Is warning necessary in evangelism and discipleship? This is a much-debated question. There has been a move away from the tactic of warning people of hell and the destructive reality of sin.
Believers love to talk about the benefits of trusting in God. We cling to the promises God gives (even if those promises were accompanied by a warning) but we often ignore sections of scripture where God warns of disaster awaiting those who refuse to turn to him. God is consistent with these warnings.
In the Old Testament God frequently warned his people through the prophets and has continued to do so .Warning is likely given even more consistently these days with the gifts of the Holy Spirit available to all. Warning when heeded protects us from impending judgement and plants us securely on the path of grace.
27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. – Colossians 1:27-29
The formula Paul uses for bringing people to maturity with Christ is:
Warning + teaching = maturity
As with any formula, removing a portion from one side changes the result on the other. As a culture we have much teaching available to us. The content available through the internet is astounding. Some may argue the depth isn’t there, but if you really look, you can find depth of teaching from a good source online. This can be very beneficial for self-education or the autodidact.
I have noticed although more teaching is available to us, the warning is absent. Scripture, however, is clear about the consequences of not following God’s ways and includes actions of obedience. Studying scripture is how we learn to live in Christ the way we are intended to live. (2 Timothy 3:16) When that way is not followed, the ways of the world (which always lead to death) are embraced.
When we walk in obedience we live in step with the living God and are like gardens tended by the Holy Spirit, bearing fruit. When we walk in disobedience, we walk in a wasteland destined for death. Results like broken relationships and addiction await those who walk not in the path of the Lord.
We need to be warned of what awaits us if we stray from God’s path. Warning prepares the hearer in such a way that the teaching takes root for the maturing of a believer. It perks up the listener and allows them to see the perils for what they are.
For much of my life when teaching large groups or walking alongside a brother in Christ, I would often see the warning clearly but instead of sharing it only focused on what will happen if the teaching is followed. I thought the role of the prophetic voice was to push people towards the positive direction. Recently, after reading Colossians 1, I was freed from a burden of filtering out the warning. I realized the warning was not fatalism but acknowledging the only destination apart from Christ’s intervention.
In the Old Testament story of Jonah, Jonah is sent to warn Nineveh of coming judgement. The people of Nineveh never received any option of hope and repented anyways. The warning was what saved them when they were on the brink of destruction. How can we know the urgency if we don’t know our current state? We are all ignorant to our reality in at least some small way. Wouldn’t we change that reality if we knew better?
Warning makes an issue real. It is no longer a hypothetical or academic review of a subject, but an urgent matter requiring a response if the teaching isn’t currently being followed. The warning produces the fear of the Lord.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – Proverbs 9:10
The fear of the Lord is what leads us to submission. It is what causes us to surrender in full. It is where wisdom begins and our rebellion ends.
Could you imagine if we refused to warn people about things in the natural world in this way? Imagine if we had no road signs in a place warning people of a collapsed bridge or of moose crossings. Imagine if there was a deadly disease going around and it was considered taboo to tell others about it in any way. Imagine if our planes and cars had no way of warning us of malfunctions. After considering those scenarios, is it an act of hate to warn someone?
It is almost humorous how seriously we take warning in our society for things that can cause physical harm. If we aren’t warned of peanuts in packaging, or potential side effects from a medical drug we sue the manufacturer. Where I live we even have signs telling us not to go on the wet rocks so a wave won’t wash us out to sea. But if we are warned of spiritual danger, we often lash out and get angry. Since the spiritual has eternal impact, one would think we would embrace those warnings with open arms.
Warning someone that breaking a law will result in jail time is not judgement but a hope to save someone from judgement. Are we not to do the same thing? We know the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). If we see someone sinning, is it not best to warn them of the death that awaits? Is it not best when teaching to highlight the path of life and what happens when you refuse it?
We give Jonah a hard time for anticipating the destruction of Nineveh. But destruction was what was in store for the people if they didn’t repent. It was the heart of Jonah that was out of line and not his logic. His warning was true and it led the Ninevites to repentance. Jonah should have desired the outcome of life over death, but the option of death was the path they were on and he rightly highlighted that.
We need to understand why God warns people. It is the same reason he came and sacrificed himself for us. It is to save us from death. We need to see warning the way he does. John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. Jesus who taught us the way to life was preceded by the warning of John in his message of repentance.
Without warning, why would we ever worry about consequences? If we are ignorant of where our path is headed, how would we know we need to repent? Rather than treating a warning with hostility, we should see it as a life line pulling us back to safety. We should welcome any effort to lead us back to the fear of the Lord and life abundant with Christ.
Instead of receiving a spiritual warning and accusing the speaker of passing judgement, we should acknowledge it as an attempt to save us from judgement. The warning is the message that judgement awaits and now is the time to access the cross to make us clean. Warning is not judgement but an attempt to save us from it. Just like telling someone to stop before they walk off a cliff or step on a landmine, a warning to turn away from sin saves a life from a death that is more permanent than this mortal shell.