Is part of the “good news” of Jesus Christ that He threatens His blood-bought people with an eternity of hell’s torments if they don’t believe and repent and keep on believing and repenting? To be clear, there is no question about whether the law as a covenant threatens anyone who does not believe. If you are not in Christ, if you are not trusting Christ for forgiveness and if you are not living a penitent life, then you are in Adam, under the covenant of works and its curse.
But the question of this post is very specific. Does the gospel issue threats? Narrowly defined, the gospel cannot threaten because the gospel “strictly,” or “narrowly,” is nothing other than the pure promises of God to redeem sinners through Christ’s work (1 Cor 15:3-4). There are no commands or even conditions in the gospel, strictly speaking. But what about the gospel “largely,” or “broadly” speaking? The question this post seeks to answer is whether the gospel as a covenant, the covenant of grace, threatens the members of the covenant with eternal condemnation.
1. Christ cannot justly threaten condemnation when He has already pronounced justification.
The gospel clearly states, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1), and “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). The Bible says that those who are “in Christ Jesus,” who are part of Christ’s covenant people, are no longer under the curse and therefore cannot be threatened with condemnation. One of the blessings God promises to those in the covenant of grace is, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12; cf. Jer 31:34).
Theologically speaking, if Christ has satisfied God’s justice for His covenant people, how could He truthfully and justly threaten them with condemnation? If Christ made full and actual atonement for the sins of His people at the cross, then on what legal grounds might He threaten them with the very condemnation He has removed? To do so would be a deceptive injustice. It would be like threatening someone with debtor’s prison when another person has already paid the debt in full.
2. Gospel threats of condemnation would be redundant, since the law as a covenant already threatens condemnation.
The fact that there are no threats in the gospel covenant does not mean that there are no threats at all. The law covenant threatens unbelievers, those in Adam, with condemnation because the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” requires faith in Christ. The law covenant threatens the impenitent with condemnation because the law of God requires turning toward Christ in repentance. Thus, to say that there are no threats in the gospel covenant is not to say that people are free to live in unbelief or unrepentance.
If the law threatens condemnation for all sins, including unbelief, unrepentance, and all manner of lawlessness, then it does not make sense to say that the gospel covenant also threatens condemnation for those very same sins. For the gospel to repeat the condemnations of the law would be redundant and unnecessary.
3. The law’s threats of condemnation should be preached to the visible church.
Faithful preaching declares the whole counsel of God, including both law and gospel. Thus, the visible church should regularly hear the threatenings of the law simply because faithful preachers proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), which includes law and gospel. The visible church is composed of all who confess faith in Christ (Heb 3:11; 4:14, etc.), but sometimes false confessors creep into the church (Heb 3:12; Jude 4; Gal 2:4), which means preachers must preach the threats of the law. We have many examples in the Bible of the visible church being threatened by the law covenant (Rom 2:6-11; Heb 10:25-31; 12:15-17; Rev 3:14-22; Rom 8:13; 1 Cor 10:1-22; Gal 5:21).
The threatenings of the law not only point unbelievers to Christ but also encourage proper gospel obedience among true believers in the visible church. When true believers hear the law’s curses, they are exhorted to cling more tightly to Christ by faith (Heb 2:1-3), to hold on to the sweet promises of the gospel, to repent of their sins by faith, and to keep His commandments in love because He loved them first (Gal 2:19-21).
4. The gospel warns of God’s Fatherly discipline.
The gospel covenant (the covenant of grace) contains no legal threatenings but that should not be construed to mean that the gospel covenant has no warnings of discipline. The gospel covenant warns true believers, who are under the headship of Christ and under His mediation in the covenant of grace, of God’s loving and redemptive Fatherly discipline.
The condemnation of the law is destructive and punitive, but the discipline of the gospel is redemptive, medicinal and constructive. Under the gospel, God as a Judge has been completely satisfied, which means our sin can never incur God’s retributive wrath. But in the covenant of grace, God as our Father can be displeased with our remaining sin because He does not want us to hurt ourselves, to hurt others, or to disrupt our loving communion with Him. Therefore, if we do not repent of our sins through the ordinary means of grace, God will lovingly, grievously, but firmly, bring corrective discipline into our lives for our good and His glory in order to bring us to repentance by faith.
The Bible clearly teaches that God the Father disciplines His children for their good, out of love for them, and it warns all who are under the gospel covenant of this Fatherly discipline. Scripture says:
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. . . . If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. . . . For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:5-11).