“Nothing doth usually so bring men’s sinnes to mind and memory as judgments”
(William Gouge, God’s Three Arrows, pg. 6).
Whenever there is a tragic event such as a natural disaster, terrorist attack, disease outbreak, etc. discussions arise about God’s involvement. Some Christians have a hard time believing that God would allow something so cruel even to the point of implying that He may not have total control. We reject the Open Theist notion that God does not know about or can’t control nature or providence and we hold that God is both good and the sovereign first cause of everything that comes to pass. He is not obligated to allot any man a certain amount of time on earth or ensure that we do not endure suffering. It is blasphemous to suggest that God is not good due to the suffering of man, suffering is the result of our own sin and rebellion against God. Christ uses the Kingdom of His Power (His according to His nature as the eternal Son of God) to build His Kingdom of Grace (His as the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace) as well as to harden the reprobate for ultimate judgment. We will explore how the relationship between these two kingdoms work regarding catastrophe and judgment, as well as the proper response to judgment and the duty of nations to corporately submit to Christ and support His visible Church, which is “the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” (WCF 25:2).
“Thus saith the Lord God; Smite with thine hand, and stamp with thy foot, and say, Alas for all the evil abominations of the house of Israel! for they shall fall by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence” (Ez. 6:11).
The Sovereignty of God
Christ as the eternal Son of God is sovereign over providence and has ordained whatsoever comes to pass (WLC 12). Nebuchadnezzar realized this and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit declared, “And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:35). He has absolute authority and control over even the most insignificant and, humanly speaking, random events, “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Ps. 16:33).
Q. 18. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving, and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory (Ps. 145:17; Ps. 104:24; Isa. 28:29; Heb. 1:3; Ps. 103:19; Matt. 10:29-31; Gen. 45:7; Rom. 11:36; Isa. 63:14).
The Scriptures are replete with examples of God’s sovereignty over, and sending of, disaster as corporate and national judgment. “Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not? Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?” (Lam. 3:37-38). “He showeth that nothing is done without God’s providence” (GNV note). “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Is. 47:7). “I send peace and war, prosperity and adversity” (GNV note). “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). “Doth any adversity come without God’s appointment?” (GNV note). God is very patient in sending judgment (2 Peter 3:9), He waited 400 years for the sin of Amorites to become full so that the fury of His wrath might be revealed against it by sending Israel to make war with them (Gen. 15:14-16). Not only is God sovereign over natural events, He is even the primary cause of men’s decisions, good or evil, yet is not the author of sin (James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5). “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1).
God Still Sends Temporal Judgment
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).
Q. 28. What are the punishments of sin in this world?
A. The punishments of sin in this world, are either inward, as blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections: or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sake; and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; together with death itself. (Eph. 4:18; Rom. 1:28; 2 Thess. 2:11; Rom. 2:5; Isa. 33:14; Gen. 4:13; Matt. 27: 4; Rom. 1:26; Gen. 3:17; Deut. 28:15-68; Rom. 6:21, 23).
The general statements about God’s sovereignty over calamity, the fact that only He has control over providence, and the whole tenor of God’s providential judgments throughout the Old Testament lay out a pattern of God’s dealings with man on earth throughout history. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, there is no reason to think that He no longer exercises providential judgment today or that tragedies are entirely meaningless and purposeless. In fact, now that Christ has finished His work of redemption and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, we are past the “times of ignorance” and all men everywhere are commanded to repent and enter His Kingdom of Grace by faith alone in Christ alone (Acts 17:30).
The nations are Christ’s “heritage” and obligated to “serve the Lord with fear” and to “kiss the Son” lest He “dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2). “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (Rev. 19:15; cf. Rev. 2:27). Natural disasters (Ps. 46:8), war (Is. 10:5-6), famine and pestilence (Jer. 14:11-2), giving a people over to their sin (Rom. 1:18-32), etc. Christ decrees all these things in His Kingdom of Power according to the council of His will and in His perfect timing to cause peoples to repent (2 Chron. 7:13-14) thus bringing them in to the Kingdom of Grace, or to remove the wicked off the face of the earth (Luke 17:26-37). “In the exercise of His regal office, He governs all providential events and revolutions so as to promote the ultimate glory and triumph of His kingdom” (Archibald Alexander, A Compend of Bible Truth, pg. 94).
Open breaches of the law of God, when they are not punished by magistrates and men in authority, but are either patronized and encouraged, or tolerated and connived at by them, become national sins; and it is just that God should punish them by national judgments. The open violation of the law of God shews a daring contempt of his authority, and when no proper check is given to it by rulers and magistrates, the guilt of it is imputable to them. The guilt of sins committed by a people is chargeable upon rulers and magistrates when they do not take care to have the people subject to their authority instructed in the principles of religion, that they may know what is sin, and what is duty, the danger of committing the former, and the many advantages that attend, and follow upon a conscientious performance of the latter.
David Wilson, National Calamities Procured by National Sins, pgs. 41-44.
“When the heaven is shut up, and there is no rain, because they have sinned against thee; yet if they pray toward this place, and confess thy name, and turn from their sin, when thou dost afflict them; Then hear thou from heaven, and forgive the sin of thy servants, and of thy people Israel, when thou hast taught them the good way, wherein they should walk; and send rain upon thy land, which thou hast given unto thy people for an inheritance. If there be dearth in the land, if there be pestilence, if there be blasting, or mildew, locusts, or caterpillers; if their enemies besiege them in the cities of their land; whatsoever sore or whatsoever sickness there be: Then what prayer or what supplication soever shall be made of any man, or of all thy people Israel, when every one shall know his own sore and his own grief, and shall spread forth his hands in this house: Then hear thou from heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and render unto every man according unto all his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men:)” (2 Chronicles 6:26-30).
Proper Responses to God’s Temporal Judgments
When calamity strikes, we know that every unbeliever that died went to eternal Hell and every believer that died went to Heaven with God. We know that every unbeliever that lived ought to repent and trust in Jesus, and that every believer that lived ought to continue repenting and trusting in Christ, examine himself to see that he is in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), evangelize his neighbors with a renewed vigor and urgency as well as to assist those who are afflicted, and to live piously in worship and obedience to Christ.
“Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not? Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good? Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens. We have transgressed and have rebelled…” (Lam. 3:37-42). “The focus is on God’s sovereign right in executing judgment. It is self-defeating to murmur against that which God has ordained in providence. When suffering is deserved, it is confession rather than complaint that the Lord desires to hear” (Reformation Heritage Study Bible note, Lam. 3:37-54).
There are common calamities that fall on all of all sorts, and there are other more special, that are intended only against professors of the true Religion, as persecutions made by enemies of the Gospel (1 Pet. 4:12-13). These may be for trial to their honor that suffer.
William Gouge, God’s Three Arrows, pg. 86.
God’s temporal judgment on believers is restorative and disciplinary, He will not ultimately punish His elect. Only the reprobate are ultimately punished in Hell. Like a father disciplines his children in order to shepherd their hearts and teach them how to live righteously, God disciplines His people. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb. 12:6).
When public and general judgments come from wrath against sinful nations, cities, and other societies, there may be some righteous ones mixed among those wicked ones, and by reason of that mixture they may taste of the bitterness of that cup that is given to the wicked to drink. Yet the Lord can so sanctify that common judgment to the saints that partake thereof, as that which is an effect of wrath to others, may be a fruit of God’s love to them. Thus a plague may be sent in wrath against a society, and yet therein God’s love be manifested to his saints, either in preserving them from it, or taking them by it to heaven. In relation to such persons we may truly say that whether God send famine, or war, or any other trouble, he doth it of his goodness and love.
“No man is an island entire of itself” (John Donne); we do not only respond as individuals, but according to our places and callings, that is, in our public and social capacities as fathers, pastors, magistrates, business owners, servants, etc. “Christians are to be Christians in their stations, as in their personal carriage; and so to seek the promoting of the Gospel, and the restraining of what may marr it according to their station” (James Durham, An Exposition of the Book of the Revelation, pg. 9). Just as fathers are to lead their families in repentance, so also civil magistrates are to encourage their people to repent and join the Church.
“Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways.” (Haggai 1:6-7).
Just as with individuals, when a nation is struck with tragedy, that nation as a nation ought to repent of her unbelief, idolatry, and wickedness, trust in Christ, and enter the Church corporately by covenanting with God solemnly and publicly (Is. 19; Is. 60; Ps. 33). Christ has inherited the nations and will break them with His rod of iron until they repent and bow the knee to Him (Ps. 2; Rev. 2; Rev. 19). The purpose of God’s judgments are to spur us on to righteousness and the fear of God, “when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness” (Is. 26:9), and His judgments are to be continually before our minds so that we will continue to fear God and obey Him (Ex. 17:14; 1 Sam. 3:11; Hab. 1:5). We ought to say with the Psalmist “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps. 119:71).
A judgment may at first be in wrath inflicted and yet upon the sense of the smart thereof people may be so humbled, and brought to such repentance, as the nature of that judgment be altered, and prove to be an evidence of God’s love. Yea, such reformation may be wrought thereby, as that calamity (though general and extraordinary) prove very profitable, and an evidence of God’s fatherly care over such a people whom he hath so purged. Instance that fearful judgment that was laid on Israel in Manasseh’s time (2 Chron. 33:11). This latter fruit of God’s love maketh not against the former evidence of his wrath. For on such occasions God is said to repent him of the evil which he hath sent. He was angry, but his anger is turned into favor.
Ibid., pg. 87.
All other nations which have escaped the particular judgment ought to not only aid the afflicted people with physical help, as the Good Samaritan, or Abraham in rescuing Lot (Gen. 14:14), but Christian nations and groups also ought to send missionaries to preach repentance and faith in Christ alone and plant local, presbyterated churches according to the pattern of church government that the Head of the Church has instituted. Additionally, nations which escape judgment for a time ought to hear the words of Christ resounding when they look upon a disaster: “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
Now therefore, kings, be wise; be taught,
ye judges of the earth:
Serve God in fear, and see that ye
join trembling with your mirth.
Kiss ye the Son, lest in his ire
ye perish from the way,
If once his wrath begin to burn:
blessed all that on him stay.
Psalm 2:10-12 (SMV)
God is ever merciful and patient, may we not try His patience nor make a mockery of His kindness by delaying our repentance! Specific sins ought to be identified and repented of, otherwise what good is a call to repentance if we cannot or will not deal with our sin specifically? There is some reluctance to point out specific national sins, but the problem is not in identifying specific sins, the problem is when we think that we are too good to receive judgement from God ourselves. “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? ” (Job 2:10). Every individual, family, church, and nation needs to repent and draw near to God and be ever vigilant in reexamining ourselves corporately and individually. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
“Up, sanctify the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow: for thus saith the Lord God of Israel, There is an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you” (Joshua 7:13).
The charge which God gave to Joshua (when he and the men of Israel with him fled before the men of Ai) to search out and take away from among them the accursed thing, affordeth a direction very pertinent to the point in hand: which is, when we see any judgment hanging over our heads, or feel it fallen upon us, to search narrowly and thoroughly after the cause of that judgment. Nothing doth usually so bring men’s sinnes to mind and memory as judgments.
William Gouge, God’s Three Arrows, pg. 6.
“The Lord is known by the judgment which he executeth: the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands. Higgaion. Selah. The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (Ps. 9:16-17).
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance” (Ps. 33:12).
Nations also serve Christ by formally recognizing His Church (the Kingdom of Grace) and countenancing and supporting Her (WLC 191). “And the sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee: for in my wrath I smote thee, but in my favour have I had mercy on thee. Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve [the Church] shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste” (Is. 60:10-12). “
“And Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and Queens shall be thy nurses: they shall worship thee with their faces toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet: and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (Is. 49:23). “
‘Kings shall be thy nursing-fathers‘ is a similitude which imports the most tender care, the most endearing solicitude; not mere protection, but active and unwearied nourishment and support. If, according to the opinions of some, the best thing the state can do is to let her alone, to leave her to herself, to take no interest in her concerns, it is difficult to see how this view can be reconciled with the figure of a nurse, the duties of whose office would certainly be ill discharged by such a treatment of her feeble charge.
William Symington, Messiah the Prince, pg. 130.
Yet, even if those in authority do repent and bring an outward reformation among their people, it is not a guarantee that God’s wrath will be allayed. God may chose to give a people over to their desires and not judge them for their wickedness or self-righteousness, or He may continue to pour out His wrath because He can discern false repentance.
There may be some thing, which in our eye looks like the turning away of God’s wrath from the Kingdom, which will not prove real for the aversion of it, “notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great anger” (2 Kings 23:26). There are two things in this “notwithstanding.” (1.) Notwithstanding of the outward reformation wrought in Judah by Josiah. (2.) Which is more terrible, notwithstanding of the true repentance of Josiah, the King’s son, which seemed very promising to the people of God, the fierce wrath of the Lord was not turned away. So, though outward reformation were never so exactly gone about, both upon the King’s part and the Kingdom’s part. Nay, though true grace and repentance were given to a King, and many in the Kingdom, God’s fierce wrath may pursue, and not be turned away for all that. The King may be humbled and get repentance, (as here Josiah got,) and yet the Lord’s controversy be not turned away from the Royal Family, nor from the Kingdoms. And what great cause of fear and trembling then may we have, when there is so little of either of these to be seen amongst us, whether we look to the King, or to his people; And to walk humbly, and mourn and wrestle with the Lord this day, and afterward, that at least if wrath shall not be turned from the land, but the overflowing scourge go through from the South to the North, wrath may be turned from the men and women that repent, and they may find mercy, and be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger.
Patrick Gillespie, Ruler’s Sins the Causes of National Judgments.
In conclusion, Christ as the eternal Son of God is sovereign over providence, including disaster and calamity. And He decrees those means to drive people and nations to repentance and faith, bringing them into His Kingdom of Grace, or to harden the reprobate and destroy them with His rod of iron. Nations are obligated to repent, trust in Christ, and join the Church, while magistrates and everyone according to their place and calling are to support and build up the Church to the degree that God has given them. Judgment is to remind us of the spiritual realities of God’s sovereignty and holiness and our obligations to Jesus Christ as Lord over all.
“For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:24-25).
Not all the vials of judgments, that have, or shall be poured out upon the wicked world, nor the flaming furnace of a sinner’s conscience, nor the irreversible sentence pronounced against the rebellious devils, nor the groans of the damned creatures, give such a demonstration of God’s hatred of sin, as the wrath of God let loose upon His Son.
Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, pg. 484.
May the calamity and trials we experience turn us unto Jesus Christ!