Warning labels are so common in modern life. We see them all over the place. Sometimes I make fun of them. Other times I reason that if there’s no warning label, it must be safe. That’s a dangerous line of thinking.Consider the instruction that Ezekiel received from God:
And it came to pass at the end of seven days, that the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.
We might wonder if that’s really fair. The wicked man dies for his wickedness, judged by God, and yet Ezekiel is guilty?
On the other hand, maybe it immediately makes sense to you. It makes sense to a lot of people, including the US military.
UNIFORM CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE
913. ARTICLE 113. MISBEHAVIOR OF A SENTINEL OR LOOKOUT
10. Punitive Articles
Any sentinel or look-out who is found drunk or sleeping upon his post, or leaves it before he is regularly relieved, shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, by if the offense is committed at any other time, by such punishment other than death as court-martial may direct.
Falling asleep at your post is punishable by death during war time. That’s the maximum penalty; lesser punishments are permitted and the whole circumstance will be considered. Notice that the UCMJ permits the death penalty for such a crime only to during time of war.
Why is death a fitting punishment for such a crime? Because failing in one’s duty as a sentry exposes one’s comrades to destruction by the enemy. Imagine being on the front lines during war, you’re assigned to picket duty. You have to sound the alarm in case of attack, so that your unit isn’t caught by surprise. Surprise is what’s called a ‘force multiplier.’ Small numbers can defeat larger ones if they achieve the element of surprise. Getting caught by surprise means people will likely die who would have lived.
I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know whether such a thing should be called “gross negligence” or “reckless disregard for human life,” but I know that it’s serious.
Can you recall any news stories about house fires in which lives were saved by a smoke alarm? How about any with stories in which a dead battery contributed to loss of life?
As Christians we should live with lighthearted joy and thankfulness, but also with sober seriousness. If the words of the Lord Jesus are life, what is it to be without them?
We have passed from death to life because someone cared enough to tell us how we could. Somehow we came to realize that we needed to repent and trust in the savior. We needed two witnesses in order to reach that point of trusting in Jesus. The second witness is the one that tells us forgiveness is available in Christ. The first witness is the one that tells us we need forgiveness.
Why have I reversed the order? It isn’t a typo. The reason is that many Christians in America today are aware of the need for the second witness, to tell of Christ. But do we realize the need for the first witness?
The first witness can take several forms. Often a person’s own guilty conscience is a strong enough witness. There is an internal moral knowledge in every person. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all the necessary evidence to convict ourselves. Sometimes we must be confronted by someone else bringing the reality of our conduct to our attention.
This confrontation especially needed when we have received false testimony telling us that we’re OK. If close friends, family or society in general are all telling us to ignore the nagging feeling that we’re not good, if our sense of guilt and shame has become dull by constant exposure to sin, if we imitate the self-righteousness of others and adopt their way of thinking, we are likely to need a wake up call.
That’s why God appoints watchmen.
If a person realizes their own guilt, then when they hear of the savior, they immediately cling to him as their only hope of life.* If someone doesn’t recognize their own sin, the message of the cross will sound foolish. This is why we need both witnesses.
*Sometimes people who realize their guilt don’t want to be saved because they don’t value themselves. Here, too, the gospel can be effective when they see how God values them.
That some Christians doubt the need for the first witness, is mind-boggling to me in a certain way. It’s mind-boggling because the need is self-evident. There has to be a danger if you are going to be saved. There are also a tremendous number of examples in scripture of believers sounding the alarm, issuing the warning: John the baptist, the Lord Jesus himself, those Jesus sent to preach, Peter on Pentecost, Stephen the martyr in Acts 7, Paul on Mars Hill… the list goes on and on.
On the other hand, I understand why we don’t think it’s necessary. (Again, there’s so much evidence that it is,) In some sense, no one should need to be told; we all have intuitive moral knowledge, we should already know. Everyone has felt the pangs of a guilt. For those of us who have trusted in Jesus, it might be hard to imagine that there are people haven’t heard from their own conscience in quite some time, but they do exist.
Have we no compassion for the guilty? Sure, they knew it was wrong once, and they’re doubly guilty for forgetting that truth. But are we so unsympathetic that we won’t remind them of what they once knew? Have we, in the safety of our salvation, become so lofty that we can’t even feel for the guilty? For the love of the Lord Jesus, let it not be so.
Then, too, we have a tendency to let ourselves off the hook. We rationalize things. We may so want to avoid the discomfort of doing our duty that we allow ourselves to be convinced that it isn’t our duty after all.
I’m convinced that we in the churches of America have allowed ourselves to be talked out of our duty in a hundred little ways. We tell each other that we don’t need to talk about guiltiness. “Jesus didn’t come to condemn,” we say, “Our job is just to preach grace.”
There is grace in a warning. Especially when we should know better. There is mercy in a witness of sin, while there is still time to repent.
Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.