In our day it is quite easy to find people eager to remind us that “God is love.” Taken at face value, there is nothing wrong with these words; after all, the Bible does explicitly say that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Unfortunately, however, the love that many people have in mind when they trumpet this attribute of God often does not understand that God’s love also includes His judgment.
This might be hard for us to understand or accept, but the Bible is clear that even the people of God will be judged at times in this life, even though Christ has borne the full penalty for all our sins. For as today’s passage tells us, “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17).
The first thing we must note here is that the term Peter uses for “judgment” does not necessarily mean a judgment that punishes for sin. Rather, the word has a broad meaning involving also a judgment that gives an approval or is for the purpose of discipline, though not necessarily for any specific sin. The fiery suffering that comes into our lives (see v. 12) is used by God to judge us, though not necessarily as a temporal consequence for some sin that we have committed. Sometimes God uses suffering to test our faith so that we may display our deep commitment to Jesus. Sometimes He uses it to strengthen our faith; it is far easier to trust God after being put “through the wringer” than it is before we faced any serious difficulties. Other times He might use it to bestow some kind of reward, if we have endured faithfully (see Heb. 11:26).
However, the word here can also include judgment in the sense of bearing some kind of suffering because of repeated sin. Though we have seen that this suffering is not by itself honorable (1 Peter 4:15), it can result in blessing if we turn from the sin in question as a result of it. This kind of judgment, verse 17 tells us, will also be poured out on those “who do not obey the gospel of God.” Yet for them, it will not result in purification but eternal condemnation. Those who are judged without knowing Christ will be destroyed, but God’s true people will be strengthened and purified by His righteous hand.
The history of God’s people indicates that judgment always begins within the covenant community. For example, the Israelites were sent into exile before the wicked Babylonian empire was judged. Today’s passage expressly states that judgment begins with the house of God. Though we may not always know why we suffer, if we respond properly we will either be purified, disciplined, or gain some kind of heavenly reward. Ask the Lord to help you respond rightly to suffering.