The Wrath of God – Part 1
Introduction: In Acts 20:27, the Apostle Paul declared that in the course of his ministry in Ephesus, he had not hesitated to proclaim the whole counsel of God and that surely included the themes of God’s wrath and judgment. The passage before us unfolds these biblical truths in vivid detail. Speaking of this section of Romans, the noted Lutheran preacher, Walter Luthi announced that, “Paul tells us the truth and nothing but the truth about our condition.”[i] Today, however, we rarely hear much about sin, wrath, and God’s judgment. Evangelicals who have been taken captive by the market-driven model of church growth (seeker-sensitive and user-friendly) avoid such things like the plague. The heretical gospel of self-esteem has likewise caused many to become mute on these critical subjects. Added to this is the loud insistence of the Open View theists who declare that God’s wrath is nothing more than the consequences of bad decisions that people experience here and now.[ii] A recent work by two professing evangelicals boldly asserts “Sinful activity is the result of God’s letting us go our own way—and this ‘letting us go our own way’ constitutes God’s wrath.”[iii]
They reject outright the notion of an emotion-laden God who is wrathful towards sinners. But, as D.A. Carson astutely points out, “Wrath, like love, includes emotion as a necessary component. Here again, if impassibility is defined in terms of the complete absence of all passions, not only will you fly in the face of the biblical evidence, but you tumble into fresh errors that touch the very holiness of God. The reason is that in itself, wrath, unlike love, is not one of the intrinsic perfections of God. Rather, it is a function of God’s holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath—but there will always be love in God. Where God in his Holiness confronts His image-bearers in their rebellion, there must be wrath, or God is not the jealous God He claims to be, and His Holiness is impugned. The price of diluting God’s wrath is diminishing God’s holiness.”[iv] Sooner or later, however, we all come face-to-face with the brute fact of sin—not only the sin that is so obvious in the world around us, but also the sin that is in us. The late Martin Lloyd-Jones once said of our text, “I know of no passage in Scripture which describes so accurately the world of today and the cause of the trouble.”[v]
I. The Revelation of God’s Wrath: The Apostle has stated the theme of the epistle in 1:16-17. He is now ready to launch into a detailed exposition of the gospel—particularly as it centers on justification by faith alone (3:20-5:11)—but in developing this, he must first address the biblical teaching on sin and God’s wrath. Failing to glorify God is the root sin. Indeed, glorifying God is virtually equivalent with rendering Him proper worship since Paul describes (v. 25) the same reality as surrendering the truth of God for worship of the creature. What the Apostle affirms in Rom. 1:17 (that the righteousness of God is rooted in His desire for the glory and honor of His name. He saves His people because it will bring glory to His name) is likewise underscored in God’s wrath against sin. The essence of sin is a rejection of God’s glory and honor. Sin does not consist first and foremost in acts that transgress God’s law, although v. 24-32 indicate that sin is the transgression of the law. These particular acts are all rooted in a rejection of God as God, a failure to give Him honor and glory.[vi] We will never understand and appreciate God’s grace and love until we come face-to-face biblical understanding of God’s holiness and hatred for sin.
A. The Wrath of God Defined: God’s wrath is not like man’s. His is a divine and holy wrath (Hab. 1:13). It is because we have cloaked God’s holiness in a distorted and sentimental concept of love that the very mention of God’s wrath strikes us as being out of character. We need to heed the words of David F. Wells: “When holiness slips from sight, so, too, does the centrality of Christ. A God who is not holy cannot deal with the great darkness of corrupted human life, the darker forces behind it, and the whole societal fabric in which this rebellion has become normative (cf. Eph. 2:1-10). He can scarcely comprehend the damnation that has already settled subliminally on the human psyche, and he is even less able to do anything about it. The best he can hope to do is offer counsel like a Rogerian therapist, listening carefully but not-judgmentally, necessarily detached in his kindness from the deepest pains, the most destructive realities of our lives.”[vii] The wrath of God is just and perfect because God is just and perfect (Lam.1:18). The Scriptures give abundant testimony to the reality of God’s wrath (cf. Ps. 2:1-5; 76:6-9; 90:7, 11; Isa. 9:19; Jer. 7:20; Ezek. 7:19; John 3:36; Rom. 22; Eph. 5:6; II Thes. 1:7-9—these are only a few select texts. There are many others. In fact, there are over six hundred references in the Bible to God’s anger, wrath, and judgment).
B. The Time of God’s Wrath: Verse 18 begins with a “for” linking it directly with the preceding verse. What is the connection with wrath as stated in verse 18 and righteousness that concludes verse 17? “There is a revelation of righteousness by the gospel because there is a revelation of wrath on the whole world.”[viii] This wrath is constantly being revealed (as the present tense indicates). In other words, there is an on-going manifestation of the uncovering of God’s anger against sin. There is a future aspect to God’s wrath (Rom. 2:5), but the immediate context is concerned with the present manifestation of God’s wrath. This revelation of divine wrath does not simply refer to the bad consequences that are the outcome of bad behavior, nor does this merely refer to the experience of guilt that people suffer. Paul will unfold the nature of God’s wrath further in 1:24-32. Three times he will use the expression, “God gave them up,” (vv. 24, 26, 28) in the sense of a divine judicial act. As we will see, this judicial infliction is penal and visible.
Conclusion: The Apostle Paul never admitted to a division in God whereby wrath and righteousness were placed in opposition. Whenever the argument is raised that God’s wrath is unjust, Paul opposes that notion (3:5; 9:14). He never infused the will of God with contradiction; rather, by means of his little but powerful for (1:18), he explicitly attested to and made clear the unity of God’s will. [ix] The evangelical church has grown strangely silent on our subject. We are noticeably uncomfortable with the biblical teaching about the wrath of God. One reason is because we have lost a biblical understanding of the seriousness of sin. Noted sociologist Robert Bellah accurately described the modern condition, “In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good or evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide…being good becomes feeling good.”[x] “The evangelical church,” in the words of David Wells, “Walking in lockstep with the culture so often, it is better able to mimic that culture than “to change it.”[xi]
It is imperative that we recover a biblical (as opposed to a psychological) understanding of sin—otherwise we will never grasp the importance of God’s wrath and the nature of the gospel.[xii] God’s wrath is seen throughout the Bible. In the Garden of Eden, God judged the sin of Adam (Gen. 3:14-19). In the flood, God again acted in judgment on the sin of man (Gen 6:5-17). God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness (Gen. 18:20-19:29). The law pronounces a divine curse on all who transgress (Gal. 3:10). The book of Revelation is from beginning to end, a record of God’s wrath. Hear the words of the old puritan Thomas Goodwin, “Supremely, God’s judgment and wrath against sin as depicted in the suffering of Christ’s cross are in themselves committed; so we are apt to slight them; but we do measure them best by the anger and the wrath they beget in the party wronged (if he be not partial in his own cause), and by the furious expressions of his wrath returned back again upon the offence. So while we view sin in its direct and proper notion, and that it is an injury against the great God, so we should never have seen the full vileness of it; for as God is in Himself invisible, so is the evil of sin; and as Christ is the liveliest image of the invisible God, so are His debasement and His suffering the truest glass to behold the ugliness of sin in, and the utmost representation to make us sensible of it. The throwing down the angels out of heaven, the cursing the earth and all Adam’s posterity for Adam’s sin, “the drowning the old world, the over turning Sodom, and the fire unquenchable which burns to the bottom of hell, these were such considerations as make us stand amazed and cry out, “Oh, what is sin, that Thou dost so remember it, or the sinfulness of it, that Thou dost punish it in the destruction of the best creature Thy hands have made!” But all these tragedies are but as lighter skirmishes, and but shows of justice and wrath, in comparison of the death and sufferings of His Son.”[xiii]
[i] W. Luthi, The Letter to the Romans: An Exposition translated by K. Shoenenberger (Knox, 1961), p. 19.
[ii] Cf. Robert Brow “Evangelical Mega shift: Why You May Not Have Heard About Wrath, Sin, and Hell Recently” Christianity Today (Feb. 19, 1990), see also C. H. Pinnock and R. C. Brow, Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century (IVP, 1994).
[iii] J. B. Green & M. D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (IVP, 2000), p. 55. R. C. Sproul has noted this aversion to the notion of Divine wrath and remarked that given this widespread mentality the theme of Jonathan Edwards famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” has now been reversed in the minds of many in our evangelical churches to “God in the Hand of Angry Sinners”!
[iv] D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), p. 67.
[v] D. J. Lloyd-Jones, The Flight of Man and the Power of God (Zondervan), p. 15.
[vi] cf. T. R. Schreiner, Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 1996), p. 88.
[vii] D. F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 143.
[viii] F. Godet, Commentary On the Epistle to the Romans (rpt. Zondervan, 1970), p. 164.
[ix] cf. Adolf Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God trans. S.S. Schatzmann (rpt. Hendrickson, 1995), p. 32.
[x] R. Bellah Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper and Row, 1985), p. 56.
[xi] D. F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 30.
[xii] Dick Keyes makes this passionate plea, “Belief in the idea of sin, as taught in the Bible, is deeply implausible today. If no transcendent God as Judge exists Who had revealed good and evil to us, then who can say what sin is or whom it is against? If our ideas about God and ultimate moral truth are merely human constructions, then why should they have any authority over us? In this setting, the idea of sin is seen to encourage joylessness, uptightness, inhibition, manipulation, self-righteousness, cruelty, disdain for culture, and lack of self-esteem. Who wants all that? The implausibility of sin is also strengthened by modern views of human nature. Strong voices from within the human sciences claim that sin is an archaic notion. The reality of human choice itself is under heavy fire from psychology, sociology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and computer science. And claims from within these fields hold that human attitudes and actions are at least potentially explainable by biological factors that we are not aware of, let alone able to control. The idea of being held morally accountable to God is therefore seen as barbaric and dependent on obsolete and negative moral categories. But sin is not a peripheral Christian teaching. It is the biblical diagnosis of the most basic human problem, to which Jesus is the solution in His atoning death on the cross—and the only reason why He had to go to the cross at all.” Chameleon Christianity: Moving Beyond Safety and Conformity (Baker, 1999), p. 63.
[xiii][xiii] The Works of Thomas Goodwin V (rpt. Tanski, 1996), p. 287.
Over the past fifty years there has been a great resurgence of interest in the writings of the Puritans. The reading of their works has brought great benefit to the people of God in many lands. Christians from many different backgrounds and cultures owe a great debt of gratitude to those faithful pastors and preachers who continue to speak through their writings even though they have long since entered into their heavenly reward. The Puritans really knew how to teach and apply God’s Word in the Spirit’s power!
Richard Rushing has compiled this book of daily devotional readings from his favorite Puritan authors because of the great help he has gained from their works. “How thrilling it has been for me to read the Puritans on the glory and attributes of God, divine providence, fellowship with God, holiness of life and the mortification of indwelling sin, heavenly mindedness, prayer, evangelistic zeal, and trust in the Lord during times of affliction. At every turn these truths are eloquently taught, faithfully applied, and kindly offered as the subject of sweet spiritual meditation.”
This book is sent forth with the prayer that it will open a door to the vast stores of treasure to be found in the writings of the Puritans and that it will stimulate further exploration of this rich spiritual inheritance.