Judgment and Punishment in Relation to the Unbeliever.
"YOU will not be punished for your sins, but for rejecting Christ." Such are the words which are often heard from the lips of Gospel preachers. Are they true? If not, what a terrible thing that they should be so often repeated. To some, they are an integral part of their creed, and to challenge their truth, appears like making light of the rejection of God's unspeakable gift.
But let us look at them in the light of God's Word. "What saith the Scripture," must be the divine touchstone by which all our assertions, even the most cherished, must be judged. I think a glance at one or two Scriptures will convince us that such a statement is not only not found in Holy Scripture, but is utterly opposed thereto.
For the believer, the question of sins was settled once and forever at the Cross. "Who His Own self bare our sins in His Own body on the tree" (1 Peter ii. 24). But no such thing is ever said about an unbeliever; on the contrary, we find that "the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished " (2 Peter ii. 9); and again, "For because of these thing cometh the wrath of God on the children of disobedience" (Eph. v. 6); and again, "And they were judged (in the sense of condemnation or sentence of punishment), every man according to his works" (Rev. xx. 13). Possibly Luke xii. 47, is even more explicit. There we see the man beaten according to his measure of guilt. The man who has lived a life of sin and high-handed rebellion against God, and that in the full blaze of the revelation of God's love in the Cross, will be beaten with many more stripes than the man who has sinned in a lesser light. The punishment will be meted out according to strict justice, even "unto every man according to his works."
But just as there is generally a grain of truth in the wildest fable, so the statement I quoted at the outset, is founded on a passage of Scripture misunderstood. In John iii. 18 (R.V.), we read these words: "He that believeth on Him is not judged; he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the Name of the only-begotten Son of God."
The Revised Version here renders the Greek word Kpivw, judged; and this is the strict meaning of the word, and the reason why the passage has been misunderstood is because the judgment of the unbeliever has been confounded with the punishment of the sinner, as such.
The prisoner is judged before he leaves the dock, but his punishment has yet to come. For example, a boy of seventeen is committed for trial on a charge of theft. It is his first offence, and has possibly been committed in great extremity of hunger. On the same day, a man of fifty, hardened in vice, is committed for trial on a like charge. The verdict in both cases is "Guilty," but the sentence is vastly different. The judge passes sentence according to the respective merits of each case. So with the unbeliever; the immoral and moral, the religious and the profane, are, as far as judgment is concerned, in exactly the same case—they are "judged already." But God, Who is infinitely holy and just, will apportion each his punishment according to the merits of each case. To say that God's controversy with men is not now about a broken law but a rejected Christ is perfectly true, for God is not now pleading with men about sins. This he did until the Cross, which closed the history of the first man before God. The Cross has abundantly proved man's guilt, and the question now is whether he will "flee for refuge to the hope set before him in the Gospel."
There is an ever-increasing need of doctrinal clearness in the preaching of the Gospel. There are, alas! many expressions used in preaching the Gospel which are not found in Scripture, and whose only merit is antiquity. The Lord graciously give us to have a holy jealousy for the truth in the proclamation of the Gospel of the Glory of the blessed God. If any unsaved one should read this, let me say to you, dear fellow-sinner, do not trifle with this solemn question. Out of Christ, you must meet the doom and punishment of your sins; in Christ, all judgment is passed. If you will but take shelter in Him, you can say---
"Death and judgment are behind me,
Grace and glory are before;
All the billows rolled o'er Jesus—
There they spent their utmost power."