The Wrath of God – Part 2

Introduction:  How are we to present the Gospel?  It is nothing less than astounding to hear how often the message of the cross is presented in terms of felt-needs and as a means to self-esteem.[1] This weakness in so much of contemporary preaching prompted the late Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones to administer the following rebuke:  “Why is he [Paul] ready to preach the Gospel in Rome or anywhere else?  He does not say it is because he knows that many of them [the Romans] are living defeated lives and that he has got something to tell them that will give them victory.  He does not say to them, ‘I want to come and preach the Gospel to you in Rome because I have had a marvelous experience and I want to tell you about it, in order that you may have the same experience–because you can if you want it; it is there for you.’  This is not what Paul does….There is no mention here of any experience.  He is not talking in terms of their happiness or some particular state of mind, or something that might appeal to them, as certain possibilities do–but this staggering, amazing thing, the wrath of God!  And he puts it first; it is the thing he says at once.”[2]  The Bible was not written to make us feel good about ourselves.  On the contrary, it confronts us with very grim situations–we are sinners deserving and under the righteous wrath of a holy God.  We should never seek to obscure this truth from people in our efforts to evangelize.  “The Word of God,” wrote Gerhard Ebeling, “always comes as adversarius noster, our adversary.  It does not simply confirm and strengthen us in what we think we are, and what we wish to be taken for . . . This is the way, the only way, in which the word draws us into concord and peace with God.”[3]

We will never be able to understand the love of God until we grasp the significance of God’s holy hatred against sin (Hebrews 1:9).  We will likewise never grasp the Biblical understanding of God’s grace until we know the full import of God’s Law.  Forgiveness can never be appreciated until we come to know the penalty of the broken law.  God hates sin because sin carries in it a hatred of God.  PECCATUM EST DEICIDIUM is the Latin phrase used by Thomas Goodwin to express the intense hatred sin has for God, “he that hateth God may be said to be a murderer of him, and wisheth that he were not.”[4]  As John Gerstner has written:  “The ultimate rationale and necessity for the wrath of God is the nature of God, especially his holiness (though all his attributes are involved).  An infinitely holy God simply must infinitely destroy opposition.  There is no other way that the law of God can be fulfilled.  Also, God has sworn that He will be revenged, and He has given evidence that He will do it.  Most of all, when the grace of the Gospel itself is spurned it is necessarily turned into a wrath most terrible.”[5]

Review:  In our last study we sought to define God’s wrath as being a just manifestation of God’s holiness against sin.[6]  We also briefly commented on the time of God’s wrath.  There is a present, as well as a future, manifestation of God’s wrath, and the present unveiling of God’s wrath is the theme of this passage of the epistle (cf. Psalm 7:11–“God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.”).

I.          The Source of God’s Wrath:  “Righteousness,” declares E. H. Gifford, “is revealed in the Gospel; wrath is revealed ‘from heaven,’ because there ‘the Lord hath prepared his throne’ (Psalm 9:7; 11:4), and thence ‘His judgments go forth as the lightning’ (Hosea 6:5).”[7]   The expression from heaven may be taken as the equivalent of the throne of God (cf. Luke 15:7,10).  Even though the Scriptures tell us over and over again about the wrath of God, people still have a difficult time accepting it.  “The wrath of God also appears strange because it has no parallel in this world.  It seems unreal because it does not exist here, though it is designed for those who do.  Furthermore, it is to a great degree unknown in this world.  People do not often hear of it and do not believe it when they do.  It is also inconceivable in this present world.  In fact, if men in this world ever saw the wrath of God poured out in its fulness, they probably would die at the sight.”[8]

II.         The Object of God’s Wrath:  God is not some super amazing cosmic computer who simply runs the universe according to set physical laws–and His wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.  Note the word order; ungodliness precedes unrighteousness.  This expresses the Biblical truth that immorality springs from perversity that is religious.  “In the apostle’s description of the degeneracy impiety is the precursor of immorality.”[9]  Note how this is reflected in the Ten Commandments.  The first four commands have to do with God–the rest with our relationship to humanity.

III.        The Extent and Cause of God’s Wrath:  God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.  “The word all denotes two things:  the one is, that the wrath of God extends to the entire mass of ungodliness and unrighteousness, which reigns among men, without excepting the least part; the other is, that ungodliness and unrighteousness had arrived at their height, and reigned among the Gentiles with such undisturbed supremacy, that there remained no soundness among them.”[10]  Note how Paul declares that this behavior is intentional and deliberate–men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.  The word translated suppress in the NIV Bible is KATECHÖ.  It means to hold down, to restrain or suppress firmly (cf. II Thessalonians 2:6-7).  It clearly implies that sinful humanity has some knowledge of the truth but is constantly seeking to suppress it (cf. John 3:19-20).

IV.       Reasons for God’s Wrath:  Because we take sin lightly, we are, therefore, offended when we hear about God’s wrath.  Simply put–we don’t think God should be angry over our sin.  Note this well.  God never judges unless judgment is deserved.  In Romans 1:19-23 Paul will give us four specific reasons for God manifesting His wrath.

A.        The Revelation of Creation:  The “because” of verse 19 is connected with the last clause of verse 18.  This tells us the reason for Paul affirming the judgment of God on men for suppressing the truth which God has clearly made known to them.  God has, as it were, left his footprints and fingerprints all over creation.  This revelatory knowledge is not redemptive.  “It serves simply the negative purpose and function of preserving man’s responsibility before God, because it heightens the conviction of sin and brings to consciousness the state of inexcusability.”[11]  Creation is to serve as a glorious theater of God’s majesty and splendor.  Likewise, man, created in the image of God, carries about within him an innate knowledge of the Creator.  This inner witness or monitor (the conscience) serves primarily a negative purpose of alerting fallen mankind to the foreboding sense that something is wrong.

B.        The Rejection of the Knowledge of God:  Men have turned away from what God has made known to them in creation.  They are, therefore, indicted for failing to glorify the living and true God.  Man was created for this purpose and is guilty of failing to glorify God (cf. Leviticus 10:3; I Chronicles 16:24-29; Psalm 148; Isaiah 48:1-11; Romans 15:5-6; Revelation 4:11).  Because of this, they are also thankless and their foolish hearts are plunged into darkness.

C.        The Rationalization of Fallen Mankind:  Truth and light go together as does sin and darkness.  When men reject the truth they demonstrate only foolishness.  The word translated “fool” in verse 22 is MORANTHĒNAI.  It is a very strong word, surpassing even ASYNETOS (translated foolish heart in verse 21).  The noted German scholar, Adolf Schlatter, captured the essence of this when he wrote, “The inability to grasp and understand results in the conjuring up of flights of fancy and impossible goals that are groundless and detached from reality.”[12]

D.        The Religious Inventions of Man:  Look around today at the religions that capture the allegiance of men.  “Paul’s only standard for measuring religions is the longing for the truth.  His only question is:  What do people say about God?  Whatever they are seeking for themselves by means of their religious acts, namely, to secure and increase their happiness, to atone for their guilt, and to gain for themselves the assistance of the deity, all of this is put aside.  The individual is godless if he fabricates religion in his own interest, for the sake of his own happiness.  God must be worshipped for the sake of God.  With this rule Paul proved to be fully obedient as a disciple of Jesus.”[13]

Conclusion:  The Apostle Paul refers to the wrath of God ten times in this epistle (1:18; 2:5,8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4,5).  He obviously considers it an important element in understanding the Gospel.  It is not until we begin to comprehend the reality of God’s wrath that we grow in our appreciation of God’s grace in Christ and His death on the cross.  “His death was for those who deserve God’s wrath.  And his death was fully adequate, because Jesus did not need to die for his own sins–he was sinless–and because, being God, his act was of infinite magnitude.  That is the message Paul will expound in this epistle.  It is the Good News, the Gospel.  But the place to begin is not with your own good works, since you have none, but by knowing that you are an object of God’s wrath and will perish in sin at last, unless you throw yourself upon the mercy of the One who died for sinners, even Jesus Christ.”[14]

We tend to minimize our sins by calling them bad habits or faults or slips, mistakes, etc.  As a result, we tend not to take sin seriously–and naturally we think God shouldn’t either.  But He does take sin seriously.  Listen to the advice of old J.C. Ryle:  “Sit down, and take pen and paper, and count up the sins that you have probably sinned since you first knew good from evil.  Sit down, I say, and make a sum.  Grant for a moment that there have been on an average, fifteen hours in every twenty-four during which you have been awake, and an active and accountable being.  Grant for a moment that in each one of these fifteen hours you have sinned only two sins.  Surely you will not say that this is an unfair supposition.  Remember we may sin against God in thought, word, or deed.  I repeat, it cannot be thought an extreme thing to suppose that in each waking hour of your life you have, in thought, or word, or deed, sinned two sins.  And now add up the sins of your life, and see to what sum they will amount.”[15]  Seeing the seriousness of our sin is the first step in understanding the wrath of God and, in turn, seeing the central importance of the cross of Christ.

References

[1] In the cover story of Christianity Today (Sept. 12, 1994), “Reaching the First Post-Christian Generation” by Andres Tapia (an article that relied extensively upon the marketing guru George Barna), we read the following:  “According to the experts [read here Barna], it is no longer enough to present the Gospel’s propositional truths.  What will attract Xers, they [read again church marketing experts] say, is a strong, caring community of people who can be trusted” (p. 21).  Or this rather direct statement, “The Xer experience makes certain evangelical tenets more difficult to understand or live by.  For example, since Xers are growing up in a more pluralistic, multi-cultural society…they have a harder time accepting a theology that says their Muslim, Buddhist, or New Age friends and neighbors are going to hell” (p. 22).  The article goes on and takes up the old Liberal approach of calling the church to stop taking its cue from the Apostle Paul and get back to the simple teachings of the Gospels (selectively read, of course, since Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:13-39 are not very user-friendly!).

[2] D.M. Lloyd Jones, Romans:  An Exposition I (Zondervan, 1985), p. 325.

[3] G. Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language (Collins, 1963), p. 17.

[4] The Works of Thomas Goodwin IV (rpt. Tanski, 1996), p. 156.  Sin, says the Puritan Ralph Venning, “goes about to ungod God, and is by some of the ancients Deicidium, God-murder or God-killing, The Plague of Plagues (rpt. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), p. 30.

[5] J. Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards II (Berea, 1992), p. 52.

[6] “As in the case of grace, so God’s work, even in wrath, is free of caprice, and the constancy of God’s will is not impaired by exceptions.  This transforms faith into assurance of salvation and godlessness and unrighteousness into the equally certain assurance of calamity,” writes Adolf Schlatter.  Romans:  The Righteousness of God (rpt. Hendrickson, 1995), p. 30.

[7] E.H. Gifford, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (rpt. James Family, 1977), p. 62.

[8] Gerstner, op. cit.

[9] J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1968), p. 36.

[10] Robert Haldane, An Exposition of Romans (rpt. MacDonald, N.D.), p. 56.

[11] S. Lewis Johnson, Romans (Believers Bible Bulletin, 1980), Lesson 3, p. 4.

[12] A. Schlatter, Romans:  The Righteousness of God (Hendrickson, 1995), p. 40.

[13] Ibid.

[14] J.M. Boice, Romans I:  An Expositional Commentary I (Baker, 1991), p. 136.

[15]  J.C. Ryle, Old Paths:  Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity (rpt. James Clark, 1972), p. 153.

 Resource:

Fear of God

by Arnold L. Frank

In 1961, A.W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy that the way some Christians think about God is sinful. Dr. Arnold Frank, in The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine confirms that the 21st century church, in the pew as well as the pulpit, continues to regard God as impotent and irrelevantin other words, without godly fear. As such, Dr. Frank, with a theologian’s skill and a pastor’s heart, walks us through the Scriptures, letting the Word of God speak about the fear of God.

In addition to clear, biblical exposition, Dr. Frank also weaves in the wise and timeless counsel of the Puritans to help us see how the fear of God is a most needed and practical doctrine.

Do you approach God with a godly fear? The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine will be a skillful and gracious reminder of how we should regard the holy, sovereign Creator.

Endorsements:

“The biblical concept of the fear of God is too often marginalized or ignored by the Christian church and its preachers today. The result is shallow views of sin, easy belief, and antinomianism. With the aid of Puritan preachers, Arnold Frank sounds a clarion call for a biblical and sure approach to the fear of God.” Joel Beeke (President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary)

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