The Wrath of God
‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18). The text before us requires me to speak faithfully on the wrath of God. I am under authority to teach whatever is in the Bible. My hearers are under authority to believe me, just as long as I agree with what God says in Scripture and do not give you my own fancy ideas.
Three points of introduction. One, I don’t want to say to you one original thought, especially on this theme, nothing that historic Christianity has not been teaching for 2,000 years. Then let me also say, secondly, that in speaking on the wrath of God I have no intention of scowling at you as I preach it, any more than when I’m preaching to you on the love of God I grin all the time. Why do men do it? Did some homiletics professor tell them they have to smile at the audience? I cannot tell you how annoying that is. How it cloys! It is also bad when a worship leader screws up her face and sings into the microphone with all those facial contortions, compounded by the fact that I cannot bury my face in my hymnbook because no one has given us hymn books. We all have to stare at the words on the screen which is directly behind the blonde with the screwed up face. It is distracting. It comes between me and the God who alone I want to be conscious of as I sing his praise. So, no original ideas, no contortions, and, thirdly, I will have no fear of any frowns on anyone’s face. I will not be chicken-hearted in speaking on this theme. I will open my mouth boldly to speak on this as on any part of the divine revelation. You will not intimidate me by walking out to show your disapproval, or even by throwing your hymnbook at me! But I will be sad to have lost you. Your problem, if I do what I say and teach you the Bible, is not with me but it is with God and with your own guilt. So, no original ideas, and no scowls, and no fear of men.
1. GOD REVEALS HIS WRATH
‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven’ writes the apostle. Is there any problem of translation? Should it say that the wrath of God is ‘going to be’ revealed one day at the end of the world? No, this is an accurate translation. The wrath of God is at this moment being revealed from heaven against all the godless wickedness of men. Of course, concurrently the love of God is also now being revealed from heaven upon everybody in constant blessings. Then can we ask if the word ‘wrath’ is too strong and there is some softer, kinder word instead of ‘wrath’? Fifty years ago with enormous fanfare a translation of the Bible appeared called the New English Bible. Two of us eight students taking the Biblical Studies course at Cardiff University were gospel Christians. The four lecturers there were totally gung ho about this new version as though expecting the whole population of our Welsh capital city to rush out and buy a copy and all become Christians. We had a brief exchange about it in a class when I expressed my coolness towards this version. ‘What’s wrong with it?’ asked the New Testament professor. ‘I don’t like its translation of Romans 1 and verse 18,’ I replied. I am sure there would have been better ways of dealing with the inadequacies of the New English Bible than that. Somehow this week I remembered that exchange as I was thinking about this verse. I wondered, ‘Well, how did the translators of the N.E.B. render this verse so that I could express my disapproval of the entire version by referring to this one verse?’ I can tell you. This is its translation: ‘For we see divine retribution revealed from heaven and falling upon all the godless wickedness of men.’ That’s not bad is it? It is accurate, but it is not a lively translation. The phrase ‘divine retribution’ is not as clear or vivid a phrase as ‘the wrath of God’ although it means the same thing. It is more academic; a four syllable word replaces the one syllable ‘wrath.’ It fails to sound as clear an alarm; it puts more distance between the sinner and the God who has been offended by his sin. The translation of Romans 1 and verse 18 is not the reason that the N.E.B. is an inadequate translation. My lesson, still to be learnt, was that if you are going to pick a fight, especially publicly, then you must produce the strongest arguments. So what can we say about Paul’s reference to the wrath of God?
i] There is a moral argument that the one living and true God should be a God of wrath.
We have spoken about the character of God, a being wholly free from anything remotely unrighteous, a God who is light in whom is no darkness at all, not one particle of sin being found in him at all, a God of total moral perfection. Then how does he respond to anything that contradicts his nature? How does he react to the torture of human beings, young or old, a baby or a helpless pensioner, the killing of an unborn child? How does God respond to rape, and to massacres, and to slavery, and to businessmen who milk a company of every penny and then close down a factory and throw a thousand people out of work? How does God respond to people deceiving and calling evil good? How does he react to the sobs of agony of people being abused? I am asking you about this God, the only God there is, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who has given all men and women a conscience that rebukes them when they do wrong – what is his
evaluation of heinous, evil behaviour? Are you morally superior to him when you are filled with indignation hearing of unspeakable cruelty, or should you be unmoved too? Could God be indifferent and still remain a God who is light? Isn’t indifference to wickedness another kind of wickedness? Could he shrug? ‘That is how some people behave?’ Does he maintain a quiet enigmatic smile like Buddha even when someone is being burned alive, or hung and drawn and quartered? Did his eyes glaze over with boredom at the sight of Belsen and Auschwitz year after year? Is that the response of the God of love to every manifestation of the godlessness and wickedness of men?
I tell you that it cannot be, either in him or in us, or he would also be cosmic malevolence. He is in fact grieved; but more than that, he is angry; he is overwhelmingly opposed to every kind of wickedness. He is not weak; he is not helpless; he is not a pushover; he is not a pussy cat, he is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Sometimes he causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble. God is a God of wrath, and we are mighty glad that that is his response. There is an essential moral argument demanding that wrath towards wickedness be one essential and good response of the deity.
ii] The frequency of the references in the Bible to the wrath of God demand we take it seriously.
We are told a great deal about it in the Bible. Notice our text; ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18). Observe the word ‘all’ — it is against all the godlessness and wickedness of the men who do these things. Nothing is exempt; he is angry not just with Auschwitz but with Aberystwyth, not just with the atrocities in Syria but with the atrocities done in Swansea. The wrath is not on the sin per se as if it were possible to detach the sin from the sinner, but his wrath targets the individual sinner’s sin. The heartless way I have behaved; wrath towards all that is evil. It is not just wrath towards those who caused the destruction in the trenches of World War I but wrath on the suffering of the child in the womb as it is killed. The wrath is on ‘all the godlessness and wickedness of men.’
But we all learn more by example than by announcement. We have many examples of God’s wrath and its consequences. The first example we have is strange; it was God casting the rebel angels he created out of heaven. We are told by Jude that ‘the angels which kept not their first estate, he hath reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day.’ And we are told by Peter that ‘God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.’ This was one of the greatest examples of divine wrath we’ve got, for it seems to have happened in a single day. One day these angels were in heaven and the next in hell. One day they were angels of light – the next fiends of darkness. And then this made it fearful, that the Lord left them no room for repentance. One thing the universe might have learned from this was that God will certainly punish sin.
Another example of God’s punishing sin was not in heaven, but on earth, when he sent the deluge upon it. ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth.’ And so it came to pass: ‘The flood came, and carried them all away;’ and it has left traces on our world still, to show that God will not fail to punish sin.
Another example of the wrath of God was when God destroyed Sodom. ‘Now, the men of Sodom were wicked, and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.’ The cry of its wickedness went up to heaven, and God sent down two angels, to see if it was according to the cry that came up; and they found it even so. But they took out just Lot and his family, and then God rained fire and brimstone upon the devoted city; and he has left traces of it there to this hour.
There was yet another exhibition of divine wrath on earth and that was the most fearful of all. It was the death of God’s dear Son. What was that death? However you look at it it was punishment. It was a forensic act. It was the condemnation of a criminal. God could have prevented it and sent him off to live in distant Egypt as he did when he was a baby, but he did not and Jesus chose to take the punishment a blasphemer and revolutionary merited. If ever there’d been a time when God could have said that he would forego his wrath, and spare his beloved Son it was surely this. It was this for a couple of reasons. First, because the object of that revelation of wrath was dear to God. There never was anyone in the universe so dear to God as his Son. Another reason was that Christ had no sin of his own. Just as his robe was seamless, so was his soul sinless. Men and women, think of it! One act of Jesus – laying down his life, was so glorious, as an exhibition of God’s justice, that the universe never saw its like and never will again. ‘Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him.’ Those words of one syllable don’t give us the least shadow of his suffering on account of our sin. Men and women, if any thing in the world can show that God will punish sin, it was the death of his dear and sinless Son. He punished him because he was there as the Lamb of God. He was making sacrifice for us. He was there as our substitute. In our place condemned he stood – our Saviour. He bore our wrath in such a way that we will never have to bear it.
There is one exhibition of God’s wrath yet to come. God is willing to show his wrath again. He will make his power known once again. He endures with much patience the vessels of wrath that are fitted to destruction but destroy the unrepentant and godless he will. Jesus told us of a broad road on which many walk and it leads somewhere like every path you take goes somewhere. This road leads to destruction. Didn’t our Lord warn us about this? Was he mistaken? Can he say erroneous things? Does he enjoy making empty, hollow threats? Is God sabre-rattling? No. ‘I am the truth,’ he says. God will yet destroy souls that he has made, souls he has loved, souls he has blessed with every good thing, souls he has warned in the preaching of the gospel and beseeched in his entreaties to leave the broad way and go onto the narrow path that leads to life, but they have closed their ears and hardened their hearts and will not hear him. There is to be a new exhibition of wrath the like of which the world never saw before. He is going to show what he will do to the despisers of his Son — to those who mock his gospel. It will be a new thing when ‘God will be revealed from heaven in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know him not, and that have not obeyed the gospel.’ God waits to show his wrath once more.
iii] The teaching and example of Jesus endorses the wrath of God.
Some of you have still a hankering to separate Jesus from Paul and say, ‘Ah, but the words of our text are the words of Paul. We don’t worship Paul; we worship gentle Jesus, meek and mild. So, tell me, if the Son of God himself warned us against the wrath of God then would you be more sober about what I am saying? Here are his words; he said that if we shout at our brother and call him, ‘Fool!’ that wicked word puts us in danger of the fire of hell. Jesus said that in the Sermon on the Mount. He said it was better to pluck out an eye and go to heaven with one eye than keep two lustful thieving eyes and go to hell where the fire is never extinguished and the flames are not quenched. He told us of the rich man who disdained the poor beggar at the gate, and he went to hell and cried that he was in agony in those flames. Men and women, beware! God’s wrath is intolerable. ‘Who knows the power of your wrath?’ (Psa. 90:11). The last verse of the third chapter of John’s gospel says, ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him’ (John 3:26). Does the Son of God know his Father? Does he know God better than you? You remember how crooks and hucksters had taken over Jesus’ Father’s house, the Temple, and were ripping the people off when they came to worship and make sacrifice for their sins. So Jesus did not simply sigh and weep and say ‘Tut, tut’ and walk away sadly. He made a whip and he drove them out of his Temple as they felt the lash on their backs. He overturned the tables of the money-changers. Was that sub-Christian petulance? Was Jesus sinning, or was that the true expression of righteous wrath towards blatant blasphemous greed and theft? So the Lord Jesus was more vivid, and unforgettable in his language in talking about the wrath of God than his more subdued but faithful servant Paul. Jesus preached divine retribution to his disciples to strengthen their battle with remaining sin.
So all the biblical writers, even those with an intimate personal experience of Jesus over three years. had no reticence whatsoever about warning their readers about the wrath of God. They spoke of God’s wrath frequently, obviously viewing it as one of God’s great ‘perfections.’ They saw it as one of the attributes of God. It is one of the striking things about the Bible the vigour with which Scriptures in Old and New Testaments emphasize the reality and the terror of the wrath of God. It is often pointed out that numerically there are actually more references to the fury and wrath of God than to his love and tenderness. Twenty different words in the Old Testament refer to God’s wrath. Six hundred different passages focus on this theme. They stretch from Genesis to Malachi. In the New Testament there are two main words that speak of his wrath. One means being in a heat of violence, or breathing violently. The other means building up a head of steam, growing ripe for something, like water collecting behind a dam exerting increasing pressure on the dam’s walls. So it is a strong and settled opposition to all that is evil that arises out of God’s nature. John Murray defines the wrath of God like this; ‘God’s wrath is his holy revulsion against that which is the contradiction of his holiness.’
iv] We have to remove all sinful human expression of anger from the divine wrath.
Our pride gets wounded and we get angry and ull of self-pity. We are petulant and nasty as we retaliate. We pull the hair of other children. We spit at them. We use foul language. We are later ashamed of what we did. God is never like that with his wrath. Never! There is no personal pique in the anger of God, and he has no regrets about his response to human wickedness. He is aroused by nothing except evil, and evil always does create that response. Yet the Ancient of Days is fair in his judgments. He knows everything and takes every factor into consideration. His judgments are certainly passionate; they are never cold or clinical, and he weeps over the condemnation that will fall on the unrepentant and he cries out to men, ‘Turn! Please turn! Why will you die?’ God’s judgments are always tempered with mercy and are perfectly suited to the evil that’s been done. We see a report of some wickedness and we are outraged, but then our anger cools and we read another page in the paper that is funnier or more salacious. God’s wrath is not like that; his anger is constant. We are told, ‘God expresses his wrath every day’ (Psa. 7:11). The arrow of God’s justice is put in the string, and the bow of his wrath is already bent against the wicked, and he has many moving targets. He takes aim at all the ungodliness and wickedness of men, and he never misses, but he never hurts the righteous.
Two of the great evangelists of the 18th century, Hywel Harris of Wales and George Whitefield of England met for the first time in Cardiff. Harris had been preaching in the open air for a couple of years and was a seasoned evangelist. A stage was set up and Whitefield preached for the first time. He was a little nervous and his composure was disturbed by a clown who stood in the front and entertained the crowd by imitating the gestures of Whitefield and stood on his head so that ripples of mirth and laughter passed over the audience. Whitefield found it all too distracting and soon finished his preaching and moved to the back of the platform. Harris walked to the front and announced his text from the book of Revelation: ‘For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?’ The clown smirked at him and shouted out, ‘I am able!’ Harris fixed his eyes on him and froze him with the cry, ‘What, you? You poor contemptible worm!’ The man collapsed and lay at the foot of the platform in the grass totally prone until Harris had finished his preaching on this theme and the silenced crowd quietly dispersed. It was a great lesson for the young Whitefield.
Think of the humanist who considers the Christian religion a joke and the wrath of God in hell he scornfully dismisses as something ‘obscene.’ That humanist exists only because God created him. He is here because he has been placed here. He is well and comfortable because divine power keeps and blesses him. He dines at God’s table and enjoys his food with the appetite that God designed. He is sheltered by the roof God put over him. He is clothed in God’s bounty. He lives and moves and has his being by the pumping of that heart that God designed and sustains, by breathing the air which keeps him strong and makes him vocal to go about writing articles and books persuading people that whether God is or is not, MAN ALONE MATTERS . . .
Remember the recent storm that heaped tons of shingle on the promenade and took out blocks of stone weighing a ton and bent the iron railings. We saw the waves smashing against the rocks out at sea. The mighty waves dashed on them. There were two things remarkable in it; first the greatness of the rocks that have stood there since time immemorial with the waves dashing on them. Then there was the fact that the rocks remained unmoved. No force of the waves can move them. Men and women, that is a symbol of what will be witnessed in another day, when God shall pour out his wrath on all who have lived in defiance of him. He will display his omnipotence in that day. He will uphold them with one hand and reveal his wrath with the other. Where will the clown be in that day? Where will the scornful and the mocker be? It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
2. GOD IS REVEALING HIS WRATH NOW
That is what our text says – it ‘is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.’ In other words when you look at a society in which what is recorded in verses 26 through 32 is commonplace then you are looking at a civilization on which the wrath of God is now being revealed;
God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
I am saying to you that that is a society showing the marks of the wrath of God being revealed against it. We are experiencing all around us the wrath of God. You look at the misery that such conduct creates and that is a revelation of God’s wrath on all godlessness and wickedness of men. Evil has an inherent tendency to despair. You hear the voice of your conscience that stabs you and convicts you of your guilt, then you are experiencing the wrath of God. You see the illnesses and diseases that are emerging; you see
the drug dependence that draws in more people young and old; you see the pollution of creation and the billions of plastic bags filling the oceans and killing God’s creatures; you see the universality of death, young and old being struck down and wrenched from us. Things like that are the evidences of God’s wrath being revealed from heaven day by day in our town and in our Principality and our country and continent and cosmos.
I remember Dr. Cornelius Van Til’s illustration. He was sitting in a train and in the same compartment was a father holding on his lap a two year old boy who became increasingly restless and violent. The boy was wriggling and twisting and then began to hit out, striking his father in the face. He was supporting his son. If he’d let go the boy would have fallen to the ground and hurt himself, but the boy was smiting his father in his anger while being upheld by his father. That is the human race today. It lives and moves and has its being in God. It is being supported and upheld by this loving God, and yet it turns its fury against God and does all the things that are contrary to the living Father who is upholding it. That rebellion is both the focus of God’s wrath and the mark that the wrath of God is revealed towards rebellious man. We are living in a culture which is experiencing day by day the wrath of God.
Ralph Keiper was speaking to a Californian hippy about the claims of God and the immoral man was having none of it. Then Ralph quoted from Romans 1 and he said, ‘Here you are. This describes you. Look!’ He handed him his pocket New Testament and traced with his finger from verse 18 to the end of the chapter. The hippy read it slowly. ‘I think I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying that I am the verifying data of the revelation.’ Yes he was. His immoral life and hostility to God verified the fact that divine retribution clothed him.
3. GOD’S WRATH IS REVEALED AGAINST ALL THE GODLESSNESS AND WICKEDNESS OF MEN
His wrath is revealed against godlessness, in other words an anti-God attitude, and unrighteousness which is conduct against your fellow man. Ungodliness precedes and entails unrighteousness. John Stott says,
The essence of sin is godlessness. It is the attempt to get rid of God, and since that is impossible, it is the determination to live as though one has succeeded in doing so. Of course the opposite, the converse, is true that the essence of real goodness is godliness, to love God with all our being and to obey him with joy.
So there is ungodliness, and where do we see that most clearly? At Golgotha. What will men do to God the Son the second person of the Trinity? They won’t simply kill him, though that would be horror enough, they crucify him and they leave him hanging until finally he dies. They do that to God the Son. They could not build a nuclear rocket and fire it at God’s throne in heaven and blow him to pieces, but when God sends the Messiah, and allows him to become so vulnerable and exposed to the opposition of men and women they can show their hatred of God. That is the depth of the rebellion of ungodly men, and it results in terrible unrighteousness. The seeds of such deicide are in every heart because the carnal mind is enmity against God. You see the logic of those sinful attitudes? If men are capable of dealing with Jesus in that way is it any wonder that we will shrug at destroying our fellow men, women and children? Godlessness leads to wickedness.
4. THEY SUPPRESS THE TRUTH BY THEIR WICKEDNESS
I was the recipient of contempt for this reality of the wrath of God when I once met a Scottish doctor whom we all had to see as students at Cardiff University over fifty years ago. He was disapproving of my lack of sporting exercise. What did I do? I told him of my admiration for the young Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne and also of my attendance at the Christian Union. He was contemptuous; ‘I’ll tell you about M’Cheyne’ he said to me. ‘Imagine the day of judgment and all the nations are there and they are crying out, “But Lord we didna’ ken, we didna’ ken.” “Well, you ken now” said God as he put them in hell. That is M’Cheyne,’ he told me. ‘Men do know’, I said to him. ‘All men know the truth, and they are suppressing it in their wickedness, just like you.’
Men have a conscience; men have the glory, power and godhead of God before them day and night; men have a conscience that warns them when they are tempted and commends them when they resist temptation; men have an earlier grace in the creation of man and woman made in the image of God; many men have an earlier grace in the faith of their parents, their grandparents, their friends, the great works of God in their land in an earlier age, in the preaching they might read or hear on the web, in open air preaching, in tracts given to them, in a verse outside a church, in the sovereign visit of God in their rooms at any hour of day or night when they are conscious of a greater divine presence filling that place and overwhelming them.
People are confronted with the truth, not with our feeble words, our lisping, stammering tongues, the inconsistency of our lives or with brain-washing. People are confronted with the truth. God made this world; God is righteous and holy; you are a sinner; he is angry with you, but God has poured out that wrath on his beloved Son so that not a drop need fall on you. He has done this because he loves a sinful man like you with the same love wherewith he loves his dear Son. You must have that mercy of God; you need to bow and be still before him. Go to him in Jesus’ name and ask him to pardon your sins. Don’t go on clamping down on the truth, fighting against it. Yield to the truth. Submit to what you know is true. Ask God to make himself known to you. As I spoke to a dying man who once attended this church faithfully his niece’s husband, a Muslim in his sixties, would listen to me as I spoke the truth to his uncle and prayed with him. I did so on many occasions and in his life the truth conquered and finally he asked me to baptize him, and last week Iola and I visited him twice and we had a meal together. He is going on well in a church in Wolverhampton. Becoming a Christian is an act by which you stop suppressing the truth, henceforth to live by what it says.
On Monday we called in on him on our way to the Reformation and Revival Conference. In that Conference I heard Matthew Brennan of Clonmel in southern Ireland speaking of his upbringing in a Roman Catholic orphanage until he was 16. He was searching for the truth; he did not find it in the Mass, and then two Christian working men met him and spoke to him and told him that he needed to be born again. He was sceptical but he greatly admired one of them in particular, and one night he prayed and said to God he needed this ‘born again’ – he spoke it as clumsily as this, but God heard and understood and answered his prayers and the very next day he found he was no longer suppressing the truth but living in the light of what he understood and seeking a place where he would know more of this mighty Creator and Saviour.
Have I kept my word? No original ideas? No scowls? No fear of you? Then you must keep the word you have made to go on for the rest of your life where the truth takes you. Buy the truth and follow it. Flee from the wrath to come.
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