SUNDAY MORNING SERMON NOTES
Can Modern, Tolerant Christians Still Believe in the Wrath of God?
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Sunday, September 14, 2008 - 10:00 a.m.  Sermon #: 1205
Pastor Don Horban

About four years ago, on Christmas Eve, there was an excellent editorial in the Globe and Mail by Leah McLaren entitled, “In Search of a Little Fire and Brimstone.” By her own admission she is not a Christian. She isn’t even mildly religious. She writes about being asked by her grandmother to attend the morning mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Cobourg, Ontario the Sunday morning before Christmas: “I arrived for my first regular Catholic mass ever, wearing cotton pyjama pants and a shapeless turtleneck. That’s okay, according to my step-grandmother. On the way to church she informs me from the driver’s seat of her brand new BMW: “Don’t worry, dear, nobody dresses up any more.”

“And she’s right. The congregation comes with rumpled jeans and sweat shirts and whining, bed-headed children. But who am I to judge? I haven’t been to church in, well, ever....More surprising is the fair number of creaseless faces among the congregation. These are young people who have bucked all dominant trends by settling in a small town, getting married and having babies in their 20's. Their fleece garments and low-maintenance haircuts tell the tale of evenings spent orating Harry Potter and wiping tiny chins, of Disney videos followed by many invigorating rounds of Settlers”

“What, I wonder, are these nice people doing at church? If anyone needs a soul scrubbing, it’s me and my ilk, with our selfish, no-strings attached lives. As the sermon begins, I think of a girl I vaguely know who, at a recent party, dipped two pretty fingers into her handbag and fished out a crack rock. She needs to go to church, not these responsible, mini-vanned marrieds.”

“Christian recruiters who persist in trying to make church more accessible to the young by way of upbeat masses and Jesus-loving rock bands have got it all wrong. Young, childless, unmarried, urbanites don’t need to start loving God, we need to start fearing God. We need to abandon our reiki sessions and yoga retreats in favor of hymns and hard benches. The church should appeal to our sense of duty, rather than our sense of fun. Trust me, we know fun. We’re gagging on fun. Give us something to do with ourselves the next Sunday morning we wake up, frontal lobe athrob with self-hatred, knowing that eggs benedict and a bloody caesar just won’t help this time.” Church is the opposite of cool, and as my flinty step-grandmother well knows, sometimes that’s a good thing...”

Believing in the wrath of God has become a bit like believing in a flat earth. Some people still cling to the idea, but the rest of us who are more civilized just smile and humor them. And it seems God knows this. In His perfect foreknowledge He has, well in advance, placed cautions in His revelation to keep our hearts and minds on track regarding His holy wrath. The Bible says it's very important that people know, and that leaders tell about the terrible wrath and judgement of God. In fact, there are special warnings directed to people who share God's truth with others:

Ezekiel 33:7-9 - “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. [8] If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. [9] But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.”

I sometimes think Paul had this text in mind when he wrapped up his ministry in Ephesus. He wanted to make it publicly clear that he didn’t neglect any part of the gospel message: Acts 20:26-27 - “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, [27] for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”

Strangely, the church is now almost totally silent about the wrath of God.Consider J.I.Packer’s words in his classic book, Knowing God: "The modern habit throughout the church is to play the subject of God's wrath down. Those who still believe in the wrath of God (not all do) say little about it; perhaps they do not think much about it. To an age which has unashamedly sold itself to the gods of greed, pride, sex and self-will, the Church mumbles on about God's kindness, but says virtually nothing about His judgement. How often during the past year did you hear, or, if you are a minister, did you preach, a sermon on hell and the wrath of God?"

"How long is it, I wonder, since a Christian spoke straight on this subject on radio or television, or in one of those half-column sermonettes that appear in some national dailies and magazines? And if a man did so how long would it be before he would be asked to speak or write again? The fact is that the subject of divine wrath has become taboo in modern society, and Christians by and large have accepted the taboo and conditioned themselves never to raise the matter. Yet we had better wake up to the fact that the Bible labors the point that just as God is good to those who trust Him, so He is terrible to those who do not."

And this idea of God’s wrath isn’t just buried in one or two tiny lines. It is echoed over and over again in the Scriptures:

Nahum 1:2-8 - “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. [3] The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. [4] He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. [5] The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. [6] Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him. [7] The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. [8] But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.”

Let's face it - there is something about the Biblical description of the wrath of God that makes all of us a little uncomfortable. And there’s a reason for that. We find it hard to fit the images of a wrathful God into other descriptions of God as being loving, kind, good, gracious, patient, merciful, etc.

1) WHY IS IT HARD FOR US TO EMBRACE THE CLEAR TEACHING OF THE SCRIPTURES OF THE WRATH OF GOD?

a) First, we have nothing with which to compare the wrath of God. We don't have any earthly models of what God's wrath is like. Any earthly conceptions of wrath bring such unworthy pictures to our minds.

We've seen people get angry. Wrath conjures up images of a loss of control, irrational temper, outbursts of madness, rage that is totally out of proportion to any wrong done. And we have a hard time fitting those images in with what we know to be true about God. Over and over the Bible tells us that God is not like man. He isn't subject to any of the same weaknesses or sins. So, we have nothing but bad pictures of what God’s righteous wrath looks like.

The result of this is God’s wrath, very gradually, comes to look improper to a tolerance-worshiping society. We have a hard time thinking of God’s wrath as just and righteous, in spite of the clear teaching of Scripture that it is - Hebrews 10:30 - “For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’”

In a fabulous new little collection of essays on the atonement called “In My Place Condemned He Stood,” J.I. Packer sums it up neatly with these words:

“God’s wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of His holiness; it issues in a positive outgoing of the divine displeasure. And this is righteous anger - the right reaction of moral perfection in the Creator toward moral perversity in the creature. So far from the manifestation of God’s wrath in punishing sin being morally doubtful, the thing that would be morally doubtful would be for Him not to show His wrath in this way. God is not just - that is, He does not act in the way that is right, He does not do what is proper to a just judge - unless He inflicts upon all sin and wrongdoing the penalty it deserves.”

But there’s a second reason we find the wrath of God a hard concept to accept:

b) Second, we have become so accustomed to living under God's grace that we think of anything other than grace as being abnormal - certainly beneath what we deserve.

But this makes no sense at all. Grace can’t be what we deserve. If we deserved it, it wouldn’t be grace. By definition grace is always undeserved. That’s why it’s called grace. So fuzzy thinking and sentiment needs to be confronted with truth from God’s Word.

We need to frequently pinch ourselves - tell ourselves that the Bible speaks of this small window of time we inhabit as a very brief and very special age of grace and mercy. It is never pictured as being permanent or normal. It is spoken of as being an age of marvel and wonder - a precious chance that will fly by with blinding speed - an age that ends abruptly with stark confrontation - with a reckoning of absolute and pure justice.

And we're told never to forget that fact. That’s why all those parables Jesus told about servants and masters end with those sudden and embarrassing times of reckoning and reward or judgment.

Because this age is all we have experienced, and because we just don't see God's wrath poured out, at least in the ways we might expect, God's wrath seems like a long forgotten fairy tale, something we've read about in the Scriptures, but certainly nothing He would be so rude as to do in our day.

But God isn’t the tooth-fairy. And a solid theological framing of His nature needs to be formed afresh in the mind of today’s church. To know God is to know the symbiotic relationship between wrath and grace in His holy character. We are not here to remake God in our image. We’re here to know the God who really is. And wrath and grace are both essential elements of His holy nature. Both wrath and grace are revealed with equal clarity in the Scriptures.

Consider this issue. God is gracious to wicked people. The question is, “why?” Why do we find these unbelievable periods when God seems to bestow long, uninterrupted periods of gracious tolerance to a wicked world?

I know there are fierce revelations of His wrath. But why is this blinding wrath seemingly so absent from vast slices of Biblical history? I mean, Sodom and Gomorrah and the flood and Annanias and Saphira were all a long time ago.

The Bible deals very specifically with that very question. It says many people misinterpret God’s silence in the face of their sin: Psalm 94:7 - “....and they say, "The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive."

Then the Bible gives the real reason for the silence of God - why He delays the expression of His mighty wrath: Romans 2:4 - “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

Peter says the same thing - that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. That's why He tarries so long before coming back to this world in judgement!

So grace and wrath are linked together in sound theology. God offers such an unreasonable amount of grace now so that people will be lead away from the horror of His unspeakable wrath later. God’s patient grace now means that people will be totally without excuse and silent before the fury of God’s wrath later.

2) HOW IS GOD'S WRATH MANIFESTED IN OUR WORLD?

I want to make two comments under this one point to help clear up some misunderstandings people have about how God's wrath manifests itself in our world:

a) There's a difference between God's wrath and God's chastening. There is no wrath revealed in God's chastening work among His children - Hebrews 12:6, 10-11 - “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives....12:10-11....For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

God's chastening work feels like wrath, but it isn't. Just like your three old thinks you're out to get him when he's spanked or punished. But you're really out to help him as Scripturally as you can.

Now here’s the point of this. Unlike His chastening, God's wrath is never meant to be redemptive. His wrath isn't for my good. It's to demonstrate His justice and uncompromising holiness and glory. So wrath and chastisement are two totally different aspects of God's work.

And there’s another point that needs to be stressed:

b) The most common manifestation of God's wrath in this world isn't what people usually expect. People usually aren't trained to recognize it - Romans 1:18 - “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

Paul says the wrath is being revealed right now. People experience it as they live their lives in this present world. Then he outlines how that wrath is manifested - Romans 1:24 - “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves....”

Romans 1:26 - “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature....”

Romans 1:28 - “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”

Ponder this deeply. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where human wickedness ends and God’s wrath against sin begins. We all see this moral decline taking a terrible toll on the course of this world. The love for iniquity is almost unexplainable. But Paul says the Christian isn't to be blind to what's going on around him. If the Christian has the informed eyes to see it there is a powerful manifestation of the activity of God in this world.

This cycle - this snowballing of evil in our world- isn't just the result of random chance. The hand of God is at work. There's a judicial hardening of hearts at work in our world. Think about it. People so frequently use the profusion of evil in this world as an argument against the presence of God. But that's only because they have excluded the Biblical doctrine of the wrath of God being manifested in the lives of people in this age as the Scriptures describe.

There's also strong warning to hearers of Biblical truth in this doctrine of God’s wrath. Exposure to God’s gracious truth is only gracious for a period of time. Have you ever seen someone manifest a hard heart to God’s gracious truth? Have you seen someone who repeatedly makes a mock of every overture of God's grace to his or her heart - someone who hears the truth over and over again yet never chooses to embrace it?

God’s truth either leads graciously to repentance or prepares (“stores up” is the terminology the Bible actually uses) the heart for future wrath. A revelation of grace is always too precious to be dilly-dallied with.

3) GOD'S JUSTICE REQUIRES A FUTURE DAY OF WRATH AGAINST ALL SIN AND UNRIGHTEOUSNESS WHEN JESUS COMES AGAIN

There is a basic spiritual practice that is all but forgotten in modern day Christianity. I know how rarely I've practiced it in my own life. Yet it is probably more conducive to promoting holiness and carefulness before the Lord than anything else.

It's not the whole of the Christian life. But it's a very important part.I'm talking about getting quiet and still in this busy world - making your heart serious before the Lord - taking out God's Word - and reading at length all the passages that deal with the "day of the Lord's wrath."

I re-read with horror some of the factual accounts. Some of the images are hard to forget:

Revelation 6:12-17 - “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, [13] and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. [14] The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. [15] Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, [16] calling to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, [17] for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?"

I’ve recently wondered all over again, "How horrified do you have to be to run and hide in caves, holes in the ground - and then scream at the top of your lungs, begging for those rocks to crash down and end it all before you have to have to face the wrath of the Lamb?"

If those images don’t fit in with your idea of God, then your God is an idol of your own making. Make sure your God is like the God of the Bible.

4) STRANGELY, GOD’S WRATH IS MOST STERNLY REVEALED IN THE EMBLEM PLACED AS A SIGN OF HIS LOVE IN MOST CHURCHES

The cross. No one understands the cross of Jesus Christ until he or she sees both grace and wrath in it. Extreme grace, and extreme wrath. Here’s the clearest statement of cross-theology in the whole Bible - 2 Corinthians 5:19 - “....in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

When you look at the cross remember this. God solves the problem of His own wrath against sin. Again let me quote from J. I. Packer’s words in “In My Place Condemned He Stood” - “Propitiation - the satisfying of God’s wrath - is the work of God Himself. In paganism and all of the world’s non-Christian religions, man propitiates his god or gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates His own wrath by His own action....It was not man, to whom God was hostile, who took the initiative to make God friendly, nor was it Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, who took the initiative to turn His Father’s wrath against un into love....It was Father God Himself who took the initiative in quenching His own wrath against those whom, despite their ill-desert, He loved and had chosen to save.”

Do you see it? We don’t fix anything in our relationship with God. The eternal spiritual genetics are all against us. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Ephesians when he says we were all “children of wrath”(2:3). He doesn’t mean we were children with bad tempers. He means we were all naturally objects of a just God’s wrath. The injustice wasn’t in God. It was all in us.

But our text says that we don’t get God’s wrath. God “doesn’t count our trespasses against us.” Why doesn’t He? Did He change His mind about sin? Has He grown used to it? Or did His love for us cause Him to overlook our sin? No. None of those answers is even close to the truth. They are all insulting to God’s holy character.

God doesn’t pour out His just wrath on me because He already poured it out on Christ. That’s why Jesus died. That’s why the Prophet Isaiah said the Father was “pleased to crush” the Son. True, God doesn’t count my trespasses against me but He does count them. He counts them in Jesus Christ, God the Son.

But don’t make another terrible mistake at this point. The Son doesn’t step in as some third party to get between an angry God and me. No. That’s not it at all. It was God working in Christ. God takes my sin upon Himself. He bears the pain in His own triune nature. He doesn’t pass the buck on to somebody else. He bears His own just wrath.

I hope you know about this in the depth of your heart. I hope you can face a just God with confidence. I hope you have God’s secure work of wrath bearing accomplished on your behalf through Christ.

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 - “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, [10] and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”