He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
John 3:36 (NASB)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness …
Romans 1:18 (NASB)
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.
The Wrath of Chuck’s Girlfriend Sarah
I confess that our family sometimes gets drawn into certain TV shows on netflix, and we’ll watch ridiculous numbers of episodes at a stretch. I’m sure this is some kind of trendy syndrome with an official name. It is embarrassing, really. We’ve been watching a fun spy show called “Chuck”, and in one of the episodes Chuck, a lovable and unlikely spy, got kidnapped. His gorgeous spy handler/girlfriend, Sarah, got really angry and went into warrior mode. She fought her way across Thailand searching for Chuck, and as she went, rumors spread of a dangerous giant blonde she-male fighter on the loose. Because she really loved Chuck, she had some serious wrath! Once she had found her way to rescue him, after she trounced some bad-guy booty, she suddenly became this tender sweet loving girlfriend. I love that show!
When the life or welfare of a loved one is threatened, we understand wrath. If some bully or teacher treats our child unfairly, we become a mama bear or papa bear. We get upset and angry; threats to our children seem like threats to us personally, because we love them. We may pretend that we are always loving and patient and forgiving and that we are calm and rational in the face of these things, but we really seethe with anger against the slightest hint of injustice against our loved ones. This isn’t a “Christian” thing – it is a human thing.
Our Sense of Justice
I have an idea that our innate sense of justice towards the actions of others and our conscience towards our own actions are somehow two sides of the same coin. We not only magically know right from wrong, we have very strong feelings about our judgments, no matter if it concerns ourselves or someone else. We can’t seem to stop having wrath, even for petty little things! Every single day we encounter new injustices large and small, and every single day we are shocked as if it had never happened before. The horror of sin is that it turns this magical sense of justice inward against our most intimate secret guilt. It is very much as if this sense of justice is much bigger than us, and is not something we create. We serve it, we understand it, but we can’t control it or shape it.
Make no mistake, we may feel that we don’t understand the wrath of God, and we may pretend that wrath is an outdated or medieval notion to attribute to God, but the truth is we delight in wrath. We “grok” wrath because we love justice. In a way, even though we are afraid to admit it, the wrath of God is one of our favorite attributes of God. There is some strange comfort in knowing that bad guys get what is coming to them.
We love wrath – Mercy is the real Problem
It is not wrath but mercy we have a real problem with, because we think that mercy is a suspension of wrath. People say that they don’t believe in God because there is evil in the world, but what they mean is that they don’t want God either allowing free will or being patient or permissive — they want a wrathful God. Then of course they turn around and hate the idea of a God of wrath; I guess that some days God just can’t win. No matter what you believe, in the midst of day-to-day life, we can’t stomach the idea that someone should commit any injustice and then simply get away with it. Something in us requires perfection, even in tiny things. If someone has been slack in cleaning their mess or taking their turn with some household chore or has borrowed underwear without asking, they may as well have gotten away with murder. If someone paints a picture or writes a song, and it doesn’t fit our idea of greatness, we find words to criticize them. If some elected official doesn’t govern complex matters exactly the way we think they should, we have no problem judging them harshly; how quickly we condemn if that same person proves to be human and actually sins! We don’t want people to be forgiven, we want the line to be drawn, we want fairness to be enforced. The few times in my life I’ve heard one of my children ask for forgiveness and mercy for one of their siblings, I’ve almost fainted. Mostly they want justice and they want it to stick, and they are doubly upset if it doesn’t. Mercy is always seen as weakness, despite the fact that I have been teaching them this stuff for years and years and years. This is not an indictment on my wonderful children; it is a general observation of human nature regardless of world view or belief. Wrath shows that we have an innate passion for justice, even when it has gone all wrong.
The Beauty of God’s Wrath
The wrath of God is a very good thing. The wrath of God says that we matter. The wrath of God says that we are important. We may try to work it out that the fear of God means “reverent awe”, but in reality when we read that Jesus went crazy in the temple and threw over the tables and drove out the sellers, we love it. We need a fearsome God, a God to whom things deeply matter. Own this: you love that God has wrath. Wrath is excellence in action. Wrath is honesty and power unleashed. Wrath is settling for nothing less than perfect beauty, perfect justice, perfect love, and hating everything that falls short. Wrath means business about its perfectionism, and we all love perfection!
The problem: We deserve Wrath!
Of course the problem is that we know in our conscience that we ourselves should be the recipients of that wrath. We are far from perfect, we are in fact the kind of people who choose much lesser pleasures and sins. We know we have let petty selfish things lead us to harm other people, sometimes terribly. We want the wrathful eye to turn everywhere else, but not to us. We know it can’t work that way! Justice is justice, and far from being blind, somehow it knows all things. The wrath of God truly is being revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men (Romans 1:18). It isn’t some dusty obscure doctrine. It is a very present visceral existential reality.
We think we can easily be free from all of this. We think it will be no problem to stop judging, we never judge! We aren’t the kind of people who hold grudges, we are patient and kind and we love people just the way they are. I’ve had people tell me that they don’t hold grudges in the middle of a rant about how someone else holds grudges! We simply cannot stop it. We can’t stop measuring the excellence of ourselves or of each other. We remember the things that people do to us which harm us, and they remember the things we do to them. We swear we will forgive but we can’t really forgive, because we don’t know what forgiveness means. Our conscience still simmers over it and worries over it like a dog with a bone. We are trapped by our perfectionism, by our judgments and conditions. We try to measure up, we pretend to measure up, we fear constantly that we don’t measure up, and we constantly scrutinize others to see whether or not they measure up.
Judgment and Wrath are Right
Here’s the rub: we are doing this because it is right. We are created in the image of God, and we may be finite and fallen but something in us grasps the infinite beauty and perfection of God. Something in us requires constant perfect justice and beauty and idealistic greatness, no matter how foolish we may tell ourselves it is. All of this dissatisfaction with the world, all of this irritation and disappointment, are real. The world really is supposed to be a better place. I really am supposed to be a better person. You are supposed to be a better person. It is a travesty that we are such isolated posing failed miserable clowns. We ought to be angry. We are supposed to hate evil, even little evil. Patience and forgiveness are truly wrong. If you really face this you can go quite mad.
The Cross of Christ declares the Wrath of God
The cross of Christ declares that all of this evil really is as bad as we suspect, and that even God won’t stand for it. It is so bad that He required His own Son to bear the wrath. The cross declares that you can’t water down the gravity of God’s disposition against sin and evil. God doesn’t just gloss over any injustice, not even the smallest. We’re glad that He is unblemished and perfect in judgment, in love, in beauty and power and genius. We need His wrath. The cross declares that He is quite serious: there are tremendous and weighty consequences when we lightly transgress what is right and good. He hates it with a very great hatred, a hatred so great that He required His own Son suffer and die because of it.
I once spent an afternoon and an evening with a Moslem man who was trying to convert me. We had chicken and watched a debate between Josh McDowell and Ahmed Deedat, and we had some fun sparring and trying to convert each other. In the end, he said that if you did 51% righteous deeds and 49% evil, it tipped the scales and God would allow you into heaven. I asked him, how do you measure this? Doesn’t this mean that God sanctions 49% of the evil and just lets it go? Doesn’t that make God evil? The cross says that 100% of your sin is unacceptable. You don’t have to worry about measuring it because the tiniest little shred of evil and injustice has to be accounted for. When we come to have faith in Christ and Him crucified, we believe that all of our sin has been accounted for. Justice is served completely, it is finished. Very great grace has triumphed over very great wrath. We are saved!
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-20 (NASB)