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Why do good things happen to bad people?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Jonah 3

I have many questions I want to ask God someday. Why did he wait so long to bring us Tony Romo? Why won’t he make Ford bring back the 1966 Mustang? Why didn’t he tell me to buy stock in Apple when people thought it was just something you eat? Why can’t I sing? Crucial questions like these.

Here’s an even harder problem for me: why do good things happen to bad people? How can God be fair and let so many sins go unpunished, so many crimes go unsolved, so many criminals go uncaught?

According to the FBI, a crime occurs in America every 22.7 seconds. Only 46.7 percent of crimes are ever solved.

Why were so many thousands of innocent employees hurt by the Enron collapse? The Darfur genocide has killed more than 400,000 and displaced 2.5 million. More than 800,000 people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and Osama bin Laden is still free. If God were fair, none of these things would be true, or so it seems.

Last week we learned that God Almighty is also Love Almighty, the God who is love. In everything he does, everywhere he does it, he is love. This week we will explore the other side of the coin: Love Almighty is Judge Almighty. He is the judge of every sin and sinner, of every person and nation, of every unrepentant Nineveh on earth.

Why does he judge us? How does he judge us? Being ready for the eternal judgment of God is the highest priority of life on this planet. Today we’ll learn why that’s true, and why it matters so much to your soul this morning.

Does God judge us?

What was your earliest picture of God? Mine was of a kind grandfather looking over the banister of heaven at his children while they play. An elderly man with a long flowing beard and a proud smile on his face. Gandolf in the Lord of the Rings movies–kind to those he loves, always ready to ride in on his white horse to save the day.

Is that how the Bible really pictures God? “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned,” he told Jonah to say (Jonah 3:4). We learned last week why they deserved such a fate. They had executed thousands and enslaved millions. They would soon destroy the nation of Israel. They peeled the skin from the victims to use as wallpaper. They were among the cruelest people known to human history. But they weren’t the first or the last to face the judgment of God.

Think of more examples. Does God judge people in the Bible? Let’s count the ways.

  • Noah’s flood, drowning the entire human race except for a single family.
  • Fire and brimstone destroying Sodom and Gomorrah
  • Plagues and the death of the first-born sons of Egypt
  • The complete destruction of Jericho and the Canaanites
  • Forty years of wilderness wandering for his own people
  • The Assyrian destruction of the 10 northern tribes of Israel
  • The Babylonian slavery of the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin
  • Ananias and Sapphira when they lied about giving to God through the early church (Acts 5)
  • The destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) as predicted by Jesus

The coming end of the world: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:9-10).

Why is Love Almighty also Judge Almighty?

One, his holiness requires that sin be punished. God cannot be a righteous King unless he requires righteousness in his realm. The Canaanites, for example, sacrificed their children to their gods and were involved in horrific immorality and witchcraft (Leviticus 18:25).

If Moses’ enemies had not been punished, their rebellion could have destroyed the nation. If Ananias and Sapphira had succeeded in their deception, the integrity of the infant church would have been destroyed.

Two, to discipline his children so we can experience his full power and grace. Hebrews 6 says that “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son…No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (vs. 6, 11).

The holiness of God requires him to judge sin, as an oncologist removing the cancer before it spreads. The grace of God requires him to redeem sinners, as a Father disciplining his children so they can learn and grow. And so the love of God Almighty requires him to be Judge Almighty.

How does God judge us today?

Our Father deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. How does God judge his people today?

He sometimes uses circumstances to judge and discipline us. God made a great storm and a great fish to return Jonah to his purpose. He used the wilderness to judge the children of Israel when they would not follow his call into the Promised Land. He used drought and famine to judge his rebellious people.

Are difficult circumstances and financial hardship always the judgment of God? Of course not, as Jesus made clear when he said that he had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). But some can be.

God sometimes uses physical suffering to judge and discipline us. He employed leprosy and disease to turn Moses’ enemies back to himself, and Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” to help the apostle trust more in his power.

Is all physical suffering indicative of the judgment of God? Of course not, as Job’s story proves. But some can be.

God sometimes uses spiritual loneliness and discouragement to judge and discipline us. When Elijah was convinced that he alone served God faithfully, the Lord used that to call the prophet back to himself. When John the Baptist was in prison and questioning whether Jesus was really the Messiah, our Lord answered his doubts and proved his divinity through great miracles and signs and wonders.

Is spiritual discouragement always indicative of the judgment of God? Of course not; John was exiled and alone on Patmos not because he was being judged by God but because he was being faithful to him. But discouragement can be God’s tool to bring us to himself.

If you’re not sure if you’re experiencing the judgment of God, ask him. He would be a very poor Father to punish his children without explaining why. If Ryan or Craig came home from college and I demanded their car keys without telling them why, none of you would think I’d done the right thing. Whenever God brings judgment in Scripture, he always tells us why. And he always redeems such suffering by using it to discipline us and return us to himself.

How will God judge us tomorrow?

So Judge Almighty judges his children in life. And he judges us when life is done. Hebrews 9:27 is clear: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” All of us–no exceptions.

Paul said, “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). He warned the Corinthians that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Notice that he included himself both times.

Secret, unconfessed sins will be judged: “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Jesus confirmed it: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12.2-3).

Our words will be judged: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36-37). After listing all sorts of sin, Peter declared that those who do such things “will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5).

Ungodly, unconfessed sins, thoughts, or words will be revealed at the judgment and burned away. Because heaven is perfect, these things cannot enter in; they must be burned off, destroyed. Sin is forgiven, but reward is lost.

On the other hand, faithfulness is rewarded. What kind of rewards?

There is the “crown of life” to those who persevere in trial (James 1:12). There is the “soul-winner’s crown” given to those who share their faith (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). There is the “crown of righteousness” given to those who are faithful to the very end of their lives (2 Timothy 4:7-8). There is the “crown of glory” given to spiritual leaders who serve God’s people and are examples to them (1 Peter 5:2-4).

Enduring temptation; winning souls; staying faithful to God’s purpose; serving God’s people in love–these bring reward which lasts forever.

Conclusion

Let’s summarize.

God’s holiness requires him to punish sin, while his grace requires him to redeem that punishment as he disciplines and grows his children. He judges us in life, sometimes using circumstances and suffering and loneliness to purify us and to grow us. He judges our unconfessed sins after life and rewards our faithfulness to his word and will.

Why do good things happen to bad people? They don’t, at least not in the long run. God is just and his ways are always righteous and true. When we stay faithful to the last word we heard from God, our Father rewards our obedience now and forever.

“Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Now Jonah has come preaching the judgment of God to you. What business do you have with God Almighty today? What must you confess or decide today before you face God for eternity?

Whatever it is, know that God’s grace is greater than all your sin and that he is ready to use even your failures for his glory and your good. No matter what you have done, the Judge Almighty is Love Almighty.

You probably know the story of John Newton, the slave trader who became a slave himself before his conversion to Christianity in 1748. He became pastor of a church in Olney, England, where he ministered faithfully to the end of his days. His best-known hymn is, of course, “Amazing Grace,” but it is not my favorite of his works.

A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting Newton’s church and gravesite. Here is the epitaph I found, written by John Newton himself:

John Newton, Clerk,

once an infidel and libertine,

A servant of slaves in Africa,

was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour,

Jesus Christ,

Preserved, restored, pardoned,

And appointed to preach the faith

He had long labored to destroy.

What epitaph will you choose to write this week?