The importance of God’s wrath

The importance of God’s wrath

Yesterday I posted some comments about my gratefulness to Christ for escaping the horrifying consequences of my own sinfulness, namely escaping God’s wrath (see Saved from the wrath of God). Today I want to return to the topic and post from arom59big.jpg slightly different angle.

From my perspective – and knowing my own heart — we sinners are apt to forget the gospel. When we become ignorant of the gospel, we make unwise life decisions, bear children ignorant of the gospel, and live in marriages where the Cross is not central (Eph. 5:22-33). It’s to our benefit, humility, and joy to be reminded of Scripture’s emphasis upon the wrath of God poured out towards sinners. This is what Christians have been saved from. The wrath of God is absorbed in the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ as our judicious and forensic Savior, and we are never beyond need of reminding.

So why is the doctrine of God’s wrath so important? For starters, the gospel – that the wrath of God resting upon the heads of all sinners, is, in Christ, absorbed when He drank the cup of our condemnation and substitutes Himself for the redeemed – is always in a process of erosion. This is especially true today.

One of the most noted dangers of the New Perspective(s) of Paul is the de-emphasis on Christ as the substitute who absorbs the wrath of God. After citing direct quotations from prominent NPP writer N.T. Wright, T. David Gordon writes, “The enemies and powers defeated by Christ do not (for Wright) include God’s own wrath or judgment … when he explains Paul’s narrative theology, and the cross and resurrection as the center of that narrative, he is entirely right, but when he explains precisely what Christ therein triumphed over, the wrath of God is not among the panoply” [in Gary L.W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters, editors. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification (Crossway: 2006), p. 63].

The point is we are always in danger of forgetting God’s wrath. By sheer volume of Bible references, the wrath of God towards every sinner is the central consequence of our sinfulness. It is central to the work of Christ, central to the gospel, and central to living the Cross centered life.

So in hopes of stirring you up by way of reminder, here is a (short) list of some reasons why the theme of God’s wrath is important:

1. God’s wrath is biblical. The Scriptures are saturated with the wrath of God. Look for yourself. Talking about God’s wrath is nothing but letting the priorities of Scripture become our own priorities. We should be humbled and sobered by God’s wrath, but never silent. God has promised that sinners – all who are sexually impure, covetous, idolatrous, or otherwise impure and unrighteous – will face the wrath of God (Jam. 2:10; Eph. 5:3-6). Those who say otherwise are speaking empty and deceptive words.

2. God’s wrath reveals God. The wrath of God reveals His holiness, envy, perfections, an intense hatred of rebellion, His righteousness, His justice, His power. “I will make myself known among them, when I judge you” (Ezek. 35:11). Soberly, God reveals Himself in the damnation of the wicked. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9:22-23). The beauty of the Cross and the redeemed shines with greater luster when compared to the coming condemnation coming upon the wicked. Until we understand God’s holiness and wrath, we will only have wrong conceptions of Him.

3. God’s wrath reveals who we are.
We are sinners. We exchange the glory of God for created things. We happily replace the joy of God for collecting Hallmark figurines, antiques and Beanie Babies (Rom. 1:18-23). We would rather treasure the fleeting things of the world and forfeit our souls (Mark 8:36). We are His subjects, but we do everything in our power to reject Him. We will abandon the natural biological creation to invent our own unnatural means of rebellion (Rom. 1:27). Every act of rebellion stokes the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). If we have become honest with ourselves, we know that we are wrath-deserving, glory-exchanging, sin-pursuing sinners that (apart from Christ) can only expect the eternal wrath of God’s holiness. This is who we are. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the great preachers of the 20th century, writes: “The way to appreciate your own sinfulness is not to look at your actions, nor your life, but to come into the presence of God” (Great Doctrines, 1:72). Step close enough to feel the heat of God’s holiness.

4. Importance of God’s wrath in the daily life of the Christian. To the question, “How are you today?”, C.J. Mahaney has popularized the response: “Better than I deserve.” Try it sometime. The barista behind the counter at Starbucks will give you a very puzzled look. But this will also be a great opportunity to share that an understanding of God’s wrath has made a permanent impact in your heart. So what do you deserve? Do you deserve perfect health? A venti Americano? Comfortable finances? An early retirement? Comforts? Vacations? The Christian knows better. Sinners (of which Christians will be until we see Christ face-to-face and have our sin burned away) deserve the wrath of God. It’s only because of God’s graciousness in the death of His Son that some sinners will be spared. Most sinners will get exactly what they deserve — the undiluted, eternal torment of God’s burning wrath. So why do we get angry when our comforts are disrupted by our spouse or children? Take a look into your own heart and ask: What upsets me? These disruptions are typically rooted in a misunderstanding that we are entitled to something other than wrath.

5. God’s wrath kills self-righteousness. If ever there was a truth that would break a self-righteous sinner like me, it’s the truth that God’s wrath rests upon me eternally if I am uncovered by the righteousness of Christ. My church attendance and good works and kindness and charity are a flick of water into a raging furnace. What can I do to cool the wrath of God? In light of His blazing holiness, what efforts, what works, will extinguish His wrath towards each of my sins? The popular wax gospel of human invention — that God will be pleased with me because I am not as bad as others – melts near the furnace of God’s wrath. Even a great and righteous prophet must pronounce condemnation upon himself in the presence of a holy God (Isa. 6:1-7).

6. God’s wrath exalts the work of Christ. How easily we forget that the searing pain and scorching suffering of Christ can never be pictured by His lacerated back and the holes in His hands, feet and side. These physical pains are only a surface-level visual to the horrors of the Son drinking down the cup of God’s wrath (Mark 14:32-36 with Jer. 25:15-38). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Or to put it another way, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). The Gospel is centered around God’s wrath. For in His anger towards sinners He transferred the wrath from His children onto His only Son and then crushed that only Son. Until we catch a glimpse of the horrors of God’s wrath, we will never begin to see the horror and the beauty of the Cross.

7. God’s wrath motivates evangelism. How can we be quiet? “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11). The thought that sinners would rest content in self-righteousness was appalling to the Apostle Paul. All self-righteous sinners, and especially the religious, need to hear the gospel to be saved from the wrath of God. This gospel travels on the wings of preachers sent out with the self-righteous killing Gospel (Rom. 10:1-21). What loosens the mouth to speak the Gospel is a heart that has seen a glimpse of the eternal wrath awaiting sinners (Acts 17:30-31).

8. God’s wrath drives me deep into doctrine. I can only escape God’s wrath if I am justified. So what is justification? Justification is the transfer of Christ’s righteousness to me, whereby God declares me “righteous” and takes my sin and wrath and transfers these upon the account of Christ, whereby He is declared “guilty” and endures the wrath I deserve. By faith, I entrust my salvation alone to Jesus Christ, my sin is atoned, I am declared righteous, I have the hope of eternal life and enjoy peace with God (Rom. 3:9-5:21; Gal. 3:1-14; Phil. 3:1-11; 2 Cor. 5:21). If I am not justified, I am not safe from the wrath of God. “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 wrath of God gives significance to doctrines like justification.

9. God’s wrath reveals the beauty of our adoption. We are all by nature sinners and this makes us naturally “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). But now the enemies of God can be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10). We are more than justified and declared righteous, we are taken into the family of God! Through Christ, our relationship to God radically changes! By faith alone, we come back to our Father in all our filthy sinfulness and He runs to us, grabs us, kisses us, celebrates over us, and calls us His children (Luke 15:11-32). If you are justified, God has taken His judgments away from you and now sings over you with loud singing (Zeph. 3:14-17)! The wrath of God was paid in Christ and through this beautiful Gospel I am now accepted. It’s not because I am good enough or ever will be obedient enough, rather because of His graciousness alone. Every day I can wake up knowing I am a child of God and that will never depend upon my own appeasement of God. Jesus, Thank you!

Jesus, Thank You (song by Pat Sczebel, Sovereign Grace Ministries)

The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend
The agonies of Calvary
You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son
Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me

Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You

By Your perfect sacrifice I’ve been brought near
Your enemy You’ve made Your friend
Pouring out the riches of Your glorious grace
Your mercy and Your kindness know no end

—————-

Related: Propitiation is the theological term for the appeasement of God’s wrath in Christ’s substitutionary work for sinners. Theologian John Murray writes, “Sin is the contradiction of God and he must react against it with holy wrath. Wherever sin is, the wrath of God rests upon it (cf. Rom. 1:18). Otherwise God would be denying Himself, particularly His holiness, justice, and truth. But wrath must be removed if we are to enjoy the favor of God which salvation implies. And the only provision for the removal of wrath is propitiation. This is surely the import of Romans 3:25, 26, that God set forth Christ a propitiation to declare His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the ungodly.”

Mark Dever’s Canon of Theologians (Annual Reading Plan)

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Thursday morning (4/12/07)
Breakout seminar #2
Mark Dever: “Watch the Past: Living Lessons from Dead Theologians”

GAITHERSBURG, MD – Being one who loves to read the books of dead theologians and preachers, Mark Dever’s session was a personal highlight. The point was to encourage us to broaden our theological and biographical reading to at least 12 different authors, each to be read for one month annually. Dever himself uses a yearly reading plan where he reads a specific author each month of the year (like Augustine in February). Then every April he moves on to John Calvin, reading a new biography or theological work. Each year the reading plan starts over.

For readers of the Together for the Gospel blog, this will sound familiar. On February 1, 2006 Dever wrote a short post titled “An apostolic agenda” outlining this very thing. On Thursday morning at the Sovereign Grace Ministries Leader’s Conference, Dever filled out the details.

Dever began with a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation which outlines some reasons why old books are important. Lewis writes,

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. …

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

With this introduction, Dever launched into his “canon of theologians.” He encouraged us to read on theological issues that are not a particular struggle at the time. Let the theologians talk about what they want to talk about. Dever then outlined his own personal reading plan.

The ‘canon of theologians’

JanuaryEarly church writings (1st-3rd centuries). Recommended reading: Many and various works and authors were mentioned like the Epistle of Dionysius, The Didache, Clement, The Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Penguin paperback, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (0140444750). When asked if he used the early church writings in his expositional research, he said ‘no.’ He is familiar with the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but has not found them exegetically beneficial. [This helps answer an important question we asked earlier this year]. Dever’s use of the early church fathers is predominantly theological and historical.

FebruaryAugustine (354-430). The most influential extra-biblical theologian in the West. Recommended: City of God and The Confessions (Henry Chadwick edition). Dever’s disagreement: That the church is the conduit of salvation. “Augustine got it bad wrong on ecclesiology.”

MarchMartin Luther (1483-1546). Lessons learned: 1. Justification is by faith alone, all of sheer grace. Luther “cleanses the church from the barnacles of traditionalism.” 2. Luther’s boldness. Read biography Here I Stand. Recommended reading: 95 Theses and Bondage of the Will. You can read Bondage of the Will out loud to children and they will be engaged because of the vigorous prose and Luther’s name-calling towards Erasmus (Dever is very funny). Best bio being Here I Stand by Roland Bainton (0452011469).

AprilJohn Calvin (1509-1564). The greatest theologian of the Reformation period. Lessons learned: 1. God’s glory at the center of everything. The world is the “theater” of God’s glory. 2. Centrality of man’s depravity, shown especially in the heart’s perpetual idol production. 3. He was careful with Scripture. Calvin had a very rare combination of gifts that balanced the theological, linguistic, pastoral, and exegetical. 4. He filled both the offices of pastor and scholar. 5. The diligent training of his spiritual children even as he knew sending these pastors back into France would mean certain death [see the concept of “Calvin’s School of Death”]. Disagreements: That the state is responsible for the church. He confused the church and state, a distinction we take for granted today. Recommended: Sermons on the Ten Commandments, commentary on 1 Cor. 12-14, The Institutes of the Christian Religion and anything written by T.H.L. Parker. He does not recommend modern bios of Calvin and especially warned against McGrath.

MayRichard Sibbes (1577-1635). Lessons learned: 1. The tenderness of Christ. The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax a great example of Jesus’ tenderness and it makes for a great read together with your spouse. Sibbes was able to point out evidences of grace very well. 2. “Diagnostic evangelism.” Sibbes continued to hold out the biblical truth of what a genuine Christian looks like and, by consequence, sorted out those who nominally professed faith. By authenticating the Christian life he naturally separated the sheep from the wolves and goats. He was clear that one’s salvation does not come through assurance but rather assurance comes from genuine salvation. Sibbes pointed those who were never converted to run to grace in the Cross. Disagreement: Infant baptism. Recommendations: Sibbes stuttered in his preaching so he kept his sentences relatively short and this makes him easier to read than his contemporaries. Start with the sermons in volume seven of his collected works.

June John Owen (1616-1683) and John Bunyan (1628-1688). John Owen is known for his argument on limited atonement in Death of Death. It’s a good book to scare Arminians, but there exist better exegetical ways to argue for limited atonement. Lesson learned: Linger with Scripture. “Diligent meditation reaps great rewards.” Dever especially recommends the Owen volumes by Kris Lundgaard (The Enemy Within and Through the Looking Glass) and those by Kapic and Taylor (Overcoming Sin and Temptation). … John Bunyan was a “pot-repairer with extraordinary preaching gifts.” Bunyan clearly expresses himself without the use of long, Latin sentences. His life was marked by a sincere pastoral concern. Recommended: Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (autobiographical) and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress being a “great systematic theology” built around the “centrality of heaven.”

JulyJonathan Edwards (1703-1758). There are many lessons and warnings from the life of Jonathan Edwards. Lessons learned: 1. Diligent meditation. “Edwards can stare at an idea” and has “a powerful ability to think out and illustrate” that idea. An excellent example of this is Edward’s sermon The Excellency of Christ. 2. Edwards demonstrates a zeal for the purity of the church. 3. Understands the connection between his ministry and his congregation. In his Farewell Sermon, after Edwards was fired, he tells his congregation “I’ll see you before the throne.” Disagreements: 1. Infant baptism. 2. The logic of God’s centrality seemed a bit philosophical rather than always biblical. 3. He shows some pastoral carelessness especially with the “young folks’ Bible” controversy [see chapter 18 in George Marsden’s biography]. Nevertheless, Edwards demonstrates a powerful ability to think out and illustrate. Read his sermons and especially his sermon The Nakedness of Job which he wrote when he was 18 years old! As an interesting side note, Dever has preached an Edwards sermon to his congregation. On October 5, 2003 he took Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, marked up the manuscript as he would his own and preached it. You can listen to the final product here.

AugustC.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Lessons learned: 1. Evangelism. Spurgeon preached the gospel from any and every text. “More than anyone else, I think of Spurgeon when I prepare my sermons.” Preach each sermon as though someone may be converted. 2. His life is filled with stories of God’s kindness upon his ministry. Read Spurgeon’s autobiography and be amazed at the stories. Spurgeon’s autobiography “may be the most fun thing to read apart from Scripture.” It will encourage you to see that we have a glorious God. 3. He had a lively faith. Spurgeon had “a heightened God-consciousness.” Even in the midst of a prolonged depression, Spurgeon shows that depression drives a faithful Christian to God. Read his Morning and Evening devotional.

SeptemberB.B. Warfield (1851-1921). “Warfield strengthens my faith.” Like John Calvin, Warfield had a wonderful mix of scholarship and piety. Disagreements include infant baptism and Presbyterian polity.

OctoberMartyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981). Not much in disagreement. Lessons learned: 1. Gave his life to preaching and lived confident in the power of God’s Word. 2. Deadly earnest. It was no light thing for him to preach. The pulpit was the “desk of God.” Recommended: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Preaching and Preachers, Spiritual Depression and his biography by Iain Murray.

NovemberC.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003). Because time ran short, Dever simply finished off his list of writers he reads in November and December without further comment or recommendation.

December – Contemporary authors like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Iain Murray, R.C. Sproul and John Piper.

Conclusions

This breakout session encourages me to pursue the study of the early church writers, although I’ve become more convinced that they will not prove as helpful in my expositional research and sermon preparation as others. It also encourages me to narrow my focus to a handful of great writers and focus attention on their writings each year. I’m in the process of creating my own “canon of theologians” for annual study.

Trust in the Spirit more than your notes

I think the most difficult lesson to learn about preaching (especially in the beginning) was prying myself away from carefully crafted notes. This quote, from maybe the best preacher of the past century, reminds us to study hard and then become sensitive towards supernatural editing of the Spirit in the pulpit.

Preaching should be always under the Spirit – His power and control – and you do not know what is going to happen. So always be free. It may sound contradictory to say, ‘prepare, and prepare carefully,’ and yet ‘be free.’ But there is no contradiction … You will find that the Spirit Who has helped you in your preparation may now help you, while you are speaking, in an entirely new way, and open things out to you which you had not seen while you were preparing your sermon.

– Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan: 1971), p. 85.