Like many of us, when I watch the unfolding tragedies of injustice that dominate the news, or, as a pastor, when sitting with people who have experienced grave injustice or pain, I wonder what I am to make of God’s judgment. When I hear the confident pronouncements of those on both sides of a spectrum convinced they hold the high ground of moral superiority, I wonder what I am to make of God’s judgment. When I study the systems and structures, policies, and cultural assumptions that lead to oppression, injustice, and marginalization, I wonder what I am to make of God’s judgment.
Additionally, for those reading in the United States, we are a nation known for its “rights.” For many of these rights, I am extraordinarily grateful. However, we must also take responsibility for the consequences of our demands for some of those rights, which can lead to injustice and pain. Our demands for personal rights will sometimes come with a price––a price often paid by the most vulnerable. Whether, our rights lead to the death of unborn image-bearers; our rights create the environment for the slaughter of 20 school children; our rights lead to the economic exploitation of the poor, our rights easily lead to circumstances that grieve the heart of God. A demand for our rights does not, by necessity, give us the moral high ground, especially when suffering and death ensue. And as a result, the words from Isaiah resonate with me: “Woe to those who make unjust laws…” (Isaiah 10:1) and “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
In such circumstances, what are we to make of the justice and judgment of God coming against that which does not align with the character and nature of His Kingdom? Are we willing to pray, “God, judge and purify us,” and then be confident in our assumptions that we are righteous enough to not ourselves be under that judgment? These are questions that have weighed on me in recent days.
Because the Lord is gracious, He brought to mind a book that has been helpful to me as I process.
The City of God
In his book, When the Kings Come Marching In, (originally published in 1983 and then updated in 2002), Richard J. Mouw uses Isaiah 60 to present a vision for a transformed culture. In the book, he develops many important themes about the cosmic restoration to come when Christ returns, the character and nature of the Kingdom of God, and how all that relates to how we ought to live in this world.
I highly commend the entire book for his exegesis. Yet, one central theme is simply that we too often so overly spiritualize the City of God that we underemphasize the ways the developments of the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28) will extend into a restored creation. Consequently, we reflect little on the significance of our current patterns in light of this reality. He argues,
But the holy city is not wholly discontinuous with present conditions. The biblical glimpses of this city give us reason to think that its contents will not be completely unfamiliar to people like us. In fact, the contents of the city will be more akin to our present cultural patterns than is usually acknowledged in discussions of the afterlife. (20)
Our Fallen “Filling” & Patterns
However, though in God’s good design, he intended for humanity to develop cultural patterns that reflect His character and nature, we rebelled. Mouw argues:
This meant, among other things, that they violated God's mandate to form culture out of a faithful obedience to his will. In the history of our collective fallen lives, then, human beings have consistently perverted the good creation; men and women have “filled” and subdued the earth in faithless ways….
But God has not abandoned his good creation, even in its presently distorted form. The earth's “filling” still belongs to him…
There is an important sense in which the Holy City is the Garden-plus-the-“filling.” During the course of history, sinful human beings have created a misdirected “filling.” The things they have added to the Garden are, contrary to the Creator's intention, perverse and idolatrous. But God still insists that the “filling” belongs to him and he will reclaim it at the end of time, in doing so transforming it into the kind of feeling that he originally intended for his creation. (36-37)
On the one hand, such a picture of the Holy City undermines the over-spiritualizing of the City and the underemphasizing of how our current patterns reverberate into eternity. On the other hand, do not miss that whatever patterns we allow must be transformed, for they are fallen and idolatrous.
Again, while Mouw develops some important themes, far more than can be considered now, one implication of our cultural patterns extending into the City of God is the development of our societal and political life. That is, he shows the extent to which our political and societal idolatry will be judged by God when He transforms our fallen “filling” into something useful for this Holy City.
All Too Familiar Patterns
In a series of striking statements that span the entirety of the book, Mouw confronts our cultural patterns––especially the patterns related to our pursuits of power and glory and the idolatry we easily allow to pervade.
People boast about the nations in which they are citizens. They boast about ethnic identities, religious affiliations, race, gender, and clan. They point in pride to natural wonders they claim as their own possession––“This land was made for you and me.” They show off their military might, their economic clout, and their material abundance.
The Lord of hosts has a day against all of these things: against nations who brag about being “Number One,” against racist pride, about the idealizing of “human potential,” against our self-actualization manifestos, against our reliance on missiles and bombs, against art and technology, against philosophy textbooks and country music records, against Russian vodka and South African diamonds, against trade centers and computer banks, against throne-rooms and presidential memorabilia. In short, God will stand in judgment of all idolatrous and prideful attachments to military, technological, commercial, and cultural might. He will destroy all of those rebellious projects that glorify oppression, exploitation, and the accumulation of possessions…
But the “stuff” of human cultural rebellion will nonetheless be gathered into the Holy City. God still owns the “filling.” The earth ––including the American military and French art and Chinese medicine, and Nigerian agriculture––belongs to the Lord. And he will reclaim all of the things, harnessing them for service in the City (38-39)
Furthermore, when addressing the political implications of our boasting, glorying in self, and pursuits of power, he argues we too often emphasize “law and order” to justify such pursuits. He says,
The Christian Church has seldom run the risk of denying this important emphasis on “order.” But Christian people who have often shown a serious insensitivity to the implications of an equally significant biblical truth––that governments are not merely a response to sin, but are also affected by sin. Governments can become “beastly”; they can function as objects of idolatrous designs. They can––even when they claim to be maintaining “law & order”––commit themselves to injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression. They will often perpetuate the legal and economic helplessness of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. They glory in their own military prowess. They initiate imperialist and genocidal programs…In pursuing selfish goals and policies they are no longer “ministers” of the Lord, and their behavior cannot be justified by pious platitudes about “life in a sinful world.” Such governments stand under the stern judgment of God. (64-65)
When mapped over our current cultural landscape and the landscape of nearly every nation and society of power, such statements and ideas leave none free of judgment. To most clearly summarize the point, there are indeed cultural, societal, and political patterns around us that will extend into the City of God. The “filling” we have done will be part of God’s restored creation. But, and that is a big but, those patterns, before used, will undergo righteous judgment.
With that in mind, Christians cannot stand for anything less than a complete reimagining of our cultural, societal, and political patterns. We desperately need new patterns that, in the end, will not be judged by God but instead honored by him. What are those God-honoring patterns? Mouw notes,
Jesus has already begun to transform the patterns of human authority. He calls us to cast our lot with the lowly ones, to identify with the poor and the oppressed of the earth. To live in this manner is to anticipate the coming political vindication, when “the least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation” (Isa. 60:22). (67)
Since we are already citizens of God's Commonwealth, we must find effective ways of living in political conformity to its norms and patterns. Because we know that all political rulers will someday be called to account for the only true Sovereign, we must not give them more than they are due in the present age. (68)
As a pastor, one ongoing concern I have is how easily, as American Christians, we can be lulled into the assumption that our current patterns reflect our citizenship in heaven when, in actuality, those patterns reject that citizenship. That is, we so easily conform to the patterns of this world, assuming that conformity is righteous and holy because our minds have yet to be fully renewed (Romans 12:2).
And because we forget we are “citizens of God's Commonwealth” and, as a result, “must find effective ways of living in political conformity to its norms and patterns,” we overly align ourselves with the Constitution, our economic system, our global influence, our military might, our political leaders, and our cultural ideas about self-actualization, identity, and self-autonomy––an autonomy that undermines what is good, right, true, and just. Do we not see that each of those entities will come under God’s judgment? Can we not see every pattern that will not be in the City of God is destined to be judged by God?
An ideology that brags about being “Number One,’” allows “racist pride,” who relies on “missiles and bombs” and guns, and prideful attachments to military, technological, commercial, and cultural might will be judged by God for doing so.
An ideology that idealizes “human potential” by rejecting our need for God or “self-actualization” by rejecting God-ordained, God-sustained, God-established definitions of what makes us human, will be judged by God for doing so.
No political platform, economic system, institution, or the like will stand, for “He will destroy all of those rebellious projects that glorify oppression, exploitation, and the accumulation of possessions…”
No Condemnation & Judgment
Having said all of that, I do recognize we must consider what it means that, for the Christian, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Thanks be to God that in Christ Jesus we have such hope! But how does that relate to the judgment we just examined? Well, there are a couple of considerations that come to mind.
First, we need to address the posture with which we turn to Romans 8:1 when confronted with our idolatry. We should not look upon our idolatry and have our first instinct be to functionally say (even if we do not literally say it), “That idolatry is no big deal, for I will not be judged for there is no condemnation!” Instead, our first instinct should be, “God, create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within in me.” That is, when confronted with the idolatry that remains in us––idolatry that will be judged––repentance, not minimization, should be our immediate instinct.
Second, however, we must also recognize that though there is no condemnation for those in Christ, that does not mean that the judgment of God will not still come against the idolatrous structures we create. Is this not the pattern of how God works amongst His people? Was God not faithful to his covenant promises to Israel, while also bringing judgment against them for their idolatry and wickedness?
If God is gracious, he will topple every government, every political platform and politician, every economic system, every church, and every institution that does not reflect His City and “does not find effective ways of living in political conformity to its norms and patterns.” In this sense, we must see that judgment will come––even if not eternal judgment––upon us if we do not pursue such patterns and instead pursue the patterns of this world.
Christian, what exists in our homes, churches, institutions, political affiliations, preferred economic system, and overall cultures that will not extend into the City of God and, as a result, will be under his judgment? And I do not mean that which exists in other people’s circles. What priorities exist in your home, your church, your political party, your economic system that will be judged by God and will not enter into His City?
And wherever our patterns misalign with God City, are we prepared to repent and actively strive to change those patterns? Will we do whatever is necessary to reflect that we are part of “God’s Commonwealth,” His people––a people awaiting the return of our King who will purify the “filling” of His creation? And if we will not––not they (whoever they might be for you), but we––are we confident enough in the righteousness of God to pray: “God, judge and purify us.” Because, in the end, He most certainly will.