For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been pointing out the key elements of the gospel through our Anglican communion service, following the pattern of the well-known gospel outline, Two Ways to Live. The first point is that God is our Creator. The second is that we have sinned against him. The third point, which is today’s topic, is God’s response of judgment.
The Bible teaches that God punishes sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Not surprisingly, this fact is often doubted, or joked about, or not talked about. However, we should not be surprised that God punishes wrongdoing, since it is a normal part of exercising authority: governments, employers, teachers and parents all punish wrong. As much as we don’t enjoy punishment, we are glad to live in a society where people cannot simply get away with wrong. God is the source of all authority. It would be strange if he did not punish wrong.
But since all of us have made a grab for God’s power, all of us deserve “the wages of sin”. The punishment is death and hell: Jesus said very clearly that “at the close of the age, the angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50). Is hell a literal furnace? Probably not. But Jesus’ figure of speech is meant to communicate that hell is a dreadful reality.
To be a Christian, we must agree with God’s justice. The confession prayer in First Order Holy Communion (following Cranmer’s original), expresses this by saying that our sins are “provoking most justly your wrath and indignation”. (It’s a shame that not all the confession prayers we use are as explicit as this.) It is very humbling to confess this to God, and some have quipped that the prayer book makes us “worthless worms”. But it is through confessing the truth that we will be set free. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).