The icy blast of trial awakens the old man

The icy blast of trial awakens the old man
by Horatius Bonar

We are not at all persuaded that there is so very much evil in us. We do not know ourselves. Our convictions of sin have been but shallow, and we are beginning to imagine that the conflict between the flesh and the spirit isice.jpg not so very fierce and deadly as we had conceived it to be. We think we have rid ourselves of many of our sins entirely, and are in a fair way speedily getting rid of all the rest.

The depths of sin in us we have never sounded; the number of our abominations we have never thought of marking. We have been sailing smoothly to the kingdom, and perhaps at times were wondering how our lot should be so different from the saints of old.

We thought, too, that we had overcome many of our corruptions. The old man was crucified. It seemed dead, or at least feigned itself to be so in order to deceive us. Our lusts had abated. Our tempers had improved. Our souls were calm and equable. Our mountain stood strong, and we were saying, ‘We shall never be moved.’ The victory over self and sin seemed, in some measure, won.

Alas, we were blind! We were profoundly ignorant of our hearts.

Well, the trial came. It swept over us like a cloud of the night, or rather through us like an icy blast, piercing and chilling us to the vitals. Then the old man within us awoke, and, as if in response to the uproar without, a fiercer tempest broke loose within. We felt as if the four winds of Heaven had been let loose to strive together upon the great deep within us. Unbelief arose in its former strength. Rebelliousness raged in every region of our soul. Unsubdued passions resumed their strength. We were utterly dismayed at the fearful scene.

But yesterday this seemed impossible. Alas, we know not the strength of sin nor the evil of our hearts till God thus allowed them to break loose.

It was thus He dealt with Israel; and for this end He led them into the desert. “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart” (Deu. 8:2). Their desert trials put them to the proof. And when thus proved, what iniquity was found in them! What sin came out which had lain hidden and unknown before!

The trial did not create the evil: it merely brought out what was there already, unnoticed and unfelt, like a torpid adder. Then the heart’s deep fountains were broken up, and streams of pollution came rushing out, black as Hell. Rebellion, unbelief, fretfulness, atheism, idolatry, self-will, self-confidence, self-pleasing – all burst out when the blast of the desert met them in the face and called Egypt to remembrance with its luxurious plenty. Thus they were proved.

Even so it is with the saints still. God chastens them that He may draw forth the evil that is lying concealed and unsuspected within. The rod smites us on the tenderest part, and we start up in a moment as if in arms against God. The flesh, the old man, is cut to the quick, and forthwith arouses itself, displaying all of a sudden much of its former strength. When it was asleep we did not know its power, but now that it has been awakened, its remains of strength appall us.

It is not till the sea is ‘troubled,’ that ‘its waters cast up mire and dirt.’ When all was calm, there seemed naught but purity pervading it, and ripple folded over ripple in the still brightness of its transparent green. But the winds break loose, the tempest stirs its lowest depths, and then all is changed. Thus we see it in the saints. When calamity breaks over them like a tempest, then the hidden evils of their hearts awaken. Sins scarcely known before display themselves. The heart pours out its wickedness. Hard thoughts of God arise. Atheistical murmurings break out and refuse to be restrained.

– Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). Taken from The Night of Weeping and The Morning of Joy (Chapel Library) pp. 57-60. Also found in The Night of Weeping: Words for the Suffering Family of God found in The Life and Works of Horatius Bonar CD-Rom (LUX publications: 2004), pp. 36-37.

‘Sinners’ in the hands of a contemporary preacher?

Could Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God be preached today? This is the question posed to Edwardian scholars Harry S. Stout and Kenneth P. Minkema.

Notice how the discussion in the video veers off into a broader question: Can any graphic sermons onjonathan-edwards.gif hell be preached today? That seems to be another question altogether. … This has me thinking: How does the rise in horror films and the graphic portrayal of evil on major films influenced the preaching of God’s eternal judgment in our culture? Are the horrors of hell now less real or more real?

Should ‘Sinners’ be preached today? One contemporary of Edwards was the famous hymn writer Isaac Watts (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed”). After reading the text of ‘Sinners’ he wrote: “A most terrible [terrifying] sermon, which should have had a word of Gospel at the end of it, though I think ‘tis all true.” I agree with Watts. Strictly speaking I would not preach ‘Sinners.’ When it comes to explaining the beauty of the Cross, (perhaps) Edwards had the luxury of assuming this reality in his setting. But that is an assumption we cannot make today. Maybe no sermon better sets the groundwork to understand the love of Christ in His willingness to endure my eternal wrath as my substitute who drank the full cup of God’s eternal wrath I deserved. How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me? But the sermon needs a ‘word of Gospel’ at the end.

‘Sinners’ in the hands of Mark Dever. In October of 2003 Mark Dever preached this sermon to his congregation (Capitol Hill Baptist Church; Washington, D.C.). His introduction is excellent and (from what I am told) the sermon was successful.

‘Sinners’ in the hands of Billy Graham. In 1949 Graham preached ‘Sinners’ and you can listen to some very loud excerpts over at the new online exhibit at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. Here is one …

Debatable. Since we are talking of the famous sermon, I am surprised how frequently writers suggest Edwards is remembered as a preacher of God’s wrath by an over-emphasis on this one sermon — Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God — over his greater corpus of sermons. I recently came across another reference by a very popular contemporary historian of the same opinion. However, apart from this famous sermon, entire books of manuscripts have been assembled with Edwards’ sermons on God’s judgment. One example is Unless You Repent: Fifteen previously unpublished sermons on the fate awaiting the impenitent (Soli Deo Gloria: 2005). Read our review here. Edwards frequently invited sinners to delight in God’s love but also warned them of God’s wrath — a balance modeled by Christ Himself. ‘Sinners’ is just one of many similar sermons.

The sermon itself. I would encourage you to read ‘Sinners’ if you never have (text here). On Wednesday July 8th, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut the scene unfolded like this: “Edwards, who had been building the intensity of the sermon, had to stop and ask for silence so that he could be heard. The tumult only increased as the ‘shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing.’ As Edwards waited, the wails continued, so there was no way that he might be heard. He never finished the sermon. Wheelock offered a closing prayer, and the clergy went down among the people to minister among them individually. ‘Several souls were hopefully wrought upon that night,’ Stephen Williams recorded, ‘and oh the cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances.’ Finally the congregation was enough under control to sing an affecting hymn, hear a prayer, and be dispersed” (pp. 220-221). Read more on this sermon in George Marsden’s excellent biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale: 2003) pp. 220-224.

Unbelief is Irrational

tsslogo.jpgUnbelief is Irrational

It’s not uncommon today for atheists to rise to their pulpits and boldly preach that belief in some god (let alone a specific god) is simply irrational. Dr. K. Scott Oliphant, professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary, disagrees. In a recently published essay he points to Paul’s words in the first chapter of Romans to make his case that unbelief is irrational.

Oliphant’s proposition is this: Unbelief is irrational because, at its core, all sin is irrational. He argues, “Sin is essentially, and will remain, deeply unreasonable, utterly irrational … Given that unbelief is at root the quintessential sin, it is therefore, necessarily, quintessentially irrational” (pp. 59-60). He backs up this proposition exegetically from Romans 1:18-32.

Oliphant begins by pointing to Paul’s emphasis in Romans that all people are covenantally bound to Adam or to Christ, walking under condemnation or justification (Rom. 5:12-21). The first two chapters of Romans are devoted to revealing God’s wrath upon those in Adam. Specifically, God’s wrath is kindled against sinners who “suppress the truth” (1:18).

The act of suppressing divine truth is sinful or “unrighteousness” (1:18). So sin is by nature the suppressing of truth. “In other words, God’s wrath is revealed from heaven because, in our wickedness and unrighteousness (in Adam), we hold down (in our souls) that which we know to be the case” (p. 64)

So what knowledge is suppressed? Paul tells us we suppress the universal truths about God — that He exists, He is infinite, eternal, wise, unchanging, glorious and wise. Far from being a mere intellectual knowledge of God, there is included in this a very personal knowledge of God communicated from His Person to our person. So personal that Paul can write, “they know God’s decree that those who practice such things [sins] deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32). Every sinner that suppresses God’s truth and lives on in sin knows that sin is rightfully punished with death. But this and all truth about God is suppressed. The point is clear: God has spoken so openly and so clearly that every sinner knows these universal truths.

How do sinners suppress divine truth? By exchange. We take the glory of our great God and Creator and exchange His glory for superficial images of reality. The next step is to worship and serve the phantoms of reality we create. The truth of the created order becomes twisted into what we think is right. There is an exchange of the natural for the unnatural, like in the case of homosexual relationships (Rom. 1:26-27). Oliphant writes, “All of us, in Adam, are experts in inventing idols” and later he writes “we only retain that [knowledge] which will serve our own idolatrous purposes” (p. 69, 70). Paul tells us this idolatry – worshiping a false reality — is at the center of unbelief.

Paul then goes on to list all sorts of sins, not just homosexuality, but also unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom. 1:29-31). Oliphant writes, “All sin, as sin, is rooted in an irrationality that seeks in earnest to deny what is obvious and to create a world that is nothing more than a figment of a sinful imagination” (p. 72).

The sad reality is that for those outside God’s sovereign election, this personal knowledge of God will be drowned out by the noise and passions of the sinful heart. The witness of God’s existence in the heart becomes futile knowledge to an irrational mind. God reveals Himself all around, and blind sinners in Adam respond by suppressing this truth and living in a phantom irrationality.

Conclusion

Paul paints a humbling portrait of all unredeemed sinners. We did not learn Christ because we were more perceptive or less sinfully irrational. God alone opened our eyes. Oliphant says, “The truth that we know – that we retain, possess, and suppress – therefore, is truth that is, fundamentally and essentially, given by God to us. God is the one who ensures that this truth will get through to us. It is his action, not ours, that guarantees our possession of this truth” (p. 66).

This first chapter of Romans is useful to remind believers of our personal sin and irrationality. We are still tempted to live at the feet of a phantom shrine forged in our minds rather than live within reality. And rather than scoffing at the unbeliever, we can look at our own hearts and see where we — as seasoned idolaters! – continue to suppress truth and twist reality in favor of escapism, fantasy and worldly comforts.

But also armed with Paul’s teaching in Romans and brought under the humility of dead sinners raised to life by the power of God, we are prepared to think through apologetics, preaching and personal evangelism. All of our hearers have heard a personal message from a personal God and we are all without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Apparently evidence does not demand a verdict from irrational minds.

Understanding this awful irrationality of the sinful mind will cause us to once again pray like Spurgeon:

“‘Rise up, Lord!’ O God the Father, rise up! Pluck Thy right hand out of Thy bosom, and let Three eternal purposes be accomplished! O God the Son, rise up; show Thy wounds, and plead before Thy Father’s face, and let Thy blood-bought ones be saved! Rise up, O God the Holy Ghost; with solemn reverence, we do invoke Thine aid! Let those who have hitherto resisted Thee, now give way! Come Thou, and melt the ice; dissolve the granite: break the adamantine heart; cut Thou the iron sinew, and bow Thou the stiff neck!”

————

[This exegesis of Romans 1 can be found between pages 59-73 of P&R’s latest release edited by Oliphant and Lane G. Tipton titled, Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R) 2007.]

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.”

Saved from the wrath of God

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 Centerwrath-of-god.jpg 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.

Growth in godliness: John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is a masterpiece of theology. This year I have set out to read the entire English translation. I am already struck by the pastoral gems I find scattered throughout the book. Calvin, as I have recently discovered, had a very pastoral heart and sensitivity to the Christian life. He was just as gifted as an experiential preacher as he was a theologian. On the topic of our growth in godliness, I recently came across this jewel:

“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him.”

John Calvin [1509-1564]
Institutes of the Christian Religion, McNeill and Battles, eds., p. 689.