Kevin L. Howard–
I recently talked with my friend, a young man living outside the USA, who proudly declared to me that he was an agnostic. He found it difficult to deny God entirely, but was not so sure God existed, or if perhaps he existed, my friend was not sure what kind of a deity he might be—good, tyrannical, hovering force. My friend is happy to rest in his own uncertainty. He seemed to think that issues about God were my concern, since I think a good God, who hates sin, rules the universe. But we discussed how God is my friend’s concern if it turns out that the Lord is real. Denying him, or doubting him, does not provide a safe place to rest. In fact, it only makes matters worse to doubt the significance of the most significant person in the universe.
My friend would never conceive that he is God’s enemy, that is, if “god” exists at all. In fact, few people, especially Americans, imagine themselves enemies of God. Even an atheist might think that if God existed, he would love them, and loving in this case would certainly mean not sending them to hell.
God has real love
God does not desire the death of the wicked. Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Verse 32 of that same chapter says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
God’s love is real and not merely a perception. He loves and seeks others. Psalm 103:8-12 makes it clear that his love goes far beyond our understanding,
“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
While we should all know it, we’ll spell out John 3:16 here, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God’s heart is that none perish (1 Tim 2:3-4, 6; 2 Pet 3:9; 1 Jn 2:2). His heart is that all come to repentance but he will make sure that all who don’t will pay for their rebellion throughout eternity. After all, the everlasting “I AM” is not to be trifled with.
God has real enemies
The wicked are God’s enemies and he is angry against them every day. Psalm 7:11-12 says, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow.” There can be little doubt that God has true enemies, people who oppose him. Four other verses from the Old Testament ought to make the point clear that God has true enemies and that he is sovereign over them:
“For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20).
“‘If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?’ But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (1 Samuel 2:25).
“The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5).
“Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms” (Psalm 73:20).
If God’s hatred of sin, and idolatry in particular, provokes him to call for the complete destruction of the pagans such as Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Exod 34:13-14), that same God rages against his own covenant people who were indulging in idolatry during the Babylonian captivity (Ezek 11:12, 13:20-23, 14:5-6, 16:30, 16:43, 16:63, 18:31).
Jesus’ statement to his disciples in Matt 12:30 makes it clear that the unbelieving are enemies of God. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” What we find on the flip side in Mark 9 and Luke 9 doesn’t pose a problem here. Carson explains by quoting another scholar, “The inverted saying—’whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50)—and this one ‘are not contradictory if the one was spoken to the indifferent about themselves and the other to the disciples about someone else.'” So Matt 12:30 confirms that those not following Jesus are his enemies.
In 2 Thess 1:4-11 we find Paul encouraging the believers with the prospect of their relief, and part of this relief is that God will execute judgment of the worst type on their enemies.
“… steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions … since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted … inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”
Not even God’s enemies get the last word with their rebellion, sin, and persecutions. God still wins by punishing them forever but he is not left eternally sad and defeated by this. Since God does not send his friends to hell, we can conclude that anyone going there is God’s enemy. To make sure we’re clear on the sinfulness of sin, Is there anyone in hell who shouldn’t be there? The answer is no. All deserve hell and none deserve a chance at heaven. So the unrepentant—that is, God’s enemies—go to hell, their just reward.
Paul is clear on the issue, stating that we were God’s enemies until he reconciled us (Rom 5:10). Because we were dead in our sins we “…were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:3). Reading on, our predicament becomes less flattering (Eph 2:11-13). When we arrive a few chapters later, Paul makes a sin list and says that because of such, “…the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (5:6). Our past state was so hopeless and rebellious that it is justly described as “darkness” (5:8). In Phil 3:18, Paul says “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Are all unconverted people God’s enemies? Let’s see the example in Acts of Cornelius the God-fearer (10:1-4). Luke does not portray Cornelius as an enemy of God, but in verses 34-48 Peter preaches the gospel to him so he can truly believe. Unbelievers are not always spoken of in extreme terms. For instance, consider verse 35, “but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” These non-believers are in the process of believing. They are, nonetheless, lost, those needing salvation. Thus, Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius. While we need to keep in mind that we all still bear the image of God, we can’t forget the reality of sin and how much God hates it. Psalm 14:2-3 makes clear the lost condition, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 call unbelieving Jews the synagogue of Satan. If any group would be considered most naturally “in favor with God” it would be the Jews. Instead, John referred to their gatherings as satanic because being a Jew means following Jesus. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and without him, worship is satanic.
The ripe harvest in John 4:35-38 does not contradict my thesis that the lost are enemies of God and not inclined to believe apart from the Spirit quickening them. When we come to statements like, “…see that the fields are white for harvest,” Jesus is saying that the Father is preparing a harvest, thus, it’s time to get busy. He was saying to those present, “You disciples get to reap what others have prepared. One sows and another reaps.” But God ultimately gets credit for the harvest. The same could be said of Matt 9:35-38. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The harvest is the Lord’s.
Unbelievers and methodology
What sort of methodology or terminology is required to approach the non-believing as God’s enemies? In other words, what does it look like to witness to God’s enemies? Is the concept of their opposition to God in our minds only or should this concept make its way into the gospel presentation? To answer this, we’ll need to consider a few passages.
While Paul in Acts 17:16-31 does not approach the Athenians in the most extreme of terminology, “You pagans far from God,” he assumes that even though they’re religious, and uses that as an inroad for preaching, he thinks they stand in need of knowledge about and faith in Jesus, the full expression of the one true God. In other words, they are ignorant of the very one whom they need to know. “God is actually not far from each one of us” in the sense that Jesus has come to earth and has risen from the dead, and now has apostles proclaiming his truth—this truth being declared to them at that moment. God decided where they would live so that they would seek him, their Creator, who is not far from each person. He gives life; men are, after all, his offspring (v. 28). Therefore, the divine is not like gold or something made with hands (v. 29). But being his offspring isn’t the same as true son-ship for judgment is coming (v. 31). Being his offspring means he created us. So this passage, and others, would give us reason to believe that the lost are still enemies of God, even if biblical authors don’t always talk about the unconverted in the strongest terms concerning their lostness.
Note, however, that we find John the Baptist and Jesus in situations where they do confront the inquiring lost in stark, tough words concerning their hostility against God and their wretched standing before the Creator (Matt 3:7-12; 12:34-37). For sake of space, we’ll look only at Matt 12 and see the gentle Jesus in action:
“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Here he was talking with the self-righteous religious folks of his day, who had enough Old Testament revelation which should have helped them understand who the Messiah was, yet this provides an example for our times to speak forthrightly in such a manner to those who, religious or not, are nonetheless enemies of God.
When we’re witnessing, at the very least, we should keep in mind the truth of our listeners’ hostility against God. This need not make us hostile towards them, just mindful of their true state. Their lostness means rebellion against God. While not required on all occasions, it would be appropriate at times to gently say to them, “You’re not just separated from God. You are hostile towards him, no matter what your heart tells you.” We can do this without arrogance by realizing that we have done nothing to earn salvation. We were in that same hostile predicament before God (Rom 5:8). We can share the good news with others knowing that hell should have been our own, too. Oh, but for the grace of Christ.
Approaching the unconverted as enemies of God, face to face or only in our minds, could provide a counter balance to the typical approach that the masses are eagerly waiting to believe the good news if only someone would tell them. No matter how good unbelievers seem, they oppose God and his holy ways. People aren’t just passively lost; they are actively rebelling against God. Following on the heels of John 3:16, verse 18 says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” So not believing equals condemnation, which proves one is an enemy of God. First John 2:23 also clarifies, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”
Again, let’s remember that God’s love towards his creation is authentic, not pretend. However, man’s sin is real too, so when we find an individual or group of lost people who are hungry for God’s Word, it is because the Spirit is working on them not because people are naturally inclined to our Savior. The “enemy paradigm” is not the only one we find in Scripture, but it is always present and real, either running in the background, indirectly related, or directly evident. Dirt is not always on the fruit or the tree itself springing from the soil, but it is always underneath, affecting all that comes from it.
Paul once lived as a hypocritical Pharisee like those in Matt 3:7-12 and 12:34-37, but then, he was reconciled to God (1 Tim 1:12-17). God transformed him from blasphemer to worshipper. How glorious when once-hostile people become friends and brothers. This only happens through God’s sovereign grace. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). That is the joy of reconciliation and that is truly good news that we must delightfully tell.
 D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 290, quoting McNeile.
Kevin took his Masters degrees from TEDS and GCTS. He has served overseas for several years in both Asia and Africa with his wife and children. See his related article, Biblical Authors Delighting in the Destruction of their Enemies.