Saved from the wrath of God
(This post includes graphic content)
In a sinful world filled with evil we are not short on illustrations of suffering. The most graphic images of human atrocities (like beheadings) will never leave our minds. For me one of these haunting memories comes from 9/11, the day men and women jumped from the burning World Trade Center buildings to their deaths. For them it was better to jump than to endure the raging, steel-melting, furnace-like heat of burning jet fuel.
One author recounts the graphic and shocking scene as experienced through the eyes of a rookie cop, Will Jimeno.
“While fussing with his equipment, Will kept hearing explosions, one every few seconds, a ragged beat of concussions thudding up and down the street that sounded almost like fireworks. Finally he turned around to look: they were human bodies, dropping from above, exploding on impact. They sent up aerosol clouds of blood and left large divots in the sidewalk. The ground became littered with shorn body parts and random scatterings of personal effects – watches, high-heeled shoes, coins, a briefcase, Palm Pilots. Will forced himself to look up and finally understood the dreadful truth – that these people were jumping deliberately, that the heat was pushing them out. ‘I’ve heard experts say they were dead before they hit the ground,’ Will says, shaking his head. ‘But that’s not true. I saw them. You could tell – they were conscious the very end. They saw what was coming.’”
This very graphic horror relates to the gospel.
The book of Revelation portrays King Jesus. He is the holy warrior, splendid in holiness and authority, worshiped as the Great King of all creation. He returns to earth for a second time as the Lion, furious like a neglected King towards His rebel subjects. He returns to earth to “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” by “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (Rev. 19:15, 2 Thess. 1:8). This is a just and righteous human suffering.
I find it impossible to imagine what desire would overcome a fear of heights, causing a businessman to jump 1,000 feet to the pavement below. Likewise I cannot imagine the greater horrors that overwhelm the soul under the eternal heat of God’s wrath. The greatest horrors cause people to respond in unimaginable ways.
“When he [King Jesus] opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Rev. 6:12-17).
Notice the unbearable heat of God’s holy wrath. What horror would make someone jump rather than burn? What horror would lead the sinner to plead with the mountain to crush him? The horror of intense heat causes a sinner to cry out for a crushing landslide of rock, rather than endure the furnace of God’s holy wrath.
Of this despair, Charles Spurgeon said,
“The falling of the mountain would grind them to powder, and they wish for that: the descent of the hill upon them would bury them in a deep abyss, and they would rather be immured in the bowels of the earth for ever than have to look upon the face of the Great Judge. They ask to be crushed outright, or to be buried alive sooner than to feel the punishment of their sins. Then shall be fulfilled the word of the Lord by his servant John, ‘And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them’ (Rev. 9:6). Ah, sirs, extinction is a boon too great to be permitted to the ungodly. Earth will have no bowels of compassion for the men who polluted her and rejected her Lord. The mountains will reply, ‘We fall at God’s bidding, not at the petition of his enemies,’ and the hills in their stolid silence will answer, ‘We cannot, and we would not if we could, conceal you from the justice which you yourselves willfully provoked.’ No, there shall be no refuge for them, no annihilation into which they can fly: the very hope of it were heaven to the damned … Their cry for extinction shall be in vain” (22:754).
In Christ we are saved from this wrath of God.
It is not uncommon to meet churched people who say they are “saved” but have no idea what they have been saved from. Prominent Christian leaders, too, seem unable to see the significance of God’s wrath, forgetting that preaching the gospel so sinners may avoid God’s wrath (in the Cross) is the greatest humanitarian need and the greatest humanitarian activism they could possibly engage! Telling sinners that God’s judgment is stored up towards their sin — and that salvation is found only in Christ — is one of the most rare and certainly the most necessary act of compassion in the world, as urgently necessary in Minneapolis as in Darfur.
What makes this such a universal catastrophe is the fact that all men, women and children are naturally sinful, and that makes them (by nature) children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). You don’t have to try to anger God, it just comes naturally to God-ignoring sinners. His judgment rests upon sinners for all acts of rebellion, even for what seems insignificant to us like being unthankful towards Him (Rom. 1:18-21). To act selfishly, concerned only with oneself, is enough to store up an account of wrath (Rom. 2:5-8). God’s holiness demands perfect obedience and He will judge all sin, all unthankfulness and all sinners.
Unrepentant sinners who do not obey the gospel will be judged eternally. They will never again enjoy even the smallest momentary comfort. They will not enjoy one drop of water on the tongue through drinking, nor one short breeze of cool air on the skin through jumping, nor the comfort of extinction by crushing. They will endure an eternal death, an eternal worm, an eternal fire (Rev. 14:9-11).
And so, for the church, being “saved” becomes an empty label if we cannot answer the question: What are we saved from? The beauty of the Cross is that I (a sinner provoking God’s judgment) have been freed from the fire of God’s holy wrath because my wrath was absorbed by the Son! Only in the Cross I have been saved from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10)! “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9).
The holiness of God is graphic. Christ’s death on the Cross was graphic. The eternal death of sinners is graphic. That God judges sinners is graphic. Praise God, the horror of the Cross has saved you from the horror of God’s wrath! Believers have been spared by the wrath absorbing work of Christ! He drank the cup for us (Luke 22:39-44)! It’s through the Cross of Jesus Christ that sinners are spared the horrors of the “wrath of the Lamb!”
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). The Psalmist writes, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:12). Believe in Christ, take refuge in Him and find your joy forever in the Cross (Gal. 6:14)!
Jonathan Edwards once said, “‘Tis God’s manner to make men sensible of their misery and unworthiness before he appears in his mercy and love to them.” Indeed, until we can sense the wrath of God upon us for our sin, we cannot taste the beauty of the Cross.
We cannot imagine the heat that would cause a man to jump of his own accord. We cannot imagine the horror that would lead a man to plead with a mountain to smother his body. But we must catch a glimpse of these horrors to be forever grateful for the work of Christ. For this is what we have been saved from.
Related: A brief but excellent book by R.C. Sproul, Saved From What? (Crossway).
Related: “A Crucifixion Narrative” by Rick Gamache (mp3). The Cross displayed in all its graphic horrors as the wrath of God is absorbed by Christ on behalf of sinners.
Related: Book review of Jonathan Edwards, Unless You Repent (Soli Deo Gloria). Previously unpublished sermons on the painfulness of God’s wrath and eternal judgment as displayed in Scripture.
Related: “We affirm that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, in perfect, undiluted, and unconfused union throughout his incarnation and now eternally. We also affirm that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, as a sacrifice for sin, and as a propitiation of the wrath of God toward sinners.” Together for the Gospel statement of faith (article vii).
Note: The 9/11 quotation above was taken from Hampton Sides, Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier (Anchor Books: 2004), page 379.