“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God… for we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 10:26-31 NIV)
Without a fruit-bearing response to the revelation of Jesus, our sins are counted against us on the Day of Judgment and we will be destroyed by fire. This is the same message proclaimed by John the Baptist (Mt. 3:1-12, Lk. 3:1-17) and Jesus (Mt. 7:21-23, 13:40-42, 25:31-46).
Unlike non-retributive theology, which claims God has simply forgiven everyone and “the wrath of God is the love of God wrongly received”, the writer of Hebrews envisions what Christ did on the Cross (“sacrifice for sins”) to be of no effect for those who do not apply it to the doorpost of their lives. Such persons will face “fearful”, “dreadful”, and retributive “judgment” at “the hands of the living God”.
Many are quick to assert that because Jesus is the “exact representation” of His Father (Heb. 1:3), and because Jesus did not exact vengeance on His enemies, therefore God would not kill anyone in an act of penal retribution. However, such a progressive theology overlooks the unity of the Scriptures concerning the identity and actions of “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, [and] afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5 ESV). For the ten spies “who were responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord” (Num. 14:37 NIV).
Their destruction was not restorative, but retributive. It was not a matter of cause and effect, but Jesus-inflicted punishment. This same Jesus will similarly destroy those who reject the gospel. As Paul writes, “The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction…” (2 Thess. 1:7-9 NASB)
But while “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet. 3:7 NIV), the Lord “is patient… not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance“ (2 Pet. 3:9 NIV). Through this timeline of mercy before judgment, we are to understand “our Lord’s patience means salvation“ (2 Pet. 3:15 NIV), i.e. giving humans “time to be saved“ (NLT).
In this time of mercy before God “shuts the door” (Lk. 13:25-30) “on that day” (Mt. 7:21-23), the Father sends forth His Son (Jn. 8:42) and the Son lays down His life (Jn. 10:17-18) as a sacrifice “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28) in order that “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations“ (Lk. 24:47). This is the Good News proclaimed to you, “…God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16 NIV)
Let us turn to God, put our confidence in the death of Christ, and so lay hold of the hope set before us: the inheritance of eternal life in the resurrection. As Paul says to the Thessalonians, “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath… For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when He returns, we can live with Him forever.” (1 Thess. 1:9-10, 5:9-10 NIV, NLT)