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It is a major theme throughout the Old Testament. It is found throughout the New Testament as well. John the Baptist clearly taught it (Matt. 3:7). Jesus preached about it (Luke 21:23). So did Paul (Rom. 1:18; 9:22; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6). John mentions it once in his gospel (3:36) but makes it a central theme of the Apocalypse (Rev. 14:6ff). But in our day and age—or so it seems—no one wants to touch the subject. It is too controversial, too divisive. It goes unmentioned in our pulpits. The very thought of it is repulsive to many Americans.
What is it? I speak of the wrath of God.
Some ministers believe with all their hearts that the doctrine of God’s wrath is a fundamental article of the Christian faith. But no one wants to be labeled a “fundamentalist” or identified as a “hellfire-and-brimstone” preacher like those lampooned by comedians. Sensitive to such stereotypes, ministers are under great pressure to distance themselves from the perception that they are illiterate bumpkins bound to irrelevant values of yesteryear. The image of the minister as a puritanical prude, out to ruin everyone else’s fun, must be shed for that of an entrepreneur. Ministers also may worry about how their congregations will react if the subject is mentioned. The members of the outreach and evangelism committee probably would not be amused by sermons that are not “seeker-friendly” and oriented toward the “felt needs” of those targeted groups the church is trying to attract. The wrath of God is not exactly the kind of thing such a church needs to be emphasizing if it desires to grow and reach the “unchurched.”
Then there are those—including some who are ordained in our churches and who fill our pulpits—who simply do not believe in the wrath of God. Wrath is a sinful human reaction to a negative stimulus, not that of a loving God, they say. A God of love would never react in anger to any of His creatures and consign them to a destiny that includes eternal punishment. Therefore, ministers have no business misrepresenting a loving God as a sadistic ogre waiting to send people to hell if they don’t believe in Jesus.
In a great irony, Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr lamented that the essential message of Protestant liberalism of the 1920s was nothing more than this: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” Much the same thing can be said about contemporary American evangelicalism, much of which embraces “a God without wrath.” Since no one believes in God’s wrath anymore, no one bothers to mention it. The silence is deafening.
The lack of teaching in American evangelicalism about the wrath of God is not a sign that Christians have liberated themselves from fundamentalist influences and are now ready to face the challenges of the new millennium. Rather, it is a sign that many of our preachers have capitulated to the spirit of the age. Either they are afraid of what people will think of them or they no longer believe the doctrine to be true. Then there are those who think that mentioning the wrath of God is an unnecessary impediment to the task of evangelism and the building up of Christ’s church. It is one of those ideas that are better left unmentioned.
Some of the apprehension people feel about the subject of God’s wrath is probably well deserved. Many of us can recall hearing sermons in which the wrath of God was used to terrorize the conscience because the minister, however well-intentioned he may have been, failed to preach the whole counsel of God.
The whole counsel of God not only includes God’s wrath, it also includes His love for sinners who deserve that wrath. A God of love who does not hate sin and punish it with an eternal vengeance is not the God of the Bible. But neither is a God of wrath without His longsuffering mercy being displayed in the suffering of the sinless Savior on Calvary’s tree. For it is through His suffering upon the cross that Jesus turns aside God’s wrath toward His own people. If we preach God’s wrath, we must also preach the Cross. The two are inextricably linked in the Scriptures.
Ministers of the Gospel are not called to be popular or successful. We are called by God to be faithful. We must preach those things that God reveals in His Word, no matter how difficult they may be for our contemporaries to accept. There can be no truly Good News of the Gospel without the bad news of human sin and God’s wrath against it. As Paul puts it: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom. 5:8b-9). Christ died for us and rose again to save us from the wrath of God that is to come (1 Thess. 1:10). God’s wrath is just as much the teaching of the Bible as is His love.
Even though it was foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews, the proclamation of this unpopular message was the means by which God built His church in the age of the apostles (Acts 17:30–31). It should be the means by which we seek to build Christ’s church in ours. Preaching the whole counsel of God means ending the deafening silence. And ending that silence means telling people that they will indeed face God’s wrath if they be not found in Jesus Christ in that great Day of Judgment yet to come. But if we are found on that day in Jesus Christ through faith, God’s wrath toward our sins will have been turned aside forever!