Warnings can be confusing
Let’s face it, warnings are scary. In the Bible, we see warnings about the dangers of wealth (Matthew 19:24; 1 Tim. 6:10; and a lot more), patterns of behavior that indicate our hearts are ruled by sin (1 Cor. 6:19-21), distractions from the gospel (Matthew 13:1-9), ignoring the gospel message, enduring in believing the gospel (Hebrews 3:7-13), and others. It’s daunting to read so many.
We often walk away with the conclusion that we should live our lives constantly looking over our shoulders, wondering if wrath is coming our way. We often read warnings without marrying them with the gospel message that tells us Jesus Himself received all of the wrath we deserve for all time.
Others of us recall the gospel, and then we read warnings as if they don’t apply to us at all. I consider this equally dangerous because most warnings were written to believers, not to lost people. Why bother writing so many warnings to the church if they aren’t supposed to apply to the church?
OK, so I’m not supposed to live in constant fear, and I’m not supposed to ignore warnings either. That sounds like pretty much all of the options. What am I missing here?
Let’s dig in.
The gaping hole of a grace-only gospel
If you’re anything like me, it’s very easy to pretend the gospel message only has positive motivations. It’s easy for us to emphasize how Jesus covers our sins, receives our punishments, and holds us secure in salvation for all time. It’s easy to emphasize the undeserved belonging, acceptance, and intimacy He brings us. It’s very difficult, however, to emphasize the dangers of ignoring that very grace.
Hebrews might be my favorite book in the Bible, even with its mysterious authorship. In my opinion, no other book in the Bible so clearly juxtaposes beautiful grace with harsh warnings about ignoring that grace. It has the most comforting passages right beside some of the scariest. The letter’s message isn’t only about a God we can trust when the promises seem far away and our sin seems near. It’s about the extreme dangers of ignoring that message and pretending we can just listen to it later.
The thing about only having positive motivations in the gospel is that they provide us with no sense of urgency. We hear a message that only says, “God is better than sin.” Then we respond with, “Cool, I’ll check out sin for a while, and then I’ll check out God later.” There is nothing warning us of the dangers of waiting to trust God or the damage that we’re doing to ourselves and others while we wait to trust God.
Humans don’t like to change. We’re stubborn. If the feast is unfamiliar, we’ll stick with the happy meal, thank you very much. In my opinion, this message alone is not good news. It’s damaging news because it doesn’t spur us toward change. The gospel needs warnings to be truly good news.
It’s best to think of warnings as cattle prods. If you look it up on Wikipedia, you’ll find a fun sentence: “Cattle can be difficult to move and direct for a variety of reasons. Prods can be useful for moving stubborn or aggressive animals.” Yes, we are like those cattle. And yes, we are both stubborn and aggressive when it comes to change, especially unfamiliar change.
Warnings are cattle prods. They are scary, and they’re meant to be scary. They are severe momentary motivations to spur us away from sin and toward Jesus.
I like this analogy because it also helps us understand what warnings are not. Warnings are not long term motivators. If you use a cattle prod constantly, you’ll probably give the poor animal a heart attack. This is akin to living in constant fear of the warnings we read in the Bible.
Further, warnings are not meant to keep you in the gospel. They are a short-term motivator to get you going in the right direction. To stretch this analogy perhaps past its reasonable bounds, it’s the rich grass that will keep you where you are supposed to be, not the cattle prod.
The beauty of the gospel captivates and keeps you. The beauty of God Himself changes you, not the warnings. The warnings just get you going.
When warnings become harmful
When you read a warning in the Bible, you are supposed to be afraid. Fear is good. That fear is useless, however, it if drives you into anxiety or despair (see 2 Cor. 7:10). It is supposed to drive you into Jesus’s arms, knowing that He covers you, protects you, and walks intimately with you. Biblical warnings are a “fear that draws you near” and not a fear that drives you away.
There is no place for warnings while you’re in God’s presence. Warnings are for when we are outside His presence. Read the warning you find in scripture. Shake in fear. Let it do its work. Let it drive you to Jesus. But once you’re in His arms, ignore the warning completely, and focus on God Himself instead.
Let the warning do its work, and then discard it entirely.
You aren’t meant to live your life in fear. You are meant to live your life captivated by God’s beauty. Fear has a necessary purpose, but it’s a momentary purpose. Live your life in adoration and joy, and let fear spur you back toward it when you’ve strayed.