Book Review – Coulson, JR., The Righteous Judgment of God: Aspects of Judgment in Paul’s Letters

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 211
  • Difficulty: Medium-Academic
  • Topic: Theology, Judgment, Salvation
  • Audience: Academics, Ministers, Lay-Leaders, Educated Christians
  • Published: 2017

Michael Bird recommended this book on his blog recently and I felt I had to read the book as part of my research for my page on Future Judgment and Salvation. The author John R. Coulson is Deputy Principal and Lecturer in Bible at Brisbane School of Theology in Australia. So cool, another Australian in the world of popular theology.

This is the purpose of Coulson’s book in his own words;

My purpose in this book is to contribute to the recovery in the church today of the biblical message concerning God’s judgment. There are numerous good books on the topic. This book will focus on what Paul the apostle says in his letters about God’s judgment. (Loc 68)

This post is one of my book reviews.

Contents

Main points

I’ll walk you through significant elements of each of his chapters, give representative quotes and provide some comment.

Preface

The preface of the book as you would expect has various introductory comments. What I found most important, especially for interpreting Coulson’s whole take on judgment is his definition of God’s judgment.

God’s judgment is his evaluation of people, his assessment of their character and conduct against a standard of righteousness that he has set and given to humans.
His judgment also involves his verdict, and where this is negative, his sentence and the execution of the sentence. (Loc 84)

I believe that Coulson rightly identifies two distinct but related ways ‘judgment’ is used in the scripture. But he did not substantiate his claim by referring to scriptural examples. This seemed a significant oversight to me considering his book is on judgment.

In my own reading of scripture I would say the first (judgment as his assessment or decision) is dominant (e.g. Rom 2.16; 5.16; 14.10; 2 Cor 5.10). Whereas the second (judgment as his sentence / punishment) has limited use (e.g. Jn 5.29; Rom 13.2).

I found after reading his book, Coulson’s dominant focus is on punishment for sin and wrongdoing (the second case). I felt that he pushed this aspect of judgment too far, importing too much into a number of passages and verses than what was really there.

Chapter 1: Judgment in the Old Testament and in the Teaching of Jesus

In this first chapter Coulson briefly reviews the Old Testament and what Jesus says in the gospel with regards to judgment.

It is fairly clear that Jesus holds the Old Testament view of God’s judgment. In particular, he believes in and emphasizes eschatological judgment, incorporating some contemporary Jewish beliefs, and also relating final judgment to himself. Secondly, Jesus sees his imminent death as related to God’s judgment. (Loc 284)

While this chapter was understandably brief, I thought it was a good representation of the material. I liked his mention that Jesus held to the Jewish there would be a final judgment and put himself in the position of the judge.

Coulson quotes Jn 3.14-16; 5.24; 12.31-32; 16.11 to claim the world is under God’s judgment [condemnation] and that his death provides escape from condemnation for believers.

Chapter 2: Overview of God’s Judgment in Paul’s Letters, Part 1

This is the first of two chapters where Coulson reviews Paul’s letters and gathers data related to Paul’s understanding of judgment. In this first part he looks over Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians obviously following the order we have in our bibles.

I’ll highlight two themes of interest.

Paul sees the Fall of humanity into sin and death as the fundamental judgment, from which flow temporal and eschatological judgment. Christ’s death and resurrection are central in saving humans from the judgment of God. Faith in Christ results in right relationship with God in the present, anticipating salvation from God’s eschatological wrath. (Loc 644)

This statement needs to bear in mind Coulson’s earlier definition of ‘judgment’. Here Coulson writes about ‘judgment’ in the sense of punishment for sins. Coulson moves from one aspect of judgment to the other without saying he does. Clearly Christians are judged by Christ (e.g. Rom 14.10; Cor 4.4-5; 2 Cor 5.10) and we are not saved from this judgment. Coulson’s statements seem to overlook this fact.

As I also note in my page on Future Judgement and Salvation, initial salvation anticipates salvation from God’s eschatological work (e.g. Rom 5.8-9). This is a feature Coulson will repeatedly state in his book.

As I read through the book I found very brief acknowledgments to important passages describing human involvement and responsibility for future judgment and salvation. Here he refers to Rom 2.6-11 and Gal 6.6-10.

Paul affirms the principle of judgment according to deeds, as in Romans 2:6–8. Here he uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping, contrasting two different kinds of ground and their harvest. For unbelievers the harvest is “destruction” or “corruption” (Gr. phthora), complete ruin and loss; for believers it is “eternal life,” life in the presence of God. (Loc 1006)

Coulson doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the implications for how believers should live now in light of the future judgment.

Chapter 3: Overview of God’s Judgment in Paul’s Letters, Part 2

Continuing on from the previous chapter, Coulson reviews Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus.

This is a one brief reference to what I think is really needed in Protestant circles. Coulson hits the nail on the head.

Our overviews of Paul’s letters so far have shown that he sees salvation as a process with a strong future focus. People are being saved and will be saved when Christ appears.

Paul’s understanding contrasts with the view of many contemporary Christians that we are already saved. The problem with this is that it neglects the “not yet” aspect of salvation. It weakens the link between Christian conduct and eschatological salvation. Christian conduct is not seen as an integral part of ongoing salvation leading to final salvation. A direct line is drawn between the gift of righteousness and final acquittal before God, neglecting righteous living in the middle.

Paul does not draw such a line. He holds gift, conduct and future salvation together in a holistic view of the grace of God. This is why he concentrates on Christian conduct. In his view it is indispensable in the big picture of salvation.

If we do not live as Christians now, we are denying the grace of God in our lives and will not be saved in the end. We need to recover Paul’s view of salvation. (Loc 1628)

In this chapter Coulson refers to the process of salvation and the consummation of salvation. In this context he highlights the necessity for Christian conduct. Read my page on Future Judgement and Salvation and you will see I’m primarily focussing on these themes (‘Living in the light of Future Judgment and Salvation’).

That being said, Coulson does not continue to emphasise Christian conduct and its necessity for future salvation throughout his book. It seems to fall off his radar.

Chapter 4: The Fallen Human Condition as God’s Judgment

Once again Coulson’s definition of judgment comes into play and this chapter focusses primarily on God’s judgment as his punishment for sin without distinguishing it. One blurred mass. I felt in this chapter he pushes this understanding of judgment way to far. He summarises his chapter saying;

We must develop and maintain a biblical understanding of the world and humanity, realizing that we are still a race under God’s judgment. Human achievement has not changed the fundamentals of the human condition: we still sin against God and each other in a whole host of ways; we experience physical and emotional pain, weakness, and limitation; we struggle for a sense of identity and purpose; we are mortal. Judgment is still with us. This remains true for us as Christians, although hopefully less so with regard to sin. (2033)

Many of the passages he quotes do not refer to the situation or what people are doing as God’s judgment. He seems to infer our sin, pain, weakness and limitation are God’s punishment on us. Is this true? Does it hold for Job? Or Paul (2 Cor 12.7-9) or even Jesus for most of his life excepting the cross?

In this light, it was hard to see if Coulson’s understanding of at least some them as God’s judgment was justified.

Chapter 5: God’s Temporal Judgment

God’s temporal judgments are what he is doing now, before his future judgment, to punish sin and wrongdoing.

The sections of this chapter are thus;

  1. The ongoing decline of humanity (Rom 1.18-32)
  2. The judgment of Israel (1 Cor 10.5-10)
  3. The “hardening” of people in unbelief (Rom 9.22-24)
  4. The judgment of evil spiritual powers (Col 2.15)
  5. The judgment of citizens by civil authorities (Rom 13.1-7)
  6. The judgment of church members (1 Cor 5.1-5) (Loc 2158f)

The Roman Catholic church is big on temporal punishment. For example see my review of James Akin’s ‘The Salvation Controversy’. Bear in mind the Roman Catholics believe Christ’s death is what removes the eternal consequences for our sins. But they also believe temporal punishments can occur. This is why they think they can reduce these temporal punishments by repentance and indulgences.

Coulson doesn’t seem aware the Roman Catholics are also big on temporal judgment. Otherwise, this chapter seemed fine.

Chapter 6: God’s Judgment at the Cross

The most noticeable element of this chapter is Coulson’s argument for Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Of all the passages in Paul which refer to Christ’s death on the Cross, Coulson selects three and says they represent the ‘heart’ (or centre) of Paul’s understanding of God’s judgment / atonement.

The heart of the matter seems to be expressed in three or four verses: Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; and possibly, Romans 3:25. … Romans 8:3 provides the clearest statement of what happened at the cross in relation to God’s judgment: God “condemned sin” in the death of Jesus. (Loc 2821)

Coulson gives a very light exegetical treatment of these passages and then considers scholarly arguments for and against penal substitution. Coulson affirms his Reformed credentials and says penal substitution is at the heart (or centre) of Paul’s understanding of Christ’s work.

In the light of our discussion of the atonement it can be argued that substitution is at the heart of Paul’s understanding of Christ’s work. This is because Christ’s death is essentially a penalty that Christ accepts in our place. (Loc 3148)

I felt Coulson had not really dealt with the biblical evidence in an exhaustive or objective manner. Scot McKnight highlights a significant problem which I think Coulson also replicates. This is a quote from Scots sermon on Atonement in Evangelicalism.

“Penal Substitution is the most important metaphor for atonement in evangelicalism. … But evangelicalism’s pervasive ideas and practices are no necessary indicator of biblical truth. … It can be established penal substitution is not the ruling theory of Christian thinking until Luther and Calvin. (What does it mean to call a metaphor a ‘central’ metaphor?) …

How do we determine which metaphor is central? So I want to make a few suggestions, the first one is this.

We can do this by counting atonement passages and showing that at least the majority or preferably the vast majority involves or centres on the Godhead punishing the Son or the Son absorbing our punishment. This can’t be done because it is inaccurate.”

Coulson certainly doesn’t do this.

“So second, we might isolate the single most important text (which is a debate in itself) and conclude if the ruling metaphor is there it is the most important metaphor of all. But the passage most considered to be the most pregnant atonement passage in the entire New Testament Romans 3.21-26 is clearly not in favour of penal substitution. Why? Because the greek word hilasterion most likely means ‘mercy seat’ and not ‘propitiation’ and any idea of wrath has to be imported from other passages and downloaded into this passage to make it important.”

Coulson possibly does this, for him Rom 8.3 is the ‘clearest statement’. So I’ll look at this shortly. McKnight finishes off saying.

“I’m not saying it is impossible, but I am saying that if this is the most important atonement passage then penal substitution is not central.”

Which goes against Coulson’s appraisal. As do I. Paul says in Romans 8.1-4;

8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin [offering], he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8.1-4)

‘Law of the Spirit of life’, ‘law of sin and death’. Paul names two powers in play. Two dominions personified. The first is God’s power manifested in the Spirit, working through the cross. The second is the power of sin and death.

‘Set you free’. Formerly believers were under the power of sin and death. Now they have been set free. Not because of the law of Moses. The law of Moses had no power to effect this change over people. It is powerless.

‘God has done’, ‘likeness of sinful flesh’, ‘sin offering’. Rather God’s sin offering of Christ effected the change in dominion. Rom 3.25; 8.3 and 2 Cor 5.21 all highlight that God was the one who offered up Jesus. Note many manuscripts interpret this ‘as a sin offering’. God’s sin offering for sinners.

‘Condemned sin in the flesh’. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God condemned sin in the flesh. The way I interpret this is that the power of sin in the believer has been condemned and put to death. Paul does not say, Christ took the punishment we deserve.

‘Righteous requirement of the law’, ‘walk according’. This is part of the reason why believers can now fulfill the law as they walk according to the Spirit. They have been freed from the power of sin and death because it has been condemned to death through the sacrificial offering of Christ.

This is how I read this passage. I’m not convinced by Coulson’s argument that penal substitution is the heart of Paul’s understanding of the cross. I think his interpretations are more eisegesis than exegesis.

Romans 8.3 underscores the transition from one dominion and power into another. The ‘set free’ language communicates to me that redemption and liberation from an oppressive power is in mind, a slave market metaphor. Rom 3.25 and Gal 3.13 likewise follow suit. If one were to do an exhaustive look at Paul’s treatments of the cross, one will see the slave market metaphor is the most common to Paul’s depiction of the Cross of Christ.

Chapter 7: God’s Final Judgment

This is the most important chapter in Coulson’s book.

Coulson begins the chapter with a summary concerning the final judgment. Seven main points;

  1. Paul’s principals of the final judgment,
  2. Paul affirms final judgment in several places,
  3. When Christ returns his people will experience bodily resurrection, and will then be judged by God through Christ,
  4. Paul gives assurance by explaining believers have been put right with God through faith in Christ and living a holy life,
  5. Paul affirms the condemnation of those who oppose the gospel and work against God’s purpose in the church,
  6. Paul describes the final destiny of unbelievers
  7. When Christ returns the ‘man of lawlessness’ will be destroyed and all evil powers abolished.

He then writes about the necessity and purpose of the final judgment. Basically, the world is a hell hole. If God does not judge, the world will remain a garbage dump.

Coulson speaks about the judgment of God’s people. He says Paul’s teaching about judgment is intended as to guide and change our life. Coulson hardly refers to any scriptures here.

He then introduces the thorny issue of works and what our motivation should be for works. He then discusses Judgment according to works and Justification by faith. Coulson says;

Paul does not mean that justification by faith applies only to the beginning of the Christian life, and that the rest of our life is all about works that will determine whether or not we are saved in the end. … [He quotes Gal 3.3 here] … Paul sees justification by faith in Christ as securing and anticipating final salvation. [He quotes Gal 5.5 here] (Loc 3591)

Coulson does not mention the New Perspective on Paul’s take on works of law or justification by faith. He is working within the reformed camp with their respective interpretations for each of these.

The question is why is Paul so confident, and how does he see judgment according to works in relation to final salvation? (Loc 3591)

Before I quote Coulson’s response I’ll draw out some other things he has said regarding judgment according to works.

1. Paul’s principles of the final judgment is in Romans 2.1-16. God’s judgment will:

a. Be based on truth,
b. Be righteous,
c. Be in accordance with the actions of each person and be impartial,
d. Result in one of two outcomes for each person: eternal life or wrath
e. Be implemented through Jesus Christ.

6. Paul describes the final destiny of unbelievers as follows:

a. God’s wrath, as a result of a sinful life and disobedience toward God (Rom 2:8–9; Eph 5:6; Col 3:5–6). The effects of God’s wrath are described as “tribulation and distress” (Rom 2:9).
b. Not inheriting God’s kingdom, as a result of a sinful life (1 Cor 6:9–10; Gal 5:19–21; Eph 5:5)
c. Destruction (1 Cor 3:17; Phil 1:28; 3:18–19; 1 Thess 5:3; 1 Tim 6:9), perishing (Rom 2:12) or corruption (Gal 6:8)
d. Death (Rom 1:32; 6:23) (Loc 3430)

I read Coulson here saying that in Christ’s judgment according to works, as result of their ‘sinful lives’ (their works), unbelievers will come under God’s wrath and will not inherit God’s kingdom. I’m reading Coulson very closely because I think God’s judgment will be impartial and the same principles should apply to a believers judgment according to works.

People who are judged Judgment according to works Eternal destiny
Unbelievers Sinful life and disobedience (evil works) Wrath, non inheritance, Destruction, Corruption, Death
Believers ? Eternal life, Inherit Kingdom of God

But in answer to his about question about why Coulson thinks Paul is so confident we see a distinct difference in why believers will receive eternal life and why unbelievers are punished.

Judgment according to works is a principle that applies to all people, both believers in Jesus and unbelievers. Everyone will come before God to give an account of his or her life (Rom 14:12). But the crucial difference is what Jesus has accomplished for those who trust in him.

Unbelievers are “on their own” at the judgment. The judgment of their works will confirm their sinfulness and lead to their condemnation, because of their rebellion and disobedience to God (Rom 2:8).

In contrast, believers are “in Christ.” They are not judged on their own; otherwise, their end would be the same as unbelievers; even their “good” works would not cancel out their many sins.

Thankfully, the work of Christ deals with their sins. Because their sin was condemned in him (Rom 8:3), they will not be condemned. In him, the risen one, they are “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

This is why Paul is confident. When believers appear before God, their works, that is, their life, will testify to the genuineness of their faith in Christ (2 Thess 1:4–5); on the basis of his work and their relationship with him through faith, they will be saved (Rom 5:9–10). (Loc 3591)

So the table becomes thus.

People who are judged Judgment according to works Eternal destiny
Unbelievers Sinful life and disobedience (evil works) Wrath, non inheritance, Destruction, Corruption, Death
Believers Christ’s death on the Cross and their relationship with him through faith. Eternal life, Inherit Kingdom of God

The upshot of this is that Coulson does not apply the same rationale of judgment according to works as he did with unbelievers. That is the result of a believer’s works is not the reason why they receive eternal life.

Paul clearly says in Rom 2.6-7, 10;

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. … 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good (Rom 2.6-7, 10)

But Coulson doesn’t mention the reason why believers are given eternal life is because of their ‘patience in well-doing’ and ‘doing good’. This is what Paul says, but Coulson doesn’t say it.

Paul clearly says in Gal 6.7-10;

7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal 6.7-10)

But Coulson doesn’t mention the reason why believers reap eternal life is because throughout their lives they have sown to the Spirit by doing good. This is what Paul says, but Coulson doesn’t say it.

Jesus clearly says in Mat 25.34-36;

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Mt 25.34-36)

Coulson doesn’t say the reason why believers inherit the kingdom and enter into life (Mt 25.46) is because they gave food to the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and in prison. This is what Jesus encourages us to do in order to ‘be ready’ for his return and judgment, but Coulson doesn’t say this.

I feel at this point Coulson has not given us the biblical picture and imperative resulting from judgment according to works. The table should be;

People who are judged Judgment according to works Eternal destiny
Unbelievers Sinful life and disobedience (evil works) Wrath, non inheritance, Destruction, Corruption, Death
Believers Patience in doing good, seeking for glory, honour and immortality. Eternal life, Inherit Kingdom of God

Interestingly, Coulson afterward hints at the standard protestant explanation regarding the role of works.

It is not a person’s faith-claim that is judged at the final judgment, but their obedience to Christ that shows whether they have genuine faith in him; those who do will be saved.

Judgment according to works does not mean salvation by works.

It means, firstly, determining by a person’s works, their way of life, whether they are trusting in Christ for salvation (Gal 5:6; 1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:11–12). For those who are, the final verdict of “righteous” will correspond to and fulfill the verdict that was declared concerning them when they first believed the gospel. (Loc 3608)

This is clever, but a table of comparisons will reveal the inconsistency in his logic.

Believers Unbelievers
Judgment according to works Obedience to Christ (evidence) Sinful life and disobedience (basis)
Basis Genuine Faith Unbelief
Outcome Saved Punished

Judgment according to works says unbelievers will be punished because of their sins, not because of their unbelief. Clearly the two are related in each case (faith leads to obedience, unbelief leads to sin), but scripture is clear the way people live is the reason why they go either way. Basically faith and good works are necessary for vindication in the future judgment and the consummation of salvation.

Near the end of this chapter Coulson discusses several issues related to God’s judgment of unbelievers. It leads into a discussion of eternal punishment and conditional immortality.

Coulson finishes this chapter with some practical implications coming from Paul’s teaching about the final judgment.

  1. Church leaders must renew their emphasis on judgment in their preaching and teaching,
  2. Judgment offers encouragement to the suffering church, calls us to forgive others and stand with Christian brothers and sisters who suffer,
  3. The final judgment has huge implications for evangelism. Non believers need to hear about hell, and
  4. Final judgment challenges us to rediscover holiness (personally and corporately) because it gives us a strong sense of identity as God’s holy people and distinctiveness from the world.

Please note point 4. He encourages us to rediscover holiness because it gives us a sense of identity and differentiates us from the world.

Chapter 8: Conclusion

Coulson’s last chapter is a helpful summary of how he thinks we should respond in light of his books teaching on judgment.

  1. Repent because we have shied away from teaching about judgment,
  2. Church leaders must renew their emphasis on judgment in their preaching and teaching,
  3. The final judgment has huge implications for evangelism. Non believers need to hear about hell, and
  4. Judgment offers encouragement to the suffering church, calls us to forgive others and stand with Christian brothers and sisters who suffer.

I observed Coulson missed repeating his point about holiness.

One thing he rightfully speaks about that we should not shy away from preaching the whole bible or skip the hard parts. This advice is gratefully received.

We simply need to teach and preach from the whole Bible, not skipping the hard bits, but working through it ourselves and then explaining it to people. Explaining judgment is a challenge in our culture, but we must learn how to do it and persevere at it. Contemporary controversies among evangelicals about the atonement and hell suggest that the challenges will increase. But we cannot afford to lose any truth on these crucial matters. As we are faithful, I believe that we will see good fruit. (Loc 4194)

Recommendation

I’ve been reading a number of books of late on judgment and Coulson definitely falls within the reformed camp. He hasn’t gone beyond much of what many reformed have said before him.

The book is easy to read. It’s obviously written for mass consumption.

As a result of my own studies into future judgment and salvation I can say Coulson doesn’t spend much time on differentiating initial salvation, from the process of salvation and its consummation. It’s there, but it not a strong point of his.

Neither is the relationship between God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.

Coulson gives very limited attention to the relationship between justification by faith and judgment according to works. I felt this was a major let down of his book. For the reformed, ‘Justification by faith’ is THE doctrine that safeguards salvation by grace through faith alone. He probably spent one page on it, two max.

It’s because the New Perspective defines Paul’s ‘works of law’ as a subset of observances from the law of Moses, that repentance, obedience and perseverance are given their rightful place in the proper understanding of Future Judgement and Salvation. Coulson in my opinion really doesn’t focus on these as much as he should have.

Otherwise, good on him for putting Queensland on the map. I enjoyed reading his book.


Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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