I know I should not, but I do kind of an appreciate a good theologian fracas, when theologians square off. I think this is because the reasons for theologians sparring, unlike most others fights, are at least sometimes (though not always!) substantive. Regardless, the subject matter always matters: who is God and how do we understand Him.
There have been a number of great theologian clashes. One thinks of Athanasius and Arius or Augustine and Pelagius. But another great one was between Tertullian and Marcion. It was not really a squaring off, to be technical about it. Marcion was older. He lived from 85 to 160 AD. Tertullian lived from 155 to 220 AD. So Marcion died when Tertullian was five years old, but that did not stop Tertullian from taking Marcion to task when he got older. In fact, Tertullian wrote a book entitled Adversus Marcionem, Against Marcion.
Why? Well, Marcion developed very problematic views. In fact, Marcion was a heretic. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was a monster, a vengeful, wrathful, false god. He believed that the God of the New Testament was a different deity who revealed Himself in the person of Jesus.
The church condemned Marcionism in 144 AD. A lot of what we know of Marcion’s views we know from the assessments of those, like Tertullian, who wrote against him.
One of Tertullian’s main points was that Marcion left no room for God to have any wrath. Tertullian writes scathingly of Marcion and the Marcionites:
…a better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind. Of course he forbids you to sin – but only in writing.
Tertullian also noted that the world desperately wants a God with no wrath or judgment. He writes: “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the world.”
And this is not an uncommon desire, this desire for a God with no wrath who never judges sin. In his article, “No Squishy Love,” Timothy George writes:
In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Against this kind of sentimentalism projected upon the God of Heaven and earth stands the line of the creed: “and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” There are two components to this line, both of which have deep scriptural backing:
- He will come
- to judge the living and the dead.
Both of these are vitally important, and both are to be understood in the shadow of the cross.
The promise: “And He will come…”
This line of the creed begins with a promise: “And He will come…” The language is a direct quote from Jesus’ words in John 14 to His disciples:
1 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
There it is: “I will come again…”
The promise of Jesus’ return was the hope and strength of the early church: King Jesus was coming again! The very last verses of the Bible, in Revelation 22, reveal this:
20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.
And this was no mere formal closing. Richard Bauckham observes that:
This promise runs through the whole Book of Revelation (see 2:5, 16; 3:11; 16:15; 22:7, 12, 20), promising judgment for some and blessing for others, until at last it evokes an answer: “Come!”
In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul uses the word maranatha to punctuate his heart’s desire for Jesus’ return:
22d-e If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!
Do we share this sense of expectation and of hope? Are we similarly encouraged by the prospect of Jesus’ return? For the early church, a church in persecution, this was life itself, that Jesus had not abandoned His bride, that Jesus would return!
Perhaps you are like me, however: you grew up surrounded by pretty intense Christian prophecy speculation. I remember as a kind hearing that Gog and Magog must be Russia and China, that the sounds of the apocalyptic locusts in Revelation would be fulfilled in the sounds of Apache helicopters, that the European Union represented the one world government, etc. etc. etc.
All of this—and I am not saying that all of it is wrong—I think led me to become pretty reticent about the book of Revelation. Which is why it took me twenty-five years to finally preach through the book. I love the book of Revelation, and I believe wholeheartedly in the return of Jesus, but if I am honest with myself I think I lost the point in the midst of all the predictions. I am very much settled now on this: it is enough for me to know that Christ is coming! Now, I do watch the times and have views and ideas and theories on the details surrounding the coming, but I will never again allow the predictions to eclipse the prize: our King is coming again! I very much appreciate the wording of Article X of the Baptist Faith and Message (2000):
God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.
Jesus is coming in God’s “own time and in His own way.” Let the church say again, “Amen! Maranatha!”
The aftermath: “…to judge the living and the dead.”
And what is the aftermath of this coming? What will be the result? The creed says that Jesus will come “to judge the living and the dead.” Perhaps more well-known is the older language of “the quick and the dead.” The phrase “the living and the dead” may be said to describe “all people who have ever lived” and others suggest, more pointedly, that “[t]he ‘living’ are those who will be alive at the time of Christ’s return, and the ‘dead’ are those who will experience a resurrection to a personal meeting with the Lord…” We find this language three times in the New Testament.
First, Peter, in Acts 10, said:
42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.
That Jesus was “to be judge of the living and the dead” was part of apostolic preaching. The apostles were “commanded” to preach this. The Father “appointed” Jesus to judge “the living and the dead.” Clearly, then, the second advent of Jesus will be different from the first. In the first, Jesus came lowly and meekly to offer salvation. In the second, He will come as judge.
So, too, we find this idea in 2 Timothy 4.
1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
Notice that, like Peter’s words in Acts 10, Paul also connects the reality of Jesus as judge with the necessity of preaching: “preach the word…” He also explicitly connects it with Jesus’ second coming: “who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom…” Jesus will judge all of humanity, all who have ever lived!
In 1 Peter 4, however, we begin to see that this reality is specifically very bad news for the lost. Here, Peter is commenting on the posture and disposition of the lost world toward the church, and specifically of a person’s former friends when that person comes to know Christ and turns away from the things of the world.
4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
What is this posture and disposition of the lost toward the saved?
- The lost are surprised when the saved turn from their old life.
- The lost “malign” the saved.
Toward these are the words of verse 5 focused: “but they will give an account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”
This is important. It begins to lay the groundwork for how the lost and the saved see the line “he will come to judge the living and the dead” differently. The lost are terrified at it. The saved, as we will see, are not so. But sadly, in our day, the fundamental and basic truth of the line must be impressed again upon the saved and the lost alike: Jesus will come again as judge. We expect the lost to reject the truth. We are shocked to find many who profess to being saved reject it.
R.C. Sproul’s summary of how the world views this can tragically be applied to many in the church as well:
Our thinking goes like this: If there is a God at all, He is certainly not holy. If He is perchance holy, He is not just. Even if He is both holy and just, we need not fear because His love and mercy override His holy justice. If we can stomach His holy and just character, we can rest in one thing: He cannot possess wrath.
But this is false and dangerous. Jesus does indeed possess wrath, and He is right to possess it. He will come to judge the living and the dead!
The gospel: Mercy for those in Christ
All of this leaves us with quite a dilemma, no? The dilemma is this: we are sinners. If Jesus is coming again as judge, then what are we sinners to do? Here, two points made by Paul—one in 2 Timothy and one in 1 Timothy—can help us toward a vitally important truth.
First, in 2 Timothy 4, we find a most startling phrase. Paul writes:
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
Speaking of Jesus’ second coming, Paul says in verse 8 that he “loves” Jesus’ “appearing” on “that day.” In other words, Paul loves the thought of Jesus coming again! But clearly, as we have seen, Paul knows that Jesus is coming as judge of the living and the dead. This is made all the more astonishing by another of Paul’s phrases, this from 1 Timothy 1:
15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
The truly shocking phrase here is, “of whom I am the foremost.” The “foremost” what? The foremost of “sinners.”
Ask yourself how on earth these two ideas from these two passages can coexist:
- I love Jesus’ second coming.
- I am the foremost (chief) of sinners.
What can this mean? How on earth can the foremost of sinners love the coming again of Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead?
The answer is to be found in the words immediately following 1 Timothy 1. After Paul’s declaration of his sinfulness, he writes:
16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Oh my! That phrase, “But I received mercy…” is the very heartbeat of the gospel of Jesus Christ! I am the foremost of sinners, but I received mercy! What is it, then, that makes the foremost of sinners capable of loving the idea of Jesus’ second coming? Mercy. Mercy!
We see, then, that to those who have rejected the mercy of Jesus, the idea of Jesus coming “to judge the living and the dead” is a horrific thought. But to those who have received the mercy of Jesus, His coming is life and the final culmination of our salvation! I. Howard Marshall writes:
What matters is the twofold fact that the pagans will have to answer to God for their refusal to obey him and that those who heard and believed the gospel will be vindicated by God and enjoy eternal life…The future life is theirs because the gospel was preached to them and they responded to it.
Yes! This is so!
I love old preacher stories.
I will never forget as a kid hearing the story of the soldier who broke ranks in Napoleon’s army and ran from the battle in fear. He was later apprehended and brought before the Emperor who announced the sentence for desertion: death. The boy’s mother begged for an audience with Napoleon and it was granted. She pleaded with the Emperor for the life of her son. “I beg you, sir,” she cried, “show my boy mercy!” Napoleon, unmoved, looked at her and said, “Mercy? Madam, your son does not deserve mercy!” To which the mother replied, “Emperor, if he deserved it, it would not be mercy.” Moved now, Napoleon set the boy free.
I do not know if that story actually happened as the preacher said when I was a kid. I do not know if I trust the history of it, but I know this: I trust the truth of it. Mercy by its definition is not deserved.
“But I received mercy…”
My, my! Yes! And I have too! And the One who showed me this mercy is coming again. And I dare to say with the early church, “Maranatha! Our Lord come!” Let the church say Amen!
 Quoted by Tony Lane at https://www.uniontheology.org/resources/doctrine/god/the-wrath-of-god-as-an-aspect-of-the-love-of-god
 Jones, Brian (2011-08-01). Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It). (p. 20). David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.
 Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. The New American Commentary: New Testament. Gen. Ed. E. Ray Clendenen. Vol. 37 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003), p.205; Lea, Thomas D., and Hayne P. Griffin Jr. 1, 2 Timothy, Titus. The New American Commentary: New Testament. Gen. Ed. David S. Dockery. Vol. 34 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.241.
 R.C. Sproul, Holiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), p.175.
 Marshall, I. Howard. 1 Peter. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ser. Ed. Grant R. Osborne. Vol. 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), p.138.