ancient Israel. He could have cited the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who admitted that "all vices exist in all men." He might have called upon the testimony of the classical poet Horace, who wrote that "no one is born without faults." Or he could have quoted the Roman statesman Cicero, who confessed that "as soon as we are born, we are immediately taken up with all depravity." Had Paul lived in our own day, he might even have referenced Clint Eastwood's memorable line in the Oscar-winning movie Unforgiven. Asked if the "bad guy" just shot dead really deserved to die, if he really had it coming, Eastwood's cowboy character offers the deadpan reply, "We all got it comin'."
If it's true that we all got it comin'-and it certainly is-then the church has no business pretending it isn't. That pretense was what the reformers deemed so problematic in medieval theology. And what was prominent in the medieval church hasn't at all disappeared in the modern, as the Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen observed in his classic book Christianity and Liberalism. "The fundamental fault of the modern Church," he argued, "is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task-she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance." That is, too often the church shirks its responsibility to faithfully proclaim the law, to announce to all men without exception that they have transgressed the just laws of a just God and that they will one day stand in the court of that divine judge. That's simply not the polite, esteem-building thing to say. We are afraid to sound accusatory, but, as the reformers never tired of noting, "the law always accuses." A God of acceptance is so much more appealing than a God of wrath, but, as Paul insisted, "the law brings wrath." A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; and knowing only that the law accuses and condemns can tempt us to soft peddle or even sidestep its proclamation, naively hoping that the gospel will remain meaningful without it. We can be tempted to announce the good news of a Savior while at the same time assuring people that, really, they're not so awfully bad as actually to need saving. Common sense tells us that this is absurd. Machen wryly reminds us, "Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He."
It's true, preaching serious law and serious judgment in the world of "Night Court," "The People's Court," and "Animal Court" might also promise little success. But God will hardly be impressed with that sort of excuse from his church. We are called, as was Paul, to preach "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Faithful Christians will announce with the apostle that "by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men" (Rom. 5:18), that we are "by nature children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), and that "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (2 Cor. 5:10). Faithful heirs of the Reformation will proclaim with Luther that, in Adam, "all men were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil," and with Calvin that the sin of Adam "enkindled God's fearful vengeance against the whole of mankind."
It is news no one wants to hear; it is news that, by itself, will endear the preacher to none. And yet, even today, there remains faint evidence that Nietzsche's program has not and cannot come to fruition. Clint Eastwood offers some small evidence that our age still gets it. Horace, Seneca, and Cicero offer some small evidence that anyone who seriously reflects upon man and his condition will get it. And the Apostle Paul offers inspired evidence that all men, whether they are willing to admit it or not, do in fact get it. None can deny that there are, woven into the universe itself, laws to be obeyed. None can deny that they have nevertheless broken those laws and therefore deserve judgment. "These two facts," wrote the Oxford apologist C. S. Lewis, "are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in."
These facts are indeed the foundation, the beginning of true knowledge of ourselves, our world, and the God who stands as judge over both. They are, so to speak, the first word. But they are by no means the last word. This also Lewis noted with the warning that the vaguely discernible god implied by one's natural knowledge of the law "is not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology." Even the revelation of the God of Scripture as a "hanging judge" remains only a partial revelation. And while it is unconscionable to downplay the proclamation of God's judgment, it is an even more egregious error to preach only this. The American Lutheran theologian C. F. W. Walther was absolutely correct in his insistence that "God's Word is not rightly divided when the law is preached to those who are already terrified because of their sins."
The proclamation of the law, which reveals God's wrath against sin, is meant to terrify. Those who recognize the existence of an objective judge who holds them accountable to his objective laws and finds them objectively guilty cannot escape terror. This is why that "first word" of condemnation is meant to be followed by the "last word" of justification. The bad news of the law is to be followed up with the good news of the gospel. But we must be absolutely clear: The gospel is not the announcement that God will simply suspend judgment or commute the sinner's due sentence. He does not, after a lengthy intoning of the account of our sin and deserved punishment, say from the bench: "Just kidding!" He remains a just judge and justice demands judgment; crime demands punishment.
And it is nothing less than this terrible yet just judgment-not in the least bit stilted or softened-that we see where we would least expect it: poured out upon the Son of God himself. In the crucifixion of Jesus is revealed just how serious our Lord is about human sin and divine judgment, so serious that he would not spare even his own son, the sinless Christ who would nevertheless "be sin for us" (2 Cor. 5:21), who condescended to bear "our sins in his body" (1 Pet. 2:24), and have "laid upon him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). Here on Calvary is God himself, the judge himself, "pierced for our transgressions" and "crushed for our iniquities" (Isa. 53:5).
We may have a hard time swallowing the fact that all men are sinners and thereby deserve condemnation. But the facts of God incarnate and God himself suffering that condemnation? These are beyond astonishing. The great British novelist Dorothy Sayers was right on target when commenting upon them: "For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is-limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death-He had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine," she wrote; "When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile."
He thought it well worthwhile because in that sacrificial act, that atonement, the necessary judgment upon sin was enacted. Divine justice was satisfied. He thought it well worthwhile because in the judgment of one, many were pardoned. Because God's wrath was poured out upon the sins of man in the Son of Man, he is no longer "counting men's sins against them" (2 Cor. 5:19). Yes, the words of St. Paul are still true: we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. But on account of that same Christ's intercession on the cross, his being judged in our stead, the Christian can appear in the heavenly court with the full confidence that "God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God" (2 Thess. 1:5).
In light of this sure promise, maybe the Day of Judgment will be accompanied by a laugh track after all. Definitely not a reel of canned studio laughter, but quite probably the living, full-bellied laughter of joy and thanksgiving expressed by those who even now confess with St. Paul, "there is in store for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day" (2 Tim. 4:8).
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "What Does it Mean to be Good?" May/June 2006 Vol. 15 No. 3 Page number(s): 4-8
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