For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment,
and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.
Question 83 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “What is the communion in glory with Christ which the members of the invisible church enjoy in this life?” It gives the answer, “The members of the invisible church have communicated to them in this life the first-fruits of glory with Christ, as they are members of him their head, and so in him are interested in that glory which he is fully possessed of; and, as an earnest thereof, enjoy the sense of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, and hope of glory; as, on the contrary, sense of God’s revenging wrath, horror of conscience, and a fearful expectation of judgment, are to the wicked the beginning of their torments which they shall endure after death.” Last week we looked at the glory that members of the invisible church have with Christ in this life. This week we consider the coming torments of Hell that the wicked begin to experience in this life.
The first thing we should notice, as we examine the second half of today’s Catechism answer, is that there should be a second half at all! Question 83 does not ask anything about the wicked, but only about the glory that true believers enjoy in this life, so why does the answer include a detailed statement of what the wicked experience in this life? Because whenever we consider the glory that Christ has purchased for us, it does our souls good to contrast this with what we deserve if God were to give to us strictly according to our works. In this fashion, the graciousness of the glory as a gift, and the honor and praise that should go to Christ in having delivered us from such dreadful wrath are both impressed upon our minds (and hopefully our hearts!) as we are reminded of what would be ours were it not for the sovereign election and regeneration of our hearts by the God of our salvation. Similarly, Jesus reminded the seventy not to exalt so much in the glory of the power He had given them over demons, but rather to rejoice in the grace that had caused their names to be written in heaven (Luke10:17-20).
Therefore, let us consider closely the wrath that the wicked begin to taste in this life, so that the fear of God and the grace which is ours in Christ would be more readily commended to us. First, notice how, with one exception, each of the first-fruits of glory has a counter part with which it is directly contrasted that we may hence refer to as the first-fruits of wrath:
1. Sense of God’s love – sense of God’s revenging wrath
2. Peace of conscience – horror of conscience
3. Hope of glory – a fearful expectation of judgment.
To know God loves you and will never leave or forsake you is a wonderful comfort to the Christian. But contrary to the Four Spiritual Laws, the Bible clearly teaches that the only thing the unbeliever can know for certain is that the wrath of God, even right now, rests upon him. Thus, John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” So also Rom. 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Notice the present tense of these verbs, “rests,” and “is revealed.” Even as the believer can know that all that happens to him in this life is ultimately from the love of his heavenly Father, so the unbeliever can only know a foretaste of God’s wrath in everything he experiences. This knowledge in turn brings “horror of conscience” to the unbeliever. In his conscience the believer knows he is a sinner but he is assured he is forgiven. The unbeliever only knows the guilty verdict of his conscience without any hope of pardon. Thus, as the Scripture above declares, the unbeliever knows for certain that a horrible judgment is coming. Since he refuses to repent and humbly accept Christ as Lord and Savior, he seeks in all things to suppress the truth about God, which he knows is real, and which ensures his coming doom. This final fact is why the Catechism has no counterpart for the unbeliever to the joy in the Holy Ghost that belongs to the believer in this life. The unbeliever is not currently experiencing the sorrow of his condition – for such sorrow in this life is part of saving repentance – but neither can he have the joy of the Holy Ghost, which only the saving knowledge of his Creator can bring. Where does this leave him? Frantically looking for joy in some creature. Accordingly, we see the idolatry, the sinful addictions, the restlessness of the unbeliever in this life; as he looks to be satisfied with what cannot satisfy; as he seeks to find in rottenness, the food of eternal life. Such restlessness is only the beginning of his woes and of the torment that he will everlastingly know after death. Praise God that you have been delivered from this judgment, and remember that it was the blood of Jesus Christ that did it!