Hell glorifies God—that is the premise of Thor Ramsey’s book The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever, the newest release from Cruciform Press. It is very encouraging to see a Christian publisher (who consistently aims at the general Christian audience) invest in a topic so essential to true Christianity. It is one thing to notice a few biblically-faithful publishers putting out academic defenses of the doctrine of hell (rare in itself), but it is another thing (and refreshing) to see diligent work put into the placing of such vital truth in the hands of the average person in the pew.
This book is refreshingly honest, and bold. In a day when too many publishers find it fashionable to waste paper and ink on so-called biblical treatments of hell (which are nothing more than pathetic regurgitations of old heresies), this book does not attempt to improve God’s reputation. As the author writes in his Introduction, “there is a swath of fashionable new preachers with a mission to clean up God’s nasty reputation as a bloodthirsty old clod. Unfortunately, in the process of doing God the big favor of helping his PR, they’re reinventing the doctrine of eternal punishment with a new and improved gospel. It’s gospel-riffic!” This book is a much-needed antidote to the plague of unbiblical teachings from famous, fashionable, and rich preachers who treat hell “like the Christian’s dirty little secret---the pock mark on the church’s history formed during its teenage years.”
How, exactly, does hell glorify God? That’s the question the author answers, both biblically and efficiently (a very easy 104 pages). In his four chapters, he draws our attention to four essential aspects of God-centered theology that are lost when the biblical doctrine of hell is neglected, or downright rejected. I will state them positively.
- Hell glorifies the fear of God. If the fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom (and it is) then losing the fear of God in any generation will only be disastrous. Faithful preaching on the doctrine of eternal punishment will rescue the pathetic state of the church from our Santa-god. “Contemporary preacher poets don’t scare people with the wrath of God anymore. They lure people into becoming Christians toothy promises of eternal life.” This is not to say that hellfire and brimstone preaching absent from the glories of God’s love is what is needed. Simply scaring people into heaven without truly presenting to them the glory of Christ, our Rescuer from the wrath of God, will not produce true conversions. But let’s face it. The average professing Christian today has “no idea how much danger they are in.”
- Hell glorifies the holiness of God. Changing the doctrine of hell requires first that we change God's nature. “Eliminate hell and we eliminate something vital to God’s character, namely that God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), completely holy, infinitely pure and righteous (Hebrews 1:9), a God who will not let the guilty go unpunished (Exodus 34:7). Eliminating hell changes who God is. Removing hell doesn’t make God more loving. It makes him smaller, more like us.” And that’s the last thing we need!
- Hell glorifies the gospel of God. When preachers minimize, or distort, the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment they drain power out of the gospel. Without understanding the wrath of God against our sin what in the world are we even being saved from? Why do we even need a Savior? Hell glorifies God because hell glorifies the one and only Savior Jesus Christ who alone endured the wrath of God for us.
- Hell glorifies the love of God. Hell exalts the love of God by keeping it in balance with all of his other attributes, and within the boundaries of truth. Love rejoices in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6), that is, biblical truth is the pasture in which love grazes. Hell keeps God’s love from becoming squishy and self-centered. We need this because, “as sinners, we manage to bring a measure of corruption into everything we do. To a great extent, therefore, we love people because of what they bring to our lives. We love them because of how they make us feel. We get something out of loving them.” The doctrine of hell saves us from emotional and relational suicide.
The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever closes with much-needed and sound counsel to all believers to love professing Christians enough to express concern when the fruits of the Spirit are lacking, or absent, from their lives. Because hell is real, and hell is as awful as awful can be, we dare not neglect it, or fear another person’s response to its teaching more than we fear the God who created it for the devil and his angels.
This book is an important and valuable contribution to today’s collection of “theology for the average person in the pew.” I recommend you get a copy (paper or electronic), read it, and share it with others.
[Previous editions of Journey to Biblical Counseling consisted of interviews with men and woman whom God is using as leaders in today's biblical counseling movement. Today, we depart slightly from that format to publish an unsolicited testimony from one of our regular, out-of-state readers.]
I couldn't hold back any longer. I had to send a note to inquire about your plans for continued ministry in biblical counseling. I read your blog post “My Farewell Sermon.” Many of us are praying that this transition from your long-term pastoral ministry will not affect the role you have in biblical counseling. I understand if plans for the future cannot be announced yet, but I want you to know what an impact you have had on my life and on so many others whom I know.
God in His grace brought me to repentance and faith at the age of forty. He instilled in me an unquenchable thirst to study His Word and live in obedience to it through the Holy Spirit’s enabling. As I studied Scripture and began to understand progressive sanctification and that Scripture tells us; “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness…” (2 Peter 1:3). I went to the Scriptures for answers to my life’s challenges and found them.
It was then that God gave me a desire to help others understand the same wisdom He was giving to me and, consequently, He began to put people into my life whom I could help. I had not read your books at this time, but now wish I had.
In my desire to walk an obedient life amidst the pull of the world, I pursued a Master of Theology degree at Northwestern College in St. Paul. I graduated and was still active in my old church encouraging and training fourteen women’s small group leaders in the truth of His Word. Even though I was helping women live out the truth of the Scriptures by going to the Word for answers, my counsel was met with resistance by the church I was attending at the time. I also saw that at many times people were sent outside the church for help---help which I knew could come from God’s Word. Clearly, God gave warning to us through Jeremiah: “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jer 17:5). I started to search for answers myself.
It was then that I heard about your books and bought, Counsel One Another and Counsel Your Flock. When the books arrived I spent several days devouring every word of Counsel One Another...three times! I was so excited to read and be confirmed in my conviction that the Scriptures give us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3) and that believers need to help each other through the Word, through intensely focused and personal “one-another” ministry and counseling. Your book radically changed my life! Two years ago Counsel One Another put a name to the ministry God had me doing; biblical counseling.
Once I finished reading the book Counsel One Another I wrote to you. I was so excited to finally have a resource to consult and I needed to know more about this thing you like to call “authentic biblical counseling.” You helped me answer many of my questions. Your blog also directed me towards excellent biblical counseling resources and to ACBC (formerly NANC), The Biblical Counseling Coalition, as well as to women who lived near me who are active in biblical counseling. Despite many obstacles since our ongoing correspondence began (there are too many to list here) God grew me and continues to as I seek, through the Holy Spirit, to minister His Word to others.
The impact of your ministry continues to this day. I am actively working on a second Masters in Biblical Counseling at Faith Bible Seminary and, God willing, will be a certified ACBC counselor sometime this year. God has enabled me to counsel women at our new church home as well as do marriage counseling with our pastor, a biblically sound God-fearing man who believes targeted discipleship (biblical counseling) is the role of his gospel-saturated local church. He is now focused on moving our church towards being a church of counselors as well as having a counseling ministry. He knows that making disciples is not only about evangelism, but it is also about teaching believers to observe all that Jesus commanded us…and we do this by coming alongside believers to help them live out their position in Christ when sin or suffering dims the truth of the gospel. By the way, I also gave him your book, Counsel Your Flock.
To God be the glory as we are seeing Jesus Christ build His church! Several elders, pastors, and lay people plan to attend the training for biblical counseling scheduled here in Minneapolis in March, April, and May (Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries) and the church plans to budget for biblical counseling and training this year.
All this to say, THANK YOU. God has worked through you, your blog, your teaching, your sermons, and your book. He has used your ministry to move this sinner, saved only by His grace, to humbly help other believers conquer their personal problems God’s way and to assist a gospel-focused church to do the same.
I have no doubt that God will continue to use you for His glory. I pray He allows you to do this in biblical counseling as you continue to have a huge impact on my life, others I know, as well as the lives of those who are counseled biblically. We are so very grateful and will be praying for you and your family as the Lord directs your steps.
Serving Christ together,
Soli Deo Gloria!
There are basically two different ways we treat fellow sinners. We either act like self-appointed judges who, like the Pharisees, act out of our supposed self-righteousness, or we act like needy sinners who never step very far away from the cross and, therefore, like Jesus (who, unlike us, was not a sinner at all!), are quick to dispense grace and forgiveness. To summarize it another way, we either live by the letter of the law, which kills the soul, or we live by the Spirit, which gives life (2 Cor 3:6).
These two approaches are what we see in massive contrast in John’s account of the woman caught in adultery. The contrast is startling. Please stop here. Take two minutes to read John 8:1-11 before proceeding.
In John's example of the redeeming love and grace of Jesus we see the difference between treating people according to the letter of the law and treating them according to the Spirit. Here we see pompous leaders, who long to squash a sinful woman like a bug, contrasted alongside a Savior whose abundant grace pursues and ultimately restores her.
How a Self-Righteous Pharisee Treats Sinners
The scribes and the Pharisees, the self-righteous religionists, drew public attention to the woman’s sin in order to bolster their own reputation as spiritual experts of the law. Their accusation, though true, was for the purpose of trapping Jesus. However, in order to do so they used the woman's humiliation, public shame, and condemnation for their own self-serving purposes, not for the nurture and care of her broken soul. In short, these spiritual leaders thought first of judgment, but never of mercy, grace, or restorative love.
But something unexpected happened. Jesus turned the tables on the "punishers" and they were caught in their own trap just as passages like Psalm 7:15-16 predict.
How a Grace-Dispensing Savior Treats Sinners
When Jesus effectively turned the focus of the self-righteous leaders to their own guiltiness before God (that they too deserved death as violators of God’s law), they lost the grounds for their accusation and judgment of her. Jesus, on the other hand, pursued the sinner with grace—the kind of grace that first forgives and receives before instructing to live in holiness and obedience to God (2 Cor 5:15).
When sinners are treated according to the letter of the law the soul is killed and any attempt at restoration fails miserably. However, when sinners are treated with the redeeming grace of God then the Spirit gives life as He grants the twin gifts of repentance and faith and the subsequent ability to heed the call to “go and sin no more.”
Which of these two approaches describes us? Are we like the scribes and Pharisees who were quick to pronounce judgment on others and rid their life of offensive sinners who were beneath them? Or are we like Jesus who---without lowering God’s standard of holiness---reached out to sinners with patient grace? Have we forgotten that the ground is level at the foot of the cross? Do we recognize that no matter how long we've been a Christian we will never get to the point where we will have the “right” to condemn another? Are we daily conscious of the reality that there is only one who has the power to condemn and that it is not you or me? (Rom 8:34).
Let’s get honest with ourselves. How do we treat fellow sinners, really?
Two days ago, I preached my farewell sermon to the church that God---by His grace---gave me the privilege to serve for twenty-two years. During the final weeks before this sermon, I thought much about what I might say and finally landed right where I had begun. I wanted to preach Christ; I wanted to exhort the congregation to keep looking to Jesus as the Great Shepherd and Guardian of their Souls (1 Peter 2:25). I also wanted to encourage them to follow Him, day-in and day-out, as the Good Shepherd who faithfully feeds, leads, and protects the sheep of God (John 10:11).
Therefore, I settled on Colossians 2:1-7, a passage written by a mere man who lived with continual, and often overwhelming, concern for the souls in his flock. As a result, his heart compelled him to remind them to keep a Christ-centered focus and to keep walking with Jesus. The supremacy of Jesus Christ is the theme of the book of Colossians. Since Christ is supreme the apostle repeatedly exalts Him before his readers in order to call them to look to Jesus (for example, 1:13-18, 28-29; 2:9-17; 3:1-3, 15-16).
A key command in the book pulls the centrality of Christ and our need to follow Him together into one, in 2:6-7, and that was our main sermon text. In the five verses that precede these, however, the apostle describes his concern for the Colossian believers as a struggle. “Struggle” comes from the same word from which we get “agony,” referring to a strenuous and demanding athletic contest (like the Olympics). It is a picture of the intense effort that the apostle put forth in ministry toward those believers. In 4:12, Paul uses a form of this same word when he mentions Epaphras, who was “always laboring earnestly…in his prayers.” Prayer is a form of spiritual labor, an intense inner struggle against all the forces of evil in the kingdom of darkness. Paul described his struggle with the adjective “great” – a word that speaks of the magnitude of abundant inner stress. Paul says he experienced this struggle for the Colossians, the Laodiceans, and all other believers whom he had not met personally. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, modeled this same jealous concern for the sheep in John 10:11-15.
Why did Paul have this internal stress? God had given him a shepherd’s heart, which drove him to work on their behalf. His spiritual desire for the believers produced a great struggle within. He knew that he was a fallen sinner himself and knew that everything he wanted for them was against the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The description of these desires leads up to the apostle’s key command: “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.”
The Command to Keep Walking in Christ (v. 6)
As believers, we are called to walk the walk of faith: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord.” But how have we received Christ?
- By Grace - What kind of grace is this? What is God’s grace like? It is saving grace (Eph 2:8-10), sanctifying grace (Titus 2:11-14), serving grace (Gal 5:13), and sufficient grace (2 Cor 12:7-9).
- By Faith - Believers receive Christ by the faith that is produced by the Word of God, the gospel (Rom 10:17), which leads to our being justified before God and made to be at peace with Him (Rom 5:1).
- As Lord - Believers receive “Christ Jesus the Lord” (v. 6). This title is used only here by Paul and refers to the doctrine of Christ in all its fullness. When these people had believed in Christ through the hearing of the gospel they received a person, not simply a philosophy; a Lord, not only a Savior (Rom 10:9). Of this, Charles Spurgeon said, “It is interesting to notice that the Apostles preached the Lordship of Christ. The word Savior occurs only twice in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:31, 13:23). On the other hand it is amazing to notice the title “Lord” is mentioned 92 times; “Lord Jesus” 13 times; and “The Lord Jesus Christ” 6 times in the same book. The Gospel is: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” The lordship of Christ is not a secondary doctrine.
Paul’s command to “walk” is best translated “keep walking.” It refers to continual, habitual action. It stresses the daily walk of spiritual development. Paul is saying:
- You received Him by grace—keep walking in grace.
- You received Him by faith—keep walking by faith.
- You received Him as Lord—keep walking in a progressively deeper submission to His lordship.
Our walk is “in Him.” As believers we live in union with Christ (John 15:4-5). It is only in Christ that we become new creatures. It is only in Christ that we become fruitful. It is only in Christ that we are accepted by God.
The Characteristics of Walking in Christ (v. 7)
The apostle describes the believer’s lifelong walk in Christ in four ways.
- It is a firmly-rooted walk (having been firmly rooted). The word used here describes the solid foundation of a building. This is a settled state brought about by conversion. Christ and His gospel of grace is our sure foundation.
- It is a steadily-progressive walk (now being built up in Him). This is the superstructure that sits on top of the basement: the 2x4’s and the drywall. It signifies that becoming like Christ is not an overnight event, but a process--a lifelong process. Sometimes we think that gaining victory over a particular sin in our lives should be as instant as pudding. But it is not. It is a long process that involves an increasing dependence upon God’s grace to constantly lay aside the old man and put on the new man. Sanctification is a slow, steady growth like that of an oak tree, not a short-lived poplar. We are being built up in Him. This is God’s work in us (1Cor 3:6-9).
- It is a doctrinally-established walk (established in your faith, just as you were instructed). “The faith” is probably a better translation than “your faith.” This is objective faith, i.e., the Christian walk is built upon doctrine, which provides stability for the Christian life (see Col 1:21-23). A person will not find much stability in their subjective faith, or in some spiritual experience. These are always lacking and always inferior to the clear assurance that comes from the Word of God. Peter referred to Scripture as a more sure word than even the most dramatic spiritual experience (2 Peter 1:19).
- It is an abundantly-thankful walk (overflowing with gratitude). The believer’s walk of faith should abound in thankfulness. The more we grow in understanding of the doctrines of the Christian faith the more grateful we will be (Col 3:16). This sounds so elementary---and it is---but how often we forget this! God wants His children to be thankful. It is His will for each of us (1 Thess 5:18). In light of all that God has done for us in Christ how can we be anything else?
The apostle’s command to keep walking in Christ is similar to the closing desire of the apostle Jude, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). Nothing will ever separate the believer from Christ or His great love for us. He is the Good Shepherd. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Jesus never fails.
[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]