The Gospel and the Wrath of God
Arthur Shearman, Worcester, England
It is the joy of every evangelist to preach the gospel of the grace of God. To tell the guilty and the lost that God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son for man's salvation, is a tremendous proclamation of blessing. The apostle Paul unfolds at many points in his exposition of the gospel, the values of mercy, love and grace-God's kindness towards us in and through Christ Jesus. Yet in Romans 1. 18, he introduces a different dimension to the gospel altogether, an aspect we need to consider carefully and seek to understand. Having spoken of the power of God, v. 16, and the righteousness of God, v. 17, he then speaks of the wrath of God. Tor the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness'.
Let us consider three facts that come out of these words:
1. 'The Wrath of God'
The thought of the wrath of God can perhaps cause many questions to arise in our minds. Human anger is nearly always linked to circumstances, with change of mood, with that which is arbitrary. A sudden affront will cause a spasm of anger, bad temper. We feel hurt, insulted, challenged. Our pride, or dignity, or sense of right is dented and we react with passion or fury. Is this, or are any of these reactions attributable to God? We must say an emphatic 'no'. It is John Stott that remarks, 'that the wrath of God has nothing to do with bad temper, spite, animosity or revenge. It is His perfect, righteous, settled, implacable hostility to evil'. We can add that this is so at all times. It has more to do with altitude than action. Every slightest challenge and slight to the eternal, changeless holiness of God, brings forth that wrath which expresses the inherent abhorrence of sin in God, just because He is God. We only have to read of Isaiah's encounter with God in Isaiah 6 to catch the atmosphere that surrounds the throne of God. 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts'. How can sin be anything but that which draws forth the hostility of such a God?
2. 'Revealed from Heaven'
'Wrath is the holy revulsion of God's being against that which is contrary to His holiness', so wrote John Murray, and this revulsion is made abundantly clear. It is noticeable that God has revealed His righteousness in the gospel, and this is in order that by faith in the finished work of Christ, sinners may be declared righteous. But also from heaven, from the throne of God, God's wrath is revealed, and in this revelation there lies the potential for man's final and eternal judgement. This will take place at the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God, cf. Rom. 2. 5. Thus in making known His wrath, God is unfolding His true reaction to man's wickedness. The scriptures themselves represent a definitive and consistent means of unfolding the meaning of God's wrath. The banishment of the first man from Eden; the curse upon Cain the murderer; the destruction of the cities of the Plain-these and many other early historical events make clear God's anger against sin. It is significant also, that the Lord Jesus taught quite clearly the wrath of heaven against the sins of earth. How important that the gospel we preach today should be preached with a positive understanding of all that God's revealed wrath against sin means.
3. 'Against all Unrighteousness and Ungodliness of Men'
In the closing verses of Romans I, Paul is concerned with the exposure of the impiety of the pagan world in its idolatry, and the ungodliness of those who practised blatant immorality. Heaven is not indifferent to the deliberate expressions of man's disregard of its laws, 'God is angry with the wicked every day', Psa. 7. 11. It is to be noticed that three times in Paul's indictment, we read that God gave them over to their evil ways. Because of these degraded practices, they paid the penalty in their own minds and bodies. This surely is part of the revealed anger of God, giving evidence of God's burning hatred of sin. This wrath will reach its climax in the day of judgement. The sentence will be executed and the results will be eternal. In the light of these things what should we be stating in our gospel concerning the wrath of God?
Firstly, there must be a positive preaching of this reaction of God against all human sin. It is recorded that in July 1874, at the time of the Great Awakening in America, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'. A reading of this sermon the burden and tone of which were so earnest and so much in the power of the Spirit of God, that it was said that strong men were crying out for mercy, lest they literally fell into hell. Many were saved as they flew to Christ for deliverance from the anger of God. Here in this sermon was a positive statement of the terrible consequences of continuing in sin, and rejecting the grace and mercy of God. In our age of culture and refinement, it is said that society has outgrown a belief in a God who punishes sin, in the fundamental reality of an eternal hell. They ask for a God who has gone soft towards sin, and makes every allowance for man's weakness in moral values. We need therefore, to state the more earnestly, in the power of the Holy Spirit, our convictions concerning eternal punishment. It was as Paul reasoned with Felix concerning righteousness, temperance and judgement to come, that he trembled, Acts 24. 25. He procrastinated, but this did not lessen the realities of the word Paul preached, or the accountability of Felix before God.
It is necessary to emphasise therefore, the personal accountability of those who hear the gospel, in the light of the revelation of God's wrath. In this, we are not preventing an abstract idea, or a general theological proposition. To preach the gospel in its fulness, means that we present to all the dread alternative of refusing to believe in Christ for salvation. And this revelation of divine wrath is not just related to the future. This is made plain in the words o( the Saviour in John 3.36; 'He that believeth not the Son, shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him'. The force of the word 'abideth', is that which remains on the unbeliever until he believes. For the Christ rejector, the actual day of judgement will only make what is a present danger into permanent punishment. To think of the many thousands who surround us, so completely oblivious to their peril, presents a challenge to our evangelism. But more intensely, to consider that each individual soul is under God's wrath - surely this demands that we should tell everyone in faithful terms what we know, and warn of the wrath to come.
Again we must also stress the imminent peril of all who will not believe the gospel. Within the meaning of God's wrath is the implication of His patience and longsuffering. Can we fully appreciate the terrible consequences of the continued rejection of Christ by the unbeliever? Someone has vividly said, 'there is nothing that keeps wicked men out of hell, but the good pleasure of God'. The measure of God's wrath is no greater towards those who are already in a lost eternity, than to those who live every day without a Saviour. But how great is the peril of such! If the ultimate is to be so terrible, we need to evaluate the immediate more thoughtfully, and with a deep compassion in our hearts, warn those who rush on to perdition. Mercy waits-the Lord is longsuffering, not willing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance, cf. 2 Pet. 3. 8-9. The consideration of the dangers surrounding the unrepentant, should give urgency to our preaching, that now is the day of salvation, 2 Cor. 6. 2. As we read Revelation 6. 16, we can but dimly appreciate the terrors of a coming day, when those who dwell on the earth will face the 'wrath of the Lamb'; and 20.15, when the unsaved will be cast into the lake of fire.
Finally, we may well ask, as we have outlined these truths, if there is any hope for sinful man in today's world. Thank God, in our gospel we can proclaim with joy and confidence the truth of the provision which God Himself has made that wrath may be averted and salvation be assured. This is glorious reality-the light of hope in the darkness of despair. How great are the words of Paul in Romans 5. 9., 'Being then justified by his blood we shall be saved from wrath through him'. Looked at judicially, there is no case for the believer to answer at the judgement bar of heaven. The death of Christ, the blood of Christ, has provided the means for the believing one to be justified-to be declared righteous.
The wrath of a sin-hating God,
With me can have nothing to do. My Saviour's obedience to blood,
Hides all my transgressions from view.
How telling the words of the hymn writer! How precious the confidence that is expressed! Thus Paul is able to write in 1 Thessalonians 5. 9, 'For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ'. Not only judicially, but experimentally, there is comfort and encouragement in the knowledge that wrath has been removed, that salvation may be enjoyed. The death of Christ is again vital to this truth, 'who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him', v. 10. Here is the soul's true refuge-the unbreakable life-relationship with the one who exhausted divine wrath in the dark hours of the cross.
Let us end with the glorious prospect of those who know deliverance from God's wrath. Paul could say of the Thessalonians, that they had turned to God from idols, and they were waiting for His Son from heaven, 'even Jesus, which delivered us, (our liberator) from the wrath to come', 1 Thess. 1. 10. We are persuaded that no believer will stand at the great white throne for judgement. The deliverance from wrath will be complete and eternal, when the Lord returns to take His redeemed ones to be with Himself. Let us then preach unflinchingly, yet with compassion, the gospel which includes the truth of God's revealed wrath against all sin. But let us make sure also that we point the lost ones to the Saviour, who in His suffering and death at Calvary, paid sin's utmost penalty and bore to finality its judgement.