Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Nature of God’s Fearful Judgments
The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? Isaiah 33:14KJV
Question 28 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the punishments of sin in this world?” It gives the answer, “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 sakes, and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; together with death itself.” Last time we looked at this question, we noticed the Biblical basis for the grim language the Catechism uses to describe sin’s punishments in this world. Today we will consider the meaning of several of these frightening phrases.
Perhaps the most disconcerting punishment for sin in this world is the first phrase of today’s answer: “blindness of mind.” To be blind in the mind is not simply to be mentally unaware of something. Here we must remember that the blindness is a judicial sanction from God. We are not talking about a natural disability: some handicap or weakness that is upon a person through no fault of his own; no, such is not the case here. This blindness is a punishment from God. The verse cited by the Westminster Divines at this precise point is Eph. 4:18, which literally says “hardness of heart,” which is also specifically mentioned by them later in their answer. Here we should immediately think of Pharaoh who is repeatedly said to have had his heart hardened by God while he was also hardening his own heart. How should we understand this kind of hardening? How does God harden a heart?
Not by putting evil into it. God is not and can never be the author or mover of evil. God allows and even ordains and orders all actions: both what we call good and what we call evil, yet always and only for His good and holy purposes. God, in His mercy allows sinners to live. Those sinners, while they live are going to do evil. God could easily stop every evil act and every sinful actor in this world by simply unleashing His just wrath the moment evil appeared. But God has determined to delay His full justice until Judgment Day. Until then God partially punishes by hardening hearts. The way in which God hardens a sinful heart is to simply remove His restraining or preventing grace from it. As fallen sinners our hearts are naturally inclined to any and every sin. It is only because of God’s restraining grace that we do not run into every evil thing. But in hardening sinners God gives them over to the seeds of evil that are already in their hearts and to the degree that He does so those seeds will grow and produce evil fruit.
Thus, we see the same idea regarding the two phrases about “a reprobate mind” and “vile affections.” Reprobate is rendered “depraved” by more modern English translations. It refers to a failed mind, a mind not standing the test. Vile affections are shameful, dishonorable. We find both phrases in Rom. 1:26-28, where God “gives over” sinners to their sins. This is one of the most frightening concepts in Scripture as it respects God’s justice and our own sinful natures. Because it reveals that all God has to do in order to begin to punish sinners is to simply give them over to the evil thoughts, desires, and cravings that they already have. Thus to harden a heart God does not need to do anything other than to withdraw the common grace actions of His Spirit whereby He hinders and restrains the natural motions of our fallen hearts and minds.
Finally we notice “horrors of conscience” and “strong delusions.” The former phrase refers to times when unrepentant sinners have a clear sense of God’s coming wrath, such as in the verse cited at the beginning of this article. The latter phrase is taken from 2 Thess. 2:11 where God punishes those who “did not receive the truth” by deluding them into believing the lies of Satan. As if giving us over to our own sinful hearts was not frightening enough, God sometimes punishes people by allowing Satan to have more sway in their lives. Paul speaks of churches delivering even professing Christians over to Satan for a time, for their ultimate good (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20), or of Christians being taken captive by Satan for a time (2 Tim. 2:26). Here we see that even Satan can be a means of God’s punishment of sin in this world. May God grant that the knowledge and truth of such punishments would cause us to seek God’s grace quickly and continually, so that we would not be led astray by the lie of sin to our own shame and sorrow.