Understanding the relationship between believers and the promises of salvation is not too difficult. The same cannot be said, however, with respect to the many warnings found throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. Do the curses, threatenings, and warnings apply to Christians or not? If so, how do they apply? Is it really possible for a Christian to take the threatenings of damnation seriously in light of Romans 8:1? May a Christian be assured of his salvation and at the same time tremble at the warnings of apostasy? Once again I will turn to John Ball for help in navigating the way through this challenging issue (Treatise of Faith, 64-66, 421-425).
Ball notes that we must believe the veracity of the warnings because they are part of Scripture. Even as we believe the promises of salvation because they come from God speaking in Scripture so we are to believe the threatenings. Furthermore, Christians don’t just believe that the warnings are true for unbelievers. They are to believe that they are true for them too because all Scripture, including the warnings, were written for their learning and instruction (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6). This means that a Christian who is sure of his salvation due to God’s promise, also knows for certain that “he should be damned, if he should go on in sin without repentance, and shall taste of much bitterness, if he grow indulgent to his corruptions.”
Since by true or saving faith a Christian “acts” upon “whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein (Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2),” it is appropriate to inquire about the “acts” of faith with respect to the threatenings. In other words, how should or rather how will the warnings impact us if we truly believe them? Ball mentions five acts of faith, all of which are worthy of further study (see pp. 423-425). I would like, however, to focus on the most obvious fact that we will “tremble at the threatenings (WCF 14.2),” and so be careful to pursue holiness. True faith, says John Ball, “worketh an holy fear and reverent awe of God in respect of his judgments.” “The threatenings are strong bridles to keep from naughtiness,” and the godly man believes them “to prevent falling into sin, and so into condemnation.”
Not everyone, however, agrees with the sanctifying use of the threatenings. There are some people who have argued that fear of punishment is not a sound motivation to Christian holiness. There is a plausibility to this position because the Bible also says that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). What have Christians to fear if they are no longer condemned? Ball answers by noting that this argument only applies to final damnation. A justified Christian may experience fatherly correction in the form of temporal threats and punishments. He, therefore, ought to be motivated to holiness by fear of temporal punishments. But a justified Christian who is assured of his salvation in Christ Jesus ought also to have a healthy fear of the warnings against apostasy and thus final damnation. As Ball notes, it is possible to fear that which you are “infallibly assured to escape.” “The godly man’s assurance of God’s favour will stand well with reverence of his Majesty and fear of…the torments of Hell.” This is so in part because God’s sovereignty in salvation does not diminish our responsibility. We still need to persevere to the end in order to inherit the promises. And so the fear we have is not a “distrustful” fear that we will fall away and be damned but “a watchful fear of shunning and shrinking all means leading thereunto.” We fear “the torments of Hell, not as an evil [we] shall fall into, but which [we] shall escape by the constant study and practice of holiness.”
One last but by no means unimportant point on this issue. The warnings should never be considered apart from the promises, and vice versa. The two need to be mingled together and served together in order “to keep the heart in the best temper.” On the one hand, we will “grow overbold with God” if the threats do not make us tremble. On other hand, we will soon be “dejected” if the promises do not uphold us. Christians who continue to wrestle with sin require the sweetness of the promises and the tartness of the warnings to run with endurance the race that is set before them. As Ball says, “sour and sweet make the best sauce.”