The Severity of God
November 18th, 1973 @ 8:15 AM
THE SEVERITY OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Peter 3:8-12
11-18-73 8:15 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Severity of God, the face of severity. It is a presentation of a text in 1 Peter 3, verse 12. And the context is this. When a preacher says "finally," ordinarily you would think he was about to end his sermon. But sometimes, as you know, he is just getting good and started when he says "finally." Well, that’s scriptural. When Paul says "Finally," he is just about beyond the introduction. And Simon Peter is the same way: "Finally," in verse 8. But he is still just beginning his letter:
Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:
Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.
For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile:
Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open unto their prayers: But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.
[1 Peter 3:8-12]
Prosopon, the countenance, the face of the Lord. I remember, in writing that little book on Did Man Just Happen? one of the things that I pointed out: the difference between a man and a beast is that a man has a countenance. An animal does not have a countenance; the face of a man is different from the face of a beast. The light of the knowledge of God is in the image of the Almighty, in the man that He made. Prosopon, the countenance, the face; and we are like God in that we have the light of the image of the glory of God in us, and it shines through in a man’s face [2 Corinthians 4:4-6].
Prosopon, the countenance, the face of the Lord is against them [1 Peter 3:12], epi, epi is usually translated "upon." But in its intensive use, it refers to a moving upon and thus a meaning of moving against. It is a very active preposition used here.
But the prosopon, the countenance, the face of the Lord is epi, moving against them that do evil [1 Peter 3:12]. And it was this text that brought to my mind that subject of the face of severity – unveiling the severe countenance of God.
There was a great preacher in the last century named F. B. Meyer. He was a contemporary of Alexander McClaren, of John Clifford, of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He lived in a day of great preachers, and he himself was one. In reading some of the things of F.B. Meyer, the English divine said that he had attended a meeting, a convocation of missionaries, and numbering about four hundred, he listened to their experience of grace, their conversion. And F.B. Meyer said to his own astonishment, and to the astonishment of all the group, practically all of those men who had given their lives to Christ on foreign fields had been saved someway in a message that presented the terror of the judgment of God.
The reason I remembered that, in the F.B. Meyer writing that I was looking at, it was my own experience. When I was a boy, as Billy Keith referred to, I would awaken at night in terror of the judgment of God upon me being lost. Even as a lad I sensed that tragedy of being shut out from the presence of God.
Now is that truth and is that right? By being true, I mean is it factual? And by being right, I mean is that something you ought to teach a child: that God’s face can be severe and that His judgments can be tragic in disobedience and disbelief? Well, that is the sermon today – the face of severity, unveiling the countenance of God.
First of all, if the Scriptures at all reflect the character of God, then the pastor has the obligation to present to his people the severity that is found in the moral character of the Almighty. And the Scriptures do that if they have any heart of inspiration at all, if they are moved for any care for us. The Scriptures do that as a merciful revelation.
For example, if a company were to ship through the express system a uranium cobalt capsule – to be placed out here in the nuclear therapy section of Baylor Medical College – if that capsule which can be so violently dangerous is shipped, it ought to be labeled, "This is uranium cobalt unit, and as such it is highly dangerous." Or here is the little bottle, it looks like sugar; little white ingredients, powder. But the chemist has an obligation to place on the label a skull and crossbones and write the word "strychnine," else somebody might not realize its potent danger and maybe taste it just to see if it were something else. But a taste would bring violent convulsions and death. Like a crossbar on a railroad track, it is a kindness to put the warning there. It is a kindness to label the skull and crossbones. It is a kindness to point out the danger of the cobalt unit.
It is something like that that lies back of the merciful revelation of God in the Scriptures. Is there such a thing as being lost? Is there such a thing as damnation? Is there such a thing as judgment and hell? If there is, then it is merciful and gracious on the part of God to reveal it to us.
That’s one of the things that I have never been able to understand in modern theology. There will be fads in preaching. Back yonder in the days of Jonathan Edwards, just reading his sermon, isn’t that remarkable? Jonathan Edwards read every sentence of his sermons. In the days of Jonathan Edwards, standing there in his pulpit, he read the sermon on "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." And the people listening to it cried out in terror before the Lord, asking for grace and salvation from such awesome judgment as falling into the fires of hell. Do you ever hear any sermons like that today? Why, I daresay there are two or three generations of listeners in some of our modern churches who have never heard a message on the severity and the judgment of God.
Well, is it just a fad? Was it something that the old divines turned to back there in the days of Edwards, but today in this enlightened age we know better? Ah, no! The fact of it never changes if it is a fact. And we come to that persuasion one way or the other as we read the Bible. Is the Bible truth? Is it? Does it reveal to us factual matter concerning the Almighty? Does it? If it does not, then we ought to close the Book, shut the door of the church, and let’s go our separate ways, for it doesn’t matter. There is no pertinency here actually in our seeking the face and deliverance of God. But if it is true, if when a man is lost he is damned, if there is the possibility of a soul falling into eternal flame and fire, then the minister – if he is true before God and if God is true to him in the revelation – ought to reveal it and speak of it to the people.
So the text, "The face of the Lord is against them that do evil" [1 Peter 3:12], the face of severity – when I turn to the Bible, that is what I read about God all the way through; nor is there ever any deviation from it.
I open my Bible to the first chapters of Genesis, and I will read in Genesis 3, the Lord God in sweet fellowship with His friends. He has made Adam and Eve to think His thoughts, to speak words, and to understand Him. Mountains couldn’t speak to God. Oceans and stars and universes couldn’t respond in love to God. But the Lord God made someone who could. He made Adam for fellowship, for friendship, to talk to Him, to visit with Him. And the Lord would come in the cool of the day and there speak friend to friend with Adam and with his wife, Eve. Then, in disobedience to the will of God, the man and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord. And the Lord came as His wont was, as His habit was in the cool of the day, to visit as a dear friend and neighbor with the man and the wife that He had made. And He couldn’t find them. And He called Adam, "Adam, Adam, where art thou? Adam, I have come to see you and you are not at home. Adam."
And Adam cried from his hiding place, "I heard Your voice as You came to visit us in the cool of the day. And I was afraid and I hid myself; I am afraid, I am naked." And the Lord said, "You are naked? Who told you that you were naked, and why are you afraid?" [Genesis 3:8-11]. Then, after the unveiling of the tragedy of the Fall in Eden [Genesis 3:1-6], it was that Lord God who cursed the ground. Look at it today. He cursed the ground. He cursed the woman. He cursed the man. And He drove them out of the garden of Eden [Genesis 3:17-24]. Who did that? The unveiling of the moral character of Almighty God.
I turn the page and I’ll read in the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis: and the Lord God looks down from heaven, and the earth is filled with blood and violence and wickedness! "And the Lord God said, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man" [Genesis 6:3].I will give Him one hundred twenty years in which to repent. And Noah, the preacher of righteousness, pled with his generation. Can you think of a man preaching one hundred twenty years without a convert? Why, I’d be discouraged in one Sunday – one Sunday, one day of preaching – if we didn’t have people respond. Think of preaching one hundred twenty years without a convert. And when the one hundred twenty years was up, God took Noah and put him in the ark, and God shut the door! [Genesis 7:16] God did it! And when Noah was safe in the ark with his little family, the Lord opened the heavens above and broke up the fountains beneath and the entire earth that breathed were floating corpses on the face of the deep [Genesis 7:17-24]. God did that: unveiling the face, the prosopon of the Almighty.
I turn the page of the Bible and I read now in the eighteenth chapter, and the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis. "And the Lord God said to Abraham, Shall I hide from Abraham what I do?" [Genesis 18:17] No, he is My servant, and he is going to command his children to follow after the Lord. So God turns to Abraham and He says, "The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has come up unto Me" [Genesis 18:20], like the cry of the blood of Abel that called to God from the ground that had drunk it up [Genesis 4:10-11]. "The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has gone up unto Me, and I am going down to see if it is according to the cry that I have heard in heaven" [Genesis 18:21]. I haven’t time to recount the story. In the next chapter, Abraham is standing on the mount looking down on the cities of the plain. And the verse says, "and the plains smoked as though it burned in a furnace" [Genesis19:28]. Who did that? God did – unveiling the face of the Almighty.
I turn the pages in Genesis and the Lord says to Abraham in a vision, "Yet 400 years, yet four hundred years, then I will visit judgment upon the Amorite, the Canaanite." The Amorite was a descendant of Canaan, who is a son of Ham. "Yet four hundred years for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full" [Genesis 15:13-16]. And at the end of that four hundred years, the Amorite, the Canaanite – the most unspeakably vile and wicked in the religious worship of any people who ever lived – God sent Joshua and the Israelite army into the land to purge it, to clear it, to take it from the face of the earth [Deuteronomy 20:16-18]. God did that! God did it – unveiling the face of the Almighty.
Is God any less severe with Israel? When the Lord God said to Moses, "You hew you out two tables of stone and write on them those words that I have commanded and which tables you break" [Exodus 34:1]. So the Lord passed by him and proclaimed, "The Lord God is merciful and gracious, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and that by no means clears the guilty; and that by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation" [Exodus 34:6-7]. That is God, the severity of God.
And as I turn the pages of the Bible, I read Samson’s life and the judgment of God upon him [Judges 16:23-31]; Saul’s life and the judgment of God upon him [1 Samuel 15:22, 16:14]: David’s life – the man after God’s own heart [1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22] – and the judgment of God upon him [2 Samuel 12:7-12]; Solomon whom God loved, the Scriptures say, "And God loved him" [2 Samuel 12:24], and the judgment of God upon him [1 Kings 11:4, 9-13].
And I turn the pages of the Holy Scriptures and see the face of God against Israel, and they are destroyed by the Assyrian and carried into captivity [2 Kings 17:6]. And then I read on, and I see that the face of the Lord in severity against Judah. And the Chaldeans carry them away into captivity, and the land is waste, and the temple of the Lord is destroyed, and the Holy City lies in ruins [2 Chronicles 36:17-19] – the face of the severity of God.
I turn to the New Testament and I look at the face of our Lord. John will begin his Gospel almost with our Savior in the temple in the second chapter of the Gospel of John. And He takes a cord, several cords, and He binds them together in a whip, and in indignation and anger He overturns the money changers, and He drives out those who deal in merchandise in God’s house [John 2:13-16].
I turn to the third chapter of Mark, and here is a man in the synagogue with a withered hand. And these critics are around to see if He would heal on the Sabbath day [Mark 3:1-2]. Now look at the text:
And when He had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, He saith unto the man, Stretch forth your hand. And his hand was stretched forth: and it was whole.
And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him. . .
This is the face of the Lord, with indignation looking around in anger.
I turn to the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Not in human literature, not in human speech or language are there such scathing words as you read from the mouth of our Savior in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You whited sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones" [Matthew 23:27]. That’s our Savior. When I turn through the rest of the revelation of God, the apostle Paul:
You who are troubled rest with us, look, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels,
In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power. . .
[2 Thessalonians 1:7-9]
Those are awesome words!
And I have not time to recount the unveiling of the severity of the face of God in the Revelation. "And the smoke of their torment ascendeth forever and forever" [Revelation 14:11]. And the beast and the false prophet and Satan and all whose names are not found written in the Book of Life were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death [Revelation 20:10-15], unveiling the severity of the face of God.
Is this what I find in human experience? Does history corroborate this, the revelation that I read in the Book?
In this twentieth century, in our generation, the incomparably greatest historian is Arnold Toynbee, a British historian and educator. In reviewing his monumental work, The Study of History, Time magazine said, and I write the quotation, "Toynbee shattered the frozen pattern of historical determinism and materialism by openly asserting God as a moral divine force in history."
You know, there is a lot in that little sentence. The historians and the educators and academicians of our modern day leave God and His judgment out and then follow the course of history as though it were completely secular. But this sentence says that Arnold Toynbee, turning aside from historical determinism and secularism, introduced God as a moving force in the history according to His moral judgments.
And this is what Toynbee does: Toynbee says that there are twnty-one different civilizations. And he says the entire history of mankind revolves not around nations but around civilizations. Toynbee says in that great volume, that there are twenty-one civilizations known to man; sixteen of them have fallen. Sixteen of them have failed. And Toynbee says without exception, every one of them failed because of decadence and decay and moral depravity – every one of them. I never said that as a minister; Toynbee wrote that as a secular educator and historian: the face of the severity of God. Nor can America survive in drunkenness, and debauchery, and blasphemy, and wickedness, and secularism, and materialism. The great imponderable of the life of a nation is always the Lord God Almighty. We live or we die in Him.
Why is that? I haven’t time to speak of it, but in God there is a hot flame of justice. And in God there is a burning fire of holiness. And His eyes cannot bear to look upon evil [Habakkuk 1:13]. And there is always a concomitant, a corollary, an addendum that follows unrighteousness: the judgment of Almighty God. It is inescapable. It is inextricable.
"Well, pastor, if it is thus with the Almighty, how could a man ever be saved? How could a people ever be delivered? How could a nation ever find grace and life?" The severity of God.
That’s why the gospel is called the good news. That’s where the word comes from, euaggelion, the good news. How can a man who is a sinner ever live in the presence of a holy and a righteous God? How could he?
Well, Simon Peter wrote and that was the sermon last Sunday: "Our blessed Lord Jesus who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree; by whose stripes we are healed" [1 Peter 2:24].
How does God who looks upon sin and unrighteousness and rejection with such severity and judgment, how does God ever find Himself able to reach down in pity and mercy to save us vile sinners? How does He do it? That, I say. is the good news. The Lord Himself took our iniquity, and our unrighteousness, and our judgment, and our penalty [Isaiah 53:6]. He did it that we might escape the awesome severity and judgment of Almighty God. And if a man is ever saved, if he is ever delivered, it must be in the grace and mercy of God [Ephesians 2:8-9]. There is no other way. God does it. That’s His kindness and goodness to us. He took it Himself.
You know, when I was a boy, as some of your children, I went to church every time the door was open. I sat there on the front row and listened to the preacher as he preached. And many times the illustrations those old-time preachers would use would be far more clarifying to me of the gospel of Christ than the tomes of theology that I have read in these later years. And those stories that they would tell illustrating the grace and mercy of God would just move my soul, and I remember them as vividly today as when I heard them fifty or fifty-five years ago.
Now here’s one: a very typical illustration of what God has done for us. The pastor said – preaching in the little, white crackerbox church – the pastor said that there was a father and a mother and they had a little boy. And the little boy was bad. He was disobedient. And the father and mother reproved him and he didn’t turn. He stayed disobedient. And they punished him in sweet ways, and the little boy continued disobedient. So finally they said, "Son, you are so bad and you don’t listen to your father and mother, and you don’t change. We are going to send you up to the attic, and you are going to have to say there two nights and a day: this night, all day tomorrow and all day tomorrow night. And we are going to put up in your little attic place up there some bread and water. And that’s all you are going to have because you are so disobedient." So they sent the little fellow up to the attic to stay there all that night, all the next day, all the next night, and just have bread and water.
So that night, that night the father, turning and turning and turning, finally turned to his wife and said "Dear, I just can’t help but think about our little boy. I know he’s afraid up there. It’s dark – by himself; I just can’t stand it." And the man got up, and his wife said, "Dear, what are you going to do?" The father said, "I’m going to take my bed coverings with me, and I am going up to the attic, and I am going to stay with that little boy, and we are going to come down together." So the father went up with those covers, and began to put them on the floor beside the lad. And the little boy was amazed and surprised, and he said, "Dad, what are you doing?" And the father replied, "Son, I just can’t stand it – you up here by yourself, in the dark afraid. And I don’t dare relent the punishment, because you have been bad. And daddy can’t stay the sentence, but I can do one thing: I can share it with you. And dad has come to stay all the time you are here." So the father stayed with the boy all that night – didn’t go to work all the next day. Stayed with the boy all the next night, and when they came down together, there was love, and grace, and understanding, and sweetness, and salvation, and the little boy never forgot it. Nor did he ever get over the sweet preciousness of what his father’s love meant to him.
Maybe the illustration stumbles and halts, but it sure brought to the heart of a little boy who sat on the front row of that church what Jesus has done for us. God does not relent the punishment, He is just. Nor does God seek to change His character of holiness. But He Himself took our sins, shares our judgment, knows all about the trials, the weaknesses of our lives, took in His own body what we should have suffered alone [2 Corinthians 5:21]. That is the gospel; that is Jesus.
If you want a friend, you will find it in Him. If you seek somebody to understand, He knows all about us, and loves us. If you want somebody to share every burden, He will do it. If you want someone to see you through, look to Jesus. Look to our blessed Lord. O God, how indebted we are to Thee, and how much we owe to Thee!
In this moment that we sing our hymn of appeal, a family you, a couple you, just one somebody you, thus to turn in love and faith to our Savior is to give your heart and life to Him, or to thus come into the fellowship of the church. While we sing this song and while we make this appeal, would you answer with your life? "Here I am, pastor, we are all coming today." Do it, on the first note of the first stanza, come, and God bless you and angels attend you in the way, while we stand and while we sing.