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