Sodom and Gomorroh were notoriously sinful cities that are mentioned in the book of Genesis. Due to their wickedness, God destroyed them by “sulfur and fire.” God reveals to Abraham that He is going to destroy the inhabitants of these cities and Abraham “negotiates” with God, saying that he thinks he can find city dwellers who deserve to be saved due to their righteousness. If he can find enough righteous people, he asks God to spare the cities. He can only find Lot and his family, not enough people to change God’s mind.
As a child, I had this vivid image of God destroying these cities. He is in heaven, raining down thunderbolts on the cities with an angry face. He shows no mercy, destroying every building and everyone in every building. All is reduced to rubble.
I begin with this to illustrate how many Christians may see God. God can be vengeful, like a magistrate sentencing criminals and executing them. God is up in heaven throwing down thunderbolts directly at sinners [ahem… you and me].
God is active in exacting His vengeance.
But is that the case?
The answer is no.
As mentioned in my December 28th post, God does not dole out punishment on sinners unless they deserve it. They choose to disobey God’s commands. Jesus says “Come to me….Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me [Matthew, 11: 28-29]. He is inviting people to choose to save themselves. Deny yourself, pick up your cross, become My disciple and let Me have My way with you. He invites us to lose our former life so we can find our life with Him.
Recipients of God’s wrath are people who choose to ignore God; they turn away, and they have their own way. They defy God. They would rather be by themselves than be in the company of God. This deliberate choice is what many do not see.
God is merely respecting man’s choice. J.I. Packer puts it this way: “What God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgements which those whom He ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow [from Knowing God, 153]. This is God’s extremely consistent behavior throughout the whole Bible from His first wrath that we see in Genesis in the Garden of Eden to Revelation. God is merely respecting human choice; He is not cruel, He is not wanton, He is not irresponsible in His infliction of pain on man.
Before we go further, let’s be clear about God’s “attitude” as revealed in His actions. Packer says that God is “resolute” in taking action in punishing sin. If God loves it when we make good choices, He hates it when we make poor ones. Packer writes about God’s “active manifestation of His hatred of irreligion and moral evil.” God’s laws are clear; we know what He expects, yet we choose not to obey His laws. Passages from Ephesians are clear about this; sinners are “fitted for destruction,” “vessels of wrath” [objects of wrath], servants of the world, flesh and the devil.
They call down wrath on themselves.
This raises the question about how we can know we have displeased God. Without being too “theological,” Packer speaks directly to any reader of his book [believer or unbeliever alike]. God imprints His revelation of His wrath “directly on every person’s conscience….no one is entirely without inklings of judgement to come.” By inklings, Packer means that if one looks around, the world is full of signs of what he calls “degeneration.” A sampling of some signs are man’s idolatry, man’s immorality, uninhibited lusts and sinful hearts. The Apostle Paul describes the process of degeneration as “God giving man over.” God gave man over to sexual impurity; God gave man over to shameful lust. Similar to Packer, Paul writes that one need only look around in the world to see what God has “given them over to” [from Romans].
This sounds so dire, many readers may have already given up on reading this post, but let’s talk about a positive, like how can we be delivered from God’s wrath?
I sin. We all sin. “No one is righteous, not even one.”
We know God’s law cannot save us; it can only stimulate sin as we choose to rebel or it can show us how far we fall from righteous living. The outward manifestation of “religion” cannot save us; we might look good in the eyes of man, but God knows our heart.
Our delivery is due to the blood of Jesus. Our delivery is due to the faith we have in trusting the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth to save man from God’s wrath. He sacrificed Himself for us. Packer refers to this act as “propitiation,” a sacrifice that “averts wrath through expiating sin and canceling guilt.” This is the heart of the Gospel; that Jesus is our substitute on the cross. He is our “sinbearer.” What stands between us and the thunderbolts of a wrathful God?
The cross of Jesus Christ.
First Thessalonians 1:10 says it so well: “If we are Christ’s through faith, then we are justified through His cross, and the wrath will never touch us, neither here or hereafter.”
As we return to how we began this post, we do have to admit that God is a wrathful God. It would do us all good to respect Him, to “fear” Him, but let’s not focus on His wrath so much that we forget to acknowledge the Gospel of salvation, the propitiation of the cross and the wonder of God’s love for all of us. Godly wrath is real and our fear of His righteous anger is justified.
Is it fashionable to preach God’s wrath from the pulpit?
Judging from contemporary pastors who just can’t bring themselves to deliver a “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God*” sermon, I would say it is not. But to ignore God’s wrath totally is to avoid the truth of the Bible.
Maybe we should take Packer’s approach to this topic, expressed at the end of his chapter on “The Wrath of God:” “If we would truly know God, and be known by Him, we should ask Him to teach us here and now to reckon with the solemn reality of His wrath.”
Where can we find this teaching?
You know where.
Between the covers of your Bible.
*a famous sermon on God’s wrath delivered by Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts on July 8, 1741