By Gary Vaterlaus
Will God judge the church? And if so, why? Aren’t we promised to be spared God’s wrath in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and 5:9? Aren’t we told in Romans 8:1 that those who are in Christ Jesus are not subject to condemnation?
The apostle Peter, in his first epistle, writes: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17). What can the apostle mean?
In this passage Peter uses the definite article with judgment, better translated “the judgment” He is referring to the final judgment of God, which he states begins with God’s people — the church. This epistle of Peter is focused on the reasons for the suffering and persecution that his readers were enduring. He is telling them that one of the reasons for the trials, is that this is part of God’s judgment — His discipline and purification of the Church.
We must not confuse God’s discipline with His wrath. The Bible teaches that the church will enter the Seventieth Week of Daniel and, after the midpoint, the church will face persecution by Antichrist. This time, which Christ called the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24:21), will be Satan’s wrath against the church (Rev. 12:12), not God’s wrath. God’s wrath does not begin until after the sixth seal is opened (Rev. 6:12-17), the church has been raptured (Rev. 7:9-14), and the seventh seal is broken, initiating the trumpet judgments (Rev. 8:1-6).
However, just as God granted Satan permission to afflict Job, so God will allow Satan to persecute the church. Why? As Robert Van Kampen wrote in The Sign: “… the church that goes into the last days will be primarily known for her compromise … God will permit this time of testing to purge, purify and refine her before she can be considered worthy to come into the presence of God, and to become the bride of Christ.” (p. 73).
The Great Tribulation is the time when the wheat (true believers) will be separated from the tares (look-alike believers) (Matt. 13:30). This time period will be the “fire” Peter speaks of when he says, “that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 1:7).
God will bring discipline upon the church in order to purge, purify, and refine it. We are promised in God’s Word that we will not face God’s wrath, but we are never promised exemption from suffering, persecution, or trials. Rather, we are promised that God will “discipline us for our good, that we may share His holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10). God will bring the church through the Great Tribulation so that we will be presented to Christ as His bride, “in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle…that she should be holy and blameless…” (Eph. 5:27), “… so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.” (1 John 2:28).
The persecution that believers suffer today, and will suffer during the Great Tribulation, is a sign that we are part of the household of God. He, as a good father, is purifying His family for our good. We may not enjoy the experience, but we can rejoice that we are among those facing discipline now, being purified in preparation for heaven, rather than among those who will face the full force of divine judgment later.