Is it smart to forget God’s Wrath? - Abp Peter Jensen

By Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen for The Anglican Planet (h/t Anglican Mainstream)

ONE OF THE GRAVEST weaknesses of contemporary Christianity is the little attention paid to the wrath of God. We have become sentimental and have so stressed the love of God as to become unwilling to talk about his wrath.

In part this is because the culture will not let us do so. There is an outcry whenever the clear teaching of the Bible is given in public. Church members have to live in this world. They do not want their minister to talk about unpopular or divisive subjects. The minister is aware of this and he is tempted to soft-peddle on matters which are scriptural. Among them is the subject of God’s wrath.

There is an even deeper reason. Many false teachings (or lack of true teaching) begin with an inadequate idea of human sin. In the twentieth century, there were significant advances made in psychology. We learned more clearly than ever before the effect of the brain on human behaviour, the shaping we experience through our parents, and the sort of things which motivate and explain the way we operate. Much of this has been for the real betterment of people.

On the other hand, too much credit was given to these new ways of looking at human beings as though they fully explained us. What was missing was an adequate account of human evil.

God’s wrath is his holy response to our sin. It is a righteous anger at unrighteous behaviour, indeed at unrighteous beings. It is completely just. Indeed it is an expression of love, since it takes us with utmost seriousness and refuses to accede that we are like insects, not responsible for our actions. The wrath of God is one of the foundations of the whole moral and spiritual order. The Bible portrays us as living at a time when we experience a foretaste of the wrath of God.

We do not like to think of God’s wrath, precisely because we properly fear that we ourselves may be the objects of his wrath. In fact that is the very point; ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’ (Isaiah 53). This biblical teaching does not flatter the human race. Worse, it constitutes a warning to us far worse than the warnings we have received about global warming and similar catastrophes. Indeed such catastrophes may constitute something of the wrath of God because they may be the result of our abuse of the world which he has given us to care for.

It is hardly surprising that preachers do not care to delineate the biblical teaching about sin and wrath: they do not make congregations feel good about themselves. The danger is that we will have people in our churches whose ‘itching ears’ will only hope to hear what they want to hear: that all is well and the human race is not too bad after all. But we cannot even begin to understand the gospel about Jesus if we do not see that he came to save us from the wrath of God. How else can we understand the cross of Christ?

Not surprisingly the contemporary church uses three strategies to soften the offence caused by the cross. The first is to cloud the whole thing with mystery. We are permitted to say that Jesus died for us but we are not permitted to say what this means and how it relates to sin and wrath and judgement. Second is to offer some other explanation for the cross than what the Bible itself says. We are told that the cross occurred solely to demonstrate the solidarity of God with us in our suffering. Third, to ignore the cross altogether and find the centre of Jesus’ mission in the Incarnation or even worse in his present friendship with us, sung about in endless trivial songs.

The wrath of God is as real as your sin. The only thing which can satisfy the wrath of God is a satisfaction paid for your sin provided by God himself. Jesus has done this by dying for you on the cross, saving you ‘from the wrath to come.’ Whether we like it or not, that is the heart of the gospel. Turn the wrath of God into something else, or ignore it, and you will not have Christianity, but some other religious look-alike. That is our choice

4 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. GARY MORROW Says:

    “In part this is because the culture will not let us do so. There is an outcry whenever the clear teaching of the Bible is given in public. Church members have to live in this world. They do not want their minister to talk about unpopular or divisive subjects. The minister is aware of this and he is tempted to soft-peddle on matters which are scriptural. Among them is the subject of God’s wrath.”

    Tell me about it-[edited]

  2. IanWelch Says:

    I think Abp Jensen, a very sophisticated and thoughtful person, was being more than a little elliptical about the behaviour of ministers in regard to matters scriptural.

    While conceding that few people approve talking about unpleasant or controversial issues, symbolised by the military tradition of not talking religion or politics in the mess, I suspect that there are many reasons why parish ministers tread cautiously in their sermons.

    Ministers no longer have moral authority, let alone believe that they might know more than their parishioners, even about scripture. They are particularly aware of the propensity of modern church members to vote with their feet. Married clergy with kids have the additional pressure of having to consider the family consequences if the congregation is turned off.

    In short, Abp Jensen’s opening point hits the nail on the head without a real consideration of the direction of the nail. The problem in talking about sin today is exactly what it is in a contemporary world (i.e. culture).

    A long focus on sexual morality left the church hopelessly exposed when church leaders (lay or ordained) became predators usually within their own congregation. Church leaders who failed to deal with the predatory in the church have lost credibility with society at large.

    That is just one element in the modern Christian dilemma about ‘sin.’ Given that the church is mainly a middle class organization, how might ‘prophetic’ ministers deal with the issue of abuse of power by social and business leaders in the congregation. C S Lewis raised the ‘greasy grocer’ if I recall correctly in Screwtape Letters. The fellow who gave you a hymn book on Sunday with one hand while grossly overcharging with the other hand during the week.

    How is the church as an institution, with major investment portfolios, to deal with the issues of world poverty. The treasures of the Vatican, or the gross display of gold and silver vessels on English cathedral altars, or the vast landholdings and continuing construction of grand temples, and the maintenance of expensive private schools and hospitals around the world sits uneasily with proclamations of Christian duty to the poor and underprivileged. The church is hopelessly compromised in its proclamations about social justice.

    Sin is, of itself, a victim of over-simplistic comments by many contemporary Christians. So are expressions that God’s wrath is manifested against ‘sinners’. I think it is Scriptural, in fact, that sinners often do better in this lifetime than the children of God.

    It is widely reported that the greatest growth in church affiliation today is in so-called charismatic groups who emphasise ‘signs and wonders’ and how to get and stay rich. They almost never talk about sin because they know that modern culture is suspicious about what the term really means. The focus of such groups is on rewards in the here and now, and not punishment in the world to come.

    So in the end, the real cultural question is not sin of itself. If we are truthful,  we all see that in various ways every day, and we may understand why God is wrathful.  We are far less clear about what really constitutes sin, justice and punishment in today’s world.

    Ian Welch, Canberra

  3. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Preachers who hedge on the Cross are following the culture,not the Kingdom. Both find in the Cross a great stumbling block.

    By the Blood of Jesus we who are baptised into His death and resurrection are made alive to God for eternity. By His blood we are restored to the paradise which we were made to enjoy, but lost through our disobedience.

    God’s wrath is turned away by the Blood of Jesus, but the Cross accomplishes much more than turning away God’s wrath. Making that the only point of Jesus’ crucifixion, teaches an imbalanced view of God. God has self-revealed as both righteous in judgment and winsome in love.

    I’m certain that Archbishop Peter Jensen knows this. His message attempts to point out a failure in proclamation.

  4. teddymak Says:

    In North America, we suffer from an aberrant priesthood and set of bishops who have gone so fare as to remove unsettling scripture from the Lectionary. The scandalous controversy in the benighted Episcopal and Anglican Church in Canada is as a direct result of a hierarchy committed to ignoring or worse, amending, scripture. I expect the Wrath of God to be visited upon the authors of the current catastrophy, following that with a period of painfull cleansing of the misguided laity. I pray daily for this, and am not ashamed to say so.